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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Rotterdam Bikes Dykes Modern Cubes

Rotterdam: Bikes, Dykes, and Modern Cubes

Usually, we don’t suffer from jet lag when flying east to west. So after a nine hour flight east from Atlanta, we arrived in Amsterdam, Holland, at 8 a.m. the next morning ready to go exploring. A chauffeur, in a Mercedes, waited to whisk us off to Rotterdam where we would board our cruise ship. As we drove across flat fields, we sighted of our first windmill under a lowering sky.

Kinderdyke 4tonemapped

 Our driver—who spoke good English as do most Dutch—explained that Holland, or the Netherlands, is in a never-ending battle with water. Dykes, sluices, canals, pumps, windmills and modern floodgates hold back the numerous rivers draining into the sea, and the sea washing back into the land. Yet, meandering through the city you don’t have a sense that so much of the land is reclaimed let alone below sea level. As soon as we checked into the hotel, we dumped our baggage, and, as our room wasn’t ready, set out to explore the city. A sudden happy jing, jing! made me jump to the side as a biker swerved around me.

Bikers as viewed from our window of

More bikes whizzed by and we realized that we had wandered onto a bike path parallel to the sidewalk. Ogling the fit-looking bikers, we noticed that their bikes were inexpensive and utilitarian, with wicker or metal baskets in the front and racks in the back. Everywhere we turned a variety of bicycles streamed by, from three wheelers with a box up front for passengers, pets or goods, to bikes adapted for kids or the elderly. Senior citizens, kids, and the handicapped in motorized vehicles, comfortably navigate the city center alongside fit-looking, youthful bikers. Even more surprising, the bikers were not rigged out in special biking gear—no Spandex, no helmets. The men wore jeans or business attire and the women skirts or jeans. Tangles of bicycles, locked to racks, cluttered the sidewalks. As an American who lives in a town with steep hills and heavy traffic, I envied the flat terrain of the city, which encourages people to use bicycles instead of cars. 

Our well-informed driver told us that Rotterdam in comparison to other old Dutch cities is very modern. This is because the city was bombed by Nazis on the 14th of May 1940. The old city vanished when 240,000 buildings were completely destroyed. Rotterdam’s civic leaders made the decision not to try to recreate the old city, but rather to build a modern one—with interesting results. In conversation with the people of Rotterdam, it is clear that they are deeply affected by this traumatic event, but also proud of the civic leadership that has made their city well-known for its architectural innovation Later, in talking to the Dutch we found it amusing that residents of Amsterdam tend to downplay Rotterdam as too provincial and lacking in old-world charm, although it it the second largest city in Netherlands.

Rotterdam modern skyline
Downtown from the South harbor across the Maas River

We enjoyed visiting the innovative Cube houses in the Blaakse Bos, an unusual collection of cube-shaped homes, built in the 1970s and designed by architect Piet Blom (1934-1999). Bloom found an innovative and elegant way to build the complex right on top of a pedestrian bridge.  It’s worth visiting the Kijk-Kubus (Museum House), a fully furnished show home in the complex. The unusual interiors of each apartment, with sloping walls and windows, afford lively views of the city and people from the angled windows. We felt, however, that the model would be uncomfortable to live in. The rooms, especially the kitchen and bathrooms, feel small to our American sensibilities, and three steep flights of steps in each unit are inconvenient for daily living. 

Kube House over bypass
View of the Cube Houses over a Pedestrian Viaduct

Interior of Kubhouse
Interior of a Cube House with view of the city

Cube house and skyline

De Rotterdam is the newest, eye-catching skyscraper complex to pierce the city’s skyline. Architect, Rem Koolhaas, designed the huge complex to look different from every angle. 

Eramus bridge and skline
The Erasmus Bridge with De Rotterdam on the South bank of the Mass River.

Harbor Day in Rotterdam

To reach the old harbor, we crossed over the elegant Erasmus Bridge , spanning the River Maas. As we approached we wondered why it was so crowded with onlookers. Lucky for us,  on this pleasant afternoon, Rotterdam was celebrating its 37 World Harbor Day. The locals came out to watch the tugboats fire water cannons, skiers do tricks, visitors exploring warships, and especially to relax, to eat and to drink. In fact Rotterdam is Europe’s largest port, so they are justifiable proud of it.  We joined them at an outdoor restaurant to enjoy a kind of smorgasbord lunch with little bites of salmon, cheese, and bitterballen, one of Hollands favorite snacks. Delicious!

Holland America in old harbor
The historic New York Hotel that housed immigrants before they boarded ships of the Holland America Line to the New World

world harbor day
Celebrating Harbor Day in Rotterdam

Sitting in the watery sunshine, surrounded by happy people, there’s no sense that the port of Rotterdam and the surrounding area is dangerously susceptible to flooding from the sea.

Relaxing with friends near the harbor
The Maeslantkering, one of the largest moving structures of Earth,
was build to control storm surges. It is constructed with two huge doors that normally reside in a dry dock besides the Nieuwe Waterweg. When a major flood is predicted the gates are floated into positions. Later, aboard the cruise ship Rotterdam, we struck up a conversation with a Dutch engineer who is part of a team that created the computer software to control the gates. He told us that when he returned to Rotterdam they would be closing the gates for 24 hours to test if the software was working without any glitches (what an enormous responsibility!).
The next evening, as our cruise ship the Rotterdam, sailed away to the Norwegian Fiords, we were impressed by the size of the port of Rotterdam, which goes on for of 40 kilometers (25 mi) before reaching the North Sea. We stayed out on deck until dark, observing the industrialized skyline dotted with petrochemical plants, container ports and wind turbines. 


Kinderdyk 2_tonemapped


  We took a water taxi from Rotterdam to Kinderdijk, 15 miles east of Rotterdam, to visit the original windmills built to pump water away from the lowland. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a special collection of 19 authentic windmills—a familiar Dutch icon. About 40% of the Netherlands is below sea level. Considering that the windmills were  built in the 1700s they are an admirable and elegant feat of engineering! They were designed with water wheels that turn in the wind to pump water from the flooded areas into the dykes We were surprised to find that people lived in the windmills, as they needed to maintain the mills and to quickly reposition the blades to catch the changing wind flow. Mills are pleasing to look at because like all well-designed machines they are efficient and effective. For those curious about exactly How Windmills Work go to this link:

Inside the milljpg

Inside an old windmill with the bed tucked into a nook.

Inside the mills, the rooms are small, the ceilings are low and the staircases steep, but somehow they were made snug and cosy. Boris was entranced by the picturesque town of
Kinderdijk, especially the old windmills that invite photographers to take photos at every turn. Visitors can watch a short, informative movie explaining the history of the windmills and how they have been replaced by more efficient, modern electrical screw pumps.
Watch for our next blog on Amsterdam!
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