Really wasn’t expecting to go the Netherlands this trip, and yet, here I was, just past 8am, hanging out with fully armed Belgian soldiers, waiting for the train to Rotterdam. As it turned out, our train was delayed so we were instructed to take the following train (which had a change rather than being a direct route). This wasn’t a big deal and they announced instructions in Dutch and English. The problem was the poor Albanian guy who was trying to get to Amsterdam (the ultimate destination of the train which would drop me in Rotterdam). He was having a hard time figuring out where to go so I made sure he got on the right train and then changed where we were supposed to. I left him on the second train. I hope he made it.
The train itself was great. They even had portable coffee service (a person walked up and down the aisles with a tray of snacks and a backpack full of coffee for all the commuters who just barely made the train). Honestly, everything here was so close (Rotterdam was only about an 1:15 or so, even with the change) it would be easy to commute from town to town or even country to country.
Alighting in Rotterdam, I did what I always do and found the local Tour Information office. There I was sold a walking tour map for €1.50 and was told about the single boat tour. As this was not the season, there was only one port cruise a day in English, at 2pm, and if I missed it, I missed it. The location was pointed out on the map and it was actually along the route of the walking tour, so if I timed everything properly, this would be great.
I love self-guided walking tours. I like guided tours as well, the opportunity to hear stories and ask questions is great, but I also like trying to find my way, getting lost, and discovering things on my own. Sure, sometimes that doesn’t quite work out the way intended, but that’s all part of the adventure, right? So I leave the station, which is a modern place, and head out. I have a rough schedule of my return trains in the back of my head and I have plenty of time. I’m ready to explore.
And this is when I learn something about Rotterdam. Not so much with the history and old town. Nope. Rotterdam is all about architecture and buildings. As I began my tour, all of the information I was reading had to do with the buildings I was seeing and how they fit into Rotterdam society. And these were all fairly recent buildings, especially for european timelines. On my tour, the two oldest buildings I saw, which were surrounded by modern ones, were the city hall offices and a church. There was one other, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
As my tour wound its way towards the water (and just before Erasmus square) I passed The Office Electric Tattoo shop. Now, I can pass a tattoo shop without thinking twice. If they have an interesting piece of art in the window I may glance as I continue walking, but this place had this sign in the window:
How could I not stop in? I wasn’t planning on getting a tattoo, but if nothing else, I had to congratulate them on the promotion. So we chatted for a few minutes, I looked at the Star Wars flash, saw a piece which looked fun – Artoo Detoo inside a ribboned heart. I said that’s the one I’d get, but it would have to be Darth Vader, because Rasa likes Vader. Maik, the owner, introduced me to Neomi, who had done the artwork. We chatted for a few minutes, they told me about working a deal with the theatre and giving free tickets to people who get ink done. I said I wasn’t going to get a tattoo, but thanks for the conversation. Maik said they were open until 6 if I changed my mind. I laughed, thanked them again and went on my merry way.
The next big square I came to had a brand new Market Hall which had only recently opened. It was a huge, domed place, looking like a Conestoga wagon from a distance. I popped inside as I was reading the description. Inside were a number of stands selling all sorts of fresh products; fish, vegetable, meats, cheeses. It was an indoor farmer’s market. Then I looked up and noted the windows. There were 228 apartments inside the horseshoe-shaped dome! Fascinating place to live, for sure.
But evidently, Rotterdam has a thing for unusual housing since right across the square from the Market Hall was the Cube House. This collection os 38 cubes, each hosting a 100 m² home (of which, evidently, about a quarter is unusable due to the slant of the walls). The entire complex is like a little forest village inside the city, complete with small shops and a chess piece museum. There was some construction happening, so upon leaving the Cube House I went a little off course, which was fine, since it put me past the Willem De Koonig Art school. They had a great neon quote on their wall.
My walk took me alongside a canal (Holland, after all) and led me over a floating bridge before starting across the 800 meter span of the Erasmus Bridge. At this point, I still had two hours before the boat tour, but I didn’t know how much of the tour was on the other side of the bridge. I knew the route
would take me back across the other side before I made it to the boat launch but I figured it was worth it. A nice couple I met at the Cube House had told me there were some great buildings to see here (they also said the boat tour, which they had done the day before, was well worth it).
Off I went, getting out of the way of bicycles and joggers as I ambled and took in the sites. The skyline of Rotterdam is really impressive. The building architecture is all about uniqueness, not like the modern forest of skyscrapers in big city downtowns. The bridge crosses Nieuwe Maas and lets you off on an isthmus that is home to a number of impressive buildings as well as the former corporate headquarters of Holland America cruise lines. This is the other old building I saw. Now called New York, it now hosts a hotel and a nice cafe but is still certainly proud of its heritage. On the tip of this little spit of land there’s also a sculpture in honor of all the cruise line’s lost luggage. Not sure why they were proud of that, but the piece was pretty cool nonetheless.
Back across the bridge, I made it in plenty of time for my tour. I bought my tickets and with 45 minutes to spare, grabbed a bite at a nearby restaurant, Grandcafe Prachtig. Had an amazing club sandwich and was done and waiting in line when they opened the gate and let us onboard.
Again, when I bought my ticket at 1:15, I was only the third person to have booked passage. By the time the boat left at just past 2, there was over a hundred people, including a group of high school students, most of whom couldn’t care less about what we were sailing past and spent the entire 90 minute ride chatting, noisily, among themselves.
Me, I wanted to see everything and barely sat down. I bounced from side to side, taking pictures, studying the map of the harbor and enjoying myself. I was even able to replace my walking tour map, for free, from a stack on the boat. The harbor is even bigger than Antwerp and rather active. One of the few stationary objects was the SS Rotterdam, one of the company’s flagships from 1958 and is now permanently docked, like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and is being used as a hotel and conference center.
The walking tour continued after the boat, taking me through parks and along city streets. All this time I had been thinking about the tattoo… I mentioned it to Rasa and she said to go for it if I wanted to and hey, unexpected country could certainly lead to unexpected ink, right? By this time, I was getting tired. While architecture is interesting, I’m more fascinated by history and stories and you don’t get a lot of those with building (some, sure, but not many). Then, as I was reading ahead in my guide-book, I came across a phrase which I never thought I’d see: “Butt Plug Gnome” by an artist called Paul McCarthy. There was an additional reference to Santa Clause there as well. I knew no matter what, I had to see that. So I let my feet carry me onward until I was there, face to face with a ten foot tall Santa holding out something which looked exactly like a butt plug (come on, if you’re over 15 and been on the Internet for more than 20 minutes, you know what a butt plug looks like). Needless to say… impressive!
Continuing on from the “gnome” I decided I’d go back to the tattoo shop and if they had time, I’d get some ink done. If they didn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be. I had a talk with Neome about the design and she came up with some great stuff and at around 5, I was face down, pants rolled up and my calf was getting another piece poked into it.
About halfway through, Neome gave me one of the oddest compliments I’ve ever gotten (right up there with the Greek barber in Clapham telling me I had the “toughest whiskers he’d ever seen.”). She stopped the tattoo gun and said, admiringly, “You have great tattoo skin. It can really take a pounding.”
Well alright then! Well done mom and dad! Genetics rock! Took her about an hour and by just past 6 I was on my way back to the station and my train back to Antwerp. Wasn’t nearly as exciting as the morning ride but that was fine. Made it back to the city and, because it was late and no place else was open, I went back to Señor Taco for dinner. Then it was time to pack up and prepare. In the morning I was heading out to Ghent.