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Rough Diamond.

Rotterdam, Holland’s second-biggest city, takes pride in its angles and sharp edges. This experimentally-minded metropolis has long been a magnet for fans of architecture and design. Nowadays, more and more travellers are discovering the port city’s unique charms.

Text: Gero Günther | Fotos: Sebastian Krawczyk

In Rotterdam you can get things off the ground that wouldn’t have a chance anyplace else.

To reach this oasis of green, you just hop on an elevator. Situated on the flat roof of an office building in north Rotterdam is Dakakker, Europe’s largest rooftop farm. Spinach, beets, rhubarb, and squash flourish amid skyscrapers, apartment blocks, railway lines, and busy streets. The odors of mint and verbena fill the air, as bees buzz around their hive boxes.

Ai Ming Oei is all smiles. The sun is shining, and people of all ages sit together sipping coffee. “Dakakker’s a good example of what I like about Rotterdam,” says the musician. “It’s a young city, a place where new things can grow.”

Mingue, as the artist with Chinese, Surinamese, and Dutch roots calls herself, is a sought-after vocalist on the Deep House circuit. She plans to stop giving singing lessons soon in order to concentrate fully on her various projects, which incorporate music, video, visual art, and dance. “In Rotterdam you can get things off the ground that wouldn’t have a chance anyplace else,” explains Mingue. “And it’s precisely because this down-to-earth city is so unfinished and rough.”

Rotterdam doesn’t fit the definition of a classically beautiful city.

Even at its best, Rotterdam doesn’t fit the definition of a classically beautiful city. Right at the start of the Second World War, in May 1940, the city was almost completely flattened by German bombers. Out of the ruins grew a modern urban showcase project, a harbourside metropolis with extra-wide streets, generous residential neighbourhoods and a love of radical experimentation. Many architects were able to risk things here that didn’t seem possible in any other European city. And despite the frenzy of construction, the resulting structure is so airy in places that it almost seems like an oversized suit hanging off the shoulders of its 600,000 residents.

“I even like the uglier corners of this rough, working-class city“.

“I even like the uglier corners of this rough, working-class city,” admits Alex de Jong of OMA, likely the Netherlands’ most renowned architectural practice. “There’s always something that can be improved in Rotterdam,” explains the lean, giant architect. “There’s always something new going on here.” This unique dynamic, says de Jong, can be attributed to the openness of Rotterdam’s residents, but also to its experiment-friendly municipal government. Crises come and go, but Rotterdam just keeps on growing.

The last few years in particular have witnessed the completion of numerous spectacular construction projects, as well as the plugging of some obvious gaps in the municipal planning scheme: the futuristic central train station being a prime example (called “the shark’s mouth” in the local vernacular), as is Rem Koolhaas’s huge De Rotterdam towers, or the Market Hall, which houses 200 apartments inside a horseshoe-shaped structure, and the Timmerhuis, a cloud of metallic pixels in which municipal government offices and apartments are contentedly suspended side by side.

“The big ships haven’t docked in the city for years now.”

Alex de Jong, who played a significant role in designing the Timmerhuis, notes the building’s sophisticated sustainability. He’s perched on a chic metal chair in between planters on one of the building’s spacious exterior terraces. Behind him, the glass-covered cubes step skywards like a Greek island village. “The building’s large atria,” explains de Jong, “retain heat, which can be used for warmth in winter, and also cold, which can circulate as cool air in the summer.”

Residents even have their own car-sharing program. The building’s every detail has been carefully thought through, from its carpets to its special window glazing, and strategically placed staircases. “We want to motivate the building’s users to walk as much as possible.”

While Rotterdam’s city center has become greener and more densely populated, and affordable housing is being created all around, Europe’s largest port with its refineries, fuel depots, and chemical plants has steadily moved further and further away. The former industrial sites have been taken over by start-ups and universities, and nowadays students, engineers, and young inventors all ply their trades inside the roomy brick halls where once ships underwent repairs.

