I can’t see everything in Europe. I came to terms with this a few months ago when doing some math with calendar and my bank account. Moving to the UK was meant to provide a base from which I would discover Europe on holidays and long weekends. While I have seen a bit since arriving in July last year, it hasn’t played out like the dream I had of jetting off every chance I got.
Some time ago I made a mental list of my priorities. Without any reason, good or bad, The Netherlands wasn’t one of them. But then Rotterdam was announced as the setting for the next Travel Bloggers Unite conference and suddenly I was booking a flight to Amsterdam.
I spent eight days in The Netherlands and unlike most visitors to the country, only a fraction of my time was spent in Europe’s sex and drug capital.
The New: Rotterdam
Rotterdam is not new as in lets-build-a-new-city-in-the-United-Arab-Emirates new, but it was heavily bombed in 1940. The “Rotterdam Blitz” left the city in need of, well, a city. The result is an identity that’s still in the making. Some of the old city remains and is beautiful. The newer parts are a lively combination of retro 70s architecture and bold, modern designs.
I took a walking tour on my first day and so often felt I was exploring several cities, instead of just one. One minute I was speeding along the river in a water taxi near the busiest port in Europe, then following a pathway next to a peaceful canal, exploring a hip neighbourhood of cafes and bars, then walking through Chinatown – which was funny because the buildings were the typical Flemish, just covered with signs in Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
I’d viewed Rotterdam as simply a conference location, not a destination to be explored and certainly not a city to think of coming back to. But after five days I was intrigued. Rotterdam is more than an underdog in the tourism stakes, and as I said in a previous post, that’s a shame. It has history and culture – just like so many great cities in Europe – but lacks the profile and perhaps that one strong ”hook”.
The Old: Nijmegen
I called this place Nij-Megan for weeks before learning on arrival that it’s actually pronounced nigh-mey-han. It’s one of the oldest cities in Holland, yet it didn’t always feel like it. Parts of the city have the charming narrow stone streets and ivy-covered buildings that you’d expect, but others are lined with H&M, Primark and a Street’s kiosk called “The Happiness Bar”.
Holland is famous for its flat landscape (it’s one of the reasons so many Dutch ride bikes), which makes the hilly countryside around Nijmegen all the more striking. The region is quiet and full of history, a small part of which inspired the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far staring Sean Connery, Gene Hackman and Michael Caine.
My visit to Nijmegen was part of a post-conference blogger trip and included a visit to a music festival, lunch at a vineyard and touring the region’s Liberation Museum. We also ate very well including delicious mini Dutch pancakes called poffertjes at the music festival, a late post-dinner trip to Tapas y Vino, which stayed open to cater for our quest for dessert, and a six-course feast at De Waagh. But my favourite moments in Nijmegen was when I used a few free hours to catch the bus from our hotel at Groesbeek into Nijmegen, wander the streets and drink tea in a cafe overlooking Grote Markt.
One of my information booklets declared Nijmegen to have the highest ratio per capita of outdoor seating in Holland, but it wasn’t the weather for trying that out. Instead I sat in the window of Espressobar Caffeina and watched life in the 2000-year-old city. The cobblestones in the Markt must have seen some traffic.
The Dirty: Amsterdam
I hated it the minute I walked out of the train station. Gone was the peace and beauty of Nijmegen. Gone was the quirk and individuality of Rotterdam. I was now in a city that has prostituted itself to the tourism industry. It was crowded, full of gimmicks and dirty.
I walked along the crowded footpath to Dam Square, passing souvenir shops selling wooden clogs, mini windmills, fake tulips. In seven days in Holland it was the first time I’d seen any of these things for sale. Nearly every sign was in English, particularly if it was advertising a coffee shop. The rate of cannabis use among the Dutch is lower than the European average so the coffee shops aren’t here for the locals. It is all for the tourists.
As is the Red Light district. At night the streets, bathed in neon lights, are packed with people. I imagine it’s the closest most of them have come to prostitutes since watching Pretty Woman. My friends and I sat in a bar in the area for an hour and watched the comings and goings of a brothel across the canal. Watching the men emerge when their time was up gave new meaning to the expression “walk of shame”. In between clients the women touch up their makeup, check their phone and scowl at nosy tourists who try to take a photo.
To be fair, with not much more than 12 hours I didn’t visit any of Amsterdam’s renowned museums and never explored beyond the city centre and therefore my experience was limited to the Dutch stereotypes of drugs, sex and canals.
As you could guess, it wasn’t Amsterdam. I really can’t see what the fuss is about. Everything Amsterdam offers, somewhere else does it better. If you love canals and cute buildings – go to Bruges. It’s prettier. If you particularly want to experience those things in Holland, go to Rotterdam. It’s quieter. And if you want to go Dutch and ride a bike everywhere, try Nijmegen where the landscape is beautiful. If you want to indulge in lots of sex and drugs, well perhaps Amsterdam is the place for you.
So what was my favourite town in Holland? Of the three I’d say Rotterdam. I loved the architecture, the art and the food. It offered everything I love about cities – good shops, great cafes and some quirks – without the crowds.