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As soon as I read about an abandoned town in Belgium that had been left to rot, Belgium, both my husband and I felt this dark urge to visit Doel, Belgium. I’m a naturally curious person and for me, I sometimes have to see a place to feel the emotions rather than letting others tell me how something is. Finally, we made it to Doel, Belgium last month. However, it wasn’t what I expected.
- Where is Doel, Belgium?
- History of Doel, Belgium
- The uncertain future of Doel, Belgium
- Our experience in Doel, Belgium
- A reflection on our experience and dark tourism
Where is Doel?
Doel is a village (dorp) in Belgium is located next to the port of Antwerpen, Europe’s second largest seaport. Just across the water across the polder is one of Belgium’s nuclear reactors. It’s about thirty minutes from Antwerpen by car.
History of Doel, Belgium
The now village of Doel dates back over seven hundred years. Within this graffiti filled village, you still see traces of a rural Belgian town. Within Doel, you’ll find the oldest stonemill in Belgium dating back to the 1600s. The ancestral home of Paul Rubens, the painter, is also located in Doel. There are a few other notable buildings, including farmsteads from the 1700s.
Life in Doel has been largely quiet over the years until the decision to build a nuclear power plant nearby as well as the decision to expand the nearby seaport. During the 1970s, Doel was targeted for demolition to make more space for the port of Antwerp and eviction notices were issued to its residents. The residents of Doel successfully fought it off. (You still see newspapers celebrating this win in some residents’ windows.) However, when the decision was made to try to expand the port of Antwerp in the late 1990s, the residents fought. However, many Doel residents took a “voluntary payout” to leave Doel in 2000 to get a better value for their property. Those who stayed have been offered some money over the years, however the land is now devalued.
A collective of residents and others passionate about saving Doel have banded together to create Doel 2020 to attract street artists to come to Doel to paint artwork. It hasn’t worked exactly as planned as Doel still faces eviction with its few residents still hanging on….
The uncertain future of Doel, Belgium
The Flemish minister is insistent that the Port of Antwerp will be expanded although the Belgian courts have rejected this argument. The expansion of the port of Belgium (“Saefthinghedock“) would mean that Doel would be flooded to make room for additional shipping containers although the residents note that it’s not required. The government has scaled back their request and it’s unclear what will happen next as a recent court case has banned the demolition of one of the historic buildings of Doel from the 1600s.
While in Doel, we stumbled upon a presentation by researchers from KU Leuven who are proposing some urban-planning alternatives to simply wiping the town of Doel off the face of the earth. This project (called Doel 2.0) proposes to use the open space to turn abandoned buildings into new useful buildings that can be rebuilt, “do nothing” farms where the land can be reclaimed, while preserving the buildings that bind the community together. Simply, the idea is to reuse what is in Doel rather than abandoning it–and to use the devaluated land to create local food production. I think that it’s a fascinating concept and I’m hopeful to see that this pans out for the community.
Our experience in Doel, Belgium
I’ve read a lot about Doel on different blogs, however people often refer to it as the abandoned Belgian town. Although there are abandoned buildings, this is far from true as the residents have fought tooth-and-nail to keep this town and some residents have stayed in Doel.
As soon as you reach the gate to Doel, you’ll see a gate with an electric traffic zone blocking the entrance to limit access to the town to visitors. There’s also a sign reminding visitors that Doel is inhabited, vandalism/arson is illegal, and it’s forbidden to enter the houses. It’s estimated that fewer than twenty residents remain living in the village with the municipality refusing new registrations.
If you’re visiting Doel, you cannot bring your car in as a foreigner at this point, so you will need to park it along the fields near the entrance and walk. We were almost immediately stopped by the local police who informed us that we weren’t allowed inside with a car.
We walked along the abandoned houses feeling unsure about the boarded up windows (with metal) and the general feeling that we weren’t welcome whenever someone would pass us on their bike (or car). One of the houses had large letters written on the front “INHABITED” in Flemish and a large intense fence around their compound, presumably after too many break-ins.
As we continued through the town, the feeling that we were trespassing continued. We admired the old windmill and took in the views along the polder of the nuclear factory. After this, we walked along its silent streets until we caught up with a group of Dutch men who attracted the attention of a local resident. For the next thirty minutes, we were tailed by their car as we walked around the old village. We certainly had no intention to cause harm, however it was clear that everyone that passed us, the gawkers, judged us for coming to their town during this difficult time. As we left, we saw a bus with a band preparing to film a music video arrive looking excited about arriving in Doel.
A reflection on visiting Doel
There’s something about ruins and wreckage that attracts us as human beings. How many people have visited the ruins of castles and ancient cities around the world? I like to think that we’re obsessed with the idea of what comes after us and what we leave behind as a civilization. The current human population is over 7.6 billion and it’s estimated that 900,000 km2 of land are covered with human built structures. However, today’s structures aren’t typically left to rot for ages. We quickly tear them down to make room for things that are bigger and supposedly better.
Maybe that’s why Doel is so fascinating and tragic at the same time. As you walk around Doel, it’s hard to shake the feeling of what comes afterwards. As you walk past the heavy graffitied buildings, it’s hard not to question: Is this what other generations will think of us later on? I’d like to think that we can do better to preserve our history and culture in a way that doesn’t erase what came before it. Progress for the sake of progress is not always something that we must have nor is destruction for its own sake.
As a visitor to Doel, I was largely put off by the large degree of graffiti and vandalism that I saw within the town. When I read about Doel, everyone discussed how cool the street art is–and I certainly saw some amazing works of art. That said, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the residents whose homes have become covered in graffiti and who are subjected to break-ins, vandalism, arson attempts, and legitimately have something to fear from those who come to revel in the abandoned ghost town that is not yet abandoned. I understand why we were tailed. Doel isn’t simply the abandoned ghost town of Belgium, but a place with a heart and residents who are trying to desperately to keep this piece of their history alive.
Doel has instilled in me the importance that we shouldn’t tell the story that we want to tell about a place, but rather the story of the place. It’s easy to paint over the ugliness and struggle of the residents to focus on the cool graffiti, however the cool graffiti would have never been there if the residents had not been forcibly evicted and the town.
I have mixed feelings about visiting Doel, but I believe that it is worth visiting. If you visit Doel, please be respectful. Take photos, talk to the residents, don’t enter houses without permission, and show the residents that others are not there to revel in the destruction of their community. I’ll wait anxiously to see happens to Doel next and I can only hope that the residents will get their town back in the coming months.