Roaming around RotterdamOn October 7, 2020 by Elyse
When the American tourist of former summers, whose mind was filled with a preconceived notion of Europe made up of a wealth of statistical and historical information, approached the port of Rotterdam on his maiden voyage, he usually suffered his first great European disappointment. The most reliable of reference books had prepared him for the fifth largest port in the world.
. . . many an American has strained his eyesight from the forward deck just off the coast of Holland, vainly trying to pick up a skyline like that of New York. All that has rewarded his effort has been a low, barren, desolate stretch of sandy shore, lonely to a point of sadness. This dreary outlook is the Hook of Holland [a town administered as a district of Rotterdam], relieved on nearer inspection by a rambling shed, a combination of baggage and custom houses. There are a few scraggy bushes and dwarf trees in the picture.– The Daily Telegram, November 27, 1914
With a buildup like that, how could you not want to be on the next flight, er, ship to Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands and Europe’s biggest seaport?
I briefly visited Rotterdam in my early 20s and can’t recall “a low, barren, desolate stretch of sandy shore.” So, while contemplating a return visit someday, I consulted the most meritorious, unbiased, accurate sources I could think of: historical newspapers.
Even allowing for their trademark sensationalism, reviews were decidedly mixed. However, no need to consult Rick Steves or Celia Fiennes: I’ve put together a list of pros and cons to help you plan your future trip—or not.
Pro: Rotterdam has a supernatural warning system.
At Rotterdam I felt inclined to avoid a first class hotel and try a third class one facing a side canal. . .
I reached the hotel, a plain house a thousand years old. The door led to a dark, long hall which I traversed to get to the office. There a bulky woman sat. The room was uncanny, half in utter darkness. She showed me up a dilapidated staircase to the second floor, then to a bedroom. . .
The uncanniness increased. Who else was in the house? I did not see any other soul. I sat on the gold framed lounge, looking toward the curtain, hiding the bed. It moved!
Then all of a sudden, distinct as though from a living person, I heard: “Go away! Go away!” I was afraid to investigate the invisible bed. “Go away!” Insistently I heard this five times at intervals. Why, the stoutest heart would have stared aghast.
I quickly consulted my time table. A train left at 4 P.M. for Brussels. “Go away!” I tell you, this time I obeyed.
. . . in the office there were five burly, wild faced men, two with weapons. I rushed past, not heeding the woman’s voice to detain me, through the uncanny narrow hall to the street. . . I escaped a disastrous adventure in Rotterdam.– Louis M. Eilshemius, quoted in the Sun, November 16, 1918
Con: There’s almost nothing to do.
Rotterdam is a gloomy place to live in, it has no theatre, no place of public amusement, unless the spillhouses, or licensed brothels may be so denominated.– Sir John Carr, The Annual Review, and History of Literature, 1808
Pro/Con: The Dutch resemble . . . cheese.
This one depends on if you’re lactose intolerant:
You are moving along with the tranquil crowd of Dutchmen, with their serious air and their broad, yellow faces—but faces of a yellow which you do not see elsewhere, and which a modern writer has compared to the yellow of Parmesan cheese.– The Narracoorte Herald, January 30, 1890
Con: The Dutch language is hard.
You enter Rotterdam on a higher level than the roofs of the houses, amidst the usual maze of rail tracks, stacks of coal, and sooty, serpentine water-hose. The station and people about it look modern and dirty and commonplace.
The only thing that strikes and makes one feel that one is travelling in a foreign country is the inscriptions and advertisements, written in the queer Dutch language that seems now a corruption of English and now of German—a language which one is constantly on the point of understanding, but without ever quite achieving that happy result.– The Narracoorte Herald, January 30, 1890
Someone forgot to download the Duolingo app before they left home.
Pro: Rotterdammers are pleasant.
. . . you are struck by the total absence of anything like mendicancy, as well as by the civility and good humour of the poorer classes, and by the disinterested spirit of kindness in which any application for information or guidance is met by almost any person to whom you may apply.– The Australasian, March 10, 1883
If I got lost as often as I did on my previous European adventures, it’s a relief to know I’d find plenty of Good Samaritans to point me in the right direction.
Con: Rotterdam looks a little too familiar.
I don’t know about you, but when I travel, the point is to get away from home:
But the thing above all that makes us call Rotterdam the New York of the A. E. F. [American Expeditionary Force] is the fact that wherever one walks in the uptown districts one sees American articles for sale and American apparatus and machinery in use. For instance, walk down Hoogstraat. . . It is the Broadway of the New York of the A E. F. . .
Walking along past those stores one sees popular brands of American tobacco and cigarettes; American phonographs, American sewing machines, American chewing gum; one stops in front of a big music store and sees displayed in the windows all the more or less late American songs and “jazz” and “rag” music.– The East Mississippi Times, August 15, 1919
Pro: It’s not Venice.
Not my words; I had a lovely time in Venice.
In each [Dutch city] the houses have the same aversion to rectitude, the same appearance of reeling, staggering, and general top-heaviness, the same contractedness of width and tendency to altitude, the same exquisite cleanliness—so wonderfully unlike Venice!—and the same dissimilarity to the street architecture of any other part of Europe. . . “Venice is a dream and Rotterdam is action; in Venice they do very little, in Rotterdam everybody works; in Venice every house is a palace, a monument; in Rotterdam, with the exception of the cathedral, every monument is a house.”– The Australasian, March 10, 1883
I suspect this writer’s gondolier accidentally—or not—knocked him into the water, and he’s never forgiven Venice for the mishap.
Pro/Con: It has an unusual gender ratio.
This one depends on your perspective:
One curious thing to be noticed as they lie at rest in the canals is the absence of men. A woman is always there: her husband only rarely. The only visible captain is the fussy, shrewish little dog which, suspicious of the whole world, patrols the boat from stem to stern and warns you that it is against the law even to look at his property. I hope his bite is not equal to his bark.– The Sea Coast Echo, March 14, 1914
Rotterdam had me after “cheese.” I’ll book my ticket just as soon as I’m able. Regardless of whether this post inspires you to plan a getaway anytime soon, we can all agree the city deserves the moniker one correspondent gave it:
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.