Shore leave in a seaport

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ROTTERDAM: Europe’s largest port is also a popular tourist target. And rightly so, says Roger Ratcliffe.

You either love seaports or you don’t. Personally, I could wander around cities like Liverpool and Glasgow all day long looking at those grand offices built by Victorian merchants and shipping lines, and I’ve always thought that Hull is England’s most under-appreciated city.

Rotterdam is said to be a mirror image of Hull, and that’s all the incitement I needed to visit. But when I got there it was clear they were talking about a fairground mirror – the sort that stretches, enlarges and distorts the reflection – because Rotterdam is huge.

Until a few years back, it handled more goods than anywhere else on the planet. These days, Shanghai and Singapore are fighting over the title of the world’s biggest seaport, but if a million fewer tonnes are handled 12 miles down the Maas River, where most of Rotterdam’s cargo facilities are located, then it’s not particularly obvious from the city centre. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Standing on the beautiful steel Erasmus Bridge, which links Rotterdam’s two halves, you wonder how the river could possibly be any busier without frequent collisions. It’s said that more than 100,000 vessels pass this point each year – everything from cargo ships, car ferries, barges and tankers to water taxis, pilot boats and police launches.

Not surprisingly, watching life on the river is among Rotterdam’s biggest attractions, and as I waited for one of the Spido boat trips around the harbour, I could feel the adrenaline of life on the Maas. I sensed this pulse back in the city’s streets and bars, too, as the ever-changing transient population of ships’ companies enjoyed a spot of shore leave before embarking for the other side of the world.

Like Hull, Rotterdam was badly hammered by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, but so successful has been the restoration that you’d hardly guess.

The best way to get your bearings Rotterdam is by taking a lift to the top of the Euromast Tower, the highest observation point in the Netherlands. From 300 feet up, you not only get a sense of the city’s vastness but you also see the surprising amount of greenery it contains. Of its eight parks, three penetrate the main shopping centre. One of the parks contains the Museum Quarter, where Europe’s top touring art exhibitions are to be found. When I was there, I was able to walk straight from Professor Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds to an amazing collection of paintings by Edvard “The Scream” Munch.

Reminders of the sea are everywhere. Old ship parts have been turned into modern sculptures, shipbuilders’ beautiful scale models of steamships are features in hotel lobbies, old ships’ compasses adorn bars and cafés, an entire ship’s bridge has been cut from its hull and lifted onto dry land to become an office. And, surreally, you can turn a corner and find a ship’s funnel plonked down in the street.

A good way to enjoy Rotterdam is by joining a cycle tour. One of the most elegant buildings you’ll see is the New York Hotel, former offices of the Holland-Amerika Shipping Line, which has a bar crammed with photos and memorabilia from the days when the company took millions of Europeans across the Atlantic to a new life.

Like Hull, some of the old docks reach right into the heart of the shopping area, and one of them hosts the open-air Havenmuseum, a collection of tugs, dinosaur-like cranes and a dockside steam railway dating back to 1850.

Another is the Oude Haven, which has become a big open-air café and nightlife centre clustered around fascinating old barges and overlooked by one of Rotterdam’s architectural oddities – the remarkable, tilted Cube Houses designed by Piet Blom, which look like they’re about to topple over.

Much of the central shopping zone bristles with tall glass buildings, many of them apartment blocks. In fact, Europe’s first so-called “skyscraper” was built here in 1890, the elegant Witte Huis or White House, although its 10 storeys now look rather squat against the city’s more recent constructions. Rotterdam is the only high-rise city in the Netherlands.

If you find the centre of Rotterdam too modern, and want the more traditional Dutch scene of canals lined with tall gabled buildings, then head for Dordrecht, Holland’s oldest city.

It is an hour’s journey upriver by waterbus, and what a journey it is. You are taken past Rotterdam’s most fascinating waterfront areas, then seemingly endless lines of crumbling old wharfs and abandoned warehouses, followed by new cargo-handling piers, barge moorings and ship repair yards, and then, suddenly, the riverbanks are full of lush willows and dense reedbeds.

As the waterbus finally approaches medieval Dordrecht, the scene starts to resemble a painting by the Dutch Master, van Ruysdael. And after Rotterdam, stepping ashore at the landing stage is like walking into another age.

Stop first for a drink or brunch at the Bellevue Hotel. It provides a great viewpoint over the meeting point of the Merwede and Maas rivers, where the ships and barges are as numerous as they are at Rotterdam. Then, to reach the main part of the city, stroll up a long street called Voorstraat, although progress here will be slow because of the many fascinating shops. If you like pop music it may be hard to drag yourself away from a record and memorabilia shop called Get Back.

The centre is dominated by Dordrecht’s buzzing market place, and from here numerous narrow streets lead off into the old city. But like everywhere in Holland, sooner or later you’re back beside water, mesmerized by the endless stream of boats and barges.

Getting there

The fastest route from Yorkshire to Rotterdam is to fly from Leeds-Bradford Airport to Amsterdam and catch one of the frequent trains from Schiphol Airport to Rotterdam Central, journey time 45 minutes. Jet.com fly several times a day from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam, prices from £19.99 one way. Further details on www.jet2.com

Roger Ratcliffe stayed at the Inntel Hotel, Leuvehaven 80. Details at www.designhotelrotterdam.com

The Euromast is situated in Parkhaven. For details, visit www.euromast.nl

The best way to see Rotterdam is by taking a guided cycle tour. Details at www.rotterdambycycle.nl

Frequent harbour tours are operated by Spido from Willemsplein, next to Erasmus Bridge. The Waterbus to Dordrecht departs from the same quay. For times and details of these and other Rotterdam attractions, visit www.cityguiderotterdam.com