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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Day

A lesser known attraction of Amsterdam

This enclosed courtyard in Amsterdam has existed as the "Begijnhof" since the 14th century, as a peaceful neighbourhood for the Begijnen. No that's not a Dutch swear word, the word Begijnen refers to a community of Catholic women that "lived like nuns but were more independent and had more freedom."

This bite-sized slice of peaceful living is just moments from the hustle of the red light district and a perfect place to sip a coffee and appreciate what hidden delights the Netherlands capital city has to offer. And by hidden I mean quite literally, hidden.

In 1578 the 'Alteration' came in full force to Amsterdam, outing the existing Catholic government in favour of a protestant one - and banning all Catholic worship. This meant that many churches were re-branded as protestant and dozens of monasteries and similar institutions were shut down and the buildings re-purposed.

It was only thanks to a loophole that the Begijnhof was allowed to remain as an exclusively Catholic community - because the Begijnen women actually owned their private residences, not the Catholic church, these could not be confiscated.

Unfortunately this loophole did not include the chapel, which was closed and remained empty for three decades before it was re-opened for use as a Presbyterian church. With a streak of rebellious courage, the Begijnen women built a new secret church - hidden in plain sight behind the facade of several of the houses - which you can still visit today.

Left: Inconspicuous entrance to the hidden church - photo from Atlas Obscura. Right: Decadent interior of the hidden church.

What made the Begijnhof especially beautiful on the day I visited was the silence that blanketed the gated community, encouraged by signs asking visitors to keep noise to a minimum out of respect for the residents. The Begijnhof must be one of the only sights in Amsterdam that attracts all of the sightseers and tourists the city is famous for, but with none of the noise or rabble that would usually come along with them.

Visitors admiring a wall at Begijnhof decorated with painted carvings of biblical scenes.

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