The two Dutch ‘dams pt. I: Rotterdam

In June (I know, I’m very slow at writing) I visited the Netherlands twice, just for a few days both times. I am still in love with how easy and cheap it is just to hop on a train in Belgium and get to a lot of places: it is not really a thing you can do in Finland. From Finland you can only get to Russia relatively easily by train (and I’m not too interested in Russia due to some, uhh, political differences of opinion), and getting anywhere else requires either quite a long detour, a boat or a plane. I feel like I haven’t traveled by train nearly enough. What was in Finland “just hopping on the train to get to the next bigger city” is here more like “I just traveled halfway through the whole country”.

So, Rotterdam. The first of my Dutch “weekend” trips, this one actually on a weekend. I went to there as a relatively last minute decision, as there was a meeting of Finnish women living abroad (if you are a Finnish woman living abroad, I can say only good things about the women in Finnish Women Worldwide, such an amazing lot). I figured I might learn a thing or two and have a good excuse to see something else of the Netherlands than just Amsterdam. I love Amsterdam, but I figured that city with its coffee shops and tourist hordes is probably not the perfect example of your average Dutch town, so might as well see what else the country has on offer.

I call this statue “The Mansplainer”, just because of the expressions of the women.

The actual event was on Saturday, so I had the Friday afternoon and evening to spend just walking around near the hotel and get to know my surroundings. Except, of course, it was raining quite a lot. The rain actually started approximately 2 minutes after I walked out of the Rotterdam central train station, because of course it did.

So I walked to the hotel, checked in, spent some time just unpacking my luggage, drinking some water after the relatively warm train trip and the walk, and then looking up what there exactly is to do in Rotterdam and what I might eat somewhere nearby. And then just got stuck in the hotel even after the rain stopped, because I made the mistake of laying down for a bit… and browsing for even more ideas instead of actually going for any of the ones I already found out earlier.

In the end I did get my lazy butt out of the hotel for a little walk, mostly because I was starting to feel like I really needed food. Hunger gets me out of the house (or hotel) every time. I had noticed that very near my hotel there was an African restaurant, and I figured I would give it a try. I had never before visited an African restaurant, after all. Not even a Moroccan restaurant, really, the closest I have ever got before was a Turkish restaurant, and that’s not even technically in Africa. Here the selection was more East African/Coastal. Of course I had to give it a try.

Viva Afrika and its safari theme.

The restaurant in question was Viva Afrika. Just walking in there made me feel like I was ported somewhere else than Rotterdam. I’ve never been in Africa, and I’m sure quite a lot of the decor was just for us who know no better, but I loved the slightly over-the-top feeling, the super friendly service, and the fact that I had to actually google some things on the menu to understand what they were. It has been a while since I last saw a menu where there were so many completely new things. It always gives me a bit of a buzz, to not know what I’ll be getting exactly.

The East Africal special. Yum!

As the picture above says, I had the East African special. I decided on that because it had a selection of different things, and as I said, I had never eaten anything from that part of the world. There is some fish, lamb, chicken, spinach, lentils, and mixed vegetables in that set. And of course the enjeras (or injeras), the flatbreads or sort of pancakes that doubled as utensils. The food was eaten with the flatbreads as a sort of a scoop.

I was not very graceful while eating, perhaps, but I did manage to stuff myself way too full either way. I ate so much, in fact, that the waiter just looked at my almost-empty plate for half a second longer than he probably usually would have, and even mentioned “you ate a lot”. Oops! I told him I had been taught to eat everything on my plate, and that I’m sorry I left some of the vegetables… And he just replied that they would feel like they are doing something wrong if I HAD eaten all of the food, as it would seem that their portions are too small. I felt a bit silly afterwards, but also rather amused.

The food was amazing, though, so no wonder I stuffed myself silly. All the meat and fish dishes were a bit spicy, but since I like spicy, I didn’t mind at all. The vegetable dishes were milder, but also excellent as sort of palate cleansers. I feel like I would happily eat East African food again, given the chance. Sadly I think that might not happen any time soon, unless I get out of Ostend again. I am rather sure that there are no such restaurants near here, and frankly speaking, Belgians are often such traditionalists that such a place would not probably fare well in such a small city, either.

