I awoke quite early on the morning of the 11th April and it wasn’t due to being in a communal room of six as all my young fellow travellers behaved in an exemplary manner, it had been the old man i.e. me that was last to bed but that is not unusual. I do not wish to be indelicate but I do not have need of an alarm clock because at my age I have a bladder to perform the function for me.
I wandered downstairs to the breakfast room where there was an excellent continental breakfast type spread laid on although I contented myself with some excellent coffee (another thing the Dutch do exceptionally well), some orange juice and a couple of slices of very tasty Dutch cheese. Is there anything the Dutch aren’t good at?
With the amount and variety on offer I reckon that if the traveller is on a really tight budget then eating up heartily at breakfast would easily keep them going until the evening meal which would be simple to prepare for themselves here as I would say it is one of the best hostel kitchens I have ever seen. It has ample cutlery, crockery and every imaginable utensil not to mention the most comprehensively stocked hostel larder imaginable. As with the garden I shall let the reader draw their own conclusions.
On what was to prove to be a three and a half month tour in Europe (sorry about the spoiler) I stayed in many hostels – one horror, a few acceptable but nothing to write home about and several that were absolutely outstanding. Ani & Haakien hostel in Rotterdam is certainly in the latter category. It is exceptional on every level as I hope to explain.
Firstly location. Most of the reason I picked it was for it’s proximity to Centraal Station as I don’t want to be messing about with taxis to end up on the outskirts of town somewhere. Forget that but even for a pensioner like me with luggage it was the work of five minutes. I realise that many backpackers will be on budgets and prefer a cheaper alternative to the train and the national and international coach station is adjacent to the rail station so those travel options are equally well served.
I had wandered into the bright and modern reception area to be greeted with a cheery smile and greeting. I was to find out during my stay here that this is not a “have a nice day” type of smile as I call it but was undoubtedly genuine. The young staff here are remarkably friendly and even seem to hang around the place when they are not actually on duty. I had a few lengthy and fascinating conversations with several of them. I firmly believe that any establishment is only as good as the staff and on that basis alone this hostel is world-class.
Having been allotted my bunk I had headed upstairs to stow the kit and it was immediately evident that this was a very arts orientated operation as there were bits and bobs of art everywhere. All this before I had even seen the common area or garden! I just knew it was absolutely right for me and so it was to transpire. The room was the standard hostel affair and I was just about to say that it was clean and tidy but it was a hostel room so it was clean! I was later to find out that the bunk was comfortable and long enough for me which is not always the case. Please remember that whilst this appears on the date of the 11th this all happened on the evening of the 10th.
I did have a quick glance around but decided to leave it until the morning to have a proper look round and so off to bed. In the daylight of the earlyish next morning and what a wonderful place this is. It is immaculately kept and comfortable but it was only when I went out the back for a smoke that I discovered the jewel in the crown which is the garden area and is utterly delightful as well as being downright relaxing, I’d love to hang out there in summer. It is also very”green orientated” as is the whole hostel. Everything is recycled and so on which has to be a good thing, I think. I’ll let the images do the talking for me, the reader will undoubtedly be glad to know.
Back upstairs for a quick shower which more than fulfilled my second accommodation requirement, namely a decent water pressure and plenty of hot water. In keeping with the rest of the premises the washrooms were immaculately maintained throughout my entire stay.
I had decided on a few hours trying to get my journal up to date (I was behind even then) with a few beers from the hostel. There is no bar per se but they sell beer from a fridge at reasonable prices. Guests are at liberty to bring their own alcohol and there is a large Aldi supermarket about ten minute’s walk away.
Finally, I cannot conclude without a word about Suzy, the final staff member who, when not trying to stare out the guests, is fond of licking herself. Before you start wondering, Suzy is an adorable cat and even has her own website.
I think it is no fluke on the part of the “higher powers” that it’s postal address is Coolsestraat 47-49 as it is easily one of the coolest places I have ever stayed.
Whilst returning from the breakfast room to where I was sitting in the rather pleasant communal area I spied a noticeboard with a list of daily suggestions for things to do and this being a Tuesday the daytime suggestion was for a highlights walking tour with “fabulous Frank”, whoever he might have been, beginning at 1100. I made enquiry at the desk and was told that Frank would be along soon. I should mention here that “fabulous” is not a soubriquet he applies to himself, the hostel do it.
