“It’s called ‘Manhattan on the Maas’,” a local said to me my first day in Rotterdam, pointing to the smattering of high-rises that jab the skyline on the banks of the river that snakes in from the North Sea. Then, as if she’d said something grossly presumptuous, she gave an embarrassed laugh: “Well, that’s what some people call it,” she added.
Rotterdammers are absurdly self-effacing when it comes to the charms of their hometown. Almost the first question you hear when you meet someone here is, “So, when do you plan to visit Amsterdam. This inferiority complex is unsurprising in many ways. Amsterdam, after all, is achingly pretty. Its network of canals fringed by centuries-old gable houses provide most visitors with the picture postcard version of Holland they were anticipating. Holland’s second city, by contrast, is less easy to love. Its center was laid to waste by the Germans at the start of the war and though it has recovered remarkably to become Europe’s busiest seaport, it is like the ugly sister who knuckled down to work while her more beautiful counterpart was lavished all the attention.
In Rotterdam, so the saying goes, shirts are sold with their sleeves already rolled up.
In the center this resourcefulness is evident all around you. In the years since the war the flattened landscape has transformed into a wonderland of modern architecture with world-renowned architects like Norman Foster adding their imprint to the city in a series of ambitious building projects.
The best way to navigate the city is by bike. As with Amsterdam there is an excellent network of bike paths and the center is compact enough that all the major landmarks are a short ride apart.
The first stop for anyone interested in the post-war rehabilitation of Rotterdam is the Laurenskerk. The city’s only surviving medieval structure, the church is a powerful symbol of renewal. The Laurenskerk’s imposing tower was the only part that survived the Nazis aerial bombardment in 1940 and in photos taken in the aftermath, the tower is seen alone in a sea of rubble. Walking through its austere and beautiful interior it is hard to believe that most of what you are looking at dates from the fifties. The elegant stone arches that line its nave and transept have been painstakingly reassembled while towering over the vestibule the largest church organ in Europe suggests the ambition that has allowed this city to recover so well.
In front of the church in the large square known as the Grotekerkplein a produce market was underway. Vendors selling traditional local delicacies such as stroopwaffel (treacle-filled biscuits) and kibbeling (deep-friend fish nuggets) were set up alongside Vietnamese and North African food stalls.
At the cheese stand I was offered some samples of Holland’s most famous foodstuff. The British humorist Alan Coren identified two types of Dutchmen – “the small, corpulent, red-faced Edams and the thinner, paler, larger Goudas.” The man doling out the tasters definitely fell into the later. Even so, Coren might have to revise his classifications these days, especially in Rotterdam, which is Holland’s most culturally diverse urban center.
Nearly half the population are from migrant families, with the biggest minority Muslims from North Africa and Turkey. This large scale immigration has caused frictions, the most glaring example of which can be found outside the Schielandshuis Historical Museum, a short walk south of the market. Here a statue was erected to the local politician Pim Fortuyn, an outré character who won widespread support for his harsh views on Muslims (he once told an interviewer he favored “a cold war with Islam”).
His murder by a left-wing extremist in 2002 drew international attention to the country’s racial tensions and challenged the common perception of the Dutch as open and tolerant. Nearly a decade on Rotterdam has a Muslim mayor but the tensions that Fortuyn saught to exploit have not gone away – Holland’s third largest political party is headed by Geert Wilders, whose rhetoric about the tides of Muslims sweeping into Europe is strikingly similar to the murdered Rotterdammer.
Inside the historical museum it was tides of a more literal variety they were concerned about. The area in and around Rotterdam is the lowest in Holland, reaching over six meters below sea level in parts. An interactive map of the changing city down the centuries showed the system of dikes that protect this lowland from the North Sea and the polders, the large swathes of land reclaimed from the sea on which much of present-day Rotterdam is built.
Like the rest of the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s history is inextricably linked to water. Away from the center you can find some of the earliest evidence of this relationship. In the outlying suburb of Delft, a few miles northwest of the city, narrow boats hug the banks of tree-lined canals and the sails of ancient windmills, known as grondzeiler in Dutch, stand dormant in the sun-filled afternoon.
Crossing to the southside of the Maas, the river that splits the city in two, this relationship with water is brought more up-to-date. Riding over the sleek lines of the landmark Erasmus Bridge, designed by Ben van Berkel and named after the town’s most famous resident, the skeletal silhouettes of the cranes that mark the vast container port are visible on the horizon.
Nicknamed De Zwaan (the Swan) for the quirky bend two-thirds up its central pylon, the bridge is located alongside the offices of the Dutch telecommunications firm, KPN Telecom. Another idiosyncratic structure on the city skyline, one side of the telecom tower is tilted and covered in green lights that function as a giant billboard.
A hundred yards upriver from the bridge is the Hotel New York. Dwarfed by the modern edifices nearby, the hotel is one of the few buildings left in the city that attests to its maritime history. The former headquarters of the Holland-America Line, it was a silent witness to the mass migrations of Europeans to the New World. In the last quarter of the 19th century 130,000 passengers, a large proportion of them Jews from Eastern Europe, were processed through this building. It must have been a profitable venture since the interiors are luxuriously decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The highlights are the beautiful wrought-iron staircase and balustrades that spiral up from the reception area.
In the café-restaurant on the ground floor you can look out on the river. On the day we were there the sky was clear and in the late afternoon sunlight flickered on the waters of the Maas and off the face of skyscrapers on the north shore. Sipping a coffee I watched rush hour traffic cross the Erasmus Bridge, commuters returning home after a day of work in this industrious city, which is much prettier than it would have you believe.
A version of this story appeared in the Toronto Star on 1 July, 2011