When we headed out of Antwerp, following the road signs to Doel, we didn’t even know if it would still be there when we arrived. The small town was supposed to have been wiped off the map more than a decade ago when it was officially scheduled for complete demolition. This is one ghost town however, that refuses to just disappear.
The first thing I felt upon arriving in Doel was an unexpected fear. As soon as you turn right at the sign for “central Doel”, dangerously neglected houses begin to appear, one after another, each one more fitting for an apocalyptic horror film than the last.
We parked up in the old gas station, but of course, we could have parked anywhere…
You can’t prepare for what you’ll find in Doel because it’s unimaginable that a place like this would exist. This isn’t just old ruins of an obsolete town that belongs in the history books. Doel is modern, Doel is recent and relevant; Doel could be your town.
The entire village is covered in street art. Giant frescos seem to be the new eyes and ears of Doel.
It’s a living art gallery the size of an entire village and street artists have come from all over the world to debut their works on the sides of these houses.
And a lot of it is really, really good…
… Good enough to make you momentarily forget that what is actually being used as the artist’s canvas, used to be someone’s home.
Located near the river Scheldt since the 13th century, Doel once had a population of over one thousand people. As the development of Antwerp sped up in the 20th century, the town found itself wedged in between the ever-expanding docks of one of Europe’s largest shipping ports and a nuclear power plant.
By the 1970s, Doel was already a target for demolition by the government, who wanted the extra space for their shipping docks. For twenty years, the small town battled against the threat of destruction, overturning several scheduled demolitions thanks to popular protest. But on the eve of the new millennium, residents seemed to have lost the fight when the regional government officially outlined its plans to expand the port.
Authorities offered premiums to residents who sold their houses, and after so many years of uncertainty for the fate of their town, most eventually gave up hope and found no choice but to leave their homes behind.
Almost all of the houses in Doel are boarded up, as if there were still people inside trying to keep out the apocalypse. But some have been opened up by the curious or the destructive.
It’s clear nobody is doing anything to maintain these houses to any standard. Destined for destruction, they’re left to fester in their neglect.
Despite the very eerie atmosphere of this house, one artist managed to hang around long enough in this upstairs children’s room to put his own touches on the wallpaper.
Open to the elements, I’m not sure how much longer this staircase will last.
This historical Flemish townhouse with scaffolding outside was probably about to undergo renovation before the town was shutdown. Inside, a wheelbarrow and bags of cement have been abandoned in the hallway, as if the workmen stopped for lunch and never came back.
With the front door unlocked, it was surprising to see any of the old detailing of the house still in tact.
While some seemed to have left in a hurry, others had trouble leaving at all….
This house is one of about four in the town that still has people living inside them. Amazingly, Doel still has around 20 lone residents who bravely hang on to their homes in this ghostly town.
The beautifully maintained and pristine white baroque house, surrounded by a scene better suited for a post-apocalyptic film set, is probably the most poignant sight to see in Doel. Built in 1613, it is said to have belonged to the family of baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens. The current owners take a lot of pride in the upkeep of their doomed property. It was perhaps once their dream house that they just couldn’t and wouldn’t let go of…
Across the street, a menacing crow lingers and stalks the misplaced baroque survivor from a vacated plot of land.
The view of the neighbouring house must be a constant reminder that their time is nearly up.
While many gave up years ago, believing Doel had reached the point of no return, remaining villagers continue to stubbornly appeal the fate of their town. In 2012 the country’s highest administrative court overturned the decision to turn Doel into a part of the port, prolonging hope for an appeal. The government simply revised its plans, neither side ready or willing to back down.
There are no shops, only two cafés, one on the edge of town in the 17th century windmill (with a lovely view of the nuclear towers). A half-hour’s drive outside of Antwerp, these establishments stay in business by catering to Doel’s unlikely new tourists– street artists, urbex photographers and abandoned enthusiasts.
Dole’s future remains uncertain, well-indicated by the numerous question marks spay-painted on the walls all around the town. Without any security, looting and vandalism a part of everyday life, the last few residents live here with heavy hearts.
Even as a visitor, the atmosphere is unmistakably mournful.
Will Doel lose its battle and soon be dug up to make room for a ship-sized dock across the village? (Complete with token nature reserve– a legal requirement for the port’s expansion to go ahead).
Like so much of the land surrounding and seemingly engulfing Doel, the town could also simply be turned into one big storage area for shipping containers.
Or maybe this living museum of street art can help save Doel …
If you decide to visit, be sure to take a good look around…
Because you may just be Doel’s last visitor.
WHAT TO DO NEARBY: