A Rotterdam street art jamboree (inside)

The contrast between the bright sunlight, pounding music and creative frenzy of street artists outside a crumbling old factory in Rotterdam, and the calm, dark interior of the very same abandoned building couldn’t have been more striking. Stepping through the doorway into the cavernous interior was like entering an alien world, one not meant to be discovered by most of humanity.

You can almost imagine future generations of archaeologists excavating this site with their tiny brushes and trowels, pondering over the meaning of artworks this elaborate in a location this obscure, far from the heart of the city. Was it a religious site? Were rituals performed here to the gods? Which gods? What do these paintings tell us of a civilisation long vanished?

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Inside, the building was transformed into a world populated by creations as weird, wonderful and elusive of meaning as the Nazca Lines or Lascaux Cave paintings. As I wandered around, it struck me that not unlike the stained glass windows of churches, the bright and bizarre paintings inside this decaying building made it into a street art cathedral. There was probably more pigeon crap on the floor, but that’s also found in cathedrals.

Some graffiti inside the building dated from well before the street art event happened outside. Some pieces were tagged from 2015, others from 2012, although judging by the state of decay, the building had been abandoned for much longer. This will only add to the confusion of future archaeologists.

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

We’d come to this anonymous part of Rotterdam because of a promotional event for a tattoo shop. Walls and Skin were hosting a street art party to celebrate the opening of their new shop, and numerous well known Dutch street artists were taking part. While everyone else was painting, we were just hanging around drinking free cocktails, and watching the artworks transform the brick exterior of the building.

The funny thing about all of this is that none of the creativity on display in the old factory would ever see the light of day. Even the works on the outside of the building wouldn’t be seen by many. This isn’t art for public consumption. Instead it seems intended for personal satisfaction, or for the community of artists and followers who know where to find it.

One of the most interesting things about seeing all these different artists and artworks side-by-side, was just how varied the styles are. For someone whose street art education only began when they moved to London’s Shoreditch – where Banksy made his name painting anarchist rats and ecstasy-faced policemen – it’s fascinating to see this collision of different work.

It may be that I don’t understand the subtleties of the work, but most street art I’ve seen in the Netherlands doesn’t seem overtly political, or to be making any obvious social commentary. It’s a striking difference between the work I knew in East London and here, but maybe that’s just because Britons have more to be pessimistic about …

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A Rotterdam street art jamboree (outside)

I enjoy street art, or graffiti if you prefer, but beyond a casual appreciation of what I see on walls as I wander around, I’m not very knowledgeable about it. Like most people, I’m more street art voyeur than active participant. That hasn’t changed, but a recent afternoon in Rotterdam has given me a new perspective on spray can art, and the artistry and skill required to make it.

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The abandoned factory which formed the crumbling canvas for a street art event, held near Rotterdam’s Marconiplein, was as obscure a location as the average person could hope to find … or not. We knew about it through friends (thanks Heather and Martijn) who are in the know, and even then it took some finding.

Created over hot a day in July, the event and the pieces of art were ‘commissioned’ to celebrate the opening of a new branch of Walls and Skin, a tattoo shop and street art supporter, in Rotterdam. Tattoos and spray cans seem to go hand-in-hand, and it brought some of the Netherlands’ best known graffiti artists out to perform.

Walls and Skin sell spray paint cans in their tattoo shop, and as part of the launch, all the paint was free. It was street art as spectacle, and the spectacle was not a little mesmerising to watch. The delicacy and intricacy with which the artworks are created was eye-opening. Plus there was a live DJ pumping out suitably loud and pounding music, a barbecue and a free cocktail bar.

Here, in the midst of an abandoned industrial relic, was a professional mixologist turning out very respectable bourbon-based cocktails, while the smell of barbecue wafted across the empty space in front of an abandoned factory. What’s not to love? If you want to get a sense of the event there are some videos on Facebook. The event even made the news.

Free cocktails, Street art event, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Free cocktails, Street art event, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

It underscores, if that is needed, that the once subversive and socially unacceptable – tattoos and graffiti – are perfectly acceptable in the  21st century. That is something to celebrate, and people did … although it wasn’t exactly a surprise to discover some earlier, more traditional graffiti done by a less skilled hand. I believe it’s affectionately known as ‘cock and balls’.

