1870 and all that (ii): Metz

IMG_20130915_105044 webI stood in the lobby of a French hotel in a German building, in the German district of a French city, chatting in my Belgian-accented French with the receptionist, who replied in German.

Welcome to Metz. Alles klar? Avez-vous compris?

I’m fascinated by the cultural and linguistic shatterland between French and German Europe, which extends all the way from Charlemagne’s Aachen in the north to the Matterhorn in the south. Here, bier faces off against baguette and sauerkraut becomes ineffably French by the simple expedient of changing its name. On old maps German Aachen resurfaces as Francophone Aix-la-Chapelle and French Thionville as the thoroughly German-sounding Diedenhofen. In the midst of all this the people of Luxembourg converse in their own High Germanic language and the good folk of Neutral Moresnet mourn the loss of their quasi-independent statelet, which once drove a microscopic wedge between Belgium and Germany. Or perhaps not, since it disappeared in the redrawing of boundaries that followed World War One and there is no obvious clamour for its return.

Nowadays these are the most convincingly European of all European regions, where crossing from one country to another involves nothing more than a slower speed limit and a brief glimpse of abandoned buildings. A hotel receptionist in Saarbrücken will advise you to wait until Luxembourg before filling up with fuel, because it’s cheaper there. The shatterland is now the land of Schengen, a village on the Moselle at the point where France, Germany and Luxembourg meet. It gave its name to the treaty that opened borders and, more than this, opened minds.

The shatterland wasn’t always quite so at ease with itself, which brings me from Schengen the short distance upstream to Metz. The city’s history, like that of so many places in this part of the world, is a study in ambiguity. Once part of Roman Gaul, it was later a Merovingian capital and later still a free city within the Holy Roman Empire. It first become French in 1552, but its citizens were independent-minded and its Frenchness wasn’t finally confirmed until the Treaty of Münster, which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. During the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Metz became one of the most heavily fortified towns in France. And then came the nineteenth century, the rise of nationalism as a political force and with it the rise of Prussia, the most powerful of the German states. Bismarck’s telegraphic mischief and the French overreaction to it brought war in the summer of 1870, and by the end of October the besiged city fell to Prussia. It would remain part of the German Empire for almost half a century. Unable to bear the thought of German rule, many left the city.

The long imperial summer was time enough for the city on the Moselle to be transformed. The old medieval fortifications were dispensed with and a new district, nowadays known as the Imperial Quarter, laid out to the south of the historic centre, with a palatial railway station as its focus. If Metz was not willingly German, its German interlude at least left it modernized and improved, for the imperial impulse motivated Metz’s German architects to build handsomely and well, and the Jugendstil villas and historicist apartment buildings of the nineteenth century city are very fine indeed, the equal of anything in the more exclusive bits of Wiesbaden or Dresden. The areas around railway stations are so often a city’s seediest quarter that it comes as a surprise to discover the Quartier Impérial is quite the most elegant in Metz.

IMAG0210 webIMG_20130915_112320-1 webA walk north from this Germanic townscape peels back the layers of Metz’s history. The public buildings ranged around the giant Place de la République have the chilly hauteur of Parisian officialdom, as assertively French as the railway station is bombastically German. The public gardens fringing the river Moselle are quite ravishing; the historic city beyond them is where Metz’s various identities meet and mingle. A shopfront as foppishly Art Nouveau as a Parisian metro station is juxtaposed with steeply Germanic rooflines; the oldest opera house in France stands in glacial Neoclassical contrast to a protestant church of purest Rhineland Romanesque.

IMG_20130915_113243 webIMG_20130915_115732 webIMAG0178 webIMG_20130915_120252 webOnly the older buildings refuse to take sides. The medieval cathedral is an architectural wonder, with stained glass by Marc Chagall and one of the highest naves in the world.  The arcaded place Saint Louis dates from Metz’s medieval zenith and was influenced by the architecture of Italy, though it reminded me of the main square in the Austrian city of Linz. Just like Linz’s Hauptplatz, it’s the setting for an annual Christmas market. Everywhere, the creamy local Jaumont limestone adds the harmony that its history denied Metz for so long.