“The big ships haven’t docked in the city for years now,” says Hans Koesen, who travelled the globe for decades as a chief marine engineer.

“Our job has seen massive changes.“

“Our job has seen massive changes. Nowadays sailors are flown to their assigned locations on airplanes,” he explains. He shrugs his shoulders. It is what it is. The bearded retiree casts his fishing line into one of the Europoort’s gigantic basins, while nearby huge container ships are unloaded by robotic cranes. The bespectacled fisherman has only managed to hook a single tiny mackerel so far, but all he really wants to do is soak up the familiar atmosphere.

In spite of all the modernization, the city and its port remain one, which highlights something else that is unique to Rotterdam: although the former Katendrecht red light district is nowadays home to gourmet restaurants, the process can hardly described as gentrification. According to Alex de Jong, “Rotterdam doesn’t really have a proper posh neighbourhood. If one street appears a little more well-to-do, at the very latest two blocks on things will be back to normal.”

“Amsterdam’s a cool town.“

The city is proudly true to itself and willing to forego the elegance and perfection of other major cities in order to do so. “Amsterdam’s a cool town, but it’s a museum,” says Lizer van Hattem. “You might have to look a little longer in Rotterdam, but the reward is that here everyone can find their own personal niche.” Originally a graphic designer, van Hattem has earned a name for himself as a tattoo artist. He couldn’t care less about the latest trends, though, preferring instead to emblazon panthers, native American squaws, or breathtaking beauties clad in sombreros on the skin of his clientele – themes harking back to a time when tattoos were the exclusive domain of sailors, prisoners, and rock stars. “These images have a history, and they’re a good fit with our port city,” he suggests. Then he can’t help but laugh. “Or maybe I’d just rather see myself as an old roughneck rather than a cool hipster who likes to eat out in trendy Katendrecht.”

Landlubbing gourmands.

Katendrecht used to be Rotterdam’s red light district. Today the actual port of Rotterdam is located far from the city gates, and modern sailors hardly have any time for shore leave. Instead of prostitutes, Katendrecht now teems with gourmet chefs, with several establishments recently making debuts on the narrow spit of land. Places such as Posse, a spacious restaurant outfitted in retro-chic style and complete with an art gallery, old bicycles, pin-up photos, and a DJ booth. The most attractive of the newcomers is De Matroos en het Meisje (The Sailor and the Maid), an airy place that seats 50 and features a huge blue Delft-style mural (a surrealistic collage of ships, flying utensils, Confucius and naked girls). There isn’t a menu per se – you eat whatever the chef decides to prepare, which is determined by the season and market availability. The cuisine is always fresh and classy all year round. Katendrecht itself continues to be dominated by the working class and immigrants, by the way. “Gentrification?” guffaws waitress José van der Meulen. “Two weeks ago there was a shooting right outside our window. Any more questions?”

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Cheese, please!

A 20-minute drive from Downtown Rotterdam, the Booij family farm has been here since 1641. Butter and cheese have been manufactured in the tiny hamlet of Streefkerk for centuries. The Booij family specializes in premium gouda, matured for up to two years and made from unpasteurized milk. They also produce Boerenkaas (farmer’s cheese), flavored with herbs or spices. When made from the milk of Jersey cows, this cheese takes on a wonderfully creamy, nutty flavor. And last but not least is Bunkerkaas, which ripens underground in old wartime bunkers. As the Booijs have a nose for business as well as dairy products, their cheese is available for purchase at Katendrecht’s Fenix Food Factory, where nine food producers ranging from beer brewers and coffee roasters to chocolatiers have gathered beneath the roof of an old port building to peddle their wares to the hipsters. “We get a lot of foodies and organic food lovers,” says Anne de Koeijer (r.), pictured here selling Booij cheese. Armed with a special curved knife, she staffs the sales counter and plies customers with free samples: “Nowadays people want to know where their products come from, and in our case I can give them a very precise description.”

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Surprising Success.