'Cock and balls', Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

‘Cock and balls’, Marconiplein, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A walk through wonderful, windy Rotterdam

Rotterdam is a city full of surprises. Although it plays a much maligned second fiddle to Amsterdam, I really enjoy exploring the city. It may not have the grand traditional architecture of Amsterdam, thanks to being flattened by the Luftwaffe during World War II, but what it lacks in tradition it more than compensates for with innovation and creativity.

The fatal downside of Rotterdam is the bitter wind that whistles through the wide streets and open spaces. One thing about the city’s reconstruction, it rejects the narrow streets and confined centre of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. Still, on a cold but sunny winter’s day (precious few of those recently), a walk through some of the more historic bits of the city is hugely rewarding.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

We started at Blaak Station close to the extraordinary new Markthal. Avoiding the temptation to sit in the sun in one of the cafes by Oudehaven, we walked over one of Rotterdam’s two iconic bridges, Willemsbrug, and crossed the Nieuwe Maas river to reach Noordereiland, the small island that sits in the river with views back towards the city.

Maas Toren, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Maas Toren, Rotterdam, Netherlands

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Noordereiland is now largely residential but the buildings have been converted from old shipping warehouses, from when this was a centre of Dutch commerce and ships from across the world made port here. We found ourselves leaving the island on a small road bridge but next to it was De Hef, a glorious metal railway bridge dating from the 1920s, its central section elevated above the river in a silent salute to passing ships.

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

De Hef and the Neiuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

It was Sunday morning and even in Rotterdam things were sleepy. We met a few dog walkers and the occasional refugee from Saturday night, but the city was pleasantly quiet. We headed along the river front until reaching Maas Toren, the tallest building in the country (now the Dutch HQ of Deloitte), where we watched an old sailing ship glide past starkly contrasted against its surroundings.

Deciding we’d earned a short rest, we were lured into the shining glass temple that is the nhow hotel. The promise of a refreshing Bloody Mary accompanied by sweeping views over Rotterdam’s second iconic bridge, Erasmusbrug, was in the air. The view across the river were pretty wonderful, as was the Bloody Mary.

nhow hotel with seagull, Rotterdam, Netherlands

nhow hotel with seagull, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Fortified, we set off to the water taxi where the Hotel New York sits in all its grandeur. This was, as the name suggests, where hundreds of thousands of Europeans embarked on the journey across the Atlantic to the New World and a new life – including a huge number in the aftermath of World War II. The building was the former HQ of the Holland America Line shipping company which first sailed the Atlantic to New York in 1872.

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam, Netherlands

We took a slightly shorter boat ride in a tiny wooden river taxi across the Nieuwe Maas back to Veerhaven, another picturesque port. Having started at the Martkhal, we decided we needed to sample some of the food on offer in the market and made our way along the river towards a lunch of grazing food stalls. We’d definitely earned it.

Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lunch, Markthal, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lunch, Markthal, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Snacking underneath the world’s biggest artwork*

Rotterdam does ‘surreal’ exceptionally well, and the latest addition to the city’s famed modernist architecture, the Markthal (Market Hall), reinforces that tradition brilliantly. It is like being a character in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. Walking through the huge arch of the Markthal is not unlike when James walks inside the peach to discover that it is inhabited by equally giant insects.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Stepping thought the glass entrance, you are instantly confronted with a 36,000 square foot mural depicting an asparagus stick the size of a Californian Redwood, a piece of broccoli the size of an oak tree, a gargantuan cow and a selection of fruit, vegetables, fish and insects that wouldn’t have looked out of place to Gulliver when he arrived in Brobdingnag on his Travels.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The enormous mural, by artists Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam, is titled “Cornucopia”, although if they’d called it “Down the Rabbit Hole” I would have understood. The artists describe it as the “Big Bang of Fruit”, a remarkably accurate description. Raspberries, strawberries, avocado, prawns, ears of wheat, half eaten apples, grapes, fish, butterflies, pumpkins and mushrooms swirl around overhead in a wild display of colour and movement which is mirrored in the busy market below.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

