Cool architecture, marvellous multiculturalism and great food in Rotterdam
A Dutch city that was badly damaged by World War II bombing has reinvented itself with a great mix of trendy design, some very adult-looking public art and at least one fantastic hotel.
ROTTERDAM – I have to give the people of this city credit.
After World War II, after they sifted through the ruins of a city mercilessly bombed by the Nazis, they made a bold decision. Rather than try to make everything the way it was, they opted instead to take their clean slate and rebuild a modern city. The decision has had mixed reviews, but there’s no doubt Rotterdam today stands out with a very different style than Amsterdam. If you ask tour guide and local artist Willem Besselink, that’s a good thing. “Before the war, the city looked much like Amsterdam, with small alleys and old buildings.” Close to 1,000 people died in the German bombing of the city. But Besselink prefers to look at the positive side. “If they hadn’t bombed the city we’d just be a second Amsterdam,” “We wouldn’t have our own character.”
Today, Rotterdam stands out very much in contrast from most of its old-style European neighbours. There are many buildings ugly enough to fit into the 1960’s Toronto architecture style. But they also have added cool, white, wavy buildings and oddly shaped skyscrapers and recently opened a spectacular new central rail terminal that’s bright (see photo) and beautiful. Not to mention some funky (and very adult) urban art I’ll get to in a minute and a still significant stretch of older buildings with plenty of European charm to go along with terrific restaurants, sleek hotels and great shopping in the third largest port city in the world.
I got hugely lucky my first night, wandering into a waterfront restaurant called Gaucho’s, located on the south side of the river Maas, which splits the city. I had an excellent steak with frites served thin and crispy, the way the good Lord intended, and seasoned with parsley and garlic. It had been raining but the sun was peeking out and there was an absolutely sensational sunset lighting up the Erasmus Bridge, a costly endeavour with a very artistic design that has helped put the city on the architectural map.
Willem takes me on a fine tour of the city’s south side, pointing out old industrial warehouses that stored spices from the Dutch East Indies. We also tour the old harbour, with its numerous barges and fine, low-rise homes. Nearby are the city’s famous yellow cube houses, not unlike the green one Torontonians sometimes see near the Richmond St. (I think) off-ramp from the Don Valley Parkway.
Where ours seems a lonesome standout, there are several dozen of them in Rotterdam in a single clump and they’re very much in use. You can stay in one that’s used as a hostel and you also can pay three Euros (about $4.50 Cdn) and tour one that’s a small museum. I don’t think I’d buy one, as the slanted walls and funky windows might drive me a little batty. But they’re fun to look at and think about.
We emerge from the cube houses and stumble into the city’s twice a week, outdoor, temporary (they use tents) market. It’s a raucous, colourful affair with pink, white and red and orange (naturally) flowers and butchers shouting their appeals and women with head scarves bustling through crowded lanes of walkers. I notice the diversity of the population and Besslink nods.
“Fifty per cent of the city are first or second generation immigrants, and there are 190 nationalities represented in Rotterdam,” he tells me. That and the relative newness of the city gives it a bit of a Toronto feel to me.
Besselink points out a towering, new, black/grey building that’s supposed to be a new, permanent market hall. It looks like it has an amazing mural on the ceiling inside; with colourful flowers, fruits, animals and more. It’s a massive structure and the ceiling apparently is thousands of square metres. It should be quite cool when it opens in a few months.
We stroll past some average looking high-rises with lawns spiked with lively art, check out the sleek new rail station and wander past a sleepy canal lined with lovely, old homes and more interesting art. Most interesting of all is a statue called Santa Claus. It features a small, dwarfish looking Santa holding a ribbed, cylindrical object high in the air.
The artist, Paul McCarthy, is known for being controversial. He apparently has claimed the object Santa is holding is simply a Christmas tree, but it looks for all the world like something you’d find in an adult store, which has lent the work the name “The gnome with the butt plug,” as well as “Santa Claus.”
Many Rotterdammers were initially offended. Some probably still are. But there’s no doubt it’s popular with visitors and the subject of a lot of photos, many of them undoubtedly not meant for a family newspaper. The statue initially was put in the courtyard of a museum, Besselink says. But folks wanted it out in the open, so they had a parade to bring it to its current spot. He tells me not everyone gets the joke, if that’s what it is.
“I did a tour once with some older people and they asked me ‘What is a butt plug.’”
Oh no, I say, what did you tell them?
“I had to say what it was for. They just nodded.”
We have lunch at a fun, Mediterranean spot called Bazar, with nice hummus and chicken wings and grape leaves and other dishes, as well as cold Dutch beer. Great galleries abound, and down the road is a fun shop Sluijter and Meijer, where you can buy pop art pillows (see photo) or an apron with the words ”How to keep your husband” or a small book called “The gentleman’s guide to mustache etiquette.”
