‘Wandeling’ is one of my favourite Dutch words. It simply means a ‘walk’, but it suggests wandering and ambling.
That’s just what Mevrouw T and I were doing in the lovely Dutch university town of Leiden.
She’d enrolled us for a guided tour of Leiden’s hofjes.
I’ve visited Leiden quite a few times, since it’s an interesting 40-50km bike ride from Amsterdam. Unfortunately that usually means arriving in time to have a koffie or beer by the canal and catch the train home again. This time we took it more slowly, with Aaldert Rus from the excellent Vrije Academie to show us around and tell us the stories.
First stop was the bridge over what’s left of the Rhine.
A certain miller’s son, born just across the water from here, became Leiden’s most famous resident – after he left and started work in Amsterdam. The house in which Rembrandt van Rijn was born no longer exists, but there’s a plaque on the wall to mark the spot, and this memorial in the square in front of it.
During the 80 Years War, Leiden bravely resisted the Spanish in a devastating siege. When the town was relieved in 1574, William of Orange rewarded Leiden by giving it a university, a particularly enlightened present, and extraordinary for its time.
In the 17th century, Leiden’s textile trade boomed. The town became the Netherlands’ second biggest city. Rich burghers sponsored ‘hofjes’ – almshouses for the aged, childless and less fortunate. Thirty-five of them still survive in Leiden, as public housing for fortunate students and others.
Hofjes generally comprise twelve to fourteen houses, arranged around a charming central garden with communal pump. Most are open to the public during the week, and normally reserved for residents only at weekends.
There were usually behaviour requirements for the original hofje residents too. Benefactress Eva ab Hoogeveen insisted that the women who lived in her hofje took a bath once a month. This was controversial; most people of the day considered one bath a year sufficient for reasonable hygiene.
To avoid hofje fatigue, we ‘wandelled’ the backblocks of Leiden.
I’d forgotten the attraction Leiden has for many American visitors. The Pilgrim Fathers came here from England before making their way to the new world. Many of them are buried in St Peter’s Church, with a memorial to Rev John Robinson on the wall.
Thanks, Mr Rus, for the excellent tour.
Time to stroll back towards Leiden station, perhaps pausing to imbibe a little lively student buzz along the way.