Rotterdammerung

30 Jul

These days, I generally keep a journal when I travel in continental Europe. And maybe one day, I’ll write up all of the entries into a book. In the meantime, here’s a short reflection on my recent trip to Rotterdam.

I had been to the city several decades ago, and then, only for a few hours. The Harwich to Hoek van Holland ferry crossing is on my doorstep so I thought I’d take the opportunity to spend a few days in the Netherlands. Amsterdam versus Rotterdam, Ajax versus Feyernoord, Amstel versus Oranjeboom… the Netherlands’ two biggest cities have always been rivals. But why choose to visit the latter rather than the former, most people would probably ask? Ah, well, that’s the nature of the man, isn’t it? And there was investigation to be done.

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The train arriving to dispatch me to Rotterdam

14 Mei 1940. The Rotterdam Blitz. The historic centre of the city was destroyed entirely – a few miraculous survivals aside – in the course of one terrible day. Over 20,000 buildings flattened, the River Schie filled in with the rubble… And five grim years were to follow – the Holocaust, the Hunger, the harsh rule of the Nazis and their Dutch puppets, the NSB… I visited the Museum Rotterdam 40-45 NU. A humble institution, with few visitors or so it appeared, it was no bigger than a provincial museum. And that’s kind of fitting since all that was left of the great city by time the German bomber aircraft had finished with it could be accommodated within the walls of a small town. The story its displays tell is almost unbearably poignant. Later, I followed part of the Fire Boundary walk, marking out the area devastated on 14th May. Circular icons in the pavement, lit by LEDs, delineate the extent of the inferno.

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Sculpture outside the Museum Rotterdam 40-45 NU in Coolhaven

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Pavement symbols marking the Fire Boundary in Rotterdam

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Fire symbols beneath your feet – they glow red at night. This one is in Oude Binnenweg, which suffered catastrophic damage.

And so, Rotterdam was forced to reinvent itself. There were some, in the Delft School, who wished to rebuild the city in its previous incarnation, and evidence of this can be seen in many of the city’s streets. And then there were the modernists… Much of Rotterdam’s post-war architecture is spectacular. The city itself is vibrant. Smart shops and vast office buildings dominate the centrum, its streets bustling with people from every part of the globe, transported in shiny trams and speeding trains on the metro.

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Ultra-modern buildings in Rotterdam, including on the end there, “Paul’s Church”!

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The sight that greeted me as I walked out of Centraal Station

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Modernist iconography

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The Market Hall in Blaak, where a damn fine cup of coffee and pain au raisin may be taken

A few outlying areas escaped the destruction, most noticeably, in Delfshaven. It provides a direct conduit back to the pre-blitz city, a glimpse of how Rotterdam might have looked had it not been bombed. And it put me in mind of the display in the entrance of Museum 40-45. Alongside photographs of the shattered Dutch city are more recent images – Aleppo, Baghdad, Gaza… If hatred and the will to power are left unchecked, this could be any city. It could be mine. It could be yours.

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Near the Oude Sluis inn where your writer managed to order his de Konink in Dutch

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Back street in Delfshaven

I alluded to these events in my vast, unpublished war novel.

Five Englishmen, a Canadian and a Czech walked into a bar.  It was no laughing matter.  Tomorrow maybe or the day after, they’d be taking part in their first raid over enemy territory.  In the meantime, there was some serious drinking to be done.  It involved an element of what is sometimes called ‘Dutch courage’, though much good it had done the citizens of Rotterdam as the dive-bombers had been smashing their homes into brick-dust.  The odd glass or two of advokaat must have seemed scant consolation.

Tot ziens for now…

All text and images © PSR 2015

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9 Responses to “Rotterdammerung”

  1. masgautsen July 30, 2015 at 3:57 pm #

    Lovely photos Paul! Looks like you had a great trip.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves July 30, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

      Thanks, Maja! Yes, it was great – just what I needed after a hard academic year.

      • masgautsen July 30, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

        I can imagine! It’s always good to go away somewhere to get away from everyday stress..

      • Paul Sutton Reeves July 30, 2015 at 4:06 pm #

        Yes, especially if there’s food for the brain and, of course, the body.

      • masgautsen July 30, 2015 at 4:07 pm #

        Yes, especially then.

  2. Paul August 3, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    Greetings from Florence. Really enjoyed meeting you. It’s a shame that our paths didn’t cross sooner for you made the crossing fly past as we chatted about so many places and experiences in common. I was struck by your optimism, enthusiasm and keenness to explore and this I see comes across in your writing here. I hope that you have a wonderful French family vacation.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves August 3, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Paul and thanks for your kind comments. Greetings from Ipswich! As you say, it was a pleasure conversing and it’s a shame we worked in the same organisation for three years and never got to know each other! Have a lovely time in Italy.

  3. www.laurensapala.com August 10, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

    These pictures are wonderful! LOVED reading about your experiences there!

    • Paul Sutton Reeves August 14, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Lauren! It was an enlightening experience…

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