Lübben and a walk through the Spreewald

Arriving at Lübben train station isn’t a thrilling experience. It certainly doesn’t give you the impression that you’ve arrived in a charming small town at the edge of a beautiful nature reserve. I double-checked the map and set off towards Lübben’s historic centre, a couple of kilometres away. Things improved almost immediately. I passed a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died fighting in the area and entered a lovely woodland, Der Hain, before arriving in the town proper.

It was still early morning and Lübben seemed half asleep, although I suspect that may apply regardless of the time of day. I’d planned to walk the 10km to confusingly named Lübbenau, but wandered around the streets before heading for Schloss Lübben. The castle dates back to the 12th century, but this version of it was built by Duke Christian I of Saxony-Merseburg in 1682. It is a striking building that sits on the edge of large parklands with picturesque waterways, and it was of course closed.

Paul Gerhardt Church, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Schloss Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Paul Gerhardt statue, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Russian war grave, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben was in the East after the Second World War, and there are plenty of buildings that carry the stamp of Soviet brutalist architecture. One that doesn’t is the Gothic Paul Gerhardt Church. I’d never heard of Gerhardt, but he is considered to be the most important German hymn writer of the 17th century, some claim the greatest European hymn writer, of all time. A staunch Lutheran theologian, he worked as an archdeacon in Lübben from 1669 until his death in 1676.

In 1931, the city renamed the Church of St. Nicholas after him. It too was closed. I took this as a sign that it was time to leave town. I made my way through the Schloss park to a branch of the River Spree, the Hauptspree, which I’d follow all the way to Lübbenau passing through green meadows, verdant forests, and slow-moving waterways on the way. Even though it was a weekend, and this is a popular walking and cycle route, it was very peaceful.

The Spreewald has a rich and fascinating ecology, with wetlands, forests and meadows in seemingly equal measure. The whole area is criss-crossed by the hundreds of small waterways that have been created as the River Spree passes through this area. Tall reeds densely fill areas of the water, attracting a multitude of small birds. Occasionally I saw the flash of a brightly coloured kingfisher, while birds of prey glided effortlessly along the meadow floors. Frogs lept into the water. I even saw an otter.

Today, these natural charms are protected by law and the whole area is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Wind back to April 1945 though, and things were anything but peaceful. The Spreewald was the epicentre of the Battle of Halbe, part of the larger Battle of Berlin. It was here that 150,000 soldiers of the German 9th Army, surrounded by a vastly superior force of three Russian Armies, attempted a daring escape: to break out and head west to surrender to the Americans.

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Things did not go as intended, with only around 25,000 German troops escaping death or capture at the hands of the Russians. The Russians had already surrounded Berlin and the operations in the Spreewald were merely ‘mopping up’ exercises. The German efforts to escape were chaotic and casualties were very high on both sides, but several thousand civilians also managed to escape with the German forces. It must have been a terrifying ordeal at the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War.

It’s a struggle to reconcile these facts with the charm and tranquility of the area today, but every year the remains of those who died in the fighting are found. That though, should not prevent anyone from exploring this wonderful region.

Lehde, a Sorbian ‘city’ of punts and pickles

The attractive village of Lehde is known (presumably ironically) as the ‘city of punts and pickles’. Calling a place that’s home to around 150 people a city seems a bit far-fetched, but the rest of that description is pretty accurate. Lehde sits in the Spreewald, a district of Brandenburg that is crisscrossed with waterways that were traditionally navigated on flat-bottomed punts, and is also at the epicentre of Germany’s gherkin industry.

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

The village is built on small islands surrounded by multiple branches of the River Spree, which turns into an extensive wetland in this area, that are only connected by wooden pedestrian bridges. Remarkably, access to Lehde was only possible by boat until as late as 1929, when a road finally connected it to nearby Lübbenau. Today, it forms a not quite continuous whole with the larger town but, amongst tall pine and birch trees, it still feels every inch an isolated village – some farms still only reachable by boat.

I arrived in Lehde after a 2 km walk through the surrounding woodlands. The village is an interesting place to wander around but the main reason for coming here is to visit the truly excellent Freilandmuseum Lehde, an open-air museum that explores the lives of villagers in this fascinating region in the 1800s. There’s little better than an open-air museum, particularly one featuring people in period costumes. The Freilandmuseum didn’t disappoint.

