Photos by Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions

About the writer

Photo by Tess Elliott

Rich Rubin came to travel writing from a theater background and has been doing it now for almost 15 years. A longtime resident of New York City, he recently moved to Philadelphia, where he now has an actual office in which to write, as well as that unheard-of commodity in New York, a guest bedroom. His main areas of travel are Europe and the Caribbean; he's covered these and other locations for such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Passport, Caribbean Travel & Life, Modern Bride, Garden Design and Islands.
His food/travel writing has appeared in Saveur, Chile Pepper and other publications. He's even written for Weight Watchers' website. No wonder his friends say he's the Burgess Meredith of travel writing, taking on any project large or small.

He has been to the Netherlands many times and really does occasionally do things other than visit hofjes. He's now returning to his theatrical roots and will be presenting The Bang Group, a fabulous New York-based dance company, at Philadelphia's Painted Bride Art Center in January 2008.


by Rich Rubin

I'm walking through the Amsterdam neighborhood known as the Jordaan, admiring this wonderfully bohemian area full of shops and galleries. Strolling along tiny canals past boutiques and hip restaurants, I notice on Engelantiersgracht a simple black door. Almost without thinking, I open it.

Suddenly I'm in a different world, transported through time and space from the modern urban rush. In front of me lies a peaceful courtyard, surrounded by brick houses, with a flower bed at the center girded by a brick walk. An evergreen reposes in a circle of brick, among lush ferns and tall roses. Square beds hold pink geraniums, coral-hued roses, and lilies of the valley. A doorway to the left of the entrance is flanked by clay pots overflowing with yellow flowers; another portal is framed by a spreading vine known here as leimbecken ("lion's mouth"). A huge white hortensia competes for attention with burgeoning rhododendrons.

I've discovered the world of the Dutch "hofje," in this case the SintAndrieshof, founded in 1616 and Amsterdam's oldest hofje. You'll find these hidden courtyards throughout the Netherlands; founded originally as almshouses, they were built by private citizens or companies to provide housing for the poor. Charity pays off in more ways than one, as the tradition of building this housing has left a lasting legacy in delight both for the residents and for visitors.

The setup is usually the same: low-slung houses, arranged around courtyards; historical plaques often give the hofje's history, and you'll frequently see the original pump used by residents before the days of running water. While technically private, I haven't encountered many that don't allow visitors. In fact, in Leiden and Haarlem, the two "gold mines" for the hofje-phile, the local tourist boards offer maps guiding you to them. While there are actually more in the big cities--Amsterdam has almost 50, the Hague nearly that many as well--the concentration is greater, the hofje touring easier, in the smaller cities.

Can you tell I've developed a hofje obsession? I soon visit hofjes great and small, filled with students or elderly, boasting gardens prim or untamed. It's the variety, I think, that keeps them interesting.
In the Hague for instance, I love the grand Hofje van Nieuwkoop (1658), marked by a fancy medallion on Prinsegracht, and entered around the corner. A desirable, upscale residence, it boasts red-shuttered buildings surrounding a huge courtyard, divided by hedges into individual sections: one (--does it belong to an American expatriate?--) has a red, white, and blue theme (roses, daisies, and irises); another is a market garden of peas, chives, strawberries, and carrots; a third holds a huge rosemary bush surrounded by pink and orange. It's about the largest and fanciest I've seen.

But I also adore tiny Rusthof (1831) on Parkstraat, whose simple buildings are livened by trellises covered in roses; and the Heilige Geesthofje (1616), where white brick dwellings front plantings of white roses, purple cattails, yellow begonias, and pink geraniums in four landscaped squares. Let the workers scurry to the offices and meeting places of this governmental center; let the tourists visit the amazing Mauritshaus museum and other sights. I'm happy sitting under a centuries-old pear tree, envisioning the many lives that have passed through this charming escape, imagining the canal that used to run outside the hofje, all the way to Amsterdam.

As a total hofje devotee, I must head to Leiden, just fifteen minutes from The Hague and a lovely university town. But I'm not here to see the age-old spires, ancient step-gables or hip student lanes. I'm here--you guessed it--for the hofjes. I stop in the tourist board for a map/tour of the hofjes (over 35 in all), and soon I'm in arboreal heaven beneath the stately cypresses of Brouchovenhofje (1631).

A few mintues later, I'm in the Hoogeveenshofje (1650), where I admire the wee pink geraniums contrasting nicely with the purples of lavender and salvia, the original copper faucet adorning the stone pump. A sign reads, "Elderly women living here were obliged to wash themselves at least once a month," giving an entertaining glimpse into the past; similarly, nearby San Salvator-hofje (1636) is filled with students now, but was first built for "honest virgins or widows." How, I wonder, did they make sure someone qualified?