IMAG0167 webIMAG0201 webIMG_20130915_121348 webMetz is a garrison town still, and on Sunday afternoon the military threw open the gates of the military governor’s palace to visitors. It was an odd place to be exposed to the gloire of the French armed forces, for the gabled mansion still looks as though the Kaiser might pop by at any time. The soldiers were smart but very young and not particularly fierce; they looked like the sort of French boys who should be showing off to the girls with their first motorbike, their first cigarettes, their first leather jacket.

IMAG0204 webAfterwards, I returned to the railway station and chanced upon the memorial to the railway workers who had died fighting for France in the second of the twentieth century’s world wars. Their names gave human form to Metz’s unique identity: Boyon following Boehler; Gebhardt preceded by Galleron.

IMG_20130915_105216 webOf all Metz’s architectural landmarks only the newest of them disappointed me a little, for the Centre Pompidou south of the railway station has a strangely makeshift air, as though it had been run up for some expo or other and would be dismantled again when the show was over. Like many of the more expressive modern buildings it strains a little too hard to be an icon, its undulating form intended to resemble a floppy hat. I’d rather it looked like an art gallery. Posters advertised an exhibition of work by the German artist Hans Richter, who through his long career collaborated with Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Mies van der Rohe. I liked the sense of Franco-German common enterprise better than I did the Pompidou’s slightly lumpy looks.

IMG_20130915_105912 webThe Rough Guide to France describes Metz as an undiscovered gem, and as a contributor to that book I wouldn’t wish to argue. The old jibe that France is ‘Paris and the French desert’ has always struck me as untrue, for provincial cities are one of the things that French culture does best. In Metz as in Aix-en-Provence or Bordeaux the urbs is urbane. You’ll eat well; there’s quiche Lorraine but also pork and delicious, scented little Mirabelle plums. The wine flows, the coffee is strong; you’ll scarcely feel the need for Paris. Or for Berlin either, for that matter.

IMAG0202 webTourist information: http://tourisme.metz.fr/en/

Centre Pompidou Metz: http://www.centrepompidou-metz.fr/en/welcome

1870 and all that (i): Bad Ems

IMG_7694 webWho goes to Bad Ems these days? Not enough people, judging by the softly melancholy feel of the place when I visited one fine day in the early spring of this year. The little western German spa sits in the deep, improbably picturesque valley of the River Lahn, which is one of Germany’s prettiest. Its lovely setting aside, it has its share of historicist architecture and a fine Café-Konditorei, Maxeiner; the provision of good quality coffee and cake is as essential to the smooth functioning of a German spa as healing waters. It’s by no means the most dourly medicinal of the German spas I have visited: step forward Bad Reichenhall for that honour. And there’s the Emser Therme, a thoroughly contemporary spa complex a short distance from the historic centre, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and those mysterious beauty treatments that men like me don’t entirely understand.

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Yet for all its charm Bad Ems is in quiet decline. The population peaked in the 1970s and has been falling ever since. Unusually for a German resort, it is not immune to visible signs of decay; here and there wrought iron rusts, paint fades and varnish peels. The older of the town’s two funicular railways is slowly rotting into vandalised oblivion, a victim of the TÜV – the ferociously thorough German safety inspectorate – which decades ago declared it unsafe. Like the echoing amphitheatre of some long-forgotten Olympics, Bad Ems has the air of a place from which events have long since moved on.

IMG_7657 webAnd that, of course, is more or less the truth of the matter. There was a time when anyone who was anyone came here to take the waters. There’s a plaque to Jacques Offenbach, the operetta composer who was born Prussian and died French; Wagner was here and so was Rimsky-Korsakov. Goethe stopped by, but he was an obsessive traveller and there are reminders of him almost everywhere in central Europe, so that rates as no particular distinction. Dostoevsky was here too, perhaps to fuel his gambling addiction at the Spielbank.  Jenny Lind and Gogol, Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix all added to the cosmopolitan, artistic flair of Bad Ems in its nineteenth century heyday. The architecture is as confidently international as the guest book: there’s an Orthodox church on the riverfront with a Schloss Balmoral nearby; pre-First World War facades along the main drag confidently identify themselves as Windsor House and Zur Petersburg.

IMG_7696 webIMG_7682 webThese royal names are not just the usual hoteliers’ snobby bombast. The Russian Tsar Alexander II – a nephew of Prussian King and later German Emperor Wilhelm I – visited regularly between 1838 and 1876. Something about the late spring of 1876 disagreed with him because it was while taking the kur in Bad Ems that Alexander issued the Ems Ukase, a proclamation which banned the use of Ukrainian in literature or live performance.