The museum is best known for telling the history of the Sorbs, a distinct ethnic group of Slavic origin that have lived in this region for at least 1,400 years. Historic Sorb farm buildings, with traditional and video displays of what rural life in the Spreewald was like in the 1800s, are fantastic. There is a brilliant film using original footage from the 1950s of how the whole community harvested the cucumber crop. It then follows the cucumbers on their journey from field to pickle jar.

It was the Sorbs who introduced the cucumber to the region when they migrated here from the Carpathians. Sorbs haven’t always had an easy time in Germany, with periodic attempts to eradicate their unique culture. Counterintuitively, they fared pretty well under National Socialism – which viewed other Slavic peoples as subhuman. They were protected during the years of communist rule, and today their culture and language are protected by law.

There are perhaps only 80,000 Sorbs left in Germany, the vast majority in this region of Brandenburg and across the border in Saxony. Sorbian is taught in schools, a Sorbian-language newspaper exists, and the Serbski Institut continues to research their history, culture and language. That said, economic drivers and voluntary assimulation into German society present a greater challenge these days than ealier efforts at forcible integration.

What remains is a fascinating culture that draws on thousands of years of history, and even if Lehde is a little touristy it is an insight into Sorb life that isn’t readily available elsewhere. Houses, then and now, are built out of wood, many with reed roofs. They also have what looks a lot like a Viking design on their gables. These are Sorbian snake symbols. The traditional dress of sorb men and women is also unique, although they did remind me a bit of some traditional regional Dutch clothes.

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

I spent a couple of hours in the Freilandmuseum and afterwards strolled through the village. It was mid-afternoon and the waterways had become much busier with people taking tours in punts, but also many people in canoes – another hugely popular way to explore the waterways. It took me a while to find the route out of the village, but I was soon on my way back to Lübbenau and the promise of a beer in Brandenburg’s smallest brewery.

The Spreewald, spiritual home of the gherkin

There is a scene in the wonderful film, Good Bye, Lenin!, that revolves around the need to find a specific brand of East German gherkin. The sudden collapse of the GDR leads the main character on a desperate search for an authentic jar of Spreewaldgurken, the pickled cucumbers that come from the region south of Berlin. So beloved were they, that they were one of the few products from the former Communist East Germany to survive reunification.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lutki in Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Gherkin, Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

They didn’t just survive though, they thrived. Visit any supermarket in Berlin and there will be several metres of shelves dedicated to gherkins. Their appeal? A perfect balance of salty, sweet and sour. There are many gherkin brands, but the Spreewaldgurken has a special place in the hearts and minds of Germans. Despite eating no small number of gherkins since we moved here, I gave no thought to where all those pickled cucumbers came from. The good news is, the Spreewald is only an hour away by train.

Today, an astonishing 1 million jars of pickled gherkins are bottled each and every day, all of them in local facilities. They account for about half of all the gherkins consumed in Germany. That’s a lot of gherkins, most of which are still picked by hand. Tradition is big in the Spreewald, and pickling methods and recipes have changed little since they were introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. In summer the gherkins grow so quickly that the plants can be harvested every two to four days.

It’s the Spreewald’s mineral soils that makes it such a good region for the growing of cucumbers, but it would be doing the region a disservice to reduce it to a stereotype of only a pickled vegetable. This is a region of ancient forest and picturesque waterways that is deservedly popular for hiking and cycling. It’s also dotted with pretty towns and villages that, while connected by road and rail today, for centuries relied on small boats as the main form of transport.

Surrounded by forests of birch and pine, Lübbenau is the Spreewald’s largest town, and is easily reached by train from Berlin. I arrived on a sunny morning excited to discover the land of the gherkin. I was a bit disappointed not to be greeted at the train station by gherkin food trucks, but paintings of traditional scenes that covered the walls of the station were enough to whet the appetite. These included what looked like goblins or elves.

Like many parts of Germany, the heavily forested Spreewald is home to many legends and superstitions. One of the central characters of Spreewald myth are Lutki, dwarves who help the good and make fools of the bad, which originate in the sagas of the Slavic Sorb people who have inhabited this region for centuries. It’s easy to imagine the tall tales that took root in such an isolated part of the world, including one about a dragon called Plon that I was hoping to avoid on my walk to the village of Lehde.

