Getting to Know BeNeLux: Utrecht, Rotterdam

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are often grouped together as “BeNeLux.” The three small, bordering countries have overlapping languages, policies and vibes, and as a resident of Belgium, I feel a personal duty to be adequately acquainted with all before returning to the States.

Firstly — It’s true! I’m officially a resident of Brussels. The paperwork isn’t completely finished, but I’m documented with an identification card and everything. With near success a whopping six months later, I’m too relieved to be annoyed at the bureaucracy any longer.

So my little side trip last weekend to Holland was legal. Hooray!

As a professor canceled class on Thursday, and I don’t have classes on Fridays, I enjoyed four days in the land of bikes and windmills.

Bicycle riders in Utrecht
Old Utrecht with its thousands of bicycles

My first two days were spent in Utrecht, an adorable city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train. It’s one of Holland’s oldest yet liveliest — a student city home to one of the country’s most respected universities.

Canal in Utrecht
One of Utrecht's many canals

Between the spread of canals and cobbled alleys, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Utrecht. I spent a lot of time drawing comparisons to other cities — it’s like a smaller Amsterdam, but with the young energy it feels a lot like Ghent too. And while I biked alongside other students through the outskirts of downtown, I felt like I was back at the University of California, Davis.

The slight nostalgia continued in Rotterdam. The city center was destroyed during World War II thanks to some German bombing sprees, so the rebuilt Rotterdam is essentially a new city.

Modern architecture in Rotterdam
Crazy "modern" architecture in Rotterdam, including its famed cube houses

When I got off my train Friday night, I was amazed at how much I felt like I was in America. I was walking alongside tall office buildings and modern window displays, overwhelmed by consumerism for the first time since I’ve been in Europe.

I still find it a bit amusing that Rotterdam and Amsterdam have a fierce rivalry. Given how incredibly different the two cities look — “skyscrapers” and funky 1970’s “modern” architecture compared to the classic Dutch brick upon brick — it’s hard to see where comparisons are made. But there are similarities. The two biggest cities in the country are both hotspots for culture and art, boasting loads of museums and special events. Coffeeshops are prevalent in both, although made into far more of a tourist spectacle in Amsterdam, while Rotterdam hosts a more well renowned nightlife. Rotterdam’s skyline reflects its more cutting-edge offerings.

Erasmus bridge and Rotterdam skyline
The Erasmus bridge and Rotterdam skyline

It’s easy to feel at-ease in the Netherlands in general, not just because of its closeness to Belgium, but for its liberal nature and kind inhabitants. And the trip was cheap — with couchsurfing and spending a few more hours on buses instead of trains, I managed to spend less than 70 euros in total for four days of fun!

I’ll get to round out my Dutch experience with an ISA-led excursion to The Hague and Delft at the end of the semester. Combined with an imminent weekend trip to Luxembourg and my past travels through other Belgian cities, I think I’ll be leaving BeNeLux with a fairly thorough education to this second home’s varied wonders.

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog

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