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Breathing Freedom in Rotterdam

Rotterdam truly is one of the coolest cities in The Netherlands. Bustling with activity, it harbors a multicultural population against a backdrop of historical sites and present-day architecture. Therefore, it might not come as a surprise that on one of the sunnier days of 2017, this midwife without borders was ready head to toe for some urban exploring.

When starting my tour of Rotterdam, I suddenly found myself eye to eye with Jip and Janneke-graffiti. Jip and Janneke are the main characters in a highly popular series of Dutch children’s books. They immediately brought back childhood memories, as I spent long days ill in bed reading these books, waiting for the typical childhood diseases to clear. It seemed to me that Jip and Janneke were in the right place here. The people of Rotterdam are known for their no-nonsense mentality and plain language use, with a Dutch layman’s term for such language being ‘Jip-en Janneke-language’.

My musings about books were further triggered by this little monument, dedicated to Hugo de Groot (or ‘Hugo Grotius’ in the Latin of his days). Unlike Jip and Janneke, he was an actual historical figure. He lived from 1583 to 1645 and was well known as a lawyer and active in politics. Up until today, he is regarded as one of the fathers of international law. In his own days, however, not everybody held him in such high regard. His political and religious views landed him into trouble, and he was imprisoned in a castle, Slot Loevenstein. He was however allowed to receive books, and managed to escape from the castle hiding in a book case.

De Groot certainly was a great man, and directly linked through Rotterdam through his work as a main advisor to the Rotterdam city council. The greatest of men linked to the city however, I met on a lovely square in the shadow of the Great or St. Lawrence church, Rotterdams only remaining medieval building. His name, immortalized in a statue, probably rings a bell far across Dutch borders. That man is Desiderius Erasmus, the renaissance humanist, scholar, writer, theologian and priest. There is no conclusive evidence, but Erasmus was most likely born in Rotterdam in the late 1460’s. He died in Basel, Switzerland, in 1536. Rotterdam is evidently very proud of him, having named its famous cable bridge, its university and its academic hospital after him. Unfortunately, Erasmus’ probable birth place cannot be visited anymore, as the house was destroyed when the Nazi’s bombed the city on May 14, 1940, leaving up to 900 people dead and almost all of Rotterdam’s historical center in ruins.

The Erasmus Bridge and its surroundings are definitely one of Rotterdam’s must-sees. Whether gazing at the 800 meters long bridge, which is kept in place by 40 rows of steel cables, from the banks of the river Maas, or looking at the city while standing at the bridge, the views are impressive. Rotterdam’s breathtaking mixture of a skyline with modern skyscrapers, industrial heritage and harbor activity fuels the creative mind with oxygen. During the New Year’s festivities, the Erasmus Bridge is the center of a spectacular fireworks show, with live music and typical Dutch snacks such as deep-fried doughnuts.

And when in the area of the Erasmus Bridge, don’t forget to jump off the tram at Leuvenhaven and crisscross along the historical vessels and old cranes in the old port area. Here you can find the foundations of the rich maritime history of Rotterdam. You can visit the harbor and maritime museum or just stick to the free open air museum, strolling around in the cradle of what is now the biggest harbor in Europe.

Another quartier worth visiting because of its impressive architecture is that of the Market Hall. It was built on the foundations of one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city and it contains the largest glass-window cable structure in Europe. The roofed hall is home to a real Walhalla of stalls where you can eat or take home food from all over the world. The artworks on the ceiling, depicting a Horn of Plenty, couldn’t have been more aptly chosen. Oh, and while you’re there, don’t forget to have a look at those fascinating cube houses, one of which is open to visitors.

There is something about harbor cities. Whether Rotterdam, Antwerp or others: they always breath the spirit of adventure, exploring and connecting. In Rotterdam, this is for instance embodied by Hotel New York. This used to be the headquarters of the Holland America Line, where many Dutch people embarked upon the adventure of immigrating to the United States or Canada and starting a new life and building a new future there. You definitely have to pop inside for a coffee, admire the interior and look across the waterside while pondering on all the memories of endings and new beginnings this place holds.

Finally, when taking a friend photographer around Rotterdam, like I did, you can’t pass the Dutch Photography museum without entering, at the very least for a look around the bookstore (and a quick visit to the toilets ;-)). In this place, it’s not a sign of megalomania to dream about how those book shelves will contain one’s own publications at a next visit. Rotterdam makes you think and dream big. Here, the sky is definitely not the limit.

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