First though, I wandered around Lübbenau. It’s a pretty place with a decent museum and a friendly tourist office. I walked over to the 19th century Schloss Lübbenau and through the landscaped grounds, before heading to where the real action in Lübbenau can be found – the harbour. Boat trips on traditional flat-bottomed boats, punted through the wetlands by a ‘captain’, are big business in the Spreewald.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

The small harbour was busy with day-trippers selecting a boat ride. I was planning to walk to the historic village of Lehde, so grabbed a fish sandwich with obligatory gherkin before setting off. The walk would take me through woods filled with bird song and the occasional sound of a woodpecker. I glimpsed a kingfisher diving into the waters and saw birds of prey in the high branches of the trees. It’s no wonder this area is popular with Berliners seeking tranquility.

The Cradle of Saxony, Gothic glories in Meissen

Meissen, the historic centre of European porcelain manufacture, is a beautiful, historic town with an extraordinary castle and cathedral that rise majestically above the River Elbe. Most visitors still come for its associations with Augustus the Strong’s ‘White Gold’, but the narrow cobbled lanes that wind upwards from the river, through a lovely town square, to the 15th century Albrechtsburg Castle makes it well worth a visit in its own right.

Built between 1471 and 1524, the Albrechtsburg Castle is a Gothic beauty that sits on top of a rocky outcrop. It’s a dramatic sight that is now globally famous for being the birthplace of European porcelain. It was here that, in 1708, the failed alchemist Johann Frederick Böttger claimed to have found both the correct ingredients and process to produce porcelain in Europe for the first time. For the next 153 years, the castle was transformed into a factory churning out magnificent porcelain creations.

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Rathaus, Meissen, Germany

Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

The history of Meissen dates back much further though. It was founded in 929 on the orders of Henry I, known as Henry the Fowler because of his passion for hunting. The Duke of Saxony, Henry built his town on the site of an earlier Slav settlement. It’s a history that seemed to seep from the walls as we walked the quiet streets in the early morning. Meissen fills with tourists later in the day, but early morning is wonderfully atmospheric.

Ringed by Gothic buildings on all sides, the central marketplace sits at the heart of the Altstadt, including the lovely Rathaus. The equally beautiful and Gothic Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, looms over one end of the square. The carillon in the church tower is visible from the square, it’s the oldest made from porcelain in the world. We walked past the Frauenkirche down deserted streets, before climbing steeply upwards towards the expansive castle complex.

As we climbed, we got views over the red-tiled rooftops of the Altstadt, the River Elbe and surrounding countryside. On a sunny Sunday morning it was absolutely beautiful. We wandered through the cemetery of the Church of Saint Afra, before turning a corner to find ourselves walking across a small bridge and through the gatehouse into the courtyard of the castle and cathedral. We’d timed our arrival well, the castle cafe was just opening and we sat in the sun eating a traditional cake of poppy seeds.

Viewed from the top of the town, Meissen and the surrounding area is a picturesque place. We finished our cake and took in the views over the river, from where we could see what looked like vineyards. Surprisingly, there’s an active wine industry in Saxony, one of the most northerly. Making our way down winding stairways to the town square the streets were still remarkably quiet, but as we reentered the square we came face-to-face with a tour group.

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

Meissen had one more surprise, but only because I vaguely recognised a name as we walked back along Hahnemannsplatz. The last time I saw the name Hahnemann, I was in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The medical charlatan and pseudoscience  inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was born in Meissen in 1755. The third child of a porcelain painter his contribution to the world might have been greater if he’d stayed in the family business.

Porcelain was invented only a few hundred metres away by an alchemist who claimed he could turn base metal into gold. He lied, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Meissen could turn out other scientific cranks as well. The spirit of making things up was very 18th century, but it did at least lead to genuine scientific breakthroughs.

Meissen’s ‘White Gold’, inventing European porcelain

The invention of European porcelain, one of the most valued and valuable commodities in 18th century Europe, was ironically a byproduct of the failed attempt to turn base metal into gold. This though was no runners-up prize. Porcelain was imported from China – where it had been invented centuries earlier – at immense cost. So sought after was porcelain that it was known as ‘white gold’, and European rulers competed for the glory (and wealth) that discovering its hidden secrets would bring.

