It was Jordaan Open Gardens Day at the weekend. We strolled from one lovely oasis to the next, reminding ourselves why we can’t afford to live in this part of town. It’s too good for the likes of us.
When we decided to live in Amsterdam a decade ago, we looked first for an apartment in the Jordaan. It’s the ‘real Amsterdam’, the narrow streets where affordable housing was built in the 17th century to serve the workers and immigrants. The well-to-do lived in the elegant adjoining canal belt.
By 1900 the Jordaan was an overcrowded slum area, with a population of over 80,000. Even in the 1970s when I first came to Amsterdam it was the home to the poor artists, musicians and sundry bohemians. It wasn’t smart, but it was fun and it was cheap.
There were numerous ‘brown cafes’, smoky dives where locals could get a beer, a chat about the football, maybe a singalong and a plate of stodgy food. These cafes are a threatened species, we read recently, closing down one by one as younger people patronise smarter establishments.
The population of the Jordaan has dropped by three quarters in the past century. Most of the old Jordaaners have moved to new towns like Purmerend and Almere where they can have more room, particularly for children. Terrace houses with their absurdly steep staircases have been bought up by wealthy artists, musicians and bohemians.
They take great pride in their gardens and have time and cash to spend on them. Most impressive, and sometimes surprisingly spacious, are the communal gardens of the hofjes. Hofjes are collections of modest housing originally created by rich burghers for the respectable poor, mainly widows and other single women. They’re typically created around a central garden, shared by the residents.
Amsterdam’s better known hofjes are open to the public on weekdays, though closed at weekends so residents can have some privacy. On this special weekend, residents have obviously put effort into making them look their best, and proudly welcome visitors.
‘And people are so friendly!’ observes Mevrouw T. True – the residents and volunteers directing us around on the Open Garden Day are extremely helpful and accommodating.
Despite its popularity with tourists, the Jordaan still feels quiet on a Sunday afternoon and in the gardens themselves there is almost no noise filtering through from the streets. Occasionally a merry tour group wobbles past on their rented bikes, but since there is so little motorised traffic, walking there is relaxed and comfortable.
It’s still a favourite part of Amsterdam, for us and for many others. We may not be able to afford to live here, but it’s always a joy to visit.