In the earth-bound market there are dozens of food stalls selling delicious looking fresh produce – mainly local and organic. Rows of oranges, bundles of bread, piles of fresh chillies, Spanish hams and freshly baked cakes vie for space with restaurants serving up sushi, tapas, burgers and sausages from posh streets stalls. There are fine dining options available if high end street food isn’t your thing.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

You could easily spend several hours contentedly grazing your way around the food stalls, in between times gazing towards the food heavens above. If the mural wasn’t surreal enough, it is punctuated by squares of glass through which you can occasionally glimpse a person looking at the events below – one of the more peculiar vistas the city of Rotterdam has to offer.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The structure surrounding Markthal is made up of apartments – 230 in total – making it one of the most extraordinary places to live in the Netherlands. It must be handy if you need a pint of milk and some eggs, but I wonder if residents quickly tire of the hubbub below and being the constant object of tourist cameras?

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal would look pretty bizarre in many cities, but in Rotterdam, especially this part of Rotterdam, it’s right at home. A short walk away is the 1970s Kubuswoningen, the yellow cube houses designed to look like a treehouse village; also within sight is Rotterdam’s central library with its exoskeleton of yellow pipes. Markthal is in good company.

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal, the new Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Markthal is expected to attract up to seven million visitors per year. It’s entirely possible, so remember, the early bird gets the organic sausage from the biological butchers.

*A claim made by the people who run the Markthal, clearly they haven’t been to Nazca.

A love-locked heart on a Rotterdam quay

Illuminated in the bright sunshine, Rotterdam’s metal heart shone out like a brilliant red beacon pulling me towards it as I walked down the quay. I’m not sure why the whole ‘love locks’ trend has become such a big deal worldwide, but there is hardly a city left on the planet where people aren’t busily disposing of their unwanted padlocks as an alleged gesture of eternal love.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

It’s such a big deal that the collapse of part of the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris was caused by the weight of padlocks. Padlocks attached by those who genuinely believe padlocking a lump of metal to an inanimate object equates to a meaningful romantic gesture. I feel uneasy, if not downright queasy, that the padlock has come to symbolise love for a whole generation.

Unless you’re into that kind of thing, it isn’t healthy to put padlocks and love together. I prefer Shakespeare’s interpretation of love, delivered by his greatest doomed romantic, Cleopatra:

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven.

It’s hard to imagine Cleopatra – a woman who, upon hearing of Mark Anthony’s death, killed herself with an asp bite – padlocking anything to a bridge. But maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon?

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam’s answer to the Pont des Arts is the Lock of Love – presumably named after Dusty Springfield’s version of the Burt Bacharach-penned song, Look of Love – an art installation on the waterfront near Delfshaven. It was created by Dutch art collective, BLISS, and is made from heart-shaped steel welded together to form a larger heart-shaped seat.

It was officially ‘opened’ on – when else – Valentine’s Day, 2010. If you look carefully you can see the word ‘Bliss’ woven into the work; I couldn’t find the words ‘giant red cliché’ anywhere.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Its location overlooking the River Schie and the harbour of Coolhaven is romantic and dramatic. A heart shaped hole in the back of the sculpture framing downtown Rotterdam, passing boats and the Euromast alike. The authorities probably remove them periodically, but it’s still strange that there aren’t many locks on the sculpture. Perhaps Rotterdammers prefer asps.

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Lock of Love art installation, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Up above the streets and houses…Rotterdam’s Euromast

When you’re being rotated through 360 degrees nearly 200 metres in the air it’s possible to truly appreciate the transitory nature of life, and marvel at the extraordinarily flatness of the Dutch landscape. At the top of Rotterdam’s Euromast you can see for miles (even further in kilometres), the most striking feature is that there isn’t a single hill to be seen anywhere. Which explains why you can see all the way to The Hague some 30km away.

The views from the Euromast are spectacular: a perspective normally only granted to birds and pilots. Towering over Rotterdam’s many skyscrapers you get an unrivalled view of the city and you can finally see how all the waterways connect. The numbers speak for themselves: 185 metres high, 600 steps (it does have elevators), anchored by a concrete block weighing 1.9 million kilograms and views that stretch for 50km on a clear day. The Euromast wasn’t just constructed for views though.