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

The King or Prince who controlled the production of porcelain would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Well, maybe not beyond the wildest dreams of the man who would eventually own the secret of porcelain. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was a man who, on his death-bed, confessed that, “all my life has been one ceaseless sin”. His pursuit of porcelain was pure avarice combined with the desire to make Saxony the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire.

It would fall to the alchemist and part-time charlatan, Johann Frederick Böttger, to do the actual inventing. Augustus believed the knowledge Böttger claimed to have was so valuable that he made him a prisoner, albeit a comfortable one, for twelve years. First in Dresden, where he was put to work trying to invent the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical substance that would turn base metal into gold, and Augustus into a very rich man.

In 1705, after four years and numerous failed attempts (and at least one failed escape attempt), Böttger announced that he would produce his first gold in 16 weeks. At the end of which, and presumably fearing for his life, he announced that although he had failed again, he would unearth the secret of porcelain instead. That may have saved his life, but it only meant a new prison, this time in Meissen where Böttger was held in the Albrechtsburg, a dramatic 15th century castle.

Here, in collaboration with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, European porcelain would be produced for the very first time. This discovery didn’t lead to Böttger gaining his freedom, after all he might sell his secrets to another European ruler. Augustus kept him prisoner for several more years. Tschirnhaus was almost certainly the real inventor of the wonderous white pottery but he died in 1708, allowing Böttger to claim it as his. Soon afterwards, Europe’s first porcelain factory started production in Meissen.

I first came across Böttger and the quest to invent European porcelain when I read The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain. I’ve been intending to visit Meissen ever since and, more importantly, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, the direct descendent of the one founded in 1710. Today, it’s located a couple of kilometres outside Meissen in a state-of-the-art factory where the still impossibly valuable ‘white gold’ is produced by hand to the very highest standards.

When I say ‘impossibly valuable’, I mean a €72,000 price tag for a porcelain vase filled with porcelain fruits. Seriously, who’s buying this stuff? Even the tea cups come in at a not entirely reasonable €69. Admittedly, some of the more elaborate pieces – and they are truly elaborate – can take months to make by highly skilled craftspeople with years of training and decades of experience. Which might justify the pupil-dilating cost of the items on display in the manufactory’s showrooms.

Böttger bust, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Augustus the Strong, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Germany

Albrechtsburg, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

A ticket for the factory tour – actually a series of rooms where people perform the hand made processes – came with a €15 voucher for the shop. Until I learned how expensive everything was this seemed like a nice gesture. After the tour we went to the museum, where pieces sparkle under the lights. Here we learned that the formulas for 10,000 different porcelain colours are kept in a secure location, as are plaster moulds dating back 300 years, allowing the factory to reproduce ancient designs and colours.

I don’t really get the appeal of porcelain but its history, filled with deceit, intrigue and even murder, is fascinating. Afterwards, we headed off to Meissen to see where it all started.

Dresden’s old New Town

The entrance to Dresden’s Neustadt is marked by a big and exuberantly golden statue of Augustus the Strong riding a horse. The statue of Saxony’s legendary 18th century ruler is the largest piece of bling in the entire city. Illuminated in the spring sunshine the reflection is blindingly bright. You can probably see it from space. I got the feeling that it was painted this colour as a visual joke, it looks absurd on its sooty plinth. Locals call it the Golden Horseman.

The other non-visual joke about the Neustadt is that it’s actually older than Dresden’s Old Town. Right up until a devastating fire burned it to the ground in 1685, the New Town was the Old Town. The baroque reconstruction was very modern so the name was changed. In another irony, the old New Town received comparatively light damage during the massive bombing raids of February 1945, and remains home to some very attractive period buildings.

Augustus the Strong statue, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We started our exploration of the Neustadt by wandering up Hauptstrasse, the broad avenue that heads north from the Golden Horseman towards Albertplatz. It’s a lovely tree-lined street that, architecturally, mixes the old and the new, and gives you a real sense of the grandeur of Dresden in the 18th century. Several arrow-straight avenues lead away from the riverbank, which is still home to multiple grandiose palaces. This was town planning intended to impress.

