In the ravages of World War II, Rotterdam’s sacrifice saved Utrecht’s monuments from being razed. Let’s navigate the complicated relationship between the two cities, and find how they are shaping up seven decades later. By Vaibhav Mehta
Given that it’s a pint country as compared to India on the global map and I had a whole week, exploring more than just Amsterdam in Netherlands’ summer seemed like a good plan. Thus, I firmed up on the once gritty Rotterdam and the laid-back Utrecht for holding the baton for unsung destinations. But there was one more thing that piqued my curiosity about these two destinations. Rotterdam and Utrecht lie only 61 kilometres apart.
For a bombing aircraft, that distance is covered in seconds. The fate of the two cities during World War II intersected in odd ways and then diverged to end up diametrically different.
Even though the Netherlands did not take sides during WWI, and wanted to opt for neutrality during WWII as well, it was sensitively wedged between Britain and Germany. The latter was keen on making it a naval base for access to the British coastline and bulldozed its way through some parts of the country. In 1940, German troops broke the Dutch resistance and razed Rotterdam to the ground with air raids. Over 900 people were killed and thousands rendered homeless. The Germans threatened to destroy Utrecht as well, unless the Dutch conceded. The next morning, the Netherlands officially surrendered to the invaders, managing to save Utrecht.
It was difficult to pin a label on Rotterdam’s vibe as I strolled around the city. Google Maps and a biddable heart took me first to Rotterdam’s most talked-about structure, the horseshoe-shaped Markthal. As I sat on a bench at the edge of wide-open public space in front of it, sipping the last of my coffee, an elderly gentleman on the other end of the bench offered to unravel the architectural trajectory of the city for me.
Markus, who threw his name in a quick introduction while hurtling down the history of Rotterdam, rounded off the last century in mere minutes. Many iconic structures of the Nieuwe Bouwen (new building) school of architecture from the 1920s and earlier had survived the war. His voice fell, however, when talking about their juxtaposition to the post-war structures, which were radically different and hyper-modern. Markthal was one of them. He urged me to veer off to see the stars of olden times, including the Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk, a medieval building that was restored after the war. There was a sense of pride when he spoke of Schielandshuis, a 17th-century palatial building that stood between skyscrapers now. One of the buildings that survived the German desecration was Witte Huis or White House. In 1898, it was Rotterdam’s tallest office building and Europe’s first skyscraper, at a height of 43 metres. Art Nouveau mosaics and statues adorned its façade, and it flaunted an observation platform, a novelty in those days.
When I spoke of the Cube Houses, Kunsthal, the 800-metre long Erasmus Bridge, and the Groothandelsgebouw business centre, stirring up the conversation with references of new architecture, Markus retreated from his passionate rant infused with nostalgia and thawed. He liked a few of these modern gems as well. I finished my coffee and thanked Markus for his time.
Inside the Markthal (Market Hall), I traced the entire horseshoe arch, my head turning 180o to take in the view. Murals of fruits, vegetables, insects, and flowers—the work of artists Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam—raided the ceiling. Hundreds of food stalls and fresh fruits and vegetables mirrored the murals on the ground. Markthal also has over 200 apartments and offices, and the clear spaces between the murals offered a window into the floors above the cornucopia of food. Contented with this feast for the eyes and gut, I walked across to the other beacon of modern architecture, Kijk Kubus (cube houses).
Award-winning Dutch architect Piet Blom, who wanted to invent an intimate living experience, first conceived the cube-shaped homes. Each of the 40 yellow houses, shaped
like a tilted cube, is propped up on pillars that give the impression of a corpse of concrete trees. Curious as to what the homes looked like from inside, I asked the StayOkay hostel located there if I could take a quick peek. The crookedness of the houses
turned out to be a feature limited to the exteriors; the insides felt pretty normal.
Over the next few days, I made my way to the other old and new structures of Rotterdam, as Markus had suggested. A far cry from my earlier impression— that of a barely resurrected city— Rotterdam turned out to be a cool urban destination, satisfied with its handful of restored buildings that act as a souvenir of its history.
In Utrecht, I switched from feet to two wheels. The city is almost car-free, and cycling is the best way to go around. In fact, Utrecht hosted the Grand Depart of the Tour de France 2015, but only after losing the bid to Rotterdam in 2010. I pedalled to the old town to kick-start with the most handsome structure of the city, the Dom Tower. The tallest church tower in the Netherlands stands at 112.5 metres and is perhaps the most impressive 14th-century symbol in the city. But even before Dom Tower’s foundation had been laid, there were buildings like the Stadskasteel Oudaen, a 13th-century tower house that held sway in the city.
Since 2003, the building has been one of the most popular breweries in the city. The buildings around Oudegracht (old canal) kept me riveted to the history of Utrecht. Among the historical addresses, I visited the Centraal Museum, City Castle, Fort Vreeswijk, Papal House, and The Pyramid of Austerlitz. Even new businesses, cafes, and homes were couched in medieval addresses and characterful buildings. It was evident that the sacrifice made by Rotterdam had left this city’s history intact, with its impressive medieval centre, gabled houses, and boutique-lined canals.
Unscathed by German devastation, the historic quarters of Utrecht were a revelation. Recuperating from cycling fatigue, I sat at the Blackbird Coffee & Vintage cafe, marvelling at the simple and modern aesthetic. Inspired, I devoted the rest of the day to see the UNESCO-accredited Rietveld Schröder House, the most influential domestic building of the early modern period. Other innovative buildings included the award-winning Utrecht Science Park and De Daktuin, a cafe on the roof of a parking garage. It was the perfect way to wind down and reminisce on a week well spent in the Netherlands.
I shared my thoughts about the two cities with some locals at De Daktuin. But the well-worn empathy for Rotterdam wasn’t palpable anymore. The people of Utrecht seemed to be more hooked to the news that the Unilever Headquarters may move from London to Rotterdam (the plan was later scrapped, of course), and that many would soon follow suit. Meanwhile, Utrecht would enjoy its place at the back seat, in the bottom half of Netherlands travel lists, perhaps much to the joy of those who live there.