Rotterdam – Harbour hearted city

Rotterdam may have begun life as a tiny fishing village in 1270 when the river Rotte was dammed, but it has evolved into Europe’s largest port, stretching for miles along the Maas River and linked into the Rhine for cross European boat travel. More importantly, this Dutch delight is now featured on an increasing number

Rotterdam may have begun life as a tiny fishing village in 1270 when the river Rotte was dammed, but it has evolved into Europe’s largest port, stretching for miles along the Maas River and linked into the Rhine for cross European boat travel.

More importantly, this Dutch delight is now featured on an increasing number of cruise itineraries and, year-round, offers a welcoming, easy-to-walk, compact centre full of enticing attractions. Just to start with, the city provides for some stunning rubbernecking of its wide array of eye-catching, ultra-modern buildings.

In May 1940, 24,000 buildings were bombed and the city suffered further damage at the end of the war. Since then, it has reinvented itself with a series of striking buildings and now boasts more architects per capita than anywhere else in the world.

It is also home to the Netherlands Architectural Institute (Nai), which is open daily for those interested in modern architecture. The oddest building concept is the cube housing; diamond-shaped dwellings apparently hanging from poles. You can experience what it would be like to live in one, along with displays of the latest interior designs, at the show house at 70 Overbleak.

On Coolsingl, the main street cutting across the centre, the Golden Tulip Central hotel has its top floor boardroom jutting out over the road. This hotel is a good place to overnight, with bedroom views of inner quays or out over the harbour to the harplike Erasmus bridge (nicknamed the Swan) and cruise terminals. It also has the city’s only hotel pool.

Where older buildings survive, Rotterdam preserves them proudly. Neighbouring Nai are two houses from the 1930s. One, a steelframed house of a wealthy tobacco merchant, is viewable furnished in period. The neighbouring house is home to the Chabot Museum, containing this artist/sculptor’s private collection.

Opposite in Museum park is the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, holding a wealth of European art from Rembrandt, Hals and Van Dyck to Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Monet and Van Gogh, plus a modern section including Dali, Ernst and Magritte and decorative art collections. A cafe terrace also looks out over rose and sculpture gardens. One of Rotterdam’s more offbeat attractions is the Tax and Customs Museum, where you can take part in an interactive smuggling operation!

It’s easy to get a full overview of the city from the top of the 183m-high Euromast, a short walk from Museum park. Originally built in 1960 and heightened in 1970 when the Space Tower was added, enabling visitors to have the sensation of ‘blast-off’ in a rocket, there are restaurants and platforms at 100m and exhilarating panoramas from the top.

Around the Cruise Terminal area to the south of Erasmus bridge there is plenty more to see, including the Netherlands Photo Museum in a modern building. It’s also relaxing just to sit at the Cafe Rotterdam, adjoining the cruise terminal, over coffee and a slice of cheesecake while watching the ships go by on the river, or have a lunch on one of the higher floors with small outside balconies.

A glimpse of cruising history at the end of the terminal quay is provided by the Hotel New York, created in 1993 in the 100-year-old former sculpted and turreted headquarters of the Holland America Line. It’s a good place for afternoon tea or evening drinks to watch the sunset. As well as a restaurant, the Oyster Bar offers 20 varieties of fresh shellfish and soup to be taken out; a good basis for lunch on the sightseeing move.

Another city link with the Holland America line was the arrival in August 2008 of the liner Rotterdam which was built here. This elegant vessel spent a decade shuttling back and forth to New York, then cruised in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) until 1997. Now being refitted, she is moored at Katendrechtse Hoofd and should be in action by early 2009 as a hotel, restaurant, museum and conference venue. `More ship history can be found at the Maritime Museum in Leuvehaven near the Golden Tulip hotel. Inside, you can see a 50-foot model of the city and port and there’s a special hands-on area for children. Outside, there is the restored 1868 warship Buffel, which can be toured, and a nearby permanent collection showing the docks as they were 100 years ago.

Leuvehaven is swiftly reached from the New York Hotel by special water taxi or by walking over the Erasmus bridge. There is also a good linking metro system and, as well as inexpensive day cards, an hour long’s travel on all the system is just EUR2.6.

From Leuvehaven cross Coolsingl to Witte de Wittestraat, a street that has transformed itself from a strip of sleazy bars to a safe, pavement cafe and restaurant area, with smart boutiques showing the work of local designers.

For example, there’s Margreeth Olsthoorn for clothes, Dorine Christ for shoes, Hype Hairdressers do just that but also sell clothing and Marlies Dekkers sells impudent lingerie opposite the contemporary gallery Ecce. Just off Witte de Wittstraat is (‘new designers’) and Vid, a centre for design.

A relic of the old days is the Old Bazaar Hotel with its Moroccan atmosphere. Walking north from here the theatre square is worth a glance for the street lights designed like dock cranes and the surface of riveted plates resembling a ship’s side. On one area is etched a map of the Rotterdam docks.

In 1953, Rotterdam built the world’s first pedestrian-only shopping precinct around an arch, the sole remains of the Jewish hospital. Here are high street chains and Selexyz Donner, the country’s biggest bookstore on 11 floors. As well as 250,000 titles, sheet music and DVDs, there is a cafe, theatre and antiquarian department.

Just south of the Museum park is Westelijk Handelsterrein, a double storey conversion of an 1894 warehouse reopened in 2002 with 36 units covering art galleries, entertainment, cafes, wine bars, and shopping – a good place if it rains for lunch and a glass of wine. Or, keeping in tune with the city’s water outlook, go to the Water Restaurant at the Golden Tulip hotel. The light fittings are tap-shaped and the bar back is like a container ship side. You can eat a typically Dutch lunch snack – uitsmiter – of three fried eggs on ham, cheese and bread for just EUR7.

Rotterdam likes its traditional foods hearty like poffertjes, pancakes sold around the city (16, they say, make a portion). Street food snacks also include vlaamse frites (chips in mayonnaise), new herrings in summer and kroketten (fried coquettes containing meat). But you can find most of the world’s cuisines; Rotterdam is home to 168 different nationalities and has a waterfront museum to prove it.

Indonesia, the former Dutch colony, provides the ubiquitous rijsttafel (rice table) and nasi goreng with a base of spiced fried rice. Dewi Sri, 20 Westerkade, is a good place to sample Indonesian dishes. You could also try one of the tourist menus – Spanish, Hungarian, English and Dutch – served at the Engels Grandcafe next to the central station.

No sightseeing time need be wasted for a meal stop. Year-round, the Pancake Boat offers all-you-can-eat natural, apple or bacon pancakes with varied toppings while you cruise the Maas above the Erasmus bridge. The China Boat, an old steam boat, has the same eat-your-heart-out approach with a buffet while touring the Rotterdam skyline.

Both boats leave from Parkhaven near the Euromast. There’s even a boat that serves Indian curry dinners on Wednesday. Other boat tour options include Spido boats which make 75-minute harbour and dock tours and the new Splashbus, an amphibious bus which tours the city and then plunges into the water for a harbour tour.

But, whichever way you do it, Rotterdam is built for touring. Just sit back and enjoy the view!