Manhattan on the Mass
Rotterdam is much more than the Netherlands’ second city. ALANNA GALLGHERdiscovers an abundance of culture
ROTTERDAM’S INDUSTRIAL side lives cheek-by-jowl with a culturally rich, groovy little waterside city filled with art and architectural treasures to explore. It’s a place where you travel its aquatic network by water taxi. Gateway to Northwest Europe, the port of Rotterdam distributes goods to some 460 million Europeans. The port covers an area of 40km, stretching from the city to the North Sea. The centre is far more bijou and is easily explored on foot or preferably by bike.
Rotterdam is a very 21st century city. The metropolis was destroyed in 1940 when the Germans strategically aerial bombed it as part of their invasion of the Netherlands. Some 25,000 people lost their lives in the afternoon blitz. All that remained of the medieval city centre was St Laurenskerk or St Laurence’s Church. Standing on Plein 140 in Leuvehaven, the Destroyed City is a cubist memorial that shows a man without a heart. Made by Russian artist Ossip Zadkine, who witnessed the destruction, it represents a city that lost its heart.
From the ashes of the conflict rose a contemporary city with skyscrapers lining its banks and harbours – so much so that it has been called “Manhattan on the Maas River”. Architectural enthusiasts will love its cube houses, a local landmark built along the Old Harbour in the early 1980s by structuralist Piet Blom. You can visit the showhouse which is now a museum, or even stay in the family-friendly Stayokay hostel located in the building. Next to the cube houses is another building by Blom – the six-sided structure is known throughout Holland as the Pencil.
The old harbour has water’s-edge cafes serving daily specials from €8. Eating out is reasonable in this city. The Maas River is the city’s aorta, pumping barges and tankers through the shipping channels. You’d expect the city to feel polluted but it doesn’t: what’s on show to tourists is super clean. Currently the city is undergoing a revival which has been likened to some parts of Berlin. First impressions show a city in a terrible state of chassis thanks to a refurbishing building boom. The first sound that greets you when you exit the train station is a cacophony of jackhammers. The works are scheduled to continue for another 18-24 months.
The city’s make-over started with the appropriately named Swan, the local sobriquet for the Erasmus Bridge designed by architect Ben van Berkel and completed in 1996. (Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and is the city’s best-known elder.) The structure connects the northern and southern halves of the city and on a sunny day the pavements of the bridge dazzle like diamond dust.