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Though I’m not a travel writer, I’d like to share a recent visit to a place I had previously never considered exploring, but, having read a book by a Facebook and Twitter friend and seen pictures of it on her pages, I resolved to stop and have a look at her world. I occasionally pass close to this location, but am always en route to somewhere else (Aren’t we all?), with deadlines and people to meet, and it had never before spoken to me with seductive siren tones nor even given me a glimpse of its hidden beauties and charms.
This time, I wasn’t even sure if we would manage the detour, but my husband and I started out early from Germany and covered the intervening kilometres without delay, aided by what he had always previously eschewed but which now proved absolutely essential, sat nav. Negotiating foreign cities, especially those with road systems apparently designed to doom motorists to madness, is always fraught with tension; navigating Rotterdam’s streets may be a piece of coffee and walnut to its residents, but without help or prior knowledge, the new visitor might as well be in the wilderness.
We were heading for Oude Haven, the ‘Old Port’, or the oldest harbour in the city, now home to a collection of historic Dutch barges which Valerie Poore, @vallypee, not only writes about in her books, but has lived on and restored here, for Oude Haven is a working museum with a team of enthusiastic owners, metal- and wood-working skills and the heavy gear to lift huge vessels out of the water to repair and return them to their original state.
I can tell a nightmare story of parking in Amsterdam, which perhaps I’ll relate here some other time, so we were prepared with plenty of small change to feed the greedy meters and defy the wardens, when we eventually turned into Haringvliet, which we had strolled down on Google Maps and determined as our best stopover point for the harbour; however, our research had not been thorough enough, as we discovered that the meters are not fed with money, but with prepaid cards to be got from a range of locations (however, it was a Sunday and we had no means of finding them easily). Then we discovered, by dint of guessing at the truly double Dutch meter instructions that some meters could be accessed by credit card, but we couldn’t immediately see one of those. The masts of the barges and the gorgeous array of moored boats just in front of us seemed to float off into the mists of meter mania.
Rescue came in the form of a bluff but very personable gentleman who had just been buying flowers from the stall at one end of Haringvliet, where, he said, was a credit card meter. Not only did he walk us to it, but used his own card to meet our two-hour stay and accepted our cash payment only very reluctantly. How’s that for hospitality?
The way was now open to explore, albeit quite briefly, the harbour and to locate Vereeniging, the elegant barge belonging to Valerie. The place is a marvel of architecture, considering that most of the area was flattened in WWII. Perhaps most striking is Het Witte Huis, The White House, an art-nouveau skyscraper building designed by architect Willem Molenbroek and erected in 1897-1898, which miraculously escaped destruction in 1940 and which still towers over the port, though it has long since lost its original place as the tallest multi-storey structure; the eye is then ineluctably drawn to the astonishing ‘Kubuswoningen’ or ‘Cube Houses’, the 1984 brainchild of architect Piet Blom, just along the wharf.
But we were here, as lovers of English canal boats and boating, to look at what was on the water (or, in the case of barge Luna, raised out of it to the dockside repair cradle and undergoing some heavy metal treatment – welding was well under way, if the boat wasn’t!). The barges are remarkable, with their sheer size, huge masts and characteristic leeboards (for they are sailing cargo vessels), and we should have loved to have been able to look inside them.
Vereeniging, just about the smallest of them all, nestled in her elegant green and red livery amongst the others… and I could see at a glance what had captured Valerie’s heart about her. She seemed so much more of a living presence, thanks to my reading of ‘Watery Ways’, and her character was buoyant and bubbly, with all the sprightliness and effervescence of a gig compared to the barouche landau sedateness of most of the other boats. I can’t wait to read the next instalment of her history, ‘Harbour Ways’, now in the making! An old bicycle stood to attention on the deck; theft of about eight others has made the owner chary of leaving a valuable machine on board.
We walked around the harbour, ate and drank local beer at one of the cafés (probably not the best one!) and captured a picture of Vereeniging’s stern from across the water. Strolling back along the other side of Haringvliet, we came upon the corpse of a once-yellow bicycle rescued from the muddy depths (but unlikely to be restored like the barges!) and said hello to a ship’s cat, a ginger pirate with the capacity to leap eight feet from deck to harbour steps and to take his ease in the sun.
But time had sadly run out for further sightseeing. We had avoided the parking police, thank goodness, and sailed away to Europoort with the powerful sensation of having travelled to somewhere very special indeed. The homeward ferry was a terribly disappointing contrast to what we had just been seeing.