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.
Rotterdam is a city replete with public art. Walking along the Westersingel you can stop to sit atop some of the creations. Nesting birds have made installations of their own in the middle of the canal. The arty theme continues in the city’s boutique museums. The Kunsthal was designed by Rotterdammer Rem Koolhaas who won the Pritzker Prize, the Oscars of the architecture world, in 2008. His company also designed Museum Park, a glorious open space that is home to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. It is a miniature journey through art history from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. As well as masterpieces by Van Eyck, Reubens, Rembrandt, Magritte and Dali, there is renaissance cabinetry, furniture by Rietveld and Gispen and fine medieval glassware. All this is housed in a stately redbrick building built around the collection. Across the street is the Netherlands Architecture Institute, whose terrace is one of the places to be seen. Included in the price of admission is a visit to the Sonneveld House, one of the best-preserved examples of pre-War Dutch functionalism.
Near St Laurence’s Church is one of the port’s cool new shopping quarters, Pannekoekstraat. Depot Rotterdam is a design establishment that showcases the best of Dutch design alongside Scandi chic. The Flax Lamp by Christien Meindertsma and Bottles by Foekje Fleur van Duin are some of the stand-out Dutch designed pieces. The latter illustrates art imitating life in Rotterdam. As a student van Duin had read about the masses of discarded containers that float in the ocean. She went to the Maas River near Rotterdam in search of her own “plastic soup”. She found “dirty, toxic and very sad” containers whose colours and shapes were still very beautiful. These castaway cleaning detergents and shampoo bottles became the moulds for her collection of porcelain containers.
The city is super child-friendly: there are exciting hotels to explore, children are welcome in restaurants and the Pancake Boat is a must-do. It’s a river cruise that combines the best views of the city with pancakes and every sugar rush topping the Dutch can dream of, including their sprinkles with butter – a breakfast staple. Below deck is a children’s playground.
A second shopping area is Witte de Withstraat where sexpot lingerie retailer Marlies Dekkers has one of her stores. Her ourterwear underwear has garnered her a celebrity following that includes Lady Gaga, Mila Kunis and Nicki Minaj.
Up the street is the city’s edgiest boutique. Galerie Margreeth Olsthoorn stocks the best of Dutch fashion design as well some of the Antwerp Six and Swedish designers such as Acne and Ann Sophie Back. Afterwards, relax and people-watch at Blender on Schiedamse Vest where the signature drink is a pornstar martini, made with vanilla vodka, passion fruit juice and vanilla syrup. It is served with a shot of prosecco.
While Rotterdammers love to see and be seen in the city’s urbane watering holes such as the aforementioned Blender, they reserve a special place in their hearts for what they call “brown bars”, local popstar Ai Ming Oei explains. These are pubs that have been colonised by a cool crowd. Café Stalles on Nieuwe Binnenweg is one, where chandeliers made from recycled spirit bottles hang from the ceiling and local DJs rule the decks. She also suggests checking out Bird, a small jazz venue.
Rotterdam Where to ...
Aer Lingus ( AerLingus.com) flies from Dublin to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Fyra, the fast train, will have you in Rotterdam Central Station in 30 minutes.
Budget Bed down in a landmark building at the Stayokay Hostel in the city’s Cube buildings. A family room costs from €27.20pp, children under 12 stay free. Overblaak 85-87, 3011 MH Rotterdam.
Tel: 0031-10-4365763 Stayokay.com
Mid-market Out of town is the SS Rotterdam, a berthed former cruise liner that is now a unique hotel. Rooms from €90. 3e Katendrechtse Hoofd, 25, 3072 Rotterdam. Tel: 0031-10-2973090 ssrotterdam.com
Upmarket Hotel New York. Stay in the city’s grande dame hotel which has a lovely restaurant with harbour views. Koninginnehoofd 1 3072 AD Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Tel: 0031-10-4390500 Hotelnewyork.nl
Value Bazaar is the daytime place in Rotterdam to come to people-watch. Bag a pavement seat and order the enormous tasting plate of Middle Eastern delights. Witte de Withstraat, 16,3012 Rotterdam Tel: 0031-10-206 5151 HotelBazar.nl
Upmarket Brasserie Pierre is a good place to pause when you’ve trawled the pancake quarter’s vintage-inspired boutiques. Pannekoekstraat 38a, 3011 LH Rotterdam
Tel: 0031-10-8423757 Pierre-Rotterdam.nl