I should also point out here that I have only once or twice, to my recollection, been on a guided walk as the idea of them just makes me uncomfortable for some obscure and unfathomable reason. I prefer to roam about alone. Frank duly appeared, a very tall young guy with long, blond hair and an extremely friendly demeanour. He didn’t try to push me at all as I still had not really made up my mind whether to go or not but we chatted of this and that and it transpired that he had lived in London for some time which may partially have accounted for his faultless English although I believe he is originally Polish. I was much taken by the guy and decided to go on his walk which I do like doing anyway. My companions were to be two Belgian couples who turned out to be charming so it was not like being in a coach trip party as we were such a small group.
I won’t go into the route in detail here as frankly I cannot remember it exactly now but I have to say that Frank was utterly brilliant with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city. I was particularly interested in the way he described the events of post World War Two where the entire centre of the city was essentially obliterated by Nazi German bombardment.
Rotterdam is an old city and there were many historic buildings damaged although some were still capable of being saved but, with the exception of a scant few, the city fathers took the decision to literally tear down the lot and start all over which is why the city is so modern looking now. Amazingly, they had started drawing up plans for the redevelopment literally a few weeks after the bombardment stopped. Work finally began in 1946 and they basically rebuilt a city in a very few years. It was all remarkably interesting stuff.
It was all going swimmingly well and so something had to go wrong sooner or later, and it did. Frank had told us we were coming to the last point of interest, of which there had been many, which was the Markt Haus (Market House) close by and then he would tell us a quick way home. Rotterdam is very compact and we had literally not been more than 15 minutes walk from the hostel at any point.
Naturally, the Market House is near the market and we were walking through a very crowded and interesting street market. I love street markets but it was not that which caused my downfall. I stopped to take an “arty” picture of an old Church and when I looked round the rest of them were nowhere to be seen. I mentioned earlier that Frank is a tall guy with a shock of blond hair and I stand 6’5″ so I thought it would be no problem to spot him over the crowd. Wrong! Admittedly it was very busy but they had just vanished. Ah well, no problem as I knew where the hostel was.
When I say there was no problem, actually there was. Frank does not charge a set fee for his tours but invites his clients to tip him what they think it was worth and, believe me, it was worth a lot. I was a bit worried he would think I had “done a runner” to avoid giving him money but that was resolved later in the evening when I ran into him back at the hostel and did indeed give him what I thought his brilliant tour had been worth. I’ll include a few more images from the tour here.
In cases such as this there is only one solution and that is to adopt Fergy SOPs (Standard Operational Procedures) i.e. find a bar and so off I went. Normally, I would have dived into the first bar I saw but for some reason I walked past a couple of perfectly acceptable looking venues. I am quite used to things like this happening to me and don’t consciously dwell on it, I just go where the mood takes me.
Turning into a street I now know to be called Mauritsweg I saw the rather strange sight of a fairly modern and slightly odd-looking building sandwiched two traditional old Dutch structures which was obviously a cafe / bar called I put this down to the street probably having been bombed in World War Two when the Germans virtually obliterated central Rotterdam.
Despite the fact that there was only one other customer there, a lady with a glass of wine watching the world go by, I went in. It was lunchtime so my normal instinct would have been that the place was unpopular, for which there must be an explanation, and avoided it but I didn’t. Looking round, it was clean and tidy with no apparent reason for the lack of patrons.
I walked past the hugely ornate wooden chair you can see in the images and wondered what it was doing there as the rest of the decor was modern. I actually thought it was a salvaged pulpit from an old church somewhere although the significance eluded me. I ordered my beer from the friendly barman who appeared to be quite busy doing various chores behind the bar. I later found out that the place is primarily a gay nightclub which is open until 0500 so he was probably just sorting out some odds and ends from the night before.
Another quick beer and I went on my way thinking nothing more about what looked to me like just another Dutch bar if slightly architecturally quirky. It was only whilst writing this some months later that I discovered De Unie is of considerable artistic importance and here is a very brief potted history. De Unie was not originally here at all but in nearby Coolsingel where it was indeed bombed during the war. It had been designed by J.J.P. Oud, a leading member of de Stijl (the Style) which was a Dutch artistic / architectural movement of the 1920s known as neo-plasticism, whatever that is. No, I had never heard of any of this so travel does indeed broaden the mind!
In 1986 an architect called Weeber came up with the idea of completely reconstructing De Unie in a spare “hole” in the current location which is what he did. As I say, this is only a brief overview but an internet search of anything I have mentioned so far is so fascinating it took me well over four hours to compose this brief piece in the first place.
Knowing the history of the building is great and whilst researching it I also found out what the “pulpit” was all about. Although not an original piece it is of artistic interest also. J.J.P. Oud had designed this piece which was rather prosaically called Chair 07B which, for various reasons, was never realised. When de Unie was being rebuilt the interior designer, a chap called Hopman, sought and obtained permission from Oud’s heirs to produce a limited edition of 52 of these chairs which he did. It is all clear to me now.
