Monday, 30 November -0001

Going Dutch

Sophie Parkin thought Holland was all about Amsterdam. But then she fell for a Dutchman – and lost her heart to Rotterdam

Written by Sophie Parkin

A couple of years ago I married for the first time. I had met a Dutchman and fallen in love but when I told my friends I was moving to Rotterdam, most said, ‘Where on earth’s that?’

Everyone’s heard of, or been to, Amsterdam, but the history, culture and heart of the real Dutch is in Rotterdam. As the world’s second largest harbour port, there’s an undeniable energy about it, reminding you of New York; yet, unlike that great city, wherever you look is water and boats, much as in Venice.

The people of Rotterdam had to transform their city after the German bombing raids of the Second World War brutally tore out the heart of the city. Some might try to have disguised these wounds, but not the Dutch – they built large roads that lead like arteries into the centre of town, and have marked them with some of the most extraordinarily designed modern architecture of its age, skyscrapers that seem to defy gravity. Of course there are many old buildings left; around Delfshaven it’s as if you’ve gone back to when the first Pilgrims left for the Americas. Rotterdam is a place of contradictions, old and new, traditional and modern; the people can be polite yet abrupt, progressive in their world vision yet strangely old-fashioned. One thing you can be certain of is that they all speak far better English than you’ll ever speak Dutch.

It’s been a year since we left our 32nd-floor glass skyscraper apartment. We were returning for a second honeymoon for a long weekend, and knew The Suite Hotel Pincoffs on the south side would never disappoint. A boutique hotel in the grand Dutch style, each room is unique and so is the hotel’s ethos – totally organic and self-sustaining. An old customs house, it stands on a small island, bridges and harbours all around it, the busy river Maas before it where tugboats and ferries, liners and cruise ships pass by. In winter horns sound through the fog, in summer the hotel will order a water taxi to ferry you to the centre of town, like a James Bond heroine. When the sun is setting and you’re off to enjoy a cocktail on HMS Rotterdam, a 1950s cruise liner, now a stationary hotel with two restaurants and two bars, you feel part of the Mad Men glamour with amazing views.

Rotterdam is an international city – the Dutch’s involvement in shipping means there is every kind of cuisine available, but Dutch Indonesian is very popular and good. Though there is plenty of the latest in the modern glass and steel variety of entertainment in restaurants and bars, my husband and I prefer an older style – the brown cafes, with worn dark-wooded bars, paintings of old captains on the walls, models of ships, and traditional beer pumps.

Our favourites to visit are De Ballentent, with traditional Dutch food, where singing along to a local band playing sea shanties is a favourite Sunday pastime. The other is less musicorientated and sells only drink. But it has a nice terrace and jolly local people. De Piu has an intriguing array of record album covers that entirely obscure the ceiling.

There are plenty of good local restaurants around here too. Den Rustwat, in the park, has the most delicious food in town. It’s a transformed country cottage with no more than 10 tables, an intimate feel using only fresh seasonal products. It also looks on to a mini version of Kew, and a perfect day would be getting up an appetite walking around the gardens and woods, then a grand lunch before cycling (the best way to see Rotterdam) to one of the many galleries or museums.

The Haven Museum is a boat museum in an innercity harbour run by volunteers who’ll take you out on the old boats. There is also a street of museums (from the Kunsthal to the Boijmans) that becomes the central focus of a weekend of art partying in September, with exhibitions and performances from art students to professionals. The Witte de Withstraat also contains the art fashion crowd of boutiques and bars, The White Ape and De Schouw, famously jazz trumpeter Chet Baker’s favourite bar, unchanged since the 1950s. The North Sea Jazz Festival is held here every year, as all jazz jans will know.

Even if your intentions are firmly fixed on Amsterdam, do stop off on the Eurostar in Rotterdam first – it’s an hour closer.

Travel facts

De Ballentent www.
De Pui
H2otel (a floating hotel)
In Den Rustwat
North Sea Jazz Festival
Suite Hotel Pincoffs
Witte de Withstraat Festival
Getting there By train or by plane

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