Begijnhof

Begijnhof

The

Begijnhof is one of those really rare sights to see, especially given the

ever-developing modern metropolitan setting of Amsterdam. It is one of the

oldest inner courts in the city – and the only remaining one, for that matter. Once

you’re there you’ll come across a range of breathtaking 14th-century

typical Dutch buildings; they are private houses in vast majority – still

occupied today, so you have to remember to respect the privacy of the residents

although the entry itself is free. Apart from that, the place is also a home to

the English Reformed Church, so you can expect to see daily masses, weddings

and baptism ceremonies taking place.

The area

Located in

the south-western section of the city center, between the lower part of the

Singel canal to the west and the area of Rokin to the east, the Begijnhof appears as something out-of-the-ordinary, bringing strong

memories of the past with its unique architecture, charming atmosphere and a

hint of mystery in the air. This picturesque court used to be once surrounded

by water in its entirety, with the only entrance available at the Begijnsteeg

(‘Beguines’ Alley’) accessible via a bridge across the Begijnensloot (‘Beguines

Ditch’). The southern entrance from the Spui is a 19th-century reconstruction

of the 17th-century addition and does not only facilitate the access

to the place, but also opens onto a lovely book and art market which is also

surrounded by lines of fantastic cafés, restaurants and boutiques, and to the

north you’ll also find the Amsterdam Museum – rich with art and history, so

you’re bound to take some advantage of many diverse attractions apart from the

obvious aesthetic charm of the Begijnhof. Another interesting fact about this

amazing spot is that as a medieval construction, it is a meter below the rest

of the old city center, enhancing the special mood this place exudes.

The history

Founded in

the 14th century, the Begijnhof has always had a special meaning to

the Venice of the North. The name of the court comes from the Beguines and

Beghards – lay Christian religious orders who devoted their lives to help those

in need, active mostly in Germany and neighboring countries (including the

Netherlands, obviously) in the period of 13th to 16th

century; the members of the congregation did not accept formal religious vows and

lived in semi-monastic communities – just like the Begijnhof, the ‘court of

Beguines’, although they declined from their ways by the 16th

century. Another notable fact is that the order of Beguines consisted of single

women only – mostly single by choice, but also widows, and although there are

no Beguines left any more (the last of them passed away in 1971), the rules

allow only such women to live here and some still do, in fact, so if you enter

this magical place, try not to exaggerate with photo-taking so as not to

disturb the rhythm of life of those local inhabitants.

The place

What makes

this place so special is that it has managed to remain a peaceful oasis in the

rapidly-expanding city like Amsterdam throughout all these years. A true

Shangri La for all those seeking for a moment of tranquility inside the busy

metropolis, it boasts a calm, slightly mysterious atmosphere and a beautiful

original setting, and all this behind a mere, ordinary door serving as the

entrance; think a bit ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett and you’ll

get the idea.

Behind the

‘gates’ you’ll find a belt of 47 traditional Dutch town houses; their original

facades had to be changed and renovated in most cases, but the original

structure has been kept without unnecessary interference. The buildings are

really tall and reflect the architectonic trends of the time – the fondness of

large windows and soaring rooftops seems to describe it best. Each of the

houses possesses some distinctive features, yet 18 of them still enjoy a very

characteristic original Gothic wooden framework.

While all

of the finely-preserved buildings found within the enchanted walls of the Begijnhof

are of big historical importance and tell a lot of the Dutch society of the

time, some of them have moved a bit to the foreground with their qualities,

like the black-walled Het Houten Huis (translated simply as the ‘Wooden House’)

or the remarkable structure of the English Church (Engelse Kerk). The former is

actually the oldest house in Amsterdam, with the records mentioning the year

1420 as the time of its construction, while the latter, found in the southern

part of this ‘natural museum’, functions as a landmark with its soaring spire

and dates back also to the early 15th century, belonging originally

to the Beguines but handed over to the Protestants in 1578. Four pulpit panels

found inside the church were designed by Piet Mondrian – a famous Dutch

painter, especially significant for Neo-Plasticism and an important contributor

to the De Stijl art movement. The church itself as an institution is still

active and delivers all the usual masses and ceremonies on a regular basis.

Another

merit ascribed to the Begijnhof is that in the 17th century it

became a home to one of the few ‘resorts’ for the Catholics. In 1671 it had one

of its private houses transformed by Philip Vingboons (a renowned architect of

the time) into a ‘schuilkerk’ – a secret Catholic church (also known as the

Begijnhof Chapel), named after Saints John and Ursula – the patron saints of

the court of Begijnhof.

Apart from

lots of other stories each building has to ‘say’, the court is also a great

place to plunge into reflection in the surrounding of impeccable greenery of

the lawn and trees rustling quietly in the wind. You’ll also be able to see an

intriguing original water pump and a statue of a Beguine. This Dutch ‘Silent

Hill’ is also credited with one another significant and a bit ‘eerie’ quality –

the strong affiliation to miracles said to have occurred in the past, with one

notable example of the Eucharistic Miracle of Amsterdam from 1345, veiled with

a mist of mystery.

If you’re

looking for some peace and quiet, a moment for introspection, reflection or an

occasion to ponder on the less-earthly matters, the Begijnhof is the perfect

place to go to. Enveloped by a curtain of secret and unusual tranquility, this

wonderful court gives you a deeper insight into a very specific bit of the

city’s history, but also provides you with great opportunity to discover the

precious qualities of Amsterdam’s architecture of the past. The Begijnhof is

open every day between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but once you decide to visit the

place, do bear in mind that it is still inhabited, so try to make your visit

in-line with the overall mood of the spot – quiet and focused on enriching your

inner experience.

Civic Guards Gallery

Another

great addition to this solemn place is the direct access to the Schuttersgalerij,

or the Civic Guards Gallery, constituting a section of Amsterdam Historical

Museum’s exhibition. It is a remarkable gallery of old portrait paintings

depicting many distinguished citizens of Amsterdam. If you’re strolling through

the courtyard of the Begijnhof, follow it until you see a huge glass, take left

and head right to the Gedempte Begijnesloot dead-end alley. The entrance to

this charming gallery is there – free of charge.