We’d come to the Neustadt because it’s the living, beating heart of the contemporary city. In places, it has an alternative, counter-culture vibe that felt similar to areas of Hamburg – although even Hamburg hasn’t renamed a square after US whistleblower, Edward Snowden. This only serves to underline the Jekyll and Hyde personality of Dresden. The former East German town is, after all, a stronghold of the German far-right.

It was across the river in the new Old Town, in October 2014, that far right supporters of the extremist anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement began regular marches and protests against asylum-seekers and immigrants. At its height, the PEGIDA movement was able to rally 20,000 people in Dresden. According to Deutsche Welle, Dresden is officially the only major German city that is right-wing. No surprise then that far-right political party, Alternative für Deutschland, gained 27 percent of the vote in Saxony.

Even as 20,000 far-right protesters marched in the city, equally large numbers of anti-fascist protesters held countermarches. Many came from Dresden itself, and in the Neustadt evidence of their existence can be found everywhere – from the occasional squat, to street art. The Old Town is the main tourist draw, but the Neustadt feels like a more grounded place, with diverse communities and the city’s best eating and drinking options.

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We spent the best part of half a day wandering the streets, exploring traditional hofs and alleys that contain art galleries, bars and restaurants. In the end the Museum of Military History, designed by Daniel Libeskind, was just too much effort to get to. It will be on the list when we return – although I’m not sure the most right-wing town in the country is the best place for a museum dedicated to 800-years of German military history.

We had a late lunch sat on the street under a warm sun before heading back towards the Old Town, making a detour so we could walk the wide sweep of a bend in the River Elbe along the way. The grassy banks of the river had been transformed by dozens of families and groups of friends having picnics and barbecues. The atmosphere was jovial and happy as we walked in front of the massive former royal palaces. It was a perfect way to spend our last day in the city – at least on this trip.

Dresden, the city of Augustus the Strong

Too excited to sleep, I was up early to wander Dresden’s quiet streets. There was a chill in the air, but the city was at its most evocative in the early morning light. It may just be my overactive imagination, but the ghosts of Dresden’s legendary history, ancient and modern, seemed to accompany me as I passed down cobbled streets in the shadow of Baroque churches. I was stopped in my tracks at the open space in front of the sublime Semper Opera House. The sun transforming the brown stone with golden hues.

A short stroll brought me to the courtyard of the magnificent Zwinger Palace, partially under reconstruction but still one of the most beautiful buildings in Dresden. I had the entire place to myself, and I sat on the edge of a fountain to drink in the atmosphere. On the orders of Saxony’s greatest ruler, Augustus the Strong, the Zwinger was built in imitation of the Palace of Versailles. As the sun crept over the gardens, I walked around admiring the Baroque flourishes of the buildings.

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühlschen Garten, Dresden, Germany

Dresden is in many ways the city of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Although the Dukes and Electors of Saxony had made Dresden their capital in 1485, it was the man known as “the Saxon Hercules” who has left perhaps the greatest mark on the city. During his rule Dresden became one of Europe’s great cities and a leading cultural centre. Augustus may have left a mixed legacy as a military ruler – he was no Frederick the Great – but Dresden thrived.

Perhaps the finest of all Augustus’ cultural legacies is the Grünes Gewölbe, the Green Vault, one of Europe’s earliest museums that he filled with priceless treasures. The tickets aren’t cheap, but a visit to the Green Room in a former royal palace is worth the €21 price tag. The entire building was destroyed in the Second World War, but it has been lovingly restored to its former glory. Photography isn’t permitted, so you’ll have to take my word that it alone is a reason to come to Dresden.

Around the corner from the Green Room, Augustus features in one of Dresden’s other iconic sights, the Fürstenzug. This time though he doesn’t take centre stage. That honour goes to Conrad I, who founded the dynasty that would rule from Dresden until the catastrophe of the First World War. This 102m long depiction of all but two of the rulers of Saxony contains 23,000 glazed porcelain tiles made in nearby Meissen. The 35 rulers depicted cover a period from 1127 to 1904.