IMG_7656 webBut Bad Ems is, of course, better known for another official communique, the Ems Telegram. On 13 July 1870 Alexander’s uncle was waylaid by the French ambassador, Count Benedetti, while taking his morning constitutional in the Kurpark. The ambassador sought assurances that no Hohenzollern would ever again be a candidate for the Spanish throne; the Prussian king politely declined to give any such assurance and sent a telegram to his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, giving an account of the discussion. Calculating that if war with France were to happen now was as good a time as any, Bismarck released a carefully-edited version of the message, which gave the impression Wilhelm had crudely rebuffed the ambassador. It had the desired effect. When newspaper reports were published in France the next day – Bastille Day – public opinion was outraged. France declared war on Prussia five days later and was defeated convincingly within the year.

IMG_7661 webIf the circumstances and setting of it all nowadays have an air of comic-opera absurdity about them, the consequences were serious enough for France, with a mighty, newly-unified German Empire for a neighbour and control of Alsace and much of Lorraine passing to that eastern enemy. But more about that in my next post.

IMG_7652 webBad Ems Tourist Information: http://www.bad-ems.info/html/cs_1.html&lang=2?PHPSESSID=78d865bddb9916f4ab7d15e3384e0032

Emser Therme: http://www.bad-ems.info/html/cs_6580.html&lang=2

Getting there is half the fun: The Emirates Air Line

IMAG0216It flies through the air suspended on a cable, and for much of the time it’s pretty empty. It’s tempting to see the Emirates Air Line – London’s Olympic gondola – as a neat metaphor for Boris Johnson’s populist but somewhat content-free mayoralty. Linking the Royal Victoria Dock on the north side of the Thames with the North Greenwich peninsula to the south, it caters to that tightly-targeted section of the travelling public who wish to take in an exhibition at the ExCel centre and a concert at the O2 on the same day. With an initial cost overrun of several million pounds and with load factors running at 10% of capacity since the Olympics ended it has, not surprisingly, had something of a bumpy ride from the media. Some have dubbed it a white elephant, and on a quiet weekday when it seems as though you have the ride to yourself, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Nevertheless, I think it’s wonderful. Not as a practical addition to the British capital’s public transport network perhaps – it’s just too marginal  for that – but as an exciting attraction for visitors or leisure-minded Londoners alike. Viewed as such it’s not especially expensive, with an adult single costing just £3.20 with an Oyster Card. You can even take your bike on board; the attendant simply flips up the seat on one side of the car and secures the bike with a long, seatbelt-like strap.

Built in less than a year at a cost of £60 million and opened in time for the 2012 Olympics, the Air Line was designed by Wilkinson Eyre, the architects responsible for Gateshead’s celebrated Millennium Bridge. Perhaps that explains the aesthetic ambition of the project: the stations are sleek and modern while the pylons that raise the cable high above the river are as slim and elegant as they are functional. As for the gondolas, they’re just like the ones you might use to ascend to the slopes at any number of European ski resorts.

IMAG0224Sheer height is the biggest surprise of the ride. The ascent from north or south is steep and rapid and you soon  find yourself suspended 90m or 300ft above the river – high enough to give breathtaking views over the O2, the Canary Wharf Skyline and the City to the west. It’s also high enough to trigger uneasy thoughts of precisely how the Emirates Air Line might interact with the more conventional airliners taking off or landing at London City Airport a short distance to the east.

What’s particularly striking is the extent to which the London you see from the gondola is the London that has arisen in the last 25 years. Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers, the 02, the lower towers that cluster around ExCel and the Greenwich peninsula are all relatively recent additions to the cityscape. So too is much of what you see beyond Canary Wharf, for of the City it’s the shiny, idiosyncratic new skyscrapers with their irreverent nicknames – the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie – that catch the eye, not relative minnows like St Paul’s or the Tower of London. This is the London of hedge funds and non-doms, of buy-to-let landlords and of killings made in the residential property market. More brash than the old London, it’s nonetheless impressive in its own way.