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

When it was built in the 1960s it was a symbol of the new spirit of Europe, a post-war experiment in unity that sprang up after the cataclysm and horror of the Second World War. At that time, before the eastward expansion of the European Union to the former Soviet-bloc countries, the Euromast stood centrally in Western Europe and was meant to inspire hope for the future.

In the early 1960s the future seemed in doubt. The Cold War at its height, the Cuban Missile Crisis arrived two years after the Euromast was built, and with Europe physically divided by the ‘Iron Curtain’ European unity was a serious business. The Euromast is still pretty inspiring today, even if the politics of Europe have become retrograde in recent times.

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Approaching from a distance, I could see what looked like string dangling off the side of the tower. Walking a little closer this turned out to be some people abseiling down from approximately 100 metres up the Euromast. Call me unadventurous, but that seemed like an unnecessary thing to be doing when you could be admiring the view instead.

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Abseiling down the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Inside the base of the tower an elevator whisks you upwards at 4 metres per second, to a height of slightly over 100m; a few stairs then carry you up to the departure point of a rotating capsule which carries you up the Space Tower for another 85m, all the while giving you 360 degree panoramas over the city. It’s magnificent, although the person operating the rotating capsule had clearly seen it too many times – rather than drinking in the views he chose to read a book.

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views over Rotterdam from the Euromast, Netherlands

In the shadow of the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

In the shadow of the Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Views towards The Hague from the Euromast, Netherlands

Views towards The Hague from the Euromast, Netherlands

These days the Euromast is itself dwarfed by other, taller buildings around the world. The Beijing Radio and TV tower at over 400 metres has a restaurant higher than the Euromast; while, at 828 metres high, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai really does redefine penis envy. That said, the Euromast still sits in ‘heady’ company. While exploring the cityscape of Rotterdam from 185 metres in the air, I discovered the Euromast is a member of The World Federation of Great Towers.

If you’re not a member of that exclusive club you’re no one in the tower world…

The rotating viewing platform ascends, Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The rotating viewing platform ascends, Euromast, Rotterdam, Netherlands

On the waterfront…in Rotterdam

“Amsterdam, just without the tourists”, as one popular saying about Rotterdam goes. If true, it is also an Amsterdam where the historic buildings have been replaced by a futuristic city-scape. In truth, Rotterdam doesn’t feel anything like its more illustrious counterpart, Amsterdam’s narrow streets replaced by light-filled open spaces dotted with public art and modern skyscrapers.

Rotterdam is unofficially known as the ‘City of Architects’ and they’ve certainly been busy. It is also a green city, boasting more parks than any other in the Netherlands, which makes walking around a pleasure.

Witte House by Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Witte House by Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

A stroll around Rotterdam will, likely-as-not, bring you to the waterfront and the Nieuwe Maas river, which dominates the city’s history and continues to play a major role in daily life. Rotterdam’s story, like so much of the Netherlands, is intimately (and literally) linked to water. The building of a dam on the Rotte River towards the end of the 13th Century gave birth to Rotterdam; it developed into a fishing village in the 14th Century, but grew until it became the world’s busiest port in the 20th Century.

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oude Haven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Wijnhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Wijnhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam remains one of the largest ports in the world, and is still the biggest and busiest in Europe, with a whopping 440,000 tons of cargo, or approximately 12 million of those ubiquitous metal containers, passing through every year. Not that you’d guess it while admiring the tranquil scene from one the restaurants on the former wharfs overlooking the Oudehaven (Old Port).

Graffiti, Wijnhaven Rotterdam, Netherlands

Graffiti, Wijnhaven Rotterdam, Netherlands

Even though most of Rotterdam’s historic buildings were flattened between 1940 and 1945 – some 30,000 buildings were destroyed – down by the old docks its possible to get a sense of the 800 years of history that have flowed through the city. Even then, Oudehaven rubs shoulders with the modern and the innovative. Just behind the port lies the Blaak district, home to towering modernity and the pioneering Structuralism of architect Piet Blom’s Cube Houses. The old and the new seem to get along just fine.

