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Crossing into no-man's-land

Situated in the border triangle between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, for 103 years the mining town of Neutral-Moresnet did not belong to any state. This unique experiment centred on one of Europe’s largest zinc deposits – a story told at the Museum Vieille Montagne at Kelmis.

Text: Jan Maier Picture: Oliver Raatz

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The heavily loaded wagons no longer labour up the valley slopes. The air no longer reeks of sulphur and lead. No ore has crackled in the furnaces for a long time. The zinc deposits are exhausted, the mines closed. Neutral-Moresnet has also disappeared from maps. A land that belonged to no one, that no one had planned. Today, where once there was literally a no-man's-land, lies the East Belgian town of Kelmis – or La Calamine, as it is known in French.

Neutral-Moresnet lives on at the Museum Vieille Montagne in the former administration buildings on Lütticher Strasse (Liège Street) – from where the operations of what was once the largest zinc producer in the world were directed. "A neutral territory was created in 1816 because Prussia and the Netherlands could not agree on who should take possession of zinc mine," says museum director Céline Ruess. "This provisional arrangement ended up lasting for a century."

People from Prussia and the Netherlands were quick to respond to what looked like an invitation to freedom, to begin a new life Neutral-Moresnet. Here there was no compulsory military service, hardly any controls and low taxes. Food, clothing, coffee and alcohol were cheap – along with coveted smuggled goods. Writers visited to explore new, utopian ideas. Later, the works doctor of the Vieille Montagne mining company (the town’s sole employer) wanted to introduce a newly-devised, neutral language, Esperanto, with the state renamed Amikejo, “Place of Friendship”. But that project never came to anything.

For all that, it was the dangerous work of mining that dominated everyday life. Men slaved away in pits, extracting the hard ores in damp galleries. Women were also employed to sort and sieve the zinc ore (calamine) in the processing plant. Workers then heated the ore in furnaces and cast the zinc into ingots. "About half the roofs of Paris are made of Kelmis zinc," Céline Ruess tells us.

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The path of history: the industrial trail leads past an exit from the Oskar gallery of the zinc mine in Kelmis.

From open-cast mine to nature reserve

Today, reeds line the Casino pond, five minutes from the museum. Ducks and their chicks paddle across the surface. In the heyday of Neutral-Moresnet, women washed lead, zinc and iron here. The residue was dumped into the adjacent waste-heaps, where rare, yellow calamine pansies (Viola lutea calaminaria) now flourish. "They grow only where there are heavy metals in the soil," Céline explains. This is a feature also of many of the plants and flowers growing in the former open-cast mine that is now a nature reserve. The industrial trail follows a deeply cut path down into the Göhl Valley, past meadows to a stream called the Hohnbach. A white stone portal marks an exit of the Oskar gallery. During the 19th century, miners dug this gallery 300 metres into the hillside. Day after day they hauled wagons loaded with ore to the Casino pond.

The well-paid work attracted many people to Neutral-Moresnet, and over time the population increased tenfold. The Vieille Montagne mine built a school, two churches, houses and a pharmacy, and paid for teachers, priests and a doctor. Sick and injured workers were taken care of promptly. Citizens clubbed together in associations. The old carnival societies survive to this day, and the annual Kirmes fair had its origins in Neutral-Moresnet. "The Vieille Montagne mining company shaped the entirety of social life back then," says Céline Ruess. But there was a price to pay: no trade unions, no elections, and strict and outdated laws.

Nationality played no role in Neutral-Moresnet. Citizens regarded themselves as neutrals – and do so to some degree even today. "In Kelmis, you are a Kelmiser first and foremost, and then, for instance, a German-speaking Belgian," explains nature guide Robert Schmetz. The people of Neutral-Moresnet also gave themselves an unofficial coat of arms, showing a crossed hammer and pick with the stars from the mining company’s logo at the top of the shield, with the Belgian lion and the Prussian eagle side by side beneath. "This really demonstrates the self-confidence of Neutral-Moresnet," Céline says about her favourite exhibit, referring to the current coat of arms of Kelmis. The lion, eagle, miner's tools and stars have remained, albeit in more modern forms and with new implications.

Nature trails & pleasure tours

All nature-lovers in search of hands-on, outdoor experience will love these short, informative nature trails, and there are plenty of different themes to choose from. Most of the tours are suitable for the whole family. The longer “pleasure tours” are designed to take hikers through the most impressive landscapes of East Belgium.