IMAG0222But look down and traces endure of an older, grubbier Thames; little boatyards, depots and sheds litter the north bank. It’s one of the curiosities of Docklands that new residents and investors seem not to notice these forlorn reminders of the old East London. Buoyed by the ever-rising value of their properties, their eyes are fixed firmly on the shining future. There may be muck here still, but there’s a good deal of brass, with the promise of more to come.

IMAG0221All too soon the smartphones and SLRs have to stop; the gondola descends as abruptly as it rose and you’re down to earth, not with a bump precisely but perhaps – if you’re a London resident – with a slight sense of deflation. The wonderful views aside, the Emirates Air Line feels like a grand gesture in search of a purpose. It is nevertheless very useful for one thing: alight on the Greenwich side and you can pick up the course of the Thames Path, arcing around the North Greenwich peninsula towards the baroque glories of Greenwich. It’s one of the more starkly industrial sections of the path and rusting reminders of the Thames’ industrial past abound. But you’re likely to have it to yourself, and the sheer peace is a little intoxicating.

IMAG0252With apologies for the quality of the smartphone pictures.

The Emirates Air Line: www.tfl.gov.uk

Getting there is half the fun: Dover to the Continent

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Few things have changed the mental geography of Britain more profoundly than the Channel Tunnel. The act of boring twin tunnels beneath the English Channel freed the island nation  from the vagaries of the weather and rendered the famous  headline ‘Fog in Channel – Continent cut off’ forever obsolete. Nowadays, if I’m travelling to Paris from London I do so by train. In comparison with a comfortable train ride barely long enough to finish a magazine, any other means of making the journey seems almost wilfully perverse. Only a masochist with time on his hands would fly.

I’m less convinced of the charms of the Shuttle. True, it’s quick – but only if your timing is precise and you manage to arrive at check-in just before boarding. And time won by spending half an hour sat in your car sealed in a railway carriage is time lost again if you have to stop for a meal break once you get to the other side.

My scepticism is not purely practical. In an age when getting from A to B increasingly means being herded and processed in sealed metal tubes, the Shuttle lacks something rather more profound. There is no sense of occasion to the journey. You shuttle from car park to autoroute with neither the élan of the Eurostar nor the drama of a sea crossing. Which is why, if I’m taking the car, I will always opt for the ferry. Crossing the Straits of Dover is, after all, the traditional means of exit and entry to England from continental Europe. Historians believe that in 55BC Julius Caesar’s armies embarked for England from the pretty bay of Wissant between Boulogne and Calais; William the Conqueror’s fleet assembled amid the flat horizons and big skies of St Valéry sur Somme, well to the south. Starting in the nineteenth century it was from beneath Dover’s White Cliffs and its superlative Norman castle that regular steamship services took increasing numbers of travellers to and from the nearest continental ports. The early ships were either passenger or train carriers, but from the 1930s the first rudimentary car ferries came into service and the rest is history, or at least a neverending fuss of boarding cards,  stick-on headlamp adapters and  bing-bong messages on the tannoy.

IMG_7600 webIMG_7602 webIMG_7604 webThese things – the background noise of a crossing – have become routine for me; I cross the Channel this way at least four times a year. And yet however often the experience is repeated, there’s always a modest thrill to that moment when everything is stowed or locked that has to be, all physical links with the shore are cast adrift and the massive, metal-walled ship begins to move. A walk on deck is all it takes to turn a routine crossing into a maritime spectacle: push past the huddled smokers to reach the open deck at the stern and watch as England recedes, France advances and giant container ships follow the sea lanes to Rotterdam or Hamburg. It’s wonderful on a fine day but even better – more elemental and impressive – when the wind is up.

IMG_7627 webCliffs define the Straits on both the French and English sides. On the French side the breezy heights of Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris-Nez are mirror images of Dover’s cliffs, peppered with old German fortifications that underline just how physically close World War Two came to England. The place in British national mythology occupied by the White Cliffs of Dover is odd but undeniable, though whatever Vera Lynn sang no bluebird ever flew over them.  I am always inexplicably stirred by the first sight of them when I come back from holiday or an extended research trip, as if there were ever the slightest doubt they’d still be there, as dramatic yet disappointingly off-white as ever. I once spent a blustery autumn researching a guidebook in the Pas de Calais, a little fed up of my own company after the first couple of weeks. It was a strange sensation to be homesick within plain sight of home, that unmistakable line of chalk picked out by the watery October sunshine and forming the horizon as I looked across the Channel from the Boulogne seafront. It might just have been my imagination, but every time I looked the weather seemed brighter on the English side.