As a bar it is perfectly fine and I have no complaints at all although I cannot help but wonder why I walked past others to go in here. Strange things happen to me!
Update July 2018.
I do like to constantly check my information and have found out whilst re-researching this for publication here that the premises went bankrupt in October 2017. I do wonder what happened to the chair.
I navigated myself back to the general area of the hostel but of course it was still early afternoon and all that walking had made me thirsty so the hostel got a bit of a body swerve and the very pleasant Holy Smoke bar / restaurant, which I mentioned in the previous instalment, received my full attention until I returned home at a ridiculously early hour for me.
Before I departed however I ended up sampling one of the strangest things I have ever drunk in my life and I have drunk some very strange things, believe me. I had seen on the chalkboard of the constantly changing draught beers an item billed as “Kitchen Confidential – piccalilli beer”.
This interested me on two levels as “Kitchen Confidential” is the title of an absolutely excellent book by the world-acclaimed chef Anthony (Tony) Bourdain. It is a wonderful read about the lives of haute cuisine chefs in the 1980’s in New York where they used to stay awake on cocaine for 72 hours to prepare the most obscenely decadent feasts for the super rich of that city. It is brutally honest and well worth seeking out. As an aside Tony used to be a “star” writer on the now butchered Virtual Tourist website where I invested 12 happy years of my life. I am editing this for inclusion here in July 2018 and it was only a couple of weeks ago that I heard the very sad news that Tony had committed suicide. What a waste.
The second reason for my interest was that it was a piccalilli beer, what the Hell was that? I adore pickles of all sorts and even have a strange notion that food merely exists in many cases to supplement the so-called condiments. In my time I have drunk banana beer, garlic beer, chilli beer and a host of others but how was anyone ever going to pull piccallili beer off? It sounded too ludicrous even for my rather odd palate, if indeed I can be said to have one.
I spoke to my young lady friend from the night before thinking it had perhaps been a mistranslation of Piccadilly in London and therefore denoting some sort of London ale but I was assured that, no, it was a picallili beer from the Jopen brewery which is highly respected and, like so many in this region, linked to a religious order. This simply had to be done and so a large glass was ordered. I am not a beer snob and know little about it except drinking it but I must confess I did a little beer snobbery by actually sniffing the product (or nosing, or whatever the purists call it) and I swear it was just like opening a jar of that particular pickle. I feel I can speak on this as I even spent a very long time making my own once some years ago. Too much like hard work for me to attempt again although it tasted great!
Time for the taste test now and it was simply divine, one of the best beers I have ever drunk. I know it sounds like a totally mad idea but it works so well. I do not know what the base beer was, I suspect probably a duvel but you cannot argue with these guys as they have been brewing for literally centuries, indeed technically millenia now. I doubt it is available for export but if you can source it, do. Mortgage your home to do it and you will not regret it because it is that good. Beer and pickles all in the one glass made for a very happy Fergy.
I eventually tore myself away from the very obvious delights of Holy Smoke via a local supermarket where I stocked up on a strange selection of bread rolls, pickled herring, cocktail sauce and garlic butter amongst other things and that formed the basis of the “Chez Fergy plat du jour” for the evening before settling in for an evening’s writing with a few cans of beer from the local “nightshop” which actually seemed to be open all the time. As I have said before I do have a strange taste in food when I do get round to eating occasionally.
I was still going well at that point so off to the extreme altitude of the fourth floor and an upper bunk. I nearly got a nosebleed but I did manage another good night’s sleep despite the room being full again.
After the exertions of the previous day, enjoyable as they were, the 12th was given over entirely to sitting about the hostel drinking excellent Dutch beer from the very tidy and well-stocked bar, eating yet more pickled herring (I really do love them) and trying desperately to keep this journal up which I really was finding difficult to do. As there is not much to report on this date I shall lump it in with the previous day.
I had tried blogging before when I was also writing my tips on Virtual Tourist and I really do struggle with juggling the two as I always like to research my tips / reviews fully and I would say that a single review would rarely take me much less than an hour and often considerably longer so the time really does mount up. Add on the writing required for journal entries and it probably explains why I ended up writing this entry on a train between Metz and Nancy in France exactly a fortnight after the events described.
After my day of writing, eating and drinking it was off for another great nights sleep. I was having a ball with the thought of going home never even crossing my mind.
In the next instalment I move on from Rotterdam and things start to go a bit pear-shaped with very interesting results so stay tuned and spread the word.