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Leaving Oudehaven behind, you can trace more of Rotterdam’s maritime history along a series of inner harbours and connecting canals between the city’s two famous bridges, Willemsbrug and Erasmusbrug. It is hard to imagine now, but this entire area was little more than a wasteland in 1945. Only the Witte Huis (Whitehouse) office building remained standing amidst the rubble. Somehow that seems fitting, the Witte Huis was Europe’s first skyscraper.

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rederijhaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Boat on the Nieuwe Maas, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Erasmusbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

The Nieuwe Maas river is still plied by thousands of boats every year. If you want to see what the city looks like from the river, there are water taxis shuttling back and forth from one bank to the other, or to outlying suburbs and towns. Its worth the effort to see the city from the river, after all its the way most people have arrived here for hundreds of years.

Rotterdam from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Willemsbrug from the Nieuwe Maas river, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Weird and wonderful, Rotterdam

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.

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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.

Public art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Public art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Shop window Rotterdam, Netherlands

Shop window Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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.

20140503_165202-1

Loekie Goes Loose, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Loekie Goes Loose, Rotterdam, 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.

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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.

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube House, Kubuswoningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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.

Opera singer, Oudehaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Opera singer, Oudehaven, Rotterdam, Netherlands

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.

On the trail of the Pilgrim Fathers…in Delfshaven

Founded in 1389 as the official port of Delft, and like the herring fisheries which played such an important role in it’s development, Delfshaven is teeming with history. A history that is still visible as you stroll down the narrow streets amongst wonderful historic buildings, many of which were built with profits from the herring trade.

Delfshaven was one of the six ports of the Dutch East India Company, the legendary VOC, which dominated trade with the Far East for centuries; it was the birthplace of Pieter Pietersen Heyn, one of the Netherlands’ most famous sea captains, a notorious pirate he was the scourge of the Spanish fleet; it is home to Jenever, the Dutch gin responsible for the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’; and from this very same spot, some of the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World of New England.

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Delfshaven, Netherlands

Delfshaven, Netherlands

Modern-day Delfshaven sits gloriously compact in a Rotterdam suburb, home to an eclectic mix of artists, students and young families. It gives the area a bohemian feel, underlined by the numerous restaurants and bars, as well as all the houseboats.

While the rest of Rotterdam was flattened during the Second World War, Delfshaven survived the Allied bombing and retains a strong sense of history. Walking through the area early on a Sunday morning, traditional Dutch barges were moored around the beautiful inner port; the famous Delfshaven windmill stood stoically observing the tranquil scene; and the sunlight struck the golden weathervane of the Pelgrimvaderskerk, the Pilgrims’ Church. History seemed to spring to life.

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Delfshaven windmill, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

It was in the Pelgrimvaderskerk, and on the quay in front, that some of the Founding Fathers prayed before setting sail for the unknown.

Plaque to the Pilgrim Fathers, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Plaque to the Pilgrim Fathers, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Netherlands had long been home to English religious dissenters, those who refused to acknowledge the control of the Church of England because they didn’t believe it had been ‘purified’ of Catholicism. In a period when Church and State were one and the same, such views were seen as traitorous and fanatical by the English authorities. Across the North Sea, Dutch religious tolerance led many Dissenters to leave England for the land of the windmill.

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

I came across this connection while wandering East London’s Rotherhithe earlier this year where I discovered the departure point for The Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrim Fathers departed for New England in 1620. Rotherhithe and The Mayflower were just one half of a bigger story though; in the Netherlands another group of religious outcasts were preparing to make the same journey. They left from Delfshaven, a 30-minute and 400-year journey from my current home in The Hague.

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church and boats, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church and boats, Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed down the Thames in July 1620 they went to Southampton to rendezvous with a second ship, the Speedwell. The Speedwell had been purchased and refitted in the Netherlands before sailing from the port of Delfshaven. Its cargo was human, English Religious Dissenters who had based themselves in the Dutch city of Leiden before seeking new horizons in North America.

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch barges Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims' Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Pilgrims’ Church, Delfshaven, Netherlands

The Speedwell and The Mayflower were supposed to sail the Atlantic together, but the Speedwell leaked badly and proved unseaworthy. It was destined to be left behind in England. A number of passengers from Speedwell crammed onto The Mayflower and, in horribly cramped conditions, sailed into history.

