One of the benefits of having a long-distance relationship in Europe is that you’ll find yourself traveling often to new towns and cities in (very possibly) other countries. In my case it’s Rotterdam, a port city in the province of South Holland that was recently named one of the top 10 cities to visit by Lonely Planet. While Rotterdam offers the visitor a very unique experience for the Netherlands, the typically Dutch elements one might want to see (especially when first visiting the country) won’t play that big a role here—and that’s what makes Rotterdam special.
Rotterdam is a young and chill city. It’s also, for Latin American standards at least, pretty safe. And no, it’s not because of the weed because, as it turns out, the Dutch don’t smoke the reefer all that much.
I get the impression that foreigners are better integrated there than here in Germany. The Dutch, likewise, are more open toward foreigners than Germans. Don’t get me wrong, Germans are generally pretty accepting (your experience may vary), but in the Netherlands this kind of cultural interaction has been going on for a bit longer than here. There is more variety, as people coming from the former colonies in Asia and Latin America add a little more flavor, be it Antillean or Indonesian. On the other hand, I noticed that these communities in many cases often keep to themselves, though there is not as much reluctance to interacting with “the other” as there might be here in Germany. Roughly 50% of the people in Rotterdam have foreign roots. Most seems to get along just fine, though that certainly doesn’t apply to everybody. I, for one, always have a great time there and love how people treat me. Nevertheless, don’t forget that Rotterdam also has a reputation for being a hard city. Crime rate is, for European standards, high, and the city has a considerable gang and hooligan problem.
Now, why is Rotterdam so special? Because it’s a modern city. Modern architecture, modern street planning—and no historic city center. The reason for that is grim: In May 1940, Rotterdam was bombarded by the German Luftwaffe to pressure the Dutch into surrendering—the preparations for which were already under way when German bombers dropped their payload on the city. The bombardment completely destroyed the historic city center that some say matched the splendor of Amsterdam’s. Nearly 900 people died and roughly 80,000 more were left homeless.
The government decided not to rebuild the historic city center but rather to erect a modern city. Blaak, the part of town where the library now stands, is completely new. The buildings there are modern and unconventional. How this history is perceived by the immigrant Dutch community would also interest me greatly. Rotterdam is also the only city in the Netherlands with an actual skyline, kinda like Frankfurt in Germany.
The fact that Rotterdam is so modern is a direct consequence of the bombardment, though this also suggests that people consider it more relevant for the city to have risen from its ashes than the fact that it was destroyed, thereby choosing strength over resentment. Rotterdam’s modern character puts the city in a category of its own in the Netherlands. As in other cities with a similar historical experience (Freiburg and Dresden in Germany), the bombardment and its aftermath are central to the city’s identity. After all, Rotterdam’s motto is “Sterker door strijd” (Stronger through struggle)
Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands, and non-Rotterdammers tend to either love it or hate it. They say that “money is made in Rotterdam and spent in Amsterdam.” Rotterdam is a working-class city, and even though it has its share of tall and modern buildings, it lacks that big business character of Amsterdam. Some parts of the city are gritty and rough, especially South Rotterdam, and some are new and polished, such as parts of the city center. Others just have a cool kind of character, with record shops and hip bars housed in buildings that survived the bombs, especially on the Nieuwe Binnenweg. Barbershops are popular and ubiquitous. African or Surinamese barbershops are numerous, but old-school barbershops manned by tattooed white guys are also in in Rotterdam.
There are not as many coffee shops as one would think. One of them even has its own fast food joint right next door for the munchies. Deep-fried Dutch delicacies are readily available everywhere, it seems. It’s a thing in the Netherlands, apparently. They have these vending machines with freshly fried croquettes and chicken sausages of sorts. I have to say those machines are great. It’s unhealthy, decadent, and delicious. Walking on that street you reach Delfshaven, a surviving and preserved neighborhood of pre-war Rotterdam.
A walk down the Nieuwe Binnenweg across Eendrachtsplein leads you into the actual city center, which is a basically an agglomeration of shops. Standing guard at the beginning of the Oude Binnenweg is a statue of Santa holding a Christmas tree, which rather looks like a butt-plug. Because of this, the statue is known by the locals as “Kabouter Buttplug.” While it’s somewhat funny, the statue is not really that spectacular—at least not as spectacular as the fucking Gundam statue just around the corner!
Whenever you’re in Rotterdam, you have to eat a Kapsalon. Rotterdam’s contribution to Dutch cuisine, the Kapsalon (barber shop) is a delicious calorie bomb made up of a bed of fries with a thick layer of kebab meat on top. Smother that with garlic sauce and cheese, bake it, take it out and add salad on top (it’s gotta be at least a little bit healthy). That’s your Kapsalon right there. Wash it down with a Coke Light. It’s all lekker, just avoid looking in the mirror for at least a day afterward.
As far as things to do goes, I’d say go get drunk at one of the many bars on Witte de Withstraat. If you can, go to a Feyenoord game, though tickets can be hard to get depending on whom they play against. If you don’t make it there go see Sparta Rotterdam, the oldest team in the Netherlands, currently playing in the second division but due to play in the Eredivisie next year. Don’t miss the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. It’s seriously amazing and they have paintings by some of the Flemish masters.
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Have you been to Rotterdam? What do you like about the city?
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