ROTTERDAM, Oct 1 — As we cross the Willemsbrug, a cable-stayed bridge painted in bold crimson that spans the Nieuwe Maas channel, we soon find ourselves at the Port of Rotterdam.
Most travellers to Rotterdam make a beeline for Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, the city’s only remaining medieval church, or nearby Kinderdijk for a landscape of windmills. But us?
We want to discover why Rotterdam is known as the Gateway to the World.
Given its strategic location at the mouth of the Nieuwe Maas (and with that, accessibility for sea-going vessels via the North Sea), it’s no wonder that Rotterdam is a major sea port. An extensive network of waterways, rail and roads helps, too. Indeed, it’s Europe’s largest sea port.
Perhaps the best time to experience this is during the Wereldhavendagen (World Port Days), an annual three-day maritime event that draws visitors from around the Netherlands and the world.
Perfect lines of sailboats and yachts docked along the harbour, flags in all shades of the rainbow fluttering in the breeze, the “live” music and the cry of the seagulls and the roar of the crowds — this is the life.
There is a festive energy in the air. Visitors are dressed in colourful garb, from traditional Dutch dresses to more flamboyant pirate costumes.
Many are wearing klompen, wooden clogs made from willow or poplar, that are most tourists’ idea of Dutch culture (along with tulips and windmills). Laughing, drinking beer, sharing a joke — the best way to spend a three-day long weekend.
There is song and dance. Choirs of retirees belt out shanties, the traditional tunes sung by old seafarers. Others relive their youth by forming rock bands by the banks of the canal; less folksy and more Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. We are impressed; the Dutch really know how to have a good time.
There are ship cruises and excursions. There are nautical demonstrations and dragon boat races. There are theatre and “live” performances. There is possibly — quite possibly — everything we ever wanted to know about ports and sailing and the seaman’s life.
The sailboats and yachts aren’t just for looking at and snapping pictures of, of course. Many of those that are docked by the harbour or canals host drinking parties or late summer picnics.
It’s the best way for us to enjoy the last days of summer before fall and winter arrive, the last chance to bask in the sun and relish the warmth before the cold weather jackets have to be taken out of the closet.
There is art, too. In Rotterdam, art isn’t limited to museums and galleries. There is plenty of it wherever we walk, especially near the harbourfront where famous pieces by Naum Gabo and Ossip Zadkine dominate.
Another — newer and more dramatic-looking — sculpture to look out for is Cascade by Dutch artist Atelier Van Lieshout.
At first, it looks like a chaotic column of stacked oil drums. Almost a formless, melting mass. As we draw nearer, we notice a number of tiny human bodies scrambling all over the eight-metre tall structure, some just barely hanging on. (A pointed observation about the never-ending struggle of humanity, perhaps?)
Truth is, we don’t have to hunt down specific sculptures and art installations to enjoy the man-made beauty of Rotterdam. Due to the wide-scale destruction of the city during World War II, much of Rotterdam had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Unlike some European cities, such as Munich in Germany (which restored as much as possible to the way it was before the war), Rotterdam opted for a new look and a fresh start.
As a result the architecture around the canals and port is greatly varied. Sharp angles and contemporary lines courtesy of Dutch architects such as Ben van Berkel and Rem Koolhaas ensure that Rotterdam keeps a keen eye towards the present and beyond.
The Cube Houses (Kubuswoningen) designed by Piet Blom, in particular, are a marvel. As we stroll, we feel surrounded by culture and tradition, yes, but also an uplifting sense of hope and possibility.
At night, Rotterdam’s port takes on a new identity. Still bustling with life but subtler and less obvious. Folks hang out in their own cliques, at their favourite harbourfront bars and restaurants. During Wereldhavendagen, though, most gather by the pier waiting for the sky to light up. Fireworks!
The deep black of the seaport sky explodes in colour and sound. Everyone is silent for a moment, taking in the magnificent display of fire and fury. And then, a second after it ends, we all erupt in cheers and applause. We’re at the gateway to the world, after all, and that’s surely worthy of celebration.
World Port Days (Wereldhavendagen) is an annual event held on the first weekend of September at the Port of Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For activities and times, visit www.wereldhavendagen.nl