I chose this photo for today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, because I love how the different features of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk are visible in one shot.
There are the tall pillars, of course, And the pointed Gothic arches and windows.
What’s unique to the Oude Kerk is its wooden ceiling, which miraculously survived fires that swept through Amsterdam in 1421 and again in 1452 (after which wooden buildings were banned from the city). If you look closely, you can see the remains of the paintings commissioned by wealthy patrons.
And then there are the miniature ships. The Oude Kerk is steps away from the IJ and was traditionally a port church where the seamen came to pray for safety. The little ships are a testament to that history.
My photo choice for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk.
With Oude Kerk being Dutch for “old church,” this church is, as you’d expect, Amsterdam’s oldest. At 800 years, it is also the city’s oldest building. I wish I had thought to cross the canal to get enough distance for a proper photo because this one shows only a small part of the building, which has been extended many times since it was consecrated in 1306. Those are houses attached to the church — houses attached to the outer walls of a church seems to have been a common practice in the Netherlands.
The Oude Kerk stands in the heart of De Wallen — Amsterdam’s red-light district — which can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it. Every tourist has a story about their first encounter with the red-lit windows in which the prostitutes stand. Mine was many years ago while on a walking tour of old Amsterdam with my much older, much more conservative Dutch cousin. She wanted to show me the Oude Kerk, but all I was noticing were the windows of women facing the church.
Which I pretended I hadn’t noticed. As difficult as that was.
Last week I showed you the Westerkerk, and for today, the Third Sunday of Lent, here is what it looks like on the inside.
European Protestant churches have quite a different feel on the inside than their Catholic counterparts, with the most noticeable difference being how much lighter they are. It’s refreshing in one way, but with fewer stained glass windows and no artwork, some might consider them a bit dull.
Initially there was no organ in the Westerkerk — the Calvinists frowned on musical instruments of any kind — but some 50 years later one was commissioned and installed in the church. In the summers, the Westerkerk offers free lunchtime organ concerts on Fridays, and for one week in August a concert series they call Geen dag zonder Bach (“No day without Bach”), consisting of a daily concert of music by my go-to organ guy: J. S. Bach.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of what is probably the best-known church in all of Amsterdam: the Westerkerk. (Westerkerk is Dutch for “western church.”) Built between 1620 and 1631 in the Dutch Renaissance style, it too, like the Noorderkerk, was built as a Protestant church and in the shape of the Greek cross, except its design consists of two crosses placed side by side. Because of this, it has a long rectangular shape similar to a Catholic basilica, but its transepts are wider than in a Catholic church, and there are two of them.
The Westerkerk is about a five-minute walk from the Noorderkerk. It too is situated on the Prinsengracht, and is right across the canal from the Jordaan neighbourhood. Like the Noorderkerk, the Westerkerk was built to fulfill the pastoral needs of that fast-growing neighbourhood, but it ended up being the church of the upper and middle classes, whereas the Noorderkerk was where the working classes tended to go.
The reason the Westerkerk is likely the best-known church in all Amsterdam? Because Anne Frank wrote in her diary how its bells used to reassure her, especially at night. The carillon chimes every quarter hour and today is the only carillon in the city to do so 24/7 (at the request of the residents of the Jordaan).
I listened to those same bells chime through the night my first week in Amsterdam, as I tossed and turned, trying to get adjusted to the time zone. I could see the tower of the Westerkerk from my bedroom window, and when you climb that tower, your guide will point out the Achterhuis (where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years during World War II) and the window from which Anne could see the church tower.
Last summer was about a lot of things, but one thing I made sure to do was take lots of photos of the dozen or so European churches I was able to visit. And now that it’s once again the Season of Lent, I am so happy I get to share those photos with you.
For today, the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the Noorderkerk. (Noorderkerk is Dutch for “northern church”). This church was built in the early 1620s in the Jordaan neighbourhood, right on the Prinsengracht, the outermost canal of Amsterdam’s Canal Belt. The Jordaan was growing fast at the time, and its residents were in need of another place of worship.