I crossed from Dover to Dunkerque aboard DFDS Seaways’ Dunkerque Seaways early in the spring of this year, on an unseasonally dismal morning in the school holidays. The sky was leaden and threatened the day with rain; as we cleared the harbour, the wind whipped the Channel into a lively swell that got steadily worse as we headed into mid-channel. The ship was close to capacity, and in the bars and restaurants there was barely a free seat to be had. Never have I been more grateful for the modest retreat of first class, where there were comfy chairs in which to stretch out and floor to ceiling windows from which to observe the simmering sea.

IMG_7606 webIMG_7607 webIMG_7634 webThe rolling and pitching were nothing to disturb anyone who has spent time on a yacht but quite bad enough to upset some of the younger and more delicate stomachs on board, with predictably smelly results by the time we reached Dunkerque.

IMG_7640 webIMG_7649 webNot even an enthusiastic seafarer like me can talk up the experience of arriving in that French port. It is of course more famous for departures than arrivals: the 1940 evacuations took place from the spectacular sandy beaches on the eastern side of the city – a coast as epic in its scale as the events that took place there, menaced these days by sand yachts instead of Stukas. Alas, the ferry terminal is rather less memorably located on the industrial, western side of Dunkerque, with vistas of cranes and containers in place of belfries, promenades or seaside hotels.

Drama was reserved instead for the return trip, on a pitch-black April night three weeks later.  Just before Dover the captain made an announcement: ‘As you will see, we are in thick fog.’ But there was in truth nothing whatsoever to be seen. Fog at sea is an entirely different experience to fog on land; there are no landmarks, however indistinct, to be made out. No streetlights or buildings, parked cars or hedgerows guide the way. It was easy in this muffling blanket of nothingness to understand how large, well-equipped ships succumb to the calm yet lethal effects of fog, slicing into each other with disastrous consequences for simple want of anything to see. I thought of the Empress of Ireland, and of the Andrea Doria.

Nothing so terrible as the fate of those unlucky ships happened that night, but the end of the voyage was haunting in its own way. All at once the lights of the harbour’s eastern entrance emerged from the fog, blurred and dim but welcome and unmistakable; of the harbour wall to which they were attached there was, however, no sign. Once beyond the harbour entrance all hint of land vanished once more; with the harbour lights astern of us the blackness descended again with impressive completeness and we might have been far out to sea instead of a few hundred metres from the town, waiting  for our allotted berth. Docking was achieved not by sight, but with technology, patience and sound, as melancholy yet benign sirens lured the ship to shore. Not to meet its doom, but to connect with the loading ramp.

Neville Walker travelled as a guest of DFDS Seaways.

 

Sentimental journey: back to the fifties with SS Rotterdam

All aboard for a nostalgic voyage aboard one of the last surviving classic 1950s ocean liners. Click on the images to see them full size.

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SS Rotterdam was the pride of the Dutch merchant marine when new in 1959. Today she’s a floating hotel and museum in her home port of Rotterdam.

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Not large by modern standards, she’s still an imposing sight from the quayside.

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My berth for the voyage was a spacious twin on the lower promenade deck, with some nice retro touches including original furniture…

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…and suitable reading material.

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This beautiful builder’s model takes pride of place next to the main staircase…

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…which is a work of art in its own right, consisting of not one but two interlocking staircases occupying the same stairwell: one for first class, the other for tourist.

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Rotterdam‘s public rooms are bold statements of fifties style. This is a detail from the smoking room…

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..and this is a more general view of the same room. The tables with their square-shaded lamps are original; the carpet has been re-woven to the original design.

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For many, the Ritz-Carlton ballroom is the most magnificent space on the ship, with a bronze dance floor…

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…and a dramatic, sweeping staircase that’s perfect for attention-seekers in evening dress.

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Some of the most striking artworks and furnishings are in relatively intimate spaces, like the former Tropic Bar…

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..and this seriously covetable love seat in the smoking room lobby.

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The Ambassador’s Lounge is the ship’s nightclub, and probably the most vibrant space on board…

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…with curved murals depicting the elements air and water.

