Rotterdam comes as a pleasant surprise. The moment you step out of its futuristic Centraal Station (you could be stepping out of a spacecraft), you know you’re in a different kind of Netherlands. A walk through its interesting neighbourhoods only confirms that this is a city worth getting to know. Rotterdam receives a lot of negative press, and only a fraction of the tourism that Amsterdam and other Dutch cities get, largely because it doesn’t posses many of the beautiful traditional buildings that are such an iconic feature of the country.
This wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Rotterdam, the major industrial, shipping and commercial centre of the Netherlands, was full of beautiful and historic buildings. The city’s crowning glory was its Medieval centre. Sadly for Rotterdam, those attributes made it target number one for the German Luftwaffe at the outbreak of World War II. Refusing to surrender, the German airforce bombed military targets, the port, residential areas and the Medieval centre alike. The resulting firestorm did even more damage.
Not that things improved much for Rotterdam afterwards. Occupied by the German military it became a target for Allied bombing. One-hundred and twenty-eight bombing raids were carried out on the city’s port area, but quite often civilian areas were hit as well. In total the American and British airforces killed almost as many civilians as the Luftwaffe, and made just as many homeless.
This terrible history has left an indelible mark on the city, and turned it into a paradise for architects. Presented with a clean slate – and aerial photos make it clear, it was a very clean slate – Rotterdam chose to innovate rather than recreate the past. An attitude that values creativity in urban planning has given Rotterdam some extraordinary buildings. It has also bequeathed the city a wealth of public and street art (including the triptych of female forms above) and an edgy feel that is unique in the Netherlands.
A walk through the lively city streets towards WIlliamsbrug, one of the two famous bridges to cross the Nieuwe Maas river, took us down busy streets, past entertaining artworks (including the infamous Santa with buttplug) and eventually brought us to the legendary Kubuswoningen (Cube Houses to everyone who isn’t Dutch). A creation of the 1980s, elevated on poles the Cube Houses represent a ‘village within the city’, but they are also grouped and arranged like trees in a wood.
The houses are strangely beautiful from outside. Thanks to an enterprising inhabitant you can visit one of them and get a first hand view of life inside the Cube. These are definitely not homes for people with vertigo; some of the windows look straight down, creating a sense of falling that is deeply unsettling.
Deciding we needed to recover from the experience, we headed to the nearby Oudehaven, Old Port, where some outdoor cafes overlooked the water. As if to underline Rotterdam’s determination to make an impression – and to reinforce it’s reputation for the offbeat – we had barely taken our seats when an opera singer on a balcony above us burst into song.
In the natural amphitheatre by the port it was glorious; it was then that I knew that phoenix-like Rotterdam was a place to which I was going to enjoy returning, time-and-again.