“Sometimes you just have to take people back to their childhoods,” says François Geurds, offering as proof a miniature waffle cone. But instead of ice cream, the filling turns out to be finely pureed piccalilli, a sweet and sour mixture of marinated vegetables usually eaten with sausages or French fries in the Netherlands. Suddenly something starts dancing around in your mouth, your gums start to tingle, and old memories begin careening through your brain: Pop Rocks! Guerds grins. Fun and surprises are integral to his cuisine. Perhaps it has something to do with his mother being from the Caribbean island of Aruba.

 “People come here to enjoy themselves and experience something unique,” he says. Guerds is the only Dutch chef running one-star and two-star restaurants side by side: the experimental FG Foodlabs and right next to it the more elegant FG Restaurant. That might explain his preference for wearing two different shoes. “If I really like a shoe, I’ll buy it in two different colours or variations and then combine the two.” No wonder his menu features combinations such as liver and cherry ice cream, or mashed potatoes with caviar – it’s all about the surprise.

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Borderline Experiences.

At the former customs office in Koningshaven, Karen Hamerlynck and Edwin van der Meijde finally found what they were looking for. The two former journalists had searched high and low for the perfect location for a small boutique hotel. They wanted it to be right on the water and to embody the charm of old, industrial Rotterdam. It took six years to remodel the building, originally built in 1879. The effort was worth it. Each room and each suite has its own individual characteristics: a painted trampoline bed, a showerhead mounted four meters (13 ft.) in the air, maritime maps fashioned into lampshades, and Delft tile fragments. Before choosing a room, it’s advisable to have a good look at the hotel’s website.

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Sands of Time.

Rotterdam’s new port is 40 kilometers (25 mi) outside the city center. Much of the massive complex was literally built on sand. Construction of the Maasvlakte 2 project also involved creating beaches for kite surfers, nudists, and birdwatchers alike to enjoy. Also a must-see is the Observatorium art collective’s large-scale walk-through wooden sculpture depicting the formation of sand dunes that will one day itself be swallowed by the shifting sands.

Maas Appeal.

Our walking tour begins at the elegant Erasmus Bridge. Following the route of the New Maas, it passes behind Rem Koolhaas’s De Rotterdam towers reaching 150 meters (492 ft) into the sky. Unless a cruise ship happens to be lying at anchor, it’s possible to stroll along the water’s edge all the way to the tip of the peninsula. Here, squeezed in between the skyscrapers, is an old art deco building that houses the Hotel New York.

Just opposite is the Las Palmas House containing the Netherlands Photo Museum. The path then meanders its way back to the starting point along the peninsula’s south side, passing the Bobbing Forest in Rijnhaven along the way, where artist Jorge Bakker has planted trees on buoys which rock back and forth in the water.

Good to know.

Flow of Traffic.

Lots of water flows in and around Rotterdam, especially since the city limits have expanded to encompass the former port areas to the south. Even though additional bridges and walkways have been built, sometimes it’s just faster to let yourself be ferried to your destination by boat. There are plenty of regularly scheduled water taxis and water buses plying the waterways.

Going Dutch.

Rotterdam is not only exciting – it is also very affordable compared to other Dutch and European cities. Apartments, meals out, even a university education – all of these can be had cheaply here. Which explains why more and more start-ups, established companies, and individuals are thinking of taking up residence on the Maas.

Well-Grounded.

Even though Rotterdam is becoming an increasingly hot destination for architects, the artistic set, and lovers of design, it remains a working-class port city at its core with a no nonsense, down-to-earth, shoot straight from the hip attitude. 90,000 jobs in the region are directly dependent on the port, and at least the same number again rely on it indirectly. Around here, people don’t like to beat around the bush, preferring to confront matters head on.

Melting pot.

The mayor of Rotterdam is named Ahmed Aboutaleb and was born in Morocco. It’s no coincidence that the city is run by a Muslim. People from 170 countries live in Rotterdam, and half the city’s residents are not of Dutch origin. Modern Rotterdam is considered an urban role model in all things integration.

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