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Of all the artworks on board, I most liked the red copper crustacea adorning the walls of the ship’s cocktail bar. They mix a mean rusty nail here, too.

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Some of the public rooms have been reconfigured, so what was once a tourist class space (and later the ship’s casino) is now its fine dining restaurant…

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…while the impressive twin dining rooms are now used for conferences.

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Ceramic friezes in the dining rooms are in beautiful condition.

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But it’s not just an ‘upstairs’ tour. You get to see behind the scenes too. Parts of the boiler room are screened off because there is still some asbestos down here – whereas it was stripped out from the passenger spaces above.

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I don’t speak Dutch, but thanks to my knowledge of English and German I was able to understand quite a lot of what the tour guide was saying. Context is all!

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The weather was grey and bleak during my visit, but I had to visit everywhere that was accessible, including the foredeck.

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Sitting in the captain’s chair on the bridge with my mitts on the engine telegraph was a boyhood dream fulfilled.

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The view from the bridge wing is pretty impressive – drizzle or no drizzle.

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Not all the ship’s comforts were reserved for passengers. The captain’s sitting room isn’t at all bad.

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SS Rotterdam makes a rather romantic setting for a wedding. And this fifties Rolls-Royce is the perfect wedding car.

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Rotterdam dates from a time when ships still had curves.

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Even close up, her hull is so immaculate you’d never know she was built more than fifty years ago.

SS Rotterdam: on a voyage to nowhere, waiting for Doris Day

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Some nightspots suit jazz; others were born to boogie. In the Ambassador’s Lounge it has to be mambo. Only music as brassy and unmistakably fifties as the club itself could hope to match its Technicolor boldness: here, cherry pink and apple blossom white meet ocean blue and hot tomato red. In truth, I had a particular tune in mind. There’s something about the carefree musicality and Cuban-American sassiness of Xavier Cugat’s Siboney that’s perfect for this luxurious fifties time capsule.

To enjoy it, however, you must travel to Rotterdam, not Havana. To the city’s floating namesake: SS Rotterdam. The fifth (and not the last) Dutch liner to bear the name, she is without question the most illustrious. Built in the late fifties just as the transatlantic trade’s post-war boom began to falter in the face of competition from the Boeing 707, she was dubbed tomorrow’s ship, today. No-one could then have imagined how much truth there was in that brave claim, for in the decades that followed the flexibility of her layout, her engines-aft configuration and retro-futuristic silhouette became the blueprint for a new generation of cruise ships. In one breathtakingly sleek package she was one of the last great North Atlantic liners and one of the first truly convincing cruise ships.

At 38,000 tons and 750ft in length, the Rotterdam is not large by the standards of today’s Miami-based behemoths, but in 1959 she was among the larger liners plying the Europe to New York route, and the largest ever built in Holland. With size came dignity: as the flagship of the Holland-America line, she was – like Cunard’s Queens – a true ship of state, the flagship of the Dutch merchant marine and a vessel for national prestige as much as a means of transport from the old world to the new. She was launched by Queen Juliana; her elegant Ritz Carlton ballroom hosted Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Frank Sinatra performed in her theatre. That’s the kind of glamour today’s Cancun-bound resort ships have a hard time living up to.

She has the looks to match – looks that subsequent generations of passenger ships have gradually lost. In the first two decades after the Second World War naval architecture reached an apogee of grace, as streamlined modernity met the minimalizing impact of improved technology on ships’ silhouettes. Funnels were reduced in number and the old-fashioned clutter of ventilators and masts was swept away to be replaced by open-air swimming pools, terraced open spaces and clean lines. Among the first examples of this new style were Italian ships like the ill-fated Andrea Doria of 1951; among the last was the QE2 of 1968. The Rotterdam arrived midway through this golden age, and her elegance of line – from curved stem to cruiser stern – disguises her considerable size. She has the look of a yacht about her.

After an illustrious career, she managed somehow to avoid a one-way trip to the beach at Alang in India, where old ships go to die. Rotterdam returned to a tumultuous welcome in her home port in 2008. She was then stripped to the bare metal for a thoroughgoing restoration that was complicated by the liberal quantities of asbestos used in her construction. The Rotterdam reopened as a static hotel ship and museum in 2010, but even then all was not plain sailing: the cost of restoring her overwhelmed her rescuers and for a time it was rumoured that she might depart for an uncertain future in Oman.