The nearby Café Timmer offers an old-time feel, complete with a Heineken painting above the bar in a kind of sepia tone. A guy at the bar tells the bartender to show me the toilet, so I’m escorted into a WC with a tank above the toilet that looks to predate the U.S. Civil War. I’m told the café is nearly 120 years old, and this is likely the original toilet tank. It’s an odd tourist attraction to show a travel writer, but how often do you get to see a historic toilet?
I sip a Heineken at the bar as the owner plays some very fine 70s and 80’s rock and pop tunes and soak up the atmosphere of one of the city’s older buildings.
One morning I take a 75-minute boat tour of the city’s bustling (and then some) port. It costs only about $15 for the ride and you cruise past a couple pretty harbours with some of the city’s older buildings. You also get good information about the size of the port, which stretches on for mile after mile after mile and is being enlarged. They get some 35,000 ocean-going vessels a year and 133,000 inland vessels, visitors are told. That means some 500 ships a day; a staggering number.
“It’s always been an industrial city and it’s still a working class city,” Besselink tells me.
“This isn’t a tourist city like Amsterdam” says a new friend I make, Jereon Pannekoeken.“We have space and it’s more spread out.”
Pannekoeken runs a bar downtown called Tiki’s, featuring tons of Hawaii and South Pacific kitsch and occasional performances by surf bands. It’s a great spot to forget about cool, damp Dutch winters, I would think. It’s also fun talking with Pannekoeken. I do a double take when he spells out his name.
“Doesn’t that mean….”
He doesn’t let me finish. “Yes. My last name means Pancake in Dutch.”
“People don’t forget my name.”
As we sip gin and tonics at the fine bar next door, Café LaBru, a tourism person tells me her city is fun but also is very much a nose to the grindstone kind of place.
“We have a saying here that translates to something like, ‘Don’t talk. Just work.’”
There aren’t as many sidewalk cafes here as in Amsterdam. But perhaps no city enjoys life the way Amsterdam does, so it’s probably not a fair comparison. Anyway, there are plenty of folks out enjoying the warm air on the June day I’m there and there’s plenty of action at night from what I can see.
I bedded down for two nights at the Nhow Hotel , part of a massive and extra modern complex on the south side of the river, where they’re putting up new offices and homes in an area that’s somewhat like the Toronto waterfront.
It’s a brand new property designed by the Dutch firm Rem Koolhaas (OMA) with cool greys and silver and white minimalist décor and a see-through shower that gave me a great view of south Rotterdam; a south Rotterdam a brief view of me before the steam clouded over the glass. They had a Nespresso coffee machine, wood floors, nice bath amenities in bright red containers and a TV that rested inside a giant, freestanding mirror that rested on the floor; a very cool concept. I liked the comfy chair in the corner and the cheeky sign that said I could smoke whatever I wanted, but not in the room. But they really need a full-size chair with back support for business people who have to work at the desk now and then.
That’s about the only criticism I have of the place. The lobby was chic and bright, they have free headphones you can try and the hallways feature lively urban art. On top of that, the seventh floor bar is beautiful and offers great views of the Erasmus Bridge and they have one of the top breakfast buffets I’ve seen anywhere: orange juice, beetroot juice, mixed juices, regular milk, soy milk, iced coffee already made and a great coffee machine pumping out perfect cappuccino. There were several types of yogurt, a half-dozen styles of pastry, fresh European breads, several nice styles of jams, pancakes with Canadian maple syrup, meats and cheeses, perfect strawberries and lots more. Absolute heaven for a breakfast lover like me.
There are plenty of cool restaurants and a lovely looking photo museum in the area, and it’s only a 10 minute walk to the city centre and just one subway stop from the heart of the action.
One of the city’s top restaurants, Las Palmas , is perhaps a two-minute walk from the Nhow Hotel. It’s a modern and lively spot with huge flower urns, white marble and white tile inlaid with bright red drawings of crabs and exposed silver air ducts high overhead. The restaurant is run by a celebrity TV chef from Holland, and it’s a gem. The fresh calamari is exquisite, lightly grilled with garlic and olive oil and seasoned just the right amount with thyme and rosemary. Wonderful. The tiger shrimp is perhaps even better; six large shrimp with their tails interlocked for style and draped with tiny shoots of asparagus and grilled red peppers on a bed of perfectly moist and tender risotto. It’s not cheap but it’s a beautiful restaurant with memorable cuisine.
All in all, a great couple days in a memorable city that probably doesn’t’ get the exposure it should.