A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Do you think you know Leiden by heart and that you’ve already seen everything there is in the Sleutelstad?
Well, have you been on the courtyard treasure hunt yet? No? Then let me introduce you to this awesome activity.
Many people here actually do not know that Leiden is home to a large number of hidden courtyards, called ‘almshouses’. There are 35 groups of these almshouses scattered all across the city centre of Leiden. Their locations make them true islands of peace and historical beauty within the city, where you can explore environments that take you back to a time long ago, far away from the noise of the city.
First, let me give you some history. Almshouses are buildings that constituted shelters for the elderly, poor and homeless and were run by charitable foundations. In these buildings people could live free of charge and even received food, drinks, clothes and other benefits. In return, almshouse residents were subjected to very strict rules and regulations by the institution’s governing bodies. Like me, you are now probably thinking: “Oh wow, building shelters for the less fortunate? What a noble endeavour. Where’s the catch?”. Well, there is at least a moral one. The matter of fact is that while almshouses served a purely charitable purpose, these establishments were not constructed out of pure philanthropy. Instead they were mostly built by rich elderly people who were in the process of applying for a cosy resting place in heaven and thus wanted to even out the score before cashing in their chips. This, however, did not mean that such people would grab a shovel and hammer and start building an almshouse themselves, all they usually did was lay the construction of an almshouse down in their will, which obligated the executors to build one for them after their death.
The buildings themself consist of a collection of small buildings which are situated around a courtyard or garden. This inner courtyard is generally only accessible through one main entrance which is connected to public streets via a hallway or passage. Nowadays, almshouses do no longer serve the needs of the poor and homeless but are home to standard residents of Leiden – who just happen to live in the most stunning places ever!
Now let me get to the trasure hunt part.
All these courtyards, with their hidden beauties and mysteries, are accessible to the public so what you can do is take a group of friends and head out on an exploration tour of Leiden’s almshouses. In order to find your way around the individual almshouses, simply go to the visitor centre by the central station and ask for the map called “Walking tour along Leiden’s almshouses”, which costs €2.50. In it, you will not only find a map with two possible walking routes but also a bilingual description with historical facts and figures for each of the almshouses featured on the map. The long route includes 12 almshouses and will take you almost all around Leiden, starting from the central station, down to the south part of the city centre and back. The shorter route really is nothing but a small shortcut, leaving out the two most southern courtyards. Apart from the 12 featured almshouses, the leaflet also includes a list of 23 more almshouses that you can explore on your own.
I did this walking tour a few weeks ago in the evening with some friends and it was very interesting and a lot of fun (you might even stop for a drink or two on the way). However, while roaming the streets of Leiden at night might be a bit more romantic and exciting, the downside of this schedule is that we found ourselves standing in front of quite a few closed gates since many courtyards are locked at night. So if you want to really see all the almshouses, I recommend you try to finish the walking tour before 7pm.
It is important to note that there is one ground rule everyone should follow when embarking on the almshouse tour. While for us these places are exciting and fun, they are other peoples’ homes. This means that when you go there with friends, you should really try and keep down the noise to a minimum in order not to disturb any of the residents – just imagine how many people walk into their ‘gardens’ on a daily basis. I recommend you quietly read the historical information in the booklet, take a few pictures and then make your way out again.
If you want to see/hear more, just watch this video, which features nice impressions of some of Leiden’s almshouses.
I honestly encourage everyone to visit at least a few of the courtyards, they are really worth leaving your fiets at home for just one afternoon and going for a walk across the city (of course, you can also cycle there if you so please).
So enjoy the walk and don’t forget to bring a camera (like me)!