The one-speed bicycles with backbrakes of Rotterdam are deceptive devices if you’re used to riding mountain bikes in New Zealand.
Our friends “the Dutch boys” hired five bikes from the railway Central Station for our big day out. As locals, they had personal OV fiets chipkaarts for access to the transport system including bike hire at 3.85 euros each for the day.
This was the first time Laressa and I had cycled in The Netherlands and though we’d encountered a few near misses as pedestrians, we refused to be daunted. Our first lesson was in handling the locks and chains for the bikes which the boys assured us we’d master by the end of the day. (We almost did.)
Setting off across tramlines by the station, we followed the guys along cycleways and over the Erasmus Bridge to the Nederlands Fotomuseum. The gallery was hosting an annual three-day exhibition of the work of Dutch amateur photographers. Given the quality of that exhibition and the enticing library of photography books, I know I would spend a lot of time there if I lived in Rotterdam. The Netherlands offers a Museum card to residents for about 60 euros a year that gets cardholders into most of the museums and galleries in the country. A superb system for encouraging local patronage and used often by our friends. As casual visitors, we paid about 12 euros each to enter.
We biked another two minutes to the waterfront by the Hotel New York. This beautiful brick building was once the head office for the Holland America Line and the departure point for thousands of emigrants leaving by ship for foreign shores. The hotel restaurant features photos and other maritime memoires of those days. On the wharf LA and UTAH are spelt out in large letters, reminders of where groups of passengers were heading once they passed through New York.
We rode across ‘Whores Bridge’ (Rijnhavenburg) and through the old red light district now gentrified with coffee shops and bakeries, and past rows of barges. The barges are long and sink so deeply when loaded that water seems to rush above their hulls as they plough at speed through the canals. Each barge carries a large motorcycle, new car or even jet skis on the deck above their modern living quarters. These European vessels are a far cry from their less salubrious cousins I saw just weeks ago in Shanghai.
We stopped for coffee aboard the SS Rotterdam, a former flagship of the Holland America Line now moored permanently as a hotel with a ’50s style decor.
Our next landmark, the Maastunnel, was a highlight of the ride for me. This system of separate underwater tunnels for cars, bikes and pedestrians was finished in 1942 to connect the banks of the river Nieuve Maas. It was constructed around lowered containers. Pedestrians descend further than cyclists to their own tunnel. Our guides tutored us in the art of putting a bike onto an escalator, turning the front wheel to rest on a step and holding tight to the seat. “Go fast through the tunnel to get speed up for the climb at the end,” we’re instructed. We hurtled through the tiled and bronze-lit fareway till we reached more escalators that returned us to ground level .
Leaving the tunnel we entered Het Park. We’d the option of joining a long queue to visit the Euromast, a 1960s TV and observation tower, but decide against it and keep cycling. The park is a mix of lawns, ponds and wild areas and hosts an old church built by Norwegian sailors.
We reached a small botanic garden with an old Volvo parked in its entrance. A woman was in hearty debate with an elderly couple over her decision to leave the doors unlocked so thieves wouldn’t damage the vehicle when they get in. I did wonder about the keys left in the ignition.
My backbrakes don’t quite hold firmly enough so I slowly and strategically rolled the cycle into a tree trunk to stop properly at the end of the steep driveway. Naturally this elicited odd looks.
Our wander in the shrubbery included the boys pointing out an apartment on the verge of the park that they just missed out on buying, removing a feisty bee caught in Laressa’s hair, and briefly watching a fashion photo shoot involving a young man with tattooed ribs standing in a flowerbed holding the lead of a beautifully groomed afghan hound.
We left this park for a 20-minute ride across town for lunch at Kralingse Bos, a lake large enough for sailing boats. Now, biking in a new land with new road rules is bound to have some interesting moments. While the boys turned right to head over the bridge, we missed our chance in the traffic leaving Laressa in the lurch and on the wrong side of the road. She laughed off the ensuing tumble trying to clamber into the cycleway, “just get back on the horse”. Our first job at the lake restaurant was cleaning up a grazed knee, her jeans now sporting a fashionable ‘distressed’ look.
Restaurant De Tuin van de Vier Windstreken is a dog walkers’ paradise with all manner of furry friends taking interest in each other and the passing plates of food while their dining owners enjoy the lake view between two windmills.
Being a public holiday for Ascension Day, the lake ‘beach’ was packed and the high ropes course in the woods busy. In a mix of old and new, children wove between cyclists on small electric skateboards (I’m not sure what these things are called!).
We headed back through the city to Central Station. It’d been a five-hour trip and we were all a bit saddlesore but even so I felt a tinge of sadness as I didn’t even have time to park up my colourful bike before an excited woman took it off me to start her ride.
Photo above by Ben Heijkoop.