Why Rotterdam is my favourite Dutch city

Note: this post was originally written in July during my trip to Europe.

I have found that sharing my high opinion of Rotterdam with others elicits a variety of responses ranging from furious agreement to simply fury. On the upside, it does stimulate discussion on the relative drawbacks and merits of Dutch cities which I find quite interesting.

Nevertheless, I would still pick Rotterdam as my favourite city in the Netherlands.

Urban form

The first and most important reason to me is the city’s urban form. Despite its reputation, Rotterdam is a beautiful city.

I am generally not a big fan of modernist architecture in Australia. I would be hard pressed to come up with more than four or five buildings in the whole country of this style that I would consider attractive or well-designed. As a result, I believed that I did not like modernism. Rotterdam quickly changed my opinion.

The city’s bombing by the Luftwaffe during the German Invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940 left almost the entire central area in ruins. The post-war rebuilding was in the style of the times which resulted in tens of thousands of public and private modernist constructions. This combines with the older styles of architecture in other areas that make the buildings both interesting and aesthetically pleasing.

Housing in Kleinpolder, Rotterdam

It is not just the style of architecture that attracts me to Rotterdam’s urban form. It is also the scale and size of the city. Most residential or mixed-use buildings are between three and five storeys in height; the perfect balance between density and the human scale.

To my mind, this attention to the scale of people and the city’s relatively wide streets make Rotterdam feel expansive without being empty. In contrast, Amsterdam and The Hague felt too cramped at times. Perhaps this was due to the large volumes of tourists, but the point still stands.

Witte de Withstraat, Rotterdam

Transport

This point probably relates to all Dutch cities, but Rotterdam more than pulls its weight in relation to the rest of the Netherlands.

As I wrote previously, its near-flawless integration of transport modes makes travelling incredibly easy and convenient. You could write several books on how well the city has done, but highlights include the OV-Fiets bicycle hire service, seamless train-tram transfers at Rotterdam Central Station and general separation of trams and traffic.

The other main point to mention related to transport is, of course, bicycles. Despite being told beforehand that it was one of the least bicycle-friendly cities in the Netherlands, in my relatively short trips to several Dutch cities I found Rotterdam to be the most pleasant city in which to ride.

Bicycles and tram in central Rotterdam

Despite Amsterdam’s reputation as a cycling city, Rotterdam has better bicycle infrastructure. This is mainly through no fault of the former city as they have much narrower streets and more challenging street layouts with which to contend. There are many more separated bicycle paths and lanes in Rotterdam rather than the significantly less useful on-road paint that was far more prevalent in Amsterdam.

Over my two-and-a-half week trip, every major intersection that cycled through in Rotterdam had separated bicycle treatments regardless of whether there was a separated path along the rest of the street or not. This is a lesson that other cities would do well to heed. It really makes a huge difference to actual and perceived safety in so many ways.

Typical bicycle crossing at intersection, Rotterdam

General pleasantness

Put simply, Rotterdam is a really nice city. Again, this could easily apply to any other place in the country, but I found Rotterdam to be the most pleasant.

It is hard to articulate why this is exactly the case. It is more of a feeling than any sort of objective metric. But wherever I went throughout the city, it just felt like a beautiful, happy and pleasant place.

Urban happiness next to Markthal, Rotterdam

On one occasion, I unwittingly found myself in an area of public housing which is one of the least safe parts of the city, according to Dutch people who heard this story. This was not apparent to me at the time but while I was there, it too felt like a pleasant place. People were weeding their community garden plots, neighbours were holding outdoor dinner parties in the local park and children played in the street (one group asked to borrow my bike).

Everything about the area – the buildings, atmosphere and people – felt calm and content. This was the case no matter where I went (with the notable exception of parts of West-Kruiskade). Even the Port of Rotterdam felt surprisingly agreeable.

Vroesenpark, Rotterdam

It is hard to fault Rotterdam for anything much. Admittedly I spent more time here than in any other part of the Netherlands, but from my perspective it would take a lot to beat.

My trip to Rhoon

Note: this post was originally written in July during my recent trip to Europe.

Every day on this trip, I try to find time to walk or cycle to a new part of Rotterdam. Last weekend I set out on another one of my trips which took me semi-accidentally to the beautiful town of Rhoon.

Getting there

Once again, the OBike bicycle-hiring service came to my rescue. It has been a great resource for me here in the Netherlands, although I am not sure that I would use it in Melbourne on account of the single gear.

I planned my route using the intersection numbers on the famous fietsroutenetwerk (bicycle network). It works by numbering each intersection along designated bicycle routes. You work out your origin and destination, find the intersections numbers and write them down. Then you simply follow the signs at each intersection directing you to numbers.

Fietsroutenetwerk for south-east Rotterdam

It’s a very cool system that makes wayfinding over medium and long distances much easier – and you don’t even need a map!

I set out across the Erasmus Bridge towards the port area. My route took me through some very interesting and varied urban form, from inner city housing to industrial port areas.

After getting a little lost in the beautiful forests and parks of Pendrecht, I cut through to follow the railway line to Waalhaven; one of Rotterdam’s many port areas. Even here, the bike infrastructure did not deteriorate and was of high quality all the way through these non-residential sections.

One interesting thing to note here was that half of a motorway on-ramp had been converted into a segregated bicycle path that ran between a railway line and the A15 motorway. To me, this was a powerful statement about the priorities placed on different transport modes. The transport authorities were willing to recognise the benefits of such a move and reallocated street space to bicycles. Imagine something like this being proposed in Melbourne – motorists would have a fit.

