Travel Story Echoes of maritime history in seafaring Rotterdam

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Walking the day away on a theme of maritime history in the Dutch port that's still among the biggest in the world. 

Flat bottomed and shallow drafted, the Netherlands’ tjalks held peat, cut into surprisingly light slabs from these low fens of Europe. 

The stout ships plied Dutch rivers and canals through wetlands that seem an amalgam of land and sea — a sopping mash of earth and water.

I am in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, walking the day away on a theme of maritime history.

I had been expecting gilded threads running through the East India Company and tying the Netherlands to the spice islands of Indonesia and bumping into the wind-streaked lee shore of Western Australia. 

After all, Dirk Hartog had left the Netherlands on the ship Eendracht in 1616, sailed far south, and made one of the first recorded landfalls by a European on the WA coast.

Four years later, the Pilgrim Fathers had set sail from Rotterdam for America on the Speedwell, picking up the curiously more famous Mayflower in Plymouth on the way.

But the day hasn’t gone that way.

For I am at the Maritime Museum of Rotterdam, between Schiedamsedijk Street and the Leuvehaven in the Waterstad area, happily surrounded by work boats and a more authentically local story. 

There’s the little steam tug Maashaven, the sail-powered barge Voorwarts and the mighty peat tjalk Annigje, with a mast that lowers on an A-frame and lee boards that hang down to stop it slipping sideways in the wind. There’s a tiny cabin in which a family of eight lived; the bed of the captain and his wife is so short, they slept sitting up.

And then, outside, there are cranes and ships, and jet-propelled water taxis coming and going.

For this is not a stagnant maritime history. Inside the maritime museum, there’s an exhibit on the offshore industry and the search for energy, another called Living on the Water about everyday life on a houseboat (“typical for the Dutch culture”), and another on the history of cruise ships.

My arrival in Rotterdam was, indeed, appropriate and nautical, on a river cruise ship sailing the Rhine, along with so many others, dodging the busy stream of commercial counterparts hauling goods.

The ship docks early and I leave at 8am and walk alongside the Rhine in crisp sunshine against the rows of elegant houses.

The steel cables of Willems Bridge mirror aircraft vapour trails in the sky.

The famous Erasmus Bridge does, indeed, look rather like the white swans on the river, all elegant neck and tucked in bouffant wings.

And soon I am at Veerhaven, a marina full of heritage boats lit by the sharp sun, then walking through the Museum Park and up side streets to the Maritime Museum. Nearby, in Wijnhaven, a lightship has been converted into the V11 restaurant and bar.

A one-minute walk away at Museum Rotterdam, which was founded in 1905, shipping containers are filled with heritage from the museum collection to take visitors, appropriately enough, “on a voyage through the surprisingly rich past of Rotterdam”.

In the suburb of Delfshaven, from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed, there’s a pretty marina. 

This is one of the few parts of Rotterdam that survived the 1940, World War II bombardment.

Rotterdam’s roots are in the water as much as the peaty earth. The fen stream Rotte was once spelt Rotta — Dutch for “rotten” for the mud and “a” used in water. The name for this place of muddy water can be traced back almost 1000 years.

After floods about AD1150, dikes and dams started to be built and in the 1260s, the dam was added to the Rotte. 

The river Rotte was dammed and it sits strategically on the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta on the North Sea. 

It is still one of the biggest ports in the world — crucially, it gives German industry access to the oceans. It is still known as the Gateway to Europe, where fast, big barges ply the river alongside sleek river cruise ships in a new wave of history.

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