The village of Doel is said to date back to 1267. It was originally known as ‘De Doolen’ (‘border water’) and up until the eighteenth century it was essentially an island surrounded by flooded plains. For many years, due to its unusual geographical location, it was unclear which country Doel actually belonged to – whether it was the region controlled by Spain or the independent State of the Netherlands.
The design of the village that exists today has been dated back to the Eighty Years War (somewhere between 1568 and 1648) and it remains largely unchanged; it is completely surrounded by old seawalls and has been built according to a checkerboard pattern (the village consists of three streets parallel to the riverfront, four streets perpendicular to those, and all of it criss-crossed with alleys and small corridors). Doel also boasts many historical buildings. Some of these include Belgium’s oldest stone windmill (which is not abandoned), Reynard Farm, the Old Hoefyzer (a farmstead and inn site), and the Baroque Hooghuis that once belonged to the family of seventeenth century artist, Pieter Paul Rubens.
However, despite its obvious historical significance, just before the turn of the millennium the Belgian government announced that Doel was destined to be demolished to make way for the enlargement of the Port of Antwerp. All the residents in the village were offered cash premiums to sell-up voluntarily, and they were encouraged to take up the offer by being told that any refusal would lead to expropriation and the offer of much less money. As a result, by 2007 there were fewer than three-hundred and fifty people left in the village – a reduction from approximately one thousand three-hundred.
In an effort to save the village, plans were launched to open the site as an open-air museum, with various famous artists painting murals to deliver the message: ‘Don’t take our village away.’ Nevertheless, other artists were soon attracted to the site and began to use the buildings as canvases for their own work. Now, only a few buildings remain free of graffiti; these are the homes of the last residents in Doel. They are the villagers who have shown resilience against the government and, despite facing attacks by squads of riot police, which has resulted in the streets being strewn with rubble and the start of some of the demolition work, they continue in their effort to save the village and their homes. Even with their efforts, though, these defiant individuals are acutely aware that the gradual deterioration and destruction of the village only strengthens the likelihood that the port will, in the very end, win. The only good news to emerge is that, in response to the imminent outcome, plans have emerged to dismantle and rebuild, brick by brick, some of the historic sites in a neighbouring town. This is to ensure they are preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
Our Version of Events
On our mission to consume lots of good beer, we left Bruges and set off in the direction of Antwerp. However, just over an hour later we found that we were almost upon the great city. We’d neglected to take into consideration how small Belgium is so we had a bit of spare time to kill before it was time to get pissed all over again. To break up the drinking and sober up a bit, then, we decided to go take a quick look at the [mostly] abandoned village of Doel we’d read about some time ago.
Finding the place was easy. We simply drove in the direction of the great big nuclear power plant that towers over everything within its vicinity. What is more, with few residents still living in the village itself, there was no dodging and diving to get onsite. Instead, we simply drove straight into the heart of Doel.
It felt very strange to be driving along streets that seemed completely abandoned. There was nothing especially spectacular about the place given that most of the buildings are simply empty shells and homes, but there was still something rather cool about the whole experience. The best bit, of course, was being able to find a parking spot right in the middle of the explore. That never happens!
All in all, it didn’t take long to walk around the place. We had a bit of a mooch down every street, and peeked inside a fair few of the buildings. But, as we quickly discovered, there’s very little left inside any of the structures. The only interesting thing we found in one of the houses was a small kitten and around twenty dishes of rotten food. Unfortunately, the cat bolted as soon as we entered the building, so there wasn’t much we could do to try and save it. We didn’t have anything edible on us to lure it back either, only strong Belgian beer.
Explored with Ford Mayhem, MKD, Rizla Rider, The Hurricane and Husky.