I was a little apprehensive as I stepped onto the Eurolines coach at London’s Victoria coach station, a service that would take me to Rotterdam for a long weekend.
Ahead of us lay a 10-hour journey, via Eurotunnel and then a lengthy drive through France and Belgium. But in these grim days of spending cuts, job losses and trying to stretch money out as far as it can reach, why refuse a weekend in a thriving European city when the return fare is just £39?
That number kept a warm glow of contentment in my stomach as my friend and I whistled through two European countries. Time passed fairly quickly, partly because we packed accordingly (a laptop, MP3 player and magazines are all imperative).
We eventually arrived in Rotterdam, Holland’s second city, as it descended into autumnal evening darkness, with our minds firmly focused on cheap beer, a chance to relax, and perhaps taking in the odd cultural sight or two.
The evenings are a good time to appreciate the nocturnal nature of the city’s ultra-modern architecture, as the tall, imposing structures shine with spotlights and LED displays.
Our first stop was Hotel Bazaar, a buzzing Moroccan bar whose mismatched, bohemian stylings are a world away from the sleek modernity that rules supreme outside its doors.
Hefty portions of juicy kebabs, soft flatbreads and tangy dips were the perfect antidote to a day cooped up aboard the coach.
We soon discovered there was far more to Rotterdam’s nightlife, however, than a few bottles of Dutch lager and an early night.
Before long we were running the nightclub gauntlet, enjoying the truly democratic atmosphere of the city, where despite our ‘informal’ holiday attire, we were ushered into cool-looking venues by laid-back burly bouncers.
Once inside Worm, an art space where heavy beats are mixed with mind-bending light shows, I was served the biggest vodka shots I’ve ever seen. So large, in fact, I had to ask for a half-pint glass in order to accommodate any mixer at all.
After an hour or so, spurred on by liquor, we headed past the throng of garish jumpers, oversized fake glasses and multicoloured hairdos towards the exit, to Rotown.
This indie bar and club is one of the city’s best live music events. If any band has made it big in recent years, the chances are they have played this welcoming, 200-capacity venue.
Franz Ferdinand and Foals are among its alumni, and the owners are always chasing high quality live acts to book just before they their big break, and (hopefully) just after.
It all makes for a heady cocktail of experiences, albeit a dangerous one. Bar prices are similar to, if not cheaper than, those in Britain - and the measures are certainly far more generous.
The next morning, I awoke with a heavy head - and ready for Rotterdam’s best hangover cure: a bicycle ride around the city.
However, if you’re hoping to take in ancient cathedrals, narrow cobbled market squares and rickety bridges, you’re probably in the wrong city.
Rotterdam was flattened by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War and as a result, has precious few buildings predating 1940.
However, it has become, says our bicycling guide, a playground for architects and home to one of the best modern cityscapes in Europe, especially around the city’s port, one of the largest in the world.
Dominating this view is the Erasmus Bridge, a huge connecting point over the New Meuse river linking north and south Rotterdam. Nicknamed ‘The Swan’ because of its 139-metre asymmetrical neck-like pylon, it sums up the sense of originality and innovation that pervades the city, with its sleek lines and minimalist design.
The cranes and scaffolding on Rotterdam’s skyline remind you the city’s in a constant state of flux, driven by a desire to remain at the cutting edge. Indeed, architects take a very unique view to the longevity of their projects, with some only built to last around 20 years, before they’re pulled down and re-imagined.
But these temples of modernity aren’t all luxury hotels or high-rise offices. In fact, one of the city’s most enviable structures has been turned into a youth hostel.
Stayokay Rotterdam is located within the famous cube houses. Designed in 1984, these eye-catching structures create an urban ‘forest’, with each cube representing a tree. It’s by far the cheapest way to experience a piece of Rotterdam’s architectural history (www.stayokay.com).
Our home for the weekend, however, was the Bilderberg Park Hotel, which offers a special clubbing package including one night in an executive room, the use of their fitness room and sauna, plus champers on arrival and a bloody Mary late breakfast (plus optional late check-out!).
Later that day, we found that many of Rotterdam’s best parties take place in or around the city’s landmarks.
We attended a Housequake party at the famous cruise terminal, a wide glass-fronted behemoth building still used by large passenger vessels. On this night, however, it was hosting internationally renowned house DJs, Roog and Erick E.
Dutch club nights are visceral affairs, with sight as important as sound. Housequake was no exception, the beats complimenting the incredible views out over the New Meuse river and an array of bizarrely dressed dancers.
For those looking for a fun weekend, which mingles pleasure with exhilarating sights, Rotterdam is ideal.
It isn’t really a ‘to do list’ city, a place where you can mark off the main attractions, click your shutter a few times and then head home. Its beauty is in its atmosphere and modernity, plus the way in which it embraces tourists.
Striking a balance, without striking a pose. That’s how one of the locals described his city, as we got talking during our visit.
Its best art museum, for example, the excellent Boijmans Van Beuningen, places work by Kandinsky, Van Gogh and Dali, alongside lesser-known 21st century installations.
Clearly a very apt description for a friendly city ready to embrace the future.
:: Best for: Modern architecture, clubbing and a welcoming atmosphere.
:: Time to go: Year-round, although you’re more likely to avoid rain in the summer.
:: Don’t miss: A bicycle tour of city.
:: Need to know: Many bikes don’t have brakes on their handlebars, so you pedal backwards to slow down.
:: Don’t forget: Visit hollandclubbing.com and check out club nights before arrival. Promoters hire different venues depending on the event.
:: Neil Welch was a guest of Eurolines which offers a twice daily service between London and Rotterdam Weena, bus stop EE (3014 DA), via Lille and Brussels, from £39 return (with allowance of two large cases) if booked at least seven days in advance. For £15 return add-on, passengers can travel to London from any National Express location in UK. Call 0871 781 8177 or visit www.eurolines.co.uk.
Neil stayed Bilderberg Park Hotel, with doubles from 79 Euros. Visit www.bilderberg.nl/hotels/parkhotel-rotterdam for details of its special clubbing package. Beds at Stayokay Rotterdam hostel start at 18.50 Euros.
Visit www.holland.com for more details about the city.