AMSTERDAM — Here, canals encircle the city’s historic center, reflecting the bustle of bikes and the storybook quality of the grachtenpanden, or canal houses, that line their banks like so many guardsmen standing at attention.
One hundred kilometers of waterway simply can’t be ignored, of course. But there is another curiosity born during the Dutch Golden Age of maritime trade and art that goes largely overlooked unless you’re a resident Amsterdammer.
Hiding in plain sight are the capital city’s hofjes — inner courtyards both sheltered from the world and inhabiting a world of their own. Often dating to the 17th century, these verdant plots once dotted Amsterdam, serving as focal points for the almshouses that surrounded them.
Those charities have long since disappeared, as have some of the hofjes themselves. Yet there remains a collection of 20 or so in the Jordaan, the former working-class neighborhood on the edge of the city’s western canal ring, and seeking them out is an offbeat and rewarding sojourn.
I hopscotched from one to another, making exploration a game of sorts as I wound my way through the warren of narrow streets of what is perhaps Amsterdam’s most distinctive enclave.
First I encountered Claes Claeszhofje — and I would have missed it completely if I hadn’t been looking for it. The hofje is marked only with a modest sign by a nondescript brick passageway, but clearly others had discovered it as well.
An architecture class from one of the local universities was there to sketch the interior, and I could understand why. For when the corridor ended, and I quickly learned that most hofjes are connected by such a path, I emerged into an eclectic little Eden of planting beds and slender trees.
Fully restored in the early 1970s, the hofje is a charming amalgam of several small and interconnected courtyards, idiosyncratic in layout and originally founded by a Mennonite cloth merchant. “In Amsterdam, there is a desire to let history breathe,” said locally based art historian Faustina Alonso de Florida, who accompanied me on part of my journey. “These hofjes were first created by wealthy benefactorsfor the poor, often single or widowed women. And today, thanks to preservation efforts, they remain living entities.”
If Claes Claeszhofje is a leafy alcove, then Karthuizerhof, my second destination and one of the largest courtyards in Amsterdam, is a regal garden. The names of the original patrons feature prominently in the entryway because anonymity was for the timid, and construction of these hofjes often centered on doing well and being seen doing good.
The result in Karthuizerhof is quietly stunning. Symmetry rules — with two equal plots of grass and garden space, each surrounded by a picket fence and separated by a central walkway. The courtyard even features two double-spigot brick fountains. The unmarried women who once lived there used the basins below for cooking and washing, while today the students who occupy many of the hofjes find their bike racks just as indispensable.
But despite changing times, these settings remain almost monastic in character. “Even today it feels like you’re inside a Pieter de Hooch painting,” noted Alonso de Florida, referencing the 17th-century Dutch master known for his tranquil scenes of domestic life.
One of the most rewarding hofjes I encountered was Sint Andrieshofje, located off the Egelantiersgracht, a serene canal named after the sweetbriar rose. In this section of the Jordaan, tiny art studios alternate with shops devoted to surfing and shoe repair. And around the corner is Café ’t Smalle, one of the more beloved “brown cafés” in Amsterdam, known for their dark wood paneling and tall pale lagers.
Sint Andries hofje still feels very much of the neighborhood even though it was completed in 1617. Originally founded for Catholic women, the hofje continues to house single females today, including Suzette van ’t Hof, who has lived there for 22 years.
An art researcher for the Amsterdam Museum, van ’t Hof offered me a personal look inside one of the city’s oldest courtyards. “You can see the blue and white Delft tiles that line the passageway,” she said. “It still feels special every time I enter my hofje.”
The courtyard boasts a rich palette, even on overcast days. A bed of green shrubbery rises to meet the pink brick and white plaster houses, all capped by deep red roofs and chimneys. It’s as if someone uprooted a country lane and placed it in the heart of the city.
Sixty-six women once shared the quarters here, which have since been fashioned into 21 apartments, including that of van ’t Hof. And while peat no longer burns in the fireplaces, the small rooms in each residence exude a cozy, harmonious quality that no modern home can replicate.
“A hofje is quiet and safe, a community unto itself,” she explained. “It’s a different way of life for sure, but outside my window lies one of the most unique views of Amsterdam.”
It’s a view I thankfully enjoyed as well. I simply had to look in the right place.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at email@example.com.