Gotta love them “No parking” signs in the middle of a park…

All of my Saturday was at the Finnish women event. First there was the official program, some food, some coffee, a lot of laughing, not to mention a lot of facts and interesting info, and then in the evening there was a possibility to go to the sauna, eat more food, drink a bunch of Finnish drinks, then eat even more food… Needless to say, I enjoyed myself quite a bit, even if I had never met any of the people there before. And all the food was utterly Finnish and rather home-made: it didn’t look especially appealing, but I think we all enjoyed the nostalgia the dishes brought with them. Thus no pictures. Nostalgia doesn’t photograph well, after all!

But enough of that. Less about official stuff, more about the (different kind of) fun stuff! I had read that the zoo in Rotterdam was at some point voted as the best one in the Benelux, so of course I had to go check it out. Because you know me and zoos, right? How could I resist a zoo that people said is very good?! Well, of course I couldn’t!

The red panda couldn’t hide from me, even if it did try!

And a good zoo it was. Just the right size to get fully through in one day without rushing, and relatively easy to reach (at least from the side of town my hotel was in). The animals looked very, very happy. A bunch of them were just playing around and enjoying the sunshine, mostly ignoring the humans staring and pointing and getting all excited. I feel like one of the polar bears was even putting on a show for the viewers, really.

And this was the first time I actually saw an okapi properly. They tend to always go inside the moment I get to their outside enclosure, and usually need their peace and quiet so that you cannot see them when they are inside. And this okapi almost blinded me with the shine of its fur. I actually spent probably 15 minutes just staring at it, so beautiful and healthy-looking it was. I hope one day it gets to do its part in giving a dose of fresh genes to the gene pool of the wild population, too.

The usually elusive okapi posing.

I also went to see the bird flight demonstration, because I often learn new things in shows where the zookeepers explain things about the zoo animals. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was held in a completely open area. The birds just flew there and back completely free: no tents, no nets, no leashes. The show in London Zoo (which included also meerkats, for example, not just birds) was organized in a tent, and the animals could get out if they wished, but this fully open area was so much better. Of course, it also means that if the weather is bad, there will most likely not be a show, but I doubt too many people are eager to spend their day in a zoo anyway if the weather is bad.

Great hornbill, the biggest of the flight show birds (wingspan of approx. 1.5 m).

After a day of walking around in the zoo on a surprisingly warm day, I felt the need to get some food and a lot of drinks. I had, of course, done my research on nearby food places rather thoroughly, and ended up heading towards a Thai restaurant that had some good reviews around the Internet: Soi3.

Nua Phad Nam Prik Phao, omnomnom.

The portion might not look like much, but I couldn’t even finish it all. It was also marked with two red dots in the menu for spiciness, and while I was tempted by the one dish marked with four red dots, I’m very happy I decided against it in the end. I think I might have been crying from spiciness while eating if I had taken that one. Which, to be perfectly honest, is what I do often while I eat Thai food, and I do it on purpose, too. Still, this portion was already the kind of spicy where I didn’t feel the need to ask for anything extra on it, and could still eat without needing too many tissues. The service was, again, impeccable: their card reader did not work that day, so they just told me how to reach the closest ATM. Without leaving anything as collateral. They just trusted me to go get the cash and still come back to pay. I guess I look somehow trustworthy, then. So I went to get cash, went back to pay, thanked them for their trust and the amazing food and went to suffer from a food coma in the hotel again, as I was heading back the next morning, and still had some work to finish before hopping on the train. Trains and stable Internet connections do not seem to be a good match.

The slightly less playful of the polar bears.

All in all, I’d say Rotterdam was interesting, based on my fast visit. I didn’t really have much time to spend in museums or other actual “high culture” places, as I only had one and a half day to spend as I wished. And opted for the zoo on that one full day, to keep my inner child happy. But the food scene definitely made an impression on me. As did the people: everyone I talked to was incredibly nice and helpful, even more so than in Amsterdam. And people in Amsterdam are also mostly incredibly nice and helpful. Darned Dutchies, why do they have to be so NICE! Even after having to deal with probably gazillionty silly tourists on a daily basis.

Rotterdam is not as touristy as Amsterdam, and I think it shows in a lot of ways. It has less of big, fancy museums and experiences, but somehow it feels more authentic because of it. It is more a city for the people that live in there, and you can walk around town without trying to avoid the confused (and possibly drunk and stoned) tourists. I think I will need to visit again, but maybe with more of a plan. Planning what to do while already in the city was not really my thing. I prefer to have a bunch of pre-decided options that I can then pick and choose from based on the time I have to spend. At least I learned something new about myself with this trip. And met new people. And ate well. And saw an okapi!

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