Notes from an author: Ben Coates on Rotterdam

It might not win any beauty contests, but the Dutch port is a slow burner of a city, where discovering its charms requires a little persistence.

Monday, 6 April 2020,
By Ben Coates
Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam
"From the Erasmus Bridge, which looks like a great white harp toppled across the water, From the middle, I would watch barges from Germany and Switzerland heading towards the coast, and gaze out over a forest of cranes, chimneys and pylons."
Photograph by AWL Images

Rotterdam is, in many ways, an easy place to dislike. Other Dutch cities are famed for their historic beauty, but Rotterdam isn’t like that at all. Bombed heavily during the Second World War and hastily rebuilt soon after, it has few canals, no cobbled streets and only a handful of slender old townhouses. When I first moved here from England nearly a decade ago, I went for a walk around the centre and sent an ill-tempered text to my wife, a born-and-bred Rotterdammer, summarising my verdict: “Is that it?”

Over time, though, my view of the city has changed. Picturesque scenery may be hard to find, but Rotterdam has a dynamic, energetic and a spiky attitude that makes other places seem twee in comparison. Boggy terrain means high-rise buildings are relatively rare in the Netherlands, but in Rotterdam the skyline is tall and jagged, punctuated by daring overhangs and angled glass facades. Stroll along the Maas river, which bisects the city, and it’s easy to see how Rotterdam got its nickname of ‘Manhattan on the Maas’.

I’ve come to realise this place represents the real, modern Netherlands — not a tourists’ fantasy of church spires and galleries, but a bustling, multicultural city, where tram bells compete with calls to prayer, Indonesian restaurants outnumber Dutch ones and cyclists dart down the road like fish in a stream.

I’ve also grown to love the people. Rotterdammers exhibit a fierce local pride, and bristle when others patronise them or take their productivity for granted. A local once told me: “In Rotterdam we earn the money, in the Hague they count it, and in Amsterdam they spend it.” In the internet age, Rotterdam remains the archetype of a hardworking, no-nonsense harbour city, filled with people who don’t just call a spade a spade, but ask why you’re not using it do something useful.

Rotterdam’s industriousness is rooted in its geography. The city lies at the point where the largest branch of the river Rhine flows into the North Sea, a setting that has long made it a hub for international trade. During the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, the riverbanks teemed with exotic sights: parrots, rhinoceroses, amber, ivory, sugar, opium and saffron. In 1874, Cook’s Tourists' Handbook for Holland, Belgium, and the Rhine noted that while “Venice is all poetry, Rotterdam is the poetical and practical combined”.

Today, few would compare Rotterdam with Venice, but the city’s waterways still dominate the landscape. Recently, while writing a book exploring the Rhine, I spent many happy mornings walking over the Erasmus Bridge, which looks like a great white harp toppled across the water. From the middle, I would watch barges from Germany and Switzerland heading towards the coast, and gaze out over a forest of cranes, chimneys and pylons. Reaching the southern bank, I might call in at Hotel New York — a grand, castle-like building on the riverbank — and order a platter of North Sea crabs, cod and mackerel, served on a bed of ice. If the season was right, I might even add a side of slimy, cigar-sized raw herring, pickled in enough vinegar to make your eyes water. Haring is an acquired taste, but it’s as Dutch as bicycles and Vermeer.

When I first arrived in Rotterdam, the southern bank looked very different. Old warehouses and factories stood empty, and tourists seemed about as rare as dolphins. Today, though, Rotterdam has bloomed into an unlikely hipster hub — the Dutch equivalent of Brooklyn, say. Grotty bars have been converted into bistros, boutiques have opened beneath railway arches and southern districts like Katendrecht are filled with people carrying MacBooks and drinking craft beer. “This city has changed a lot”, a man working on a market told me recently. “I used to need four guys to guard my stall on Saturdays or it would all get stolen. But now I can go off for lunch and leave it alone and nothing will happen. It’s terrible, really”.

In some ways it’s easy to sympathise with sentiments like these. Rotterdam is becoming more attractive, but it also risks becoming less interesting as its rough edges are sanded off. Yet dig a little deeper and you’ll find it’s still largely the same. At the end of a busy day, I often retreat to what the Dutch call a bruine kroeg — a ‘brown cafe’, roughly equivalent to an English pub. The locations vary, but the essential features are the same: a cosy atmosphere, coffee-coloured woodwork and customers who look as if they were born with a Heineken in hand.

In the past year or two, my own relationship with Rotterdam has shifted once again. Tired of the crowds and noise, I’ve moved to a cottage in the nearby countryside, where I’m woken not by police sirens but by buzzards hunting in the fields. However, I’m still drawn back to the city several times a week to wander along the water, mull the city’s history and talk politics over a glass of lager or three. There are still things to dislike here, but there’s also a lot to love.

Ben's tip: The trio of towers known as ‘De Rotterdam’ probably won’t win any awards for imaginative naming, but it’s an arresting sight; dominating the riverbanks next to the Erasmus bridge. Visit the rooftop terrace of the nhow hotel for a cocktail and a brilliant view of the river.

Ben Coates is the author of The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. RRP: £12.99.

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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