:: Article

This Could Be

By Sophie Parkin.

“If you like boats you’ll love Rotterdam!” should be Rotterdam’s tourist motto, instead this year it’s Rotterdam European Youth Capital 2009. Maybe theirs is more catchy, but there is nothing that Rotterdam knows more about than boats, except maybe the water required to float them, eating raw herring and apple pie, staples of the city.


Rotterdam is one of the world’s largest and oldest ports, it is a working, modernist’s multicultural vision, threaded with canals, and criss-crossed by bridges that look like swans. It is Amsterdam minus tourists, with its heart bombed out by the Germans on May 14th, and still commemorated. Never forget the bombing raids that stripe and cross the city. Ever since 1940, the city’s been filling those gaps with glassy sleek, weirdly balanced, imaginative skyscrapers that defy Newton’s Law of Gravity. Some are very odd.

Dutch inventiveness isn’t landlocked, it creeps out onto the water; where else would you find a floating red giant pagoda – that’s an Oriental supermarket (better than any in Chinatown) – with a hotel on top and a
restaurant next door? It’s less novel to the locals, since there are so many floating restaurants filled with out-of-towners birthday parties; The Pancake Boat is particularly popular with kids and greedy adults (eat as many pancakes as you can!), as is the pasta, Chinese and Indian that sail around the harbour stuffing yourself. The futuristically modern Spido boat tours the harbour with a commentary, though locals will occasionally board for a drink on the water they take its use for granted, you’re as likely to get a water taxi as a taxi, and it costs the same, seven euro.

The H2Otel, is a modern floating hotel in Wihnhaven, where the famous Red Apple by Jan des Bouvrie sits. It has been open a year by Leida and Leen Poppering a popular local restauranteur. A must-have floating sundeck looks onto the Lion Bridge, the floating lighthouse (The Restaurant and bar Tinto reopens this summer fully restored) and Willem De Kooning art school, there is nothing so relaxing as a drink by the water’s edge, watching the sun go down and a procession of private boats wave past, some stop and moor up in this quiet secret watering hole in the city’s centre. Round orange picnic boats are moored off the terrace, if you fancy a trip, Leen jumps aboard with enthusiasm and a few bottles, you can eat and drink as you sit around the table and sail through the harbours. The bar in winter is a cozy wooden 30s style nautique, the 49 hotel rooms are as eclectic as Leen, Old Dutch Traditional to New York Graffitti hearts (by Quik, Ezo & Blass), a jazz room full of great b&w photos of the greats, from Cab Calloway to Ella, and individual artist rooms by international as well as Dutch artists.

There’s also local excitement over SS Rotterdam, an old 50s cruise ship, now moored on the southside of the Maas, being fully restored and costing millions, to a 200 roomed hotel, three restaurants and two bars, the first part opens end of July, the hotel will be ready in September. It’s 50s modernism so think Mad Men the TV series – sometimes it looks great, brutally beautiful, other times hideous.

A 1920s boat permanently moored is the De Spies en Boot, sadly not a spy boat dedicated to boots (boot means boat, spies stick) but a Portuguese way of grilling meat fish vegetables shish kebab style on metal heated sticks. Food is plentiful and good the décor like a smart restaurant but it’s not romantic, especially since surrealistically there’s a Lazer adventure gamesite at the bottom of the boat, send the teenagers down there and have a glass of wine on the smoking terrace – or if your a teenager smoke a joint enjoy the Lazer until paranoia gets you, and satisfy your munchies at the the Spiesenboot.


“Rotterdam is where the real Dutch live,” a friend said to me the other day, and Rotterdam people come from all over the world as far as, Indonesia, Suriname and Curacao and city restaurants reflect that. They see themselves as world citizens, love the black English sense of humour and are as proud to speak as many languages as the English are proud to only speak one. The Rotters are about preserving their heritage and striving into the future with a nod to the pass. Only in Rotterdam would they have a neon sign across the Pompidou-like library that overlooks the central market that reads ­We are all citizens of the world – Erasmus.

On any summery Sunday locals will be at that market by the yellow cube houses and the pencil building the Grotemarkt, (Blaak station), eating hot fried fish, mussels and calamari, frittes with lashings of peanut sauce and mayonnaise. Before ambling down to sit on the cafe terraces by the (Oude Haven) Old Harbour owned by The Haven Museum full of antique working boats painstakingly maintained and restored by 200 loyal volunteers who love sharing and showing them off, for free. Some even live on them. Retired senior engineers run the beautiful 1940s steam boats for trips around the big harbour with such pride at the toot of the steam and the shine of their engines as they go through the locks. Other working boats, apart from the tugs and the coal boats, delivered groceries to the big ships, were recently stopped for smuggling temptations, but you can still shop there.

All boats are open to climb into and snoop about. It’s fascinating for kids and for adults who have a Hitchcockian Rear Window obsession, if not boat fetish: See real people lived here, slept there and starved everywhere. Pictures of children and women pulling the tug boats are a reminder of the war when all the animals had been eaten during the German occupation, and no horses were left. The Buffel is also wonderful, an 1860s naval ship restored to peek condition and realistic life with sound, figures and interactive games (test your strength by shovelling coal) at The Maritime Museum.

Now you might be fooled into thinking this is what tourists do, go around boat museums, but ask anyone in Rotterdam and a member of there family worked on a boat, in the harbour or on the water. They are wrapped in a love affair with the Maas. For proof in the evening go down to the Balentent the oldest harbour bar covered in great pictures, serving the best traditional seafood, you’ll be as likely to sit next to a chairman of a multinational as a harbour worker, very Rotterdam. Both singing old sea shanty songs, tears in their sentimental laughing eyes. From the garden you can watch the surreal skyscrapper cruise ships, from Cunard liners to floating glass hotels, sail past, or watch local teenagers, their major hang out is the harbour’s car park opposite, mucking about and smoking spliffs by the river. Well Rotterdam is the European City of Youth, and the Netherlands attitude is live and let live.

Amsterdam might be pretty, but Rotterdam is beautiful. If you don’t visit for the North Sea Jazz Festival, for the prize winning architecture, for the art collections, the July carnival, or the Drum and Bass music festivals, Classical music free festival, the International Film Festival, it’s worth it just to float on the boats, come for Harbour day. As the Dutch say, You are Always Welcome.

Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult, otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry edited by Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 13th, 2009.