FIND OUT HOW THIS INDUSTRIOUS DUTCH CITY HAS TRANSFORMED ITSELF INTO A HOTSPOT OF COOL
WORDS ANNA CRANE
PHOTOGRAPHY ADRIENNE PITTS
otterdam is different to other Dutch destinations. With its modern skyline, industrial port and hardworking heritage, the Netherlands’ second city has always been outshone by its pretty sibling Amsterdam, the quaint capital. But times are changing. In true Rotterdam style, her proud citizens are seizing their moment to turn their forward-thinking, dynamic city into a hotspot of cool.
There’s a good reason for Rotterdam’s modern skyline and positive attitude to reinvention: the devastation she suffered during the Second World War. On one dreadful night in May 1940, the Luftwaffe dropped 97 tonnes of bombs over the city centre and all but obliterated Rotterdam’s medieval heart.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, however, the city regenerated itself, with the ‘modernisers’ virtually given a blank slate on which to rebuild.
Dorus Hoebink, lecturer in cultural sociology and cultural heritage at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, credits the period of reconstruction that followed for establishing typical Rotterdam sayings such as ‘Geen woorden, maar daden’ (‘No words, but deeds’). The result was some truly forward-thinking urban architecture that laid the groundwork for today’s dynamic cityscape. These include some of Dorus’s favourites: the Mad Men-esque shopping streets built in the 1950s around Pannekoekstraat (Pancake Street), in the Lijnbaan, and on Meent, in an area so hip it’s called the Cool District (okay, so it actually takes its name from a medieval manor).
Rotterdam has always been a place of action. In the 17th century, the fledgling Dutch East India Company, the first corporation to be listed on an official stock exchange, set up shop here. In the 1960s it was the world’s largest port and it still is Europe’s. It’s also a magnet for business, HQ to some of the world’s most successful companies.
There is a united sense of purpose and entrepreneurial energy that pulsates through the city.
For visitors arriving by sea, the story of Rotterdam is written along the New Waterway. Marvel at the Maeslantkering, the largest movable flood barrier in the world, and when you pass the Makers District – symbolic of the city’s transformation from a gritty area of industry to an enclave of trendy living – look out for buoyant cows: not Hendrika of the classic children’s book The Cow Who Fell in the Canal, but the world’s first floating dairy farm – one of the many initiatives to create a self-sufficient and sustainable city.
Just round the river bend from where you disembark, Aloha is another example of repurposing defunct spaces and ‘going green’. This former swimming pool on the Maas is now a sleek café/bar/restaurant with one of the most beautiful views in Rotterdam. Sustainability is the buzzword here: take up the ‘Vegan Challenge’ to eat only local, natural, plant-based products, and try its mayonnaise made from coffee waste.
It’s Rotterdam’s brilliant blend of tradition and modernity that makes it so appealing. There are still cobbled streets to bump along on a bicycle, and barges festooned in flowers, but there are also thriving districts such as Katendrecht, former home to dock workers, the red light district and Chinatown, where the old warehouses have been repurposed by craft brewers, butchers and artisan waffle makers.
Pockets of pre-war Rotterdam still survive, among them the 1898 Witte Huis (White House). From its observation platform you can admire the historic ships in the Oude Haven, the old port established around 1350. Delfshaven, a medieval harbour area with picture-book gabled houses and a handsome grain mill, also survived. It was from here that the Pilgrim Fathers left for America in 1620; today it’s home to boutique art galleries, cafés and the Pelgrim City Brewery.
In an old fire station on the banks of the Rotte is another local beer landmark, Brouwerij Noordt. ‘We brew no-nonsense beers that are just like the people in Rotterdam,’ says the brewery’s Hanneke Noordt. ‘Our beers have honest, sometimes surprising flavour elements, made with love, passion and dedication.’ Try their light, lemony Noordtsingle, but best stick to one if you’re visiting the famous out-of-kilter Cube Houses in central Rotterdam, a series of tilted yellow boxes designed by architect Piet Blom in the 1970s.
Bas van der Pol, director of the Rotterdam Architecture Institute, believes they ‘embody the idea that in Rotterdam there’s space to try out new things’. Nearby you’ll find the futuristic Markthal, a horseshoe-shaped food hall opened in 2014. Browse the stalls selling artisan loaves, cheese and bubble tea, and admire the massive artwork of looming fruits, veg, fish and flowers, created using digital 3D animation.
Local food blogger Marisa Gomez likes the Instagrammable Asian food here, although for a more authentic experience she heads to the West-Kruiskade, where Katendrecht’s Chinatown was relocated in the 1980s. A gastronomic melting pot, it shares its space with Surinamese fast-food joints, Korean bakers, Turkish market stalls and Indian restaurants.
The Flag Parade at the Boompjeskade, the quay between the Erasmus bridge (nicknamed the Swan for its graceful lines) and Willems bridge, marks the number of nations represented in Rotterdam – all 193 of them.
This diversity is one reason why the city is so open-minded and always receptive to change and improvement. Another is the no-nonsense, pull-together-and-get-on-with-it attitude that Hanneke reflects in her brews. The Rotterdam effect is now being felt by its prettier rivals, says Dorus: ‘People from Amsterdam are now actively searching for houses here. This was unheard of five years ago.’