ROTTERDAM - Looking out over this city’s glass and steel skyline, it’s hard for me to imagine that such a futuristic-looking city has an ancient past. But Rotterdam, Europe’s most modern metropolis, can actually trace its roots back to 1270, when a dam was built here to hold back the waters of the Rotte River - hence the name Rotterdam.
Actually, much of this city’s history surrounds water - it’s the largest port in Europe and the sixth largest in the world and was the starting point for many Dutch explorers, who sailed down Rotterdam’s mighty Maas River and out into the North Sea to the New World.
Rotterdam treasures its nautical history and celebrates its seafaring past at the Maritime Museum Rotterdam, and amazing institute and the oldest of its kind in this delightful water-logged country.
Above: Holland's maritime traditions are honoured at Rotterdam museum.
The landmark museum, located next to Rotterdam’s cutting-edge Mainport Hotel, is dedicated to naval history and was founded in 1873 by Prince Henry of the Netherlands. It’s a fascinating place to visit and holds over 500,000 artifacts, many dating back to 1852. The collection is divided into different categories; model ships, paintings and nautical charts, globes, ship plans, photos, films, navigation instruments, ship furnishings and clothes worn by sailors over the centuries.
The museum’s “Rosetta Stone” is the Mataró, a model of the 15th century ship, which is believed to have been presented to the Chapel of San Simón in the Spanish town of Mataró as a gift to the Virgin Mary. More than 48 inches long and 22 inches wide, the Mataró model has been used as a basis for naval architecture research over the years. The Mataró model means as much to the Maritime Museum as Rembrandt’s ‘Nightwatch' does to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Other maritime masterpieces on display at the museum include the Itinerario by Jan Huygen van Linschoten, considered one of the most important “tell all” travel journals - it reveals secrets of Portugal’s seafaring misdeeds - and the spectacular pen-and-ink drawings of Willem van de Velde.
Above: Rotterdam's modern skyline is the perfect backdrop for the old ships at the museum.
The museum’s Corpus Christi collection of sea charts by the master cartographer Joan Blaeu is another of the museum’s prized artifacts, as is a collection of East India Company charts that lay hidden in England for 300 years before the Maritime Museum purchased them in 2006.
As fascinating as the Maritime Museum is inside, it’s the open-air Harbour Museum next to the main building where most visitors like to hang out. That’s because the open-air museum features a great collection of historic vessels used by the Dutch - from small canal boats to massive sailing ships.
Children are especially fascinated by this area because they can climb aboard vessels and cranes and pretend they are out at sea. I was impressed to see grandparents explaining the significance of small supply boats to their grand kids - the boats would bring much-needed supplies to remote areas of the country in years gone by.
The Harbour Museum also includes an historic red cast iron lighthouse known as the “Low Light of the Hook of Holland,” which formerly stood at the entrance to the Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway).
Back inside the comfy confines of the Maritime Museum Rotterdam, interactive displays allow visitors to enjoy a cruise ship experience - relax in a deckchair by the swimming pool like a real passenger, or sit at the captain’s table for dinner.
Above: School kids especially like exploring the vessels their ancestors once sailed.
One of the most interesting exhibitions is the one dedicated to Cape Horn, that treacherous stretch of water at the tip of Argentina that early sailors had to pass on their trips around the world. The icy waters claimed many sailors over the years and the exhibition sends a chill down most people’s spines.
Cape Horn, which was discovered by explorers Le Maire and Schouten in the 9th century, is named after Hoorn, a seaport town in the Netherlands.
The “Offshore” exhibition, which allows visitors to experience living on an oil rig, shows life above and below the seas and explains why these massive platforms are so important to the world economy.
A short water taxi ride away from the Maritime Museum, people will find another important piece of this city’s nautical history - the SS Rotterdam. The former ocean liner and cruise ship, dubbed “The Grande Dame” of the sea, is now permanently moored here and serves as a chic hotel.
Launched by Holland’s beloved Queen Juliana in September 1958, the SS Rotterdam sailed the seas for 41 years before being retired in 2000.
Stepping on board the SS Rotterdam is like stepping back in time. The ship’s regal past was not compromised during the transition into a luxury hotel, and much of the original 1950’s decor, including fabulous artwork, still remain aboard.
However, no expense was spared in modernizing the 254 cabins, whose contemporary styling rival anything you’ll find on land. There are six different types of rooms, each offering their own style and elegance. The exceptional Executive Suites are worthy of Holland’s royal family.
The restaurants aboard the SS Rotterdam are equally impressive and the ship’s main dining room, the Lido, is now ranked among the city’s best restaurants. Besides offering some Michelin-star-worthy cuisine, the Lido’s Promenade Deck location allows diners to get impressive views of city’s impressive skyline - it’s exceptional at night - and such landmarks as the Euromast.
Above: Visitors can tour the old boats.
The best part of the SS Rotterdam is that single rooms start as low at 59 euros. However, the experience of sleeping on this elegant lady of the seas is priceless.
When you’re sitting on the SS Rotterdam, you may think about sailing away to far away places but few people ever want to leave Rotterdam because it’s a city that has so much to offer.
The Mainport Hotel is a 5-Star luxury property that brushes up against the Maas River and offers guests incredible views of the harbour and city skyline. Many of the cutting edge rooms offer in-suite hot tubs and saunas and the hotel’s spa is rated the best in the city. The Mainport is a great place to base yourself even if you want to visit other parts of Holland - Amsterdam is a short train ride away - because it offers great rates. For more information, go to www.mainporthotel.com/en/Home.html
/ To find out more about the SS Rotterdam, go to ssrotterdam.com/
For information on upcoming events in Rotterdam, go to en.rotterdampartners.nl/
For more information on Holland, go to www.holland.com