So near yet so far. Amsterdam, revelling in the geometry of its precise canals and bell-shaped merchant houses, is a city that honours the golden-age zeitgeist of the 16th century. It’s a place more recently reinvented as a creative hub for the eat-sleep-rave generation. Rotterdam, about 75km to the south-west, is an intriguing blend of super Dutch architecture and Tetris-shaped buildings set on the Maas River. It’s a transient place without a historic core because of World War II, but one, locals will tell you, they didn’t like much anyway.
Visit both Amsterdam and Rotterdam and you’ll feel the difference in atmosphere. It takes just 40 minutes to travel between the two, a journey from toe-to-toe canals to Europe’s largest port, yet it’s like travelling to different time zones. Arriving in Amsterdam – a place where the most famous diary of all time was written by Anne Frank, and where Rene Descartes first declared “I think, therefore I am” – you’ll see a bounce in people’s steps as they walk along the cobbles. Rotterdammers, by contrast, admit they suffer from “second-city syndrome”, but secretly acknowledge they dream bigger than their northerly rivals do. To them, their golden age is happening right now. Visit the warehouse district Wilhelminapier, they’ll insist, and you’ll see what they have done is build Manhattan on the Maas.
Naturally, both cities share a passion for food, art and contemporary design. Here’s how to enjoy the best of both worlds right now.
“Cooks who have guts choose Rotterdam.” So says chef Francois Geurds, a firebrand culinary talent, taking a good-natured swipe at the city’s northerly neighbour. “Five years ago, the food scene was just okay. But in recent years, there has been a considerable rise in great restaurants – and we’re competing. Rotterdam’s become the cool city.”
The former sous chef at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in England could have chosen to relocate to Amsterdam, but he didn’t. Instead, he decided to open FG Food Labs under a renovated railway arch in one of the city’s gentrifying neighbourhoods, and it now seems like a stroke of genius. New restaurants are copying his Michelin-star style – best described as tapas-speakeasy – and he has put the area around Station Hofplein on the map. Not to mention Geurds uses liquid nitrogen at your table.
Amsterdam, of course, doesn’t pay much attention to any of this. If it’s worth talking about, they say, it’s in the capital. Marina van Goor, founder of design firm MVGCA, came up with Eenmaal, the world’s first one-person restaurant concept – seen on tour at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Then there are brothers Michiel and Lucas van der Eerde, who debuted Restaurant C, an eatery where diners pick a meal based on the temperature it’s cooked at. Oysters can be served raw, grilled or baked, for instance, while the fun is in deciding whether you want your dish served at -20 or 200 deg C. The morning after, it may all seem like an odd dream caused by too much gouda.
The most exciting place in Amsterdam right now is De Wallen, an area emerging from its past as a red-light district. Once an infamous warren of dimly lit alleys and neon doorways, it has been redeveloped in the past few years, with artists moving in for cheaper rents, a change familiar the world over. Enter the likes of broadcaster Red Light Radio, which now operates from a windowfront that was once the domain of courtesans; Tonton Club, a bar stuffed to the gilders with retro pinball machines and G arcade games; and Quartier Putain, a coffee house with its own music label, Top Notch.
“The vibe of an edgy neighbourhood has never really left, which is why the area really works,” says Quartier Putain’s owner Erik de Kock, a veteran of the city’s coffee scene. His business partner Kees de Koning has since turned Top Notch into one of the most in-demand vinyl revivalists in the country. “In a way, we stand out because we do what we like in an incredible neighbourhood,” says De Kock.
In Rotterdam, the like-for-like locality is Katendrecht, which has a similarly shady history. A few years ago, head south across the Erasmus Bridge to Deliplein, a leafy square lit by string lights, and you’d be taking a journey into the unknown. How times have changed. The city’s once-rundown dockland now bursts with creative energy, as well as hipster beards and sleeve tattoos – for that, see Tattoo Bob on Delistraat. First, try Fenix Food Factory, an organic street-food market in a reclaimed warehouse. Then, pop into De Matroos en het Meisje, a restaurant painted in homage to the blue-and-white pottery of Delft. On weekends, it’s standing room only.
Rotterdam always seems to be rebuilding itself, leading some to believe it’s a place struggling to reassert its identity. That assumption is quickly dispelled by MVRDV, the city’s most in-demand architects. Their latest project, Depot, is a colossal storage space for Museum Boijmans van Beuningen’s €7 billion (US$7.38 billion) art collection.
The art will be hung in wire-mesh cages and the building resembles a gigantic white plant pot, but these are only two of its idiosyncrasies. “Bulkiness is needed in Rotterdam,” says MVRDV co-founder Winy Maas. “If you do it with cuteness, you won’t survive here. It’s a serious competition of ping-pong between designers and architects in the nation. So people strive to get noticed.”
Ask any Rotterdammer and they’ll also point out MVRDV’s other notable project, Markthal, a food hall overlooking Grotemarkt. Of aircraft hangar proportions, it’s an incongruous juxtaposition of penthouse suites and street-food stalls, overhung by a pixelated roof that has earned it the label: the Dutch Sistine Chapel.
Its crackerjack neighbours also make it conspicuous. Out the front, you’ll be confronted by banana-yellow cube houses on stilts (created by legendary Dutch architect Piet Blom), then by the Godzilla-size, pencil-shaped Blaaktoren apartment block, and completing the eye candy, the Blaak metro and railway station, which resembles a flying saucer. Considered together, you get the impression that Rotterdam is actually in competition with itself.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam, ever the master of nostalgia, continues to revel in its past. 2016 marked the centennial of the Amsterdam School, a Dutch architectural movement characterised – and celebrated – for its cherry-red brick and decorative masonry. While it can be seen across major Dutch cities, from De Bijenkorf in The Hague to the iconic post office on the Neude in Utrecht, the best example is at Museum het Schip in Amsterdam, a former public-housing complex turned gallery that explores the movement through film, mirrors and soundscapes.
The Dutch call it Brick Expressionism, but you’ll probably just call it cool. And that’s something neither Amsterdam nor Rotterdam can argue about.
– TEXT BY MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTOS: MIQUEL GONZALEZ
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.