THE Erasmus year abroad is an important part of many students' education nowadays.
No such opportunities existed in my youth, but last July I got a chance to visit the hometown of Desiderius Erasmus. And I'm sure the philosopher would have approved of my reasons for going: the annual North Sea Jazz Festival and a delightful city break.
Tall buildings rising into a clear blue sky -- that was the first impression as we emerged from Rotterdam Central railway station. Most of the old city was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, and rebuilt in a modern style afterwards. One of the highest skyscrapers is the aptly named Manhattan Hotel, where we checked in.
Originally a fishing village, Rotterdam became an important port in the 14th Century. In 1968, a new deep-sea port, the Europoort, was completed. Jutting out into the North Sea, it is now the largest port in the world, handling 350 million tonnes of goods a year. As for the city itself, there are those who claim that it beats Amsterdam for atmosphere, night-life, friendly people and things to do.
Lunching outdoors at the Bazar Restaurant, Witte de Withstraat, we enjoyed a selection of goodies from North Africa and the Middle East, washed down with water -- no wine, because an active afternoon lay ahead.
While my fitter companions set off on a two-hour cycling trip, I opted for a walking tour. Beginning on an educational note, we looked at the statue of the philosopher Erasmus. The original wooden sculpture was replaced by a bronze one which stands in Grote Kerkplein. The 15th-16th-Century scholar is shown turning the pages of a large book, contentedly absorbed in his reading. Nowadays, his name is widely known to students in several countries who take an Erasmus year at a university abroad during their studies. He also has a bridge named after him, the 800-metre Erasmusbrug which spans the Maas River.
Near the Oudehaven (Old Harbour) I saw the oldest skyscraper in Europe, built in 1898 and more attractive than its stark-looking modern counterparts.
But the strangest architectural oddity in the area is the row of yellow cube houses, tilted at a tipsy angle and forming a bridge above the road. Designed by Piet Blom in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the houses are pretty to look at, but it must be disorientating to live in one.
For a change of scene, we took the Metro to the historic quarter of Delfshaven, where the brick houses are more like those in Amsterdam. This was where the English pilgrims lived before going to America in the 17th Century.
After a pause for ice cream, we returned to the hotel by tram. I had a rest before meeting up with the cyclists who had enjoyed their tour on the rented bikes. Dinner was in the restaurant Smaak, a restored warehouse complex with a glass roof. It was good, but by then some of us were impatient to get to the main event of the weekend: the North Sea Jazz Festival.
A direct Metro line took us straight to Zuidplein and the vast Ahoy building where the festival takes place. With an abundance of choice, we separated according to our different tastes. My first destination was the Amazon room and Dianne Reeves; later in the Hudson (all the venues are named after rivers), I heard the Joshua Redman group. No problem about getting back to the hotel in the small hours, because the Metro ran until 3am over the festival weekend.
The hotel bed was the most comfortable this side of heaven, and breakfast ran until a civilised 11am, so no need to get up early on Saturday. But smokers beware: the Manhattan's anti-tobacco policy is not to be trifled with. Not only is the entire hotel a smoke-free zone, but a notice explains that evidence of smoking in the room would incur €175 extra on the bill for cleaning. No sign of the famous Dutch tolerance there.
A tour of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen revealed a fascinating collection of treasures, from medieval paintings to present-day installations. My favourites were Pieter Bruegel the Elder's lopsided Tower of Babel, with its head in the clouds, and Rembrandt's portrait of his son Titus, sitting dreamy-eyed over his homework.
From there we went to the port. A short trip by water taxi took us to Las Palmas restaurant where we quenched our thirst with champagne before digging into a huge seafood lunch. A platter of shellfish was followed by turbot and an ice-cream dessert.
On Saturday night we enjoyed a pre-jazz cocktail at the trendy Restaurant Level. Cocktails are not usually my thing, but that Orange Mojito could convert me. Between the Metro station and the Ahoy building we were drenched by a sudden heavy downpour -- the only rain we saw that weekend. I dried out while listening to the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet, the brilliant Chick Corea Freedom Band and the lyrical Kenny Barron Quartet.
Audiences were attentive, except for a small number of "butterflies" who only stayed for two or three numbers of each concert before dashing off to hear someone else. Drinking was moderate, and there was no sign of the type of "only-there-for-the-crack" rowdies who can sometimes mar music festivals. Stalls selling CDs, T-shirts, bags and other North Sea souvenirs were doing thriving business.
In such a short city break, there were obviously some experiences we did not get around to. There wasn't enough time to take a cruise on the Spido boat or visit the Nederlands Fotomuseum, while "Splashtours", an amphibious bus that leaves the road to sail on the Maas River, was cancelled due to technical problems. Only one solution: go back to Rotterdam some other time.
Grainne Farren was a guest of Holland Art Cities (www.holland artcities.com). She flew with Aer Lingus from Dublin to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, then travelled by train to Rotterdam. The North Sea Jazz Festival is an annual event that takes place over three days in July and features some of the biggest names in jazz.