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Amsterdam’s hidden geography, particularly in the Jordaan district, is marked by the presence of the Hofjes. These small, quiet courtyards, crammed with orderly vegetation, are hidden behind the facades of the small, fantasy houses that line the streets.
If the first thing you think of is the number of lively parties, busy dinners and dances to the early hours that could be held in these courtyards, then you would be very wrong about what they are used for. Amsterdam is a peaceful city that does not have the stress of other European capitals, and its courtyards are even calmer. They are a moment’s peace within a moment’s peace, and an enviable haven of tranquillity.
It should also be mentioned that, historically, the people of Amsterdam have often stood out for their attention to those people most in need, and are both very tolerant and socially committed.
You will therefore understand why these courtyards are not used for leisure. Traditionally, the courtyards were used as free hospices for people in extreme need, particularly the elderly.
Although Amsterdam was already a pioneer in social care in the Middle Ages, welfare extended considerably in its Golden Century, the seventeenth. The first almshouses, which were founded by the period’s wealthy citizens, offered shelter to the needy at a time when there was no such thing as publicly sponsored social welfare. Widows and the elderly were thus taken into these hospices. They were usually small individual houses, built around a small courtyard, in which these people were guaranteed peace and quiet.
Many of the almshouses have been converted into bed & breakfasts or simply into private homes, although some of them still operate.
If you take a walk in the Jordaan district, on many facades you can still read the commemorative plaque of the almshouse and of its founder.
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