By Dee-Anne Wessel, Photography by Mark Wessel
I was raised on colourful stories about the Netherlands. Our neighbours emigrated from Eindhoven and my childhood was filled with visions of tulips, windmills, canals, cheese, wooden shoes and bikes. So, I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to experience modern day Netherlands late last year, when my husband and I visited Rotterdam and Utrecht.
The second largest city in the Netherlands (after Amsterdam), Rotterdam reinvented itself after being heavily bombed in World War II. Today the modern and dynamic metropolis dubbed “Manhattan on the Maas” has a massive port, jaw dropping architecture, a passion for innovation, hip food markets and a short ferry ride away… quintessentially Dutch windmills.
In the nhow
We stay at nhow hotel located in the sleek De Rotterdam building on the Wilhelmina Pier. Three linked towers almost 150 metres high form a “vertical city” which includes our hotel, residences, offices, shops, restaurants, fitness and parking facilities. Our spacious, contemporary room has floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase a stunning view of the iconic 800-metre long Erasmus (nicknamed The Swan) suspension Bridge and the Nieuwe Maas River, as well as spectacular city views from the terrace of its seventh floor restaurant and bar.
At Recycled Park, located beside the city’s floating pavilion in Rijnhaven, we meet with Ramon Knoester, architect and creator, who several years ago shifted his focus from designing homes to working on the worldwide problem of pollution. Here plastic waste that has been retrieved from the river just before it reaches the North Sea has been recycled into a floating park which consists of a seating area for visitors, as well as modular hexagonal platforms where vegetation can grow above and under providing food and shelter for insects, birds and fish.
We take a water taxi to see another new and surprising initiative. The world’s first Floating Farm at Merwehaven is a transparent, high-tech, multilevel facility that will be home to 40 cows milked by robots. Minke van Wingerden explains the inspiration behind the sustainable project that will be in the heart of a future community of residences and offices. “Mother Earth is under pressure and we must be careful. Seventy per cent of the earth’s surface is covered in water. So why not use it? The world’s population is growing, and we need new innovations to produce fresh food that’s closer to people.”
We see another example of the ongoing Dutch ingenuity that has been required to reclaim the land from the water when we take a waterbus to UNESCO World Heritage site Kinderdijk. This small, starkly beautiful community has 19 historical windmills dating back to 1740 lining the main channel and its tributary for three kilometres.
We get a taste of the surreal when we tour a “show cube”, one of the quirky, 45-degree tilted bright yellow cube shaped residences on hexagonal pylons designed by Piet Blom. Across the street, we are awed by the sight of the soaring Markthal, the largest indoor market hall in the Netherlands. Luxury, glass-walled apartments are arched over the market which features 100 produce stalls, 15 food shops and eight restaurants under a tiled “Horn of Plenty” ceiling.
Within walking distance of our hotel is our favourite market Fenix Food Factory. A group of entrepreneurs have transformed the former old port warehouse into a culinary mecca for experiencing fresh, local products. For a fixed price on weekends, you can grab a platter and a stamp card that enables you to enjoy a diversity of flavours from all the entrepreneurs. We visit the market several times, sampling a variety of delicacies accompanied by a selection of ciders and craft beers from onsite Cider Cider and Kaapse Brouwers.
Trekking to Utrecht
Thanks to the Netherland’s extensive rail network and the close proximity of major cities, we travel from Rotterdam to Urtrecht in less than 40 minutes. Utrecht is a vibrant university town with magnificent historical treasures and a thriving creative sector. One of the Netherland’s oldest cities, it has a medieval centre that boasts the tallest bell tower in the country, with canals and wharf cellars providing a picturesque backdrop.
We stay at Star Lodge Hotel, a wood clad building with industrial-chic rooms situated on the outskirts of Utrecht. Although you have the feeling that you are in the countryside, you are less than three kilometres from the historic city centre. Adding to the rural atmosphere is the hotel’s location on the edge of a park and adjacent to Loft 88, a casual restaurant located in a charming, rustic farmhouse with a cozy fireplace and spacious outdoor terrace.
A View from Above and Below
We visit two of the city’s most striking medieval landmarks. The Dom Tower is Utrecht’s pride and joy standing 112 metres in height and visible from every location in the city. We make the dizzying 465 step climb to the top with our guide and are rewarded with a gorgeous view of the city. Afterwards, we tour the Dom Church, a magnificent cathedral with a peaceful, monastic garden that was separated from the tower during a fierce tornado in 1674.
Utrecht is often referred to as “Europe’s most beautiful canal city” and historical wharves add charm to its stately canals. Built centuries ago to provide access to storage cellars, many of these brick wharf cellars have been converted into boutiques, restaurants and pubs with colourful outdoor seating areas. After a leisurely stroll, we stop for a drink at Beers & Barrels along the Oudegracht canal. The busy, cave-like pub has an impressive selection of local and foreign beers, including some brewed onsite. We climb the steps to street level and have dinner at Vis & Meer. A long bar and open kitchen add to the ambiance while we enjoy a delicious seafood meal paired with wines from an extensive wine list.
The Netherland’s Green District
Utrecht is a city where healthy, sustainable urban living is a priority and nowhere is this more evident than The Green House, a restaurant, urban farm, green hub and city terrace all in one that features delicious dishes including a wide range of vegan and vegetarian items made with fresh onsite and locally grown ingredients. The restaurant’s business manager, Bas van Galen tells us that the restaurant was “built to inspire people and create awareness about a circular environment.”
A great way to explore Utrecht is by bike. City guide Marie-Antoinette Kroone tells us that the secret to navigating around the 100,000 cyclists travelling to and from the city centre daily is to be both confident and vigilant. After seeing the city highlights, we stop for lunch at Buurten restaurant in Oost before embarking on a more relaxed tour of the beautiful green outskirts with its impressive views of country estates, museums and monuments.
My husband and I have been surprised and delighted by Rotterdam and Utrecht, two cities where tradition and innovation intertwine. Our truly memorable trip has put a whole new spin on the Netherlands of my childhood.
If You Go