I wasn’t expecting anything like Amsterdam but that’s not what I got. I was expecting a dingy port yet that’s not what I got either. What I did get was an attractive pristine city with a refreshingly modern feel and just enough old world charm to add some nice contrast.
Contrast is indeed what this vibrant yet relaxed city is about. Trendy nightspots like The Blender mix with traditional ethnic restaurants; speedy water taxis zoom amongst classic wooden Dutch boats in the harbour; and conventional trams run alongside an ultra-modern Metro system with links to driverless electric shuttle buses. One of my environmentally conscious travelling companions noted somewhat sourly that the Riviera’s politicians could “learn a thing or two about urban transport here”.
For a short break, Rotterdam is substantial enough to have big city perks but small enough to feel friendly, manageable and walkable.
Art and Architecture
This is a young city, not only by its thriving student population but also by its recent architecture that dates to the aftermath of the last war. The Germans razed Rotterdam to the ground so, except for the few buildings that survived, everything is new and unusual. If you’re going to rebuild, you might as well do it with daring and innovation. Students of architecture come here from all over the world as part of their studies. I met a visiting group of 60 students from the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Nancy who were enthralled by what they saw.
There are a few things that could do with a miss. Don’t bother with the 1930’s-style Huis Sonneveld house museum that is boring in the extreme. The Photography Museum near the New York Hotel holds some promise but I wasn’t impressed by the “Angry” collection that was showing. For photography buffs, the museum’s bookstore does offer up some hard-to-find treasures and it’s quite possible that some of the revolving theme exhibits would be worth a visit.
Must-sees include the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (don’t worry about pronouncing this impossible language: I didn’t meet a Rotterdammer who didn’t speak English) which shows some modern works as well as world-class paintings from Dutch artists. The museum director showed me into a closed gallery where this summer’s exhibit was being prepared and I was able to see Van Gogh’s The Postman Joseph Roulin and the portrait of his son, up close. Stunning renditions of the artist’s friends in Provence, both paintings are now on display at the museum until September 4th. At the Maritime Museum there’s a fascinating floating display (free to walk around) of Dutch boats and small ships, some of which can also be seen in the attractive Veerhaven which doubles as a private port.
You can’t miss the 100-metre Euromast Tower (the highest in the Netherlands) for a 360° panorama of the city and a drink or meal at the lofty restaurant. My Dutch chum Maarten also recommended a stroll in the park below the tower where one of the only buildings left standing after the German bombings is now a café named after the park’s architect Jan David Zocher. There are splendid views of the river traffic and the only free quay in the port where traditional tall ships sometimes moor.
If you fancy something really unique, take the Splashtours bus tour; there’s a surprise about half way through. Do take the water taxi from the park to the New York Hotel. Hang on to your hat for the short trip.
Two or three days in Rotterdam is well worthwhile as a city break or a first stop destination before going on to Amsterdam in 45 minutes or Brussels in just over an hour by high speed train. You can even be in Paris in 21⁄2 hours on the fast Thalys link.
Getting there: Low-cost airline transavia.com (see issue 140) flies year-round from Nice by Boeing 737. The airport is small and provincial so there’s no waiting for baggage. Count on about €25 for a taxi into town.
Where to stay: For a spacious modern room with spectacular views, the skyscraper Bilderberg Parkotel is the place. Very central, next to a Metro station and within walking distance of the old port and shopping district. For a more romantic stay, try the New York Hotel right on the port. Like stepping back into the 1930s, the rooms are decorated with replica furnishings from old cruise liners. Unique atmosphere and a wonderful restaurant featuring seafood.
Where to eat: De Machinist is a must. Organic cuisine in a converted machine tools factory. Open all day. For ethnic North African and Middle Eastern cuisine try the Hotel Bazar with its colourful deco open to street views on two sides for an airy atmosphere.
Getting around: Buy a Rotterdam Welcome Card and Guide Book. Available at the airport, the central tourist office and at some hotels, it includes a transport card for trams and the Metro. Taxis are numerous and reasonably priced.