I recently returned from the urban designer’s dream long weekend in the Netherlands. I’d been keen to visit Rotterdam for years and had eventually sold the idea of the trip to my long suffering (non-urban designer) husband after agreeing to run the Rotterdam marathon. My theory was, in a country synonymous with being flat, how hard could a marathon be? Turns out: pretty difficult, but more of that later…

Arriving into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, we made the simple transition downstairs to the train station and stepped straight onto the frequent train service to Rotterdam. Being a tediously thorough travel planner, I had tried to book this journey in advance, knowing full well what would happen in England if you turned up on the day of travel expecting to board a high speed train to another major city. To my delight (I love logic and fairness more than almost anything) I discovered that fares are fixed in Holland, no matter when you book: no punishing the uninitiated or those who may need to travel urgently. The fare was roughly £15 and the journey left precisely on time, passing through the flat, green landscape of the Netherlands, punctuated more than occasionally by a windmill (no, really).

This journey took just 26 quiet, litter and smell free minutes to deliver us to Rotterdam Centraal Station. And WHAT a Station! I think I fell in love with Rotterdam the second I arrived. We talk often about stations creating gateways into cities, but in Rotterdam, the arrival experience is more like being birthed into the heart of the city: the view being perfectly framed by the station’s impressive interior, then dramatically opened, revealing a perfect arrival plaza for this ultra-modern marvel of Dutch design.

As a keen cyclist, I am always excited to visit destinations known for cycling. It goes without saying that Holland is a world leader in the provision of cycle infrastructure. In many ways the Dutch had no excuses for not adopting cycling: their flat landscape lends itself perfectly to being traversed by bike. But the way that they have embraced two wheels within their urban areas is something to inspire every city around the world.

As a former bike commuter, now too physically and emotionally damaged by the experience of cycling in Birmingham to consider braving it again, I looked on with great envy as people of all ages, right down to primary school children made their way home, unaccompanied and entirely safe on the interconnected network of segregated cycle lanes. It’s just a fact of life over there. No lycra or helmet required!

Aligned with this were low levels of vehicle congestion within the city centre, even at ‘rush’ hours. As a runner who has become increasingly preoccupied with air quality, Rotterdam also has a noticeably better pollution level than home: no cloak of smog hanging over the skyline, no gritty gulps of air while running.

So, to running… Having really enjoyed my first marathon last year in Birmingham, signing up to Rotterdam in the immediate aftermath seemed like a great idea as a means of staying motivated over winter. I’m not one for excuses, but this winter’s weather was notfun to train through – then my training was completely curtailed by an untimely knee injury in late January which had me in a full leg brace. With only a few tentative runs back from injury, I hadn’t expected to make the start line, but hell, I was there, I had my trainers and a diabetic coma’s worth of gel – so why not give it a go?

Awaking on marathon day to the forecast of an unseasonable 22 degrees was cruel. Hydration was going to be a challenge! I can attest that the Dutch attitude to sustainability is fully integrated: no bottled water at the water stations, instead recyclable cups, which I singularly failed to consume for the first 15km, instead choking, throwing it down myself and swearing profusely, all the while becoming increasingly dehydrated. This couldn’t go on. I decided to put ego to one side and walk through the water stations. From there, I’m pleased to say things eventually improved (15-27 km were nothing short of a horror show).

In spite of the challenge, Rotterdam is a great city to run a marathon: visually stimulating, highly varied, wide routes, incredible support and TWO goes at the 800m long Erasmus Bridge, a spine tingling experience, particularly the second time, as gel number four kicked in! Very proud to say I finished – the blood, sweat, tears and toenails lost in pursuit of that medal have scorched the city into my memory in a way that no walking tour or bus trip ever could. I can’t recommend it highly enough to any other distance runners: just remember to bring your own (reusable!) water bottles if you like to drink on the run!

In part 2, I will run through my architectural highlights of Rotterdam…