The Noorderkerk was purpose-built as a Protestant church (unlike older church buildings throughout the Netherlands that were originally Catholic, but were transformed into Protestant churches after the Reformation.) As such, its shape looks quite different from the traditional long nave of a Catholic church. It was instead built in the shape of the Greek cross, with four naves of equal length, and a small tower at the centre. The idea was that the building was centred around the pulpit, a type of church design that eventually become quite common throughout Calvinist Holland.
I have a lot of affection for the Noorderkerk as it was only a ten-minute walk from where I was living, and I passed it regularly, often daily, on my walks around Amsterdam. To my regret, I didn’t have a chance to see it on the inside — the church is still in use as a congregation and the hours it is open to the public are limited. But though it might look like a quiet, sleepy church, there was always a lot going on outside. On the square surrounding the church are the twice-weekly markets: a flea market on Mondays and a food market on Saturdays. There is nothing like a weekly market to give a church square a sense of being the heart of the neighbourhood.
Which to my mind is kinda cool.
So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.
Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.
One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.
I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.
The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)
One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.
It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.
It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.
For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.
The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.
None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).
What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.
And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.
And then there are the canal houses.
Google “unique European architecture” and Amsterdam is sure to be on the list. That’s because of its unique canal houses.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are narrow, they are tall, and they are deep. Although the place where I stayed in Amsterdam is a modern house by Dutch standards (a mere 125 years old) and doesn’t face a canal, it too was built in the Dutch canal house style. And let me tell you: you don’t appreciate how narrow, tall, and deep these houses are until you’ve climbed a narrow, vertigo-inducing staircase all the way up to the fifth floor.
A typical canal house is only six metres wide. The reason why they are so narrow? It’s because canal houses were taxed on their width. The city governors needed money to pay for the massive canal expansion of the seventeenth century (when most of the canal houses were built), and knew they could raise the money by taxing the most desirable properties, which the canal houses were.
The Dutch are notoriously thrifty, shall we say, and anything they can do to save a cent, they will do. So they built narrow houses.
Many canal houses were multi-functional: they served as both family home and warehouse for the merchants who lived in them. The first storey was where the company’s office was located (at front) and where the family lived (at back). The upper storeys were the warehouse. At the top of each house was a beam with a hook. When the merchant needed to haul his trade goods into the warehouse, he attached a pulley and rope to the hook. Those same hooks are still used today when moving furniture or during renovations when building materials need to be brought into a house.
Amsterdam’s canal houses are still in use as family homes, but also as restaurants, hotels, museums, and offices. I lost count of how many times I walked past a canal house, its doors open wide to the street so I could look right in on an open-concept office, with rows of white computer-laden tables or groups of people gathered around a long meeting table. The offices all looked like remarkably relaxed work environments.
Although the canal houses follow a pretty similar cookie-cutter style from one to the next, where they do differ is in the style of their gables.
There’s the step gable.
And there is the spout gable. It looks like an inverted funnel, and indicated that the canal house was a warehouse rather than a residence.
The neck gables allowed for the most individualization. The corners created by the 90-degree angle of the facade were filled in with ornate decoration that reflected the Baroque style of the time.
Sometimes the neck gables were built in identical pairs.
But often you see a row of canal houses with each gable different from the next. In this photo, from left to right, is a neck gable, a spout gable, and a bell gable. The bell gables are called that because the shape of the top of the gable resembles a church bell.
Here is a row of mostly bell gables. Note how the houses are tilted. Amsterdam’s canal houses are built on top of wooden piles that were pounded into the swampy peat bog until solid sand was reached. But as the land shifts through the centuries, so too do the houses. This particular row is known as the Dancing Houses.
Here’s another thing I learned last summer. Marvelling at the Amsterdam canal houses is a whole lot more fun when you have a house builder along with you. My brother would shake his head, chuckle, and say, “There are no straight lines.” I don’t know if he was unsettled by the lack of straight lines, or merely fascinated, but after he left, for the rest of the summer, I walked around the city looking for straight lines.