Happily, it didn’t come to that. New owners were found, and I spent a bleak midwinter night on board in the dying days of 2012.

A Christmas tree and a flaming brazier cheered the blustery quayside; a liveried footman warmed the welcome aboard. Beautiful as she is on the outside, it’s Rotterdam’s interiors that are the most evocative thing about her. The ship’s hot 1950s colours made a delightful antidote to the grey December drizzle and a refreshing change from the timid whites and beiges of contemporary good taste. At once grand and intimate, she’s big enough to have a 600-seat theatre yet small enough to retain inside the yacht-like ambience her elegant hull suggests. An Atlantic crossing to or from New York in her late fifties heyday must have felt less like a stay in a grand hotel than a glamorous four-day house party. On the North Atlantic in the fifties the classes were still divided, but on Rotterdam the division between the VIPs in first class and the tourists in second was a discreet one, removed entirely when she cruised.

What makes this lovely ocean liner so special is not just her once-revolutionary design, but that she has survived in such original condition. She is as perfect a period piece as a pink Cadillac, a Douglas Sirk movie or the sexual chemistry between Doris Day and Rock Hudson. This is the fifties as experienced by affluent Americans, and there are luxurious touches everywhere: deep, cossetting armchairs so heavy it’s a struggle to move them, a bronze dance floor patterned in imitation of the sea bed, mosaic table tops fashioned from Murano glass and – above all – wonderful modern art, from sculpture to painting and tapestry. Though the crew-to-passenger ratio is not at all what it was in her North Atlantic heyday, she makes a surprisingly successful hotel. I had an immaculate, spacious cabin in the former first class section of the ship. Its décor was a nice mix of boutique hotel modern and fifties retro, with original, custom-built cabinets and a fifties magazine on the coffee table.

By day you can tour the ship from bridge to engine room with an audioguide, though for the latter you have to join a group. Former crew members are on hand to explain the workings of the bridge or simply to tell anecdotes of their years at sea. But daytime wanderings can be thwarted by the conferences and wedding receptions that ensure the ship’s public rooms earn their keep. There are no such bars to exploration for an overnight guest, and I seized my chance to see the magnificent smoking room, Ritz-Carlton room and Ambassador’s Lounge in complete solitude, with only my camera for company.

After dinner I nursed a cocktail beneath the fish-scale ceiling of the ocean-themed bar, coveting Aart van de Ijssel’s extraordinarily prickly red copper wall sculpture, which resembles nothing so much as an attenuated, cupric plateau de fruits de mer. The drink was good and strong; the music suited the setting. There was no mambo, but one by one the voices of Ella, Frank and Tony gave aural expression to the atmosphere of fifties luxe. As on any good sea voyage, there was no particular rush to do anything. So I lingered awhile, content and just a tiny bit drunk, waiting for Doris Day.

SS Rotterdam, 3e Katendrechtsehoofd 25, 3072 AM Rotterdam, Netherlands. Tel : (+31) 10 297 30 90
http://www.ssrotterdam.nl/uk/
Xavier Cugat’s 1950s recording of Siboney on YouTube:

QE2: a strange kind of snobbery

It was a sad Christmas for anyone who loves ships, with rumours in the UK newspapers that the QE2 has been sold to Chinese shipbreakers. It was scarcely a surprise, for the post-career fate of even the greatest of ships is not often a long or happy one. The last great ocean liner to be built in the UK, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has languished in the Gulf since 2008, when in a fit of national absent-mindedness the British allowed a priceless piece of their maritime heritage to pass from her American owners to an improbable venture in that most implausible of places, Dubai.

If (as seems likely) her fate is to be cut up for Chinese razor blades, QE2 will be the victim of a strange sort of heritage snobbery, in which a fourth-rank country house or a work of the Quattrocento acquired on some long-forgotten aristocratic grand tour becomes an object of priceless worth to be saved for the nation, while the largest and most beautiful artefacts of Britain’s lost industrial genius are regarded as expendable. Of all the hundreds of stately passenger ships produced on the Tyne, Clyde, Lagan and Mersey in the century up to 1970, Britain has managed to preserve precisely none.