Will the real Holland please stand up?

by Joe.Cawley

Those who seek a bona fide representative of the modern Holland, a hotspot of culture, history and post-post-modern architecture, should head straight to Rotterdam

Those with a predilection for postcard perceptions of Holland, where wooden shoes, red cheese and windmills abound, or those giggling groups of teenage thrill-seekers on pre-nuptial sorties into an oft-perceived land of loose morals, usually aim for Amsterdam for their piece of the Never-Netherlands.

Often considered as the ‘other’ city in Holland, Rotterdam’s honour as a previous cultural capital of Europe has left a legacy of art exhibitions and cultural commissions. Go in autumn and you can experience this architect’s playground under sharp skies, as autumnal gusts stir up fallen leaves and decorate this city-come-good with golden confetti.
 
Get high in the Lowlands
The best way to get a literal overview of the city is from the top of the Euromast Tower (Parkhaven; open 10am-5pm). At 185 metres it’s the highest point in Holland. Due to the lack of countryside contours, on a crisp day some say you can see as far as Belgium.
 
Constructed to a height of 92 metres in 1958, it wasn’t until several years later that it was decided that although a restaurant sitting atop a vertically traversable tube of concrete was indeed a fine asset for a city, something a little more thrilling was needed to attract extra visitors. In 1970, a steel tower was added increasing the height to its present glory.
 
However, a little bit of automated trouser-rumbling in a glass-panelled polo mint doesn’t exactly replicate a trip to the moon. But don’t let the overplayed space theme detract from its real raison d’etre. Stand at the top and you can honestly say you’re higher than anyone else in Holland – even in Amsterdam!
 
Convenient cultural fix
The Museum Park to the southwest of the city centre is the genius of designer Rem Koolhaas who, in 1993, developed a ‘cultural triangle’. Five museums are contained in this one area, offering everything from old animals at the Natural History Museum to old masters at the world famous Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. It’s also well worth taking in the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI). A visit should go some way to making things clearer as to why Rotterdam appears to have been built by a thousand different architects from a hundred schools of thought. (Most museums are open between 10am-5pm, closed on Mondays.)
 
Meandering munchies

The majority of sightseers opt for a cruise on the Spido boats for a waterborne view of the world’s largest port, but for something a little more bizarre, try the Pannenkoekenboot, or Pancake Boat (Parkhaven, opposite Euromast). Is it a cruise? Is it a tour? Well, neither really. It’s just a chance to eat as many pancakes as you can whilst idling up and down the river. If you can tear yourself away from the salami, apple, egg, chocolate and jam fillings, you do get great views of the riverside skyline, particularly the elegant Erasmus Bridge, known locally as ‘the swan’.
 
Stodgy deals

A favourite with the thirty-something crowd, Dudok’s Café (Meent 88; open 8am-1am) is a simply-styled warehouse eatery. Although it offers inventive haute cuisine, portions of apple pie the size of a small child are what this fashionable meeting place is famous for. Take a balcony seat upstairs and let the sweet aroma of cake and coffee rise to meet you as it mingles with the melee of clinking cutlery and a hundred conversations.
 
When square was hip

From neo-Gothic to supermodernism, buildings in Rotterdam run the whole gamut of architectural styles but none really crosses over the border into the bizarre like the Blaakse Bos – the cube houses (Show-cube, Overblaak 70, Oude Haven; open daily 11am-5pm).

 
Built, ironically, in the oldest part of the city in 1984 by a wacky architect called Piet Blom, an array of residential cubes tilted on their corners poke a teasing tongue at the more sober surroundings of the southern side of Oude Haven.
 
In a headspin
The young of Rotterdam are in general a laidback lot and there are more than enough lounges in the city in which to hang out and be part of the smooth scene. Jazzcafé Dizzy, arguably one of the best jazz venues in the country, is an unpretentious drink, eat and meet bar where crackling jazz 78s rasp seductively. Bands play soulful live sessions on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. There’s a beer garden at the back for those who like to chill in the open. (s’Gravendijkwal 127-129; open from 8am till 3am.)
 
A nod and forty winks
Central independent hotels are hard to find in Rotterdam. An exception is the unusual Hotel Bazar (Witte de Withstraaat 16). Above the Middle-Eastern Restaurant Bazar are several smallish but adequate rooms individually styled in Arabic fashion using plenty of claret and gold trim. Ask for back rooms 10 or 11 if you’re a light sleeper, as the noise from the street below can occasionally rise to slumber-depriving levels. If you fancy a lie-in but don’t want to miss the fabulous Eastern breakfast, doze on. As breakfast ought to be, it’s accommodatingly served from 7am till whenever.
 
Returning to reality
Since its rebuild after being all but flattened by a relentless German bombing campaign in 1940, numerous architects have striven to construct a modern city that sometimes compromises aesthetics for innovation. To regain a sense of reality in a city of surrealism, jump on a tram and head for the prettiest area in Rotterdam - the historical district of Delfshaven. Kick-off point for the Pilgrim Fathers’ foray to the Americas in 1620, this solitary tree-lined canal has exclusive shops and restaurants. Under monumental Old Dutch facades, you can soak in the quayside tranquillity whilst sipping on a revitalising tankard of the Netherlands’ finest.
 
 

 

Joe.Cawley

I'm a freelance travel writer and author based in the Canary Islands, medically compelled to travel to alleviate sporadic bouts of island fever that leave me with a nasty rash and an uncontrollable urge to shout obscenities at the top of my voice. I've written for most of the UK national newspapers including The Sunday Times, Guardian and Daily Express as well as a clutch of international publications - the New York Post and Taipei Times to name but a few. Geographical circumstances have determined my speciality destination - Spain and the Canary Islands; delusions of fantasy steer me towards another calling - adventure travel; while offspring, Molly Blue and Sam, have given me the opportunity to add another string to my bow - family travel. My first book, More Ketchup than Salsa, has been dubbed Little Britain with a suntan. It's a humorous account of swapping a career in fish entrails on Bolton market for a life as a British bar owner abroad and offers an insight into the expat community of a holiday resort. More Ketchup than Salsa was voted 'Best Travel Narrative 2007' by the British Guild of Travel Writers. I currently live in the hills of Tenerife with my partner, two children, a dozen goats and an army of cacti. I've decided I get most sense out of the cacti.