More than anything, though, the hofjes are a visual treat, from plantings in Loridanshofje (1655) arranged in the shape of a cross to the neatly laid out rhododendrons and roses in Jean Pesijnhofje (1655). Even as I look past these to the flourishing hydrangeas, though, I'm confronted with history: one of our own Pilgrim fathers, John Robinson, lived on this piece of land before it was a hofje. Modern-day pilgrims are welcomed with a sign that reads, "Thank you for coming such a long way to see us" while gently reminding us to "Refrain from discussing your exploits on the premises."

I can hardly blame them, as it's the peace and quiet that's the main appeal of the hofjes both for visitors and inhabitants. As I move on to Haarlem, just fifteen minutes from Amsterdam, this point is driven home: in Hofje Van Bakenes, founded in 1395, the only sounds are a fountain tricking placidly in a bed of ferns and birds fluttering through the trees, perhaps headed for the birdbath surrounded by daises at the hofje's center. It's a study in color: white buildings with green shutters, dark purple tulips below a red maple. I'm so caught up in the beauty that I hardly think of the history till it hits me: this place has been here for more than 600 years! It is, in fact, the oldest hofje in the Netherlands.

Haarlem's tourist board offers Monumental and Flemish map/guides; both include a good number of the city's 20 or so hofjes. Following the pair of maps past glorious St. Bavo's church, past Grote Markt (the huge central square), down the shopper's mecca Bartel Joris-straat, I arrive at Hofje Van Oorschot (1769), which has an airy, minimalist style; the buildings are tall, the center is quite open, the plantings pretty but not overgrown like some I've seen.

Frans Loenenhofje (1525) has a similarly minimal approach, with lots of lawn traversed by paths and edged in flowers. What it lacks in profusion, though, it makes up for in color, with scarlet fuschia, plum-hued irises, orange roses and a sprinkling of light blue forget-me-nots. Haarlem also wins the "grandest hofje entrances" prize, from the red-and-cream-striped brick archway of Luthers Hofje (1648) to the entryway to Hofje van Staats (1730), with bas relief of a woman's face and angels soaring above, clutching a medallion with a portrait of a man.

Back in Amsterdam, I walk right past the much-touristed Dam Square, past the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. I know what I'm looking for now, and the PieterJansz Suyckerhoff Hofje (1670) fits the bill perfectly. Established for elderly or widowed women who were "honest, of good behavior, and peaceminded," it's a lovely haven of red fuschia, white hortensia and multi-colored roses. A golden rain tree and a Japanese cherry fill the courtyard with color; a ceramic urn of red geraniums shows up brightly against the black-painted panel of the pump.

I pass by the Begijnhof, Amsterdam's most famous courtyard; though it's beautiful, and has some of the city's oldest buildings, it doesn't qualify as a hofje since it was founded by self-sufficient residents and not as an almshouse. Instead, I explore Zon's Hofje (1755), full of prunes, lindens, maples and palms. In front of dark brick buildings, two tables hold paints and other craft supplies (someone here's been doing a project!); a plaque of Noah's Ark is all that survives of a church that was once here.

I visit Hofje van Brienen (1806), which still has several old "secrets" (the tasteful Dutch word for public toilets), and a lovely collection of mini-gardens on residents' steps from electric blue hydrangea to miniature hortensia.

As I head down Tuinstraat to yet another hofje, I ask my guide what the word "tuin" means. The reply: it's the Dutch word for both "town" and "garden." In a country where flowers are so highly prized, where doors lead into secret worlds of centuries-old almshouses with flourishing plantings, why am I not surprised?

All of these cities are close enough together that you can base yourself in Amsterdam and make day trips (I suggest Amsterdam's lovely Hotel 717 or the fun new Lloyd's Hotel, with a wide range of rates).
While in Amsterdam, don't miss the creative new cookery of Voorbij het Einde (on the fascinating architectural showcase Java Island), the farm-fresh food at De Kas (in the city's onetime municipal greenhouse), or the creative culinary wizardry of Beddington's at the heart of town.
Hotel des Indes in the Hague has been spectacularly remodeled, while diners love the trendy/wonderful Dekxels or the Indonesian Djawa. Just on the outskirts of Leiden is a wonderful hotel/restaurant, De Beukenhof, while Stempels is Haarlem's leading spot for lodging and dining.

For more information, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism, For more information, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, 888-GOHOLLAND,