Motorway off-ramp converted into bicycle path, Rotterdam

Unfortunately, I picked the rainiest day of the week to travel. While riding alongside the A15, it started pouring with rain. This was a bad coincidence as this long grassy section had absolutely no shelter. I had no choice but to keep riding.

My original plan was to continue all the way to Hoogvliet but I decided to cut my losses and not risk getting drenched again. I made a random turn down at the first opportunity to cross the motorway and head south.

After getting help from a friendly local man (also on a bike), I found the winding road leading to Rhoon.

The town of Rhoon

The best way to describe my impressions of Rhoon is to simply say that it is the picture-perfect place that I had pictured in my mind as the typical Western European country village. Having been established in 1199, it is unimaginably old by modern Australian standards.

Dutch country houses near Rhoon

Every single building is perfectly proportioned and fits in nicely with its surroundings – even the more recent constructions.

The central area is a little more compact but has the sort of narrow laneways that you often associate with such small village terrace houses. With the historic buildings, peaceful environment and cobbled surfaces you almost expect some 12th century farmer to come around the corner carrying carrots or potatoes.

Centre of Rhoon

The Sint Willibrorduskerk Church is located near the centre of the village. It is surrounded by greenery and is very picturesque. A small memorial to the people from the Rhoon who died during the Second World War and subsequent Indonesian War of Independence entrance to the graveyard.

Metro from Rhoon to Rotterdam

I left my OBike at the Metro station (the only one for many kilometres around). As with every public transport stop that I have seen in the Netherlands, it was very well-designed. Entrances were located on both sides of the tracks, there was ample shelter and accurate real-time information was displayed in many areas. Even though it was a Sunday, trains were still operating to 20 minute frequencies in a town that isn’t even in Rotterdam.

For an Australian, it is a little difficult to understand how Western Europe differentiates between the various modes of rail transport. In the Netherlands, there are trams, heavy rail and Metro. To better conceptualise it, it is best to think of heavy rail as V/Line (intercity) and Metro as Melbourne’s suburban rail network (intracity). This is the case even though the vehicles used on the Metro here would probably be classified as light rail vehicles in Australia.

RET Metro vehicle (outbound) at Rhoon Metro Station

As for the trip itself, the Metro was clean, punctual and convenient. It dropped me off right in the middle of Rotterdam and it only cost about €1:80. The screens and audio announcements made it easy to know where to get off the train.

All up, a very pleasant experience. As with Melbourne, I highly recommend getting out of the city centre and visiting suburbs and outskirts of cities. It gives you a variety of urban forms and a taste of what living in the city is really like for the majority of the population. Plus, you can find hidden gems like Rhoon by accident!

Food in the Netherlands

Note: this post was originally written in July during my recent trip to Europe.

I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a culinary perspective in the Netherlands. My knowledge of Dutch cuisine was very scant; basically limited to pancakes, baked potatoes and bitterballen. Needless to say that the actual situation is much more diverse and delicious.

Markets

On my first proper walk and ride around Rotterdam on Saturday, I found no less than three outdoor markets without really trying. I cheated a little bit on the first one as I had looked it up beforehand.

This was the Rotterdam Harvest Market where local farmers and shopkeepers bring their wares – open every fortnight in a large plaza not far from the city centre. It looked pretty small from a distance, but it had a great variety of food from Argentinian hamburgers to fresh fruit and vegetables.

I bought a small bread puff with chicken and assorted legumes inside as well as a cous cous salad from a stall selling Indian food. Both were delicious and it was very pleasant sitting among the market people watching and enjoying the scenery.

I did not spend as much time in the other two markets that I came across by accident. The first was the Markt Afrikaanderplein which mainly sells Surinamese food and supplies. It was very busy and had caused the first traffic congestion in a side street that I have seen so far at a four-way intersection with pedestrian crossings (a la South Melbourne).

Markt Afrikaanderplein, Rotterdam

The other market was partly outdoors but also inside the Markthal building near the waterfront of Rotterdam. It is one of the most amazing buildings you will probably ever see. It is shaped in an arch creating a huge void underneath. This houses the market with grocers, restaurants and many other types of shops in a relatively busy environment. Around the archway are apartments with little windows for its residents to see inside and out.

Markthal interior, Rotterdam

This was combined with a large outdoor market in the pedestrian malls around the building. These were mainly selling clothes as well as food and other products.

As an interesting side note, the Dutch word for ‘market’, markt, changes to market when pluralised.

Fresh produce and dairy

I must admit that I was surprised to find that fruit and vegetables here are very nice. It is a little-known fact that the Netherlands is the third largest exporter of food in the world, thanks to careful planning and organisation of food-growing regions around the country. These are specifically located near sea and airports for easy transport and contain highly concentrated aquaculture, agriculture and greenhouses.

The milk, butter and cheese is also particularly good. Even the cheap butter that I bought in a small tub from the local Aldi was creamy and tasty. The milk is also great, but perhaps not quite as good as that from the Australian countryside.

Variety

The mix of cultures is somewhat different to what you would find in Melbourne. There is a lot more evidence of influence from Turkey, Suriname and Nigeria and less influence from China and Malaysia.

Lunch bought at Rotterdam Harvest Market

This means that you can find a lot of different food that is not as easily found in Melbourne. Other than the market that I mentioned previously, there are lots of grocery stores and small cafes selling very nice authentic food from these countries (and many others).