I didn’t find many.
Today’s reminder of Amsterdam came from an umbrella I saw someone carrying: it was bright red with the three white Xs on black of the Amsterdam flag running along four of its ribs. Funnily enough, as much rain as there was in Amsterdam this past summer, I never once saw one of those umbrellas over there.
But I did here, in Vancouver’s West End.
And yes, that means our rainy season has officially started. To keep myself cheerful during these dark and dreary months, I’m going to finish off the series of posts about my summer travels that I haven’t gotten around to writing.
Staring with this one about Amsterdam’s canals.
Amsterdam has a lot of canals. A lot. And a lot of bridges. Far more canals and bridges than Venice, which is why some people call Amsterdam “Venice of the North.” But Amsterdam looks nothing like Venice. And when an Italian-American friend of mine once asked me what people did with their bikes in Amsterdam, I looked at her, puzzled.
“What do you mean ‘do with them’? They ride them, of course.”
“But how do you ride a bike in a city with so many canals?”
Oh, right. She’s Italian. She’s thinking of Venice. I told her how Amsterdam’s canals are all lined with streets — one on each side — and the streets had plenty of room for bikes. That’s also when I told her about my first-ever visit to Venice.
It was a holiday weekend in three countries (Italy, Yugoslavia, and Austria) and the youth hostel was completely full. The guy at the check-in counter told my friend and me that our best option was to try the convent down the street. He gave us precise directions: exit the hostel, turn left, and walk three bridges down.
“Do we walk over the bridges or beside them?” I asked in all seriousness. He looked at me like I was an idiot and asked, dryly, “If you don’t walk over the bridge, how will you cross the canal?”
Smart-ass, I thought, but as soon as my friend and I headed down the street, I saw what he meant. In Venice, there are no streets beside the canals and there is no way to get across a canal except by — you guessed it — walking over a bridge.
In Amsterdam, it’s entirely possible to walk the length of a canal without crossing it once. Where it intersects with another canal, you have the option of making a sharp turn left or right to start walking alongside that other canal. And at each one of those intersections, the bridges (there some 1500 of them in Amsterdam) go both over a canal while also going beside the other, intersecting, canal.
Last summer, I decided to get to know Amsterdam’s canals better and the best way to do that is to walk them. Off I went: down the Prinsengracht one day, back home along the Keizergracht, and then the next morning all the way along the Herengracht and back along the Singel.
The Singel is Amsterdam’s innermost canal, built way back in the Middle Ages and initially the city’s moat. In the seventeenth century, the city planners decided to add three more concentric canals parallel to the Singel. This expansion made Amsterdam four times larger than it was before and was desperately needed — by the end of the seventeenth century, the city’s population was four times greater than it had been when they first began building the new canals. (This was the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands was the world’s maritime power and Amsterdam one of the world’s largest cities.)
The new canals all ended at the Amstel River, and were designed for both defense and transport and, yes, to manage all that water. (Remember, Amsterdam is below sea level.) The entire area became known as the Grachtengordel (canal belt) and was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2010.
The first canal past the Singel is the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal). It’s named after the men who governed Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, many of whom lived along the Herengracht. One stretch, called the Golden Bend, was developed a little later than the rest of the canal, and its mansions were built on double-wide lots. Many of these are now consulates, banks, or museums.
The next canal is the Keizergracht (Emperor’s Canal). It’s the widest of the three canals and was named after the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.
And finally, there’s the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), named after the Prince of Orange. It is Amsterdam’s longest canal and is the dividing line between the Grachtengordel and the Jordaan.
These three major canals are connected to each other by dozens of smaller canals. The Leidsegracht is the widest of these and used to be the main transportation connection between Amsterdam and Leiden (hence its name). The Reguliersgracht (regulator’s canal) is probably the most photographed canal in all of Amsterdam. It is also where, if you are at water level, you can look through seven bridges at one time — a fact you learn when you take your canal boat tour. And the Brouwersgracht (brewer’s canal) way down at the other end of the Grachtengordel is where a lot of breweries were located (hence its name).
