Netherlands: Huis te Vraag – The Quietest Park in Amsterdam

What?
A former cemetery, now an atmospheric park.

Why visit?
The attraction here is that we’re not quite sure how to describe this place.

It’s called a Huis (house) but it’s actually a garden.
It’s a cemetery that’s closed but actually it’s open.
And although it’s located in Amsterdam, it feels like a different place in a different time. 

Where?
On the former Schinkel river, at Rijnsburgerstraat 51, in the deep south-west of Amsterdam. Map.


LET’S START WITH the name. Huis te Vraag literally means ‘House (or Manor) at the Question’. Which throws up a whole bunch of questions in itself…

Legend has it that back in the 15th century there was a ferry here that would shuttle backpackers on their way to Amsterdam across the river Schinkel. In those days, Amsterdam was still a few kilometers away, and this was the boonies. The ferry house doubled as an inn and brandished a sign ‘Te Vraghe’, meaning ‘To Ask’ or, in modern parlance, ‘Information Point’, which must make it the first documented Tourist Information Office in the Amsterdam area, a harbinger of things to come...

The name was catchy enough to stick, and when a rich merchant bought some land here in 1618 to build a luxury getaway, he christened it ‘Huis te Vraag’, using the established name for the area as the name for his house (‘huis’ in Dutch, as you may have figured by now). The house survived, in various forms, until 1890, when it was torn down. But again, even though the building disappeared, the name lived on…

In 1891 the plot was repurposed and turned into a privately-run Protestant cemetery for the village of Sloten (then an independent community outside Amsterdam, now a suburb).

Business was brisk, and the cemetery flourished, if one can use that word for a graveyard. Between 12,000 and 16,000 people were buried here- the exact number is unknown, partly because the house specialty, so to speak, was family graves, which could be as deep as five (human) layers. During World War II many unidentified bodies were buried here as well, often without registration. So the exact number of residents is unknown.

However, the story doesn’t end there. In 1972 the cemetery was forced to put up a sign saying ‘FULL’, having run out of space. The cemetery closed and, now owned by the City of Amsterdam, was neglected and went into decline.

In 1987 a local artist, Leon van de Heijden, rented the ceremonial hall that was still standing and made it into his house and workshop. He realized that this was a special place and arranged to be given responsibility for maintenance of the cemetery, which was completely overgrown and largely forgotten. His objective was to create and maintain a special atmosphere, and his self-appointed job title was ‘Atmospheric Caretaker’.

The cemetery looks still wild and overgrown, but it is managed and cared for as tightly as a Japanese bonsai tree. The vines that appear to be taking over tombstones are trimmed regularly, the hedgerows are clipped, and the result is a special symbiosis between nature and funerary sculpture that creates, indeed, a very special atmosphere.
As you enter Huis te Vraag through a large iron gate you will see a small wooden house that used to hold wreaths and flowers. Next up is the former ceremonial hall, now the house of the caretaker-cum-artist. On the side of the building you will notice a large gable stone. This is all that remains of the ‘Huis te Vraag’ manor that disappeared in 1890. Appropriately, the gable stone’s message is ‘Homo Bulla’: a sniggering cherub blows bubbles to indicate people are like soap bubbles: here today, gone tomorrow. It’s a fitting message for a graveyard, which is probably why it was kept.
The gates to the Underworld.
Life's a bubble. (Photo: Dodenakkers.nl)
Paths go off in several directions. You may notice the large gate using classical columns reminding you that you, too, shall once kick the bucket: Memento Mori.
Don't forget to die! 
Beyond that there are many meandering lanes, where nature and man seem to be in constant battle- nature trying to cover everything with green vines, and man chopping it back into submission. But not too much. Because it’s the delicate balance between the two that creates the unique atmosphere that the caretakers here are trying to maintain.




Maintenance is power!
It's a long-winded story, but we find it funny how the name of a Medieval tourist information desk lives on in what's really a unique and very carefully maintained park today. Things are not always what they seem...
At least someone is still alive...

Getting there:
The official address is Rijnsburgstraat 51 – 1059 AT Amsterdam.
Minor Sights roams by bike, the quintessential Dutch way to get anywhere fast. But Tram 2 will get you there too, starting in the center and alighting at Hoofddorpplein. 

Keep an eye on opening hours: the Huis is only open Tuesday to Friday from 11am to 5 PM.

When you're done exploring Huis te Vraag, exit the main gate and turn right, following the perimeter of the park. Pretty soon you will come to a pretty nice path (hey, there's a sign that says so!) which is pedestrian only and has some of the nicest houseboats in Amsterdam, wedged in between the very quiet residents of Huis te Vraag and the gently flowing water of the Schinkel river. Not bad...
The houseboat path- the sign says 'Oh, such a beautiful path'.

Useful links:
The full history (in Dutch) can be found on Dodenakkers.nl (Fields of Death, such a cheerful name)
The official website of Huis te Vraag has limited info.




2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your lovely photos! I love your description of the place as carefully trimmed as a bonsai -- what a beautiful image.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks for the kind words! We're glad you like it! Have you been to Huis te Vraag?

      Delete

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