My grandfather’s autobiography starts off with the lines: “Rotterdam, Friday, May 10 1940. Suddenly I was awake. It sounded like a series of explosions not far away. Or it could be defense exercises of the Dutch Army, I thought.”
I’m a first-generation American on my dad’s side and second on my mother’s side. Her parents were both born in the Netherlands, her dad from The Hague and her mom from Laren near Amsterdam. I’ve visited the Netherlands a couple times before, once in Middelburg and once in Amsterdam, but now I feel I’ve finally made it to my grandparent’s homeland.
Earlier this year, I had purchased a ticket for my first Traverse convention. SImilar to TBEX and Trablin, it’s where travel bloggers, influencers and content creators come together to learn from each other, network and explore a new city. This convention was to be held in Rotterdam, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I’d originally planned to take the ferry from Newcastle to Rotterdam but I was put off after hearing a series of bad reviews about the ferry line I was going to use. Instead, I took the Megabus from Newcastle to London, and then a Flixbus up to Rotterdam via Brussels. I’m no stranger to long bus rides, but the driver of the Flixbus put great effort into making the ride as horrible as possible. It was the first time I’ve been on a bus when it skidded after almost causing an accident, and I couldn’t believe how rude he was to the passengers. But that’s another story.
As we were entering Rotterdam, I had my first glimpse of the odd buildings and architecture around the town. We drove over the Erasmus Bridge, nicknamed the Swan. Immediately after that, we passed the iconic Markthal (Market Hall) and then under the Cube Houses. Thirty seconds in the city and I was already in love with it.
When I first made my travel plans to Rotterdam, I decided to use Couchsurfing again. It’s one of my favorite ways to stay in a city, and I’d had great luck using it in Middelburg. During the summer months in Europe, it can be quite hard to find a host. I sat down to send out my requests but after half a dozen, I saw I had a message waiting for me. Turns out the first host I messaged had immediately accepted me for the entire week!
Over the next few hours, I had three more hosts accept my request. When I arrived in Rotterdam, I found my original host lived in a suburb called Schiedam about half an hour from the city center and was able to get another host closer to the venue during the conference as I had to get up early. When the conference was over, I extended my stay in Rotterdam and went back to stay longer with my original host, as Schiedam is such a beautiful part of town.
It turns out that my Opa (grandfather) had his business in Schiedam. His family sold it during the German occupation to pay for tickets on a train down to Spain, and onward to America. The city has been growing recently along with the rest of Rotterdam, and now beautiful windmills line the canals and the old walking street is lined with cute pubs and cafes.
I was particularly amazed by the library. It was a huge room with shelves around the outside and a large reading area in the center full of trees and natural lighting from the atrium overhead. I could have spent days working there, and maybe I will go back to do so someday.
I have a small confession to make. I’ve never actually read my Opa’s autobiography. I only read the first couple chapters after my visit to Rotterdam. Those pages are chilling enough. While my Opa wasn’t a practicing Jew, his family was Jewish and he received his Bar Mitzvah when he was 13. With that connection, he had to get out of the country before he was captured or killed by the Germans.
Perhaps the scariest moment of the book was the morning he went to see his doctor in the city center. The nurse who opened the door refused to let him in, which my Opa later found out was because he had committed suicide. On his way back home, 1,150 110-lb and 158 550-lb German incendiary bombs were dropped over a 14-minute period. My grandfather could have been killed if his day had gone any differently. The date was May 14th, 1940.
Since then, Rotterdam has become an architectural playground. The Witte Huis (White House), built in 1898, was Europe’s first office building skyscraper. One building after another has superseded it as the tallest building in Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). The four tallest buildings in the country are currently in Rotterdam, with a fifth one now under construction. The tallest structure is the Euromast, which will soon get an extension as the new skyscraper will be passing it up.
My first week in Rotterdam was filled with adventure after adventure. On the first day, I had a Dutch chocolate tasting, followed by a street art tour. Wednesday was a barista masterclass and a tour up the Sint Laurenskerk Tower, one of the last three remaining structures in the city center after the German bombing and from where you can get a great view of the town, especially when the highest hill in Rotterdam is about 10 feet high! The last activity that day was an escape room on board the SS Rotterdam.
Thursday was a magical trip to Efteling, and on Friday we had another walking tour. I attended the opening party on Friday night at the Student Hotel where we got to watch videos from other bloggers (I learned a ton about video editing). Saturday and Sunday were full with the conference, attending seminars and networking with others in the industry.
Aside from admiring the architecture and taking tours with Traverse, there was so much I found to do in town. There are sculptures everywhere. One was particularly interesting. Officially known as Santa Clause’s Christmas Tree, the unofficial name is Gnome the Butt Plug.
One of the days was spent on a walking tour around South Rotterdam, where my guide Hassan from Rotterdam Pages took me to see the Scottish Hairy Coos in a small nature reserve on its own little island! That’s something I was definitely not expecting to see in the city. Oh, and I definitely didn’t heed the sign that said to stay 75 feet away from the cows. As soon as I saw them, I went over to pet them, much to the amusement of everyone else.
And then there was the day I got an amazing free meal on the street. I was on my way to try Kapsalon at a kebab when I saw a banquet table set up on one of the walking streets. I took a photo of it and some guy said something in Dutch. When I said I only spoke English, he said, “English is fine. Would you like to join us for a meal?” Thinking fast, I asked what was on the menu. A three-course Italian dinner! I hesitated and he said, “Oh, and it’s free. I just need your name to put down on the reservation.” What?! Really?!!! Of course, I accepted.
An hour later, I was seated with a couple dozen other locals. Turns out I had stumbled on an annual festival where some of the restaurants in the city center give back to the customers. The meal started with stewed olives and onions, followed by a prosciutto and cheese bruschetta and finally a delicious mushroom risotto, with white wine on the side. Everything was prepared fresh on the street at a little cooking station by chefs from the restaurant Nostra.
There’s so much more I could write about. I spent a day at the Rotterdam Rooftops Festival, visiting the rooftops of normally inaccessible buildings to see the city. I went up the Euromast to watch the sunset. I even went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kinderdijk where the 19 windmills have been pumping water for nearly 300 years to keep Rotterdam from being flooded. Stay tuned for more of those stories coming soon.
But the real question is whether Rotterdam is better than Amsterdam. In my opinion, absolutely!!! Have you been? What did you think of it? I’ll definitely be back myself. As much as I did in the three weeks I was there, I feel like there was still so much I missed, and I can’t wait to go back.