Eventually, my Italian-American friend spent a weekend in Amsterdam with me and saw for herself how different Amsterdam’s canals are from Venice’s. And shortly after our arrival in Amsterdam last July, I told my nieces the story of how I expected Venice’s canals to be just like Amsterdam’s. My youngest niece has since told me, now that she has seen Amsterdam’s canals, that she wants to go to Venice to see for herself how the Italian canals compare.
That’s what it’s all about folks: cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
About those bikes: just because the streets alongside the canals are wide enough to bike on doesn’t mean that bikes don’t end up in the canal. It’s been said that Amsterdam’s canals are one-third mud, one-third water, and one-third bikes and that more than 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canals every year.
This past weekend, I had dinner with a friend who wanted to know all about my summer in Amsterdam. I admitted that I was a wee bit homesick for the place. When he asked for details about my home exchange, I told him that the best thing about it was its location right next door to the Jordaan.
Developed in the seventeenth century, the Jordaan was originally a working-class district of artisans and builders. Some say its name comes from jardin, the French word for “garden.” I would believe it, as so many of the canals are flower-laden, although it is more likely those flowers are a recent phenomenon. My favourite was the Bloemgracht and I made a point of walking along it every chance I had.
By the nineteenth century, the Jordaan was overcrowded and could no longer sustain the 80,000 people living there. (By comparison, its population today is a much more reasonable 20,000.) The houses were little more than tenements. Running water and a sewage system were not installed until the 1930s. Prior to that, the canals were — well, you can imagine. After World War II, there was talk of demolishing the dilapidated houses and replacing them with modern flats, but, thanks to the many protests, that never happened.
The area gentrified and today is home to young families, artists, and students, as well as many of the original residents. Cafés and bars and restaurants dot the streets, along with trendy shops and four weekly street markets: a flea market at the Noordermarkt on Mondays, a textile market along the Westerstraat, also on Mondays, and food markets at the Noordermarkt and along the Lindengracht on Saturdays.
And then there are the churches. The Noorderkerk was the church for the working class and the Westerkerk, technically across the canal from the Jordaan, was the church for the upper classes. (It is also the church where Rembrandt is buried. He moved to the Jordaan after his bankruptcy.)
The bells of the Westerkerk are the only church bells in Amsterdam to ring 24/7, which is done at the specific request of the Jordaan’s residents. Amsterdam’s most famous resident, Anne Frank, wrote in her diary about the comfort the bells gave her and how she and her family told time by them until the Nazis hauled them away to be melted down.
It was those same bells that taunted me on one of my first nights in Amsterdam — thanks to them I knew I was still wide awake at 4 a.m. But by then I was already in love with the view of the Westerkerk from the streets of the Jordaan.
The other night, after I said goodbye to my friend and began the short walk home, I came across two people enthralled by a skunk sniffing around in the grass. The couple told me that they have never seen a skunk before, not even in a zoo. I could tell from their accent they were not from Vancouver and so, due to my recent resolution to be friendlier with the tourists, I stopped to explain that it’s “skunk season” in Vancouver — the time of year when baby skunks leave their mothers and go off on their own — and that is why you see so many of them.
“Really?” they said. “You see them every night?”
“Well, no,” I said. “But often enough.” I asked them where they were from.
“Holland,” they said.
“Oh!” I replied. “I just spent the summer in Amsterdam.” They asked me how I liked it (they were from Amsterdam) and I told them I loved it. We chatted about Holland for a bit, and then, after warning them not to get too close to the skunk, I said good night.
As I am still settling back into my life here in Vancouver (and let’s be honest: it takes a while when you’ve been a way for a while), I thought it was a happy accident that a skunk drew me into conversation with a Dutch couple only minutes after I left my friend, with whom I’d been regaling with stories about my summer in Amsterdam.
And about how lovely the Jordaan is.