First Impressions: Rotterdam

You are like my old friend Amsterdam. Flat, clean, a little cloudy and grey, full of bicycles clunking along and home to extraordinarily tall people who speak my language with astonishing skill and nonchalance.

And yet you are nothing like Amsterdam.

No, dear Rotterdam, you have a soul, character and look all of your own. Because you had a very different upbringing. One that we shouldn't forget...

I was reminded by our taxi driver that during the Second World War bombs fell like raindrops over Rotterdam, burning the city down and making more than 30,000 homeless overnight in what is called the Rotterdam Blitz a bombing raid that happened almost exactly 73 years ago on 14th May 1940. The human cost is invisible now, but the loss of most of Rotterdam's historic centre has made the city who he is now; a sprawling hub of mid-century, sixties and seventies concrete blocks and an on-going one upmanship among local and international architects to see who can contribute the most striking, most bizarre and most futuristic skyscrapers to the city's skyline as Rotterdam - a hub for industry and shipping - continues to grow in all shapes and sizes.

The same goes for the people who call Rotterdam home; over 170 different nationalities alive here contributing their culture, cuisine and creativity. The little I've seen has already shown me many of these; a Turkish restaurant, a Chinese acupuncture centre, the Brazilian drumming band who welcomed us at a drinks reception last night.

"Only three old buildings remained after the war," our taxi driver told us. "The town hall, the old post office building and an old church, just behind them." There's something spooky about how these important buildings were spared.

Water is everywhere. Not just in the form of canals and the expansive harbour but sadly it's rained all day here. But unlike some cities that just look downright peculiar in the rain, Rotterdam suits the drizzle and the grey in a way other cities could only dream of.

And speaking of the water. I'd forgotten how good it tastes. Dutch tap water could give the finest bottle of oxygen/magic fairy dust infused mineral water a long run for its money.

I've barely scratched the surface of you, Rotterdam, but two nights ago I made decent headway exploring the square mile or so that is supposed to be the heart of your bar and night life scene. With such an acclaim hanging over its streets, you'd expect Witte de Withstraat to be a pseudo bowling alley of flashing lights and neon signs. Not really. Instead, you see a few unassuming but welcoming street bars - some brassier and classier than others - all with impressively varied bar menus. Outside were small groups of young locals chatting animatedly, but importantly because this is mid-week Rotterdam, not too animatedly. That said, none of the bars in this area closed before 1.30am. My favourite was La Bru where I could sip a decent white wine for under 4 Euros and I learnt more about whisky from my sweet friend and whisky connoisseur Angie and a friendly Dutch barman than I would have thought possible in the Netherlands.

Yesterday I walked the same streets in search of a bite to eat and found more surprises. Smart but understated cafes and restaurants serving up fresh food. We settled on Bagel Bakery, a place that had filled up by the time our food was served. Two elaborate and deliciously packed bagels, two drinks made of fresh fruit and fresh mint, one apple and cinnamon muffin; 25 Euros. Why did I ever leave you, Netherlands?

And there is pride here too. Pride that they rebuilt their city. Pride in their world-leading port (and slight disappointment that Asia now has three busier). Pride scratched on to the back of a toilet door in a Witte de Withstraat bar.

Our hotel is brand new (which is why I couldn't resist doing this) and while they add the finishing touches around us, I am oblivious as my eighth floor view of a small marina and gigantic crane entertains me and the opportunity to catch up with old and new friends who have all descended here for TBU Europe, has kept me busy.

This is also the reason I'm yet to fully explore and experience Rotterdam. I'm not that disappointed. In fact, I'm sort of happy about this. Because I can't wait to come back.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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