A journey down the Noord, Dordrecht to Rotterdam

Back on the streets of Dordrecht after our elevating experience on top of the Grote Kerk, we wandered aimlessly down small alleys with fascinating shops, over canal bridges and along the river front until we found a pleasant restaurant overlooking where the Oude Mass, Beneden Merwede and Noord rivers meet. This is a busy river junction and lunch came with a steady flow of shipping to entertain us.

Harbour, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Harbour, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Alleyway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Alleyway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Wine barrel motif on a door, Dordrecht, Netherlands

WIne barrel motif on a door, Dordrecht, Netherlands

It was here that I learned a salutary life lesson: when a waiter tells you that the type of meat in the dish you’re considering ordering is “meat”, chances are you should opt for something else. Even if it is a Dutch speciality, and even if half of the diners in the restaurant are eating it. I’ve decided to adopt this as a guiding principle for the rest of my life, largely on the assumption that the rest of my life will be longer and more pleasant if I don’t consume dishes with the magic ingredient “meat”.

Ominous looking sheep, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Ominous looking sheep, Dordrecht, Netherlands

To be honest, if you exclude Indonesian food (of which some of the best outside of Indonesia is to be found here), my experience of Dutch cuisine so far is that it can be pretty uninspiring. I don’t want to generalise, but there are a lot of deep friend croquette-type things, deep friend bitterballen, gehaktballen, raw pickled herring, alarmingly red-coloured sausages and very stodgy cakes. That said the kibbeling, small pieces of lightly battered fried fish served at numerous street stalls, is rapidly becoming a favourite.

Decorous window, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorous window, Dordrecht, Netherlands

A disappointing lunch over, we set off to find the water taxi stand which would hopefully take us down the Noord river to Rotterdam. The integrated transport system in the Netherlands is one of the country’s wonders. Everything just works. On our trip to Dordrecht we took a tram, an intercity train, a boat and a newly built metro. Everything was on time, clean, efficient and affordable.

Swing bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Swing bridge, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal meets river, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Canal meets river, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorative doorway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Decorative doorway, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Not only that, you can pay for all forms of transport with one prepaid card. The miraculous OV-chipcard can be used anywhere in the country. It makes British public transport look like something from a dystopian future, a future where making as much money for private companies at the expense of everyone else is the only criteria for success. Hmm, now I mention it that sounds familiar. British politicians should be forced to work in Dutch public transport before they are allowed to start messing with British trains and buses.

Water taxi flag, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Water taxi flag, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Barge on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Barge on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Big ship on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Big ship on the Noord, between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, Netherlands

Safely on board the small and swift river taxi, we sped down the Noord passing much bigger freight and cargo ships. Soon we were in the suburbs of Rotterdam and then right in the heart of the city. It was wonderful. The sun was out so we walked to the central station, although we could have used the tram or the bus. It was on this walk that we came across one of Rotterdam’s most notorious pieces of public art. Spoiler alert, if you are easily offended don’t read on…

Arriving in Rotterdam on the Noord, Netherlands

Arriving in Rotterdam on the Noord, Netherlands

Rotterdam bridge over the Noord, Netherlands

Rotterdam bridge over the Noord, Netherlands

To describe Santa Claus with butt plug, a sculpture by Californian artist Paul McCarthy, as controversial is an understatement. Its enough to bring tears to the eyes, and makes Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa look like the Milky Bar Kid.

This 18-foot high latex-like representation of Santa Claus wielding an enormous, there are no other words for it, butt plug, sits in a public square at the end of a busy shopping street. Seeing it in such ordinary surroundings is something of a shock to the system, so to speak. Typical of modern art, Santa has ended up looking much like a garden gnome with a slightly, if understandably, maniacal look in his eyes.

'Santa Claus with butt plug' by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

‘Santa Claus with butt plug’ by Paul McCarthy, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Leaving Santa behind – the statue has a tendency to make everything sound like innuendo – we decided to ride the newly constructed metro system back to The Hague. We could have taken a train or a bus, and probably a hot air balloon, but decided we’d had enough excitement for one day.