Amsterdam holds many surprises. One of the sweetest is coming on a little oasis of calm in the middle of the noisy, vibrant city. There are several such oases tucked away in unexpected places: gardens and courtyards you never knew were there, tiny chapels and hidden churches. The Begijnhof is one such place. It’s not two minutes walk from the Spui or from crowded Kalverstraat, but you could (and probably have) walked through that area many times without ever realising that it was there.
A raised green courtyard studded with religious statues is surrounded by flowerbeds and tall 17th and 18th century houses. In fact, behind their facades, some of the houses date back to the 14th century, including the Houten Huys at number 34, the oldest house in Amsterdam. The place is silent, a continuation of the religious practices of the order of Beguines, religious sisters who lived and worshipped here till 1971. In addition to the houses where the religious community lived, there are a church and a chapel. Originally Roman Catholic, the central church became known as the English Reformed Church during the reformation, depriving the Beguines of a formal place of worship until the new chapel was built between 1671-1682.
It is possible to find at the Begijnhof not only silence, but also music, as concerts of classical music are performed in the chapel. The English Reformed Church has a choir of some 35 singers who regularly perform in services. And though the Beguijnhof is no longer the home of a resident religious community, the chapel of course is still a house of Roman Catholic worship, while English-language Protestant worship takes place in the church. The Beguijnhof also houses several precious 16th century items from Ter Heylighen Stede (the Holy Place), a nearby site where a miracle involving a communion wafer is supposed to have occurred in 1345. The items were rescued when Ter Heylighen Stede was appropriated by Protestants in the 16th century, and the miracle itself is still commemorated annually in the Silent Procession every March, a tradition first reported in 1360. The next procession will take place on 22 March 2014.