The presence of porcelain tiles gives a hint of another reason for Dresden’s fame and wealth. Augustus the Strong was responsible for inventing European porcelain, a much sought after luxury product. He sponsored unsuccessful experiments in Dresden before efforts moved to Meissen, where they bore fruit. Porcelain would decorate the palaces of Saxony for centuries to come. The Fürstenzug is close to Augustusbrücke, where I crossed to the north bank of the River Elbe.

Fürstenzug, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Augustusbrücke, River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

The views back across the city were magnificent, the spring sun illuminating the spires and domes that punctuate the cityscape. The views of the city were ever-changing as I walked along the riverfront towards the main road bridge, and for the first time it was possible to truly understand why Dresden was known as “Florence on the Elbe”. The Brühlschen gardens provided views over the Frauenkirche, before my stroll finished along Brühl’s Terrace with views over the Elbe.

It was time for a late breakfast, but Dresden had already proven itself as the capital of Saxon royalty – with architecture to match.

Slaughterhouse-Five, the making of modern Dresden

Dresden, just a couple of hours south of Berlin, is a beautiful city, especially on a warm early spring weekend. From the Baroque glories of the Zwinger Palace, to the sublime Renaissance Brühl’s Terrace, know as the “Balcony of Europe”, to the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche, a thousand years of history seems to drip from the very fabric of the city. Appearances can be deceptive though, and what visitors to Dresden see today is a carefully reconstructed version of the ancient capital of Saxony.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the events of 1945 will be aware that, after three days of utterly devastating aerial bombardment, Dresden was little more than a smoking ruin. Bombing raids raised an immense firestorm in the city, temperatures of close to 1,000°C melted glass and metal. It burned oxygen from the atmosphere and people suffocated before being incinerated in their thousands. Many of the dead were found clustered together in cellars, where they’d sought protection from the bombs.

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

When it was over, the city that was renowned throughout the world as the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ was obliterated. More than 20km2 of the city was little more than rubble when the shattered population of more than 650,000 people finally reemerged from their hiding places. Dresden had been considered safe, largely because it was of such historic and architectual value. Like Rome, Paris and Kyoto it could, should have been saved from the nearly 4,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries.

Dresden, to all intents and purposes economically and militarily unimportant to the Nazi war effort, wasn’t a battle. It was a slaughter from the air. It’s little wonder that American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, based much of his critically acclaimed anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, on his experiences of living through the Dresden bombing raids. Vonnegut, an American serviceman captured at the Battle of the Bulge, survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where he was held prisoner.

The debate about whether the bombing of Dresden was a war crime still goes on, but Vonnegut recalled that, “When we came up the city was gone … They burnt the whole damn town down.” The most accurate estimates agree that around 25,000 civilians were killed in the attacks between February 13 – 15. The scale of the destruction was so great that after the war, when Dresden found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation, there were serious discussions about whether the entire city should be levelled.

That, thankfully, wasn’t to be Dresden’s ultimate fate. Starting with the beautiful Saxon royal residence, the Zwinger Palace, the Baroque centre of the city was resurrected. A true Phoenix from the flames of war emerged in the decades after the war. While the architectural and artistic treasure trove for which the city was famed will never be fully recovered, a walk along the northern banks of the River Elbe admiring the magnificent cityscape provides a stunning perspective of this remade Baroque beauty.

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl's Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Our first impression of Dresden was the town’s central Neumarkt late on a Friday night after the drive from Berlin. We’d arrived with just enough time to find a few places still serving food. Our search for nourishment didn’t stop us admiring the illuminated dome of the Frauenkirche. A delicate 18th century architectural beauty that dominates the square and surrounding buildings, the Frauenkirche was left as a ruin after the war and was only reconstructed following German reunification in 1990.

We took a quick stroll around the town after dinner, thankful that the East German authorities hadn’t ploughed all this magnificent history into the ground. We stood on Brühl’s Terrace and admired the view across to the Neustadt, bridges and buildings reflected in the calm waters of the River Elbe. It was peaceful and serene, as far as it could possibly be from those fearsome nights in February 1945.

Free Hard Sex … Berlin Street Art

The sheer variety and artistry of much of Berlin’s street art is remarkable, and perhaps only really matched by the sheer industry of the artists. The recent spring weather has allowed us to unearth more examples of why Berlin is considered one of the best street art spotting cities in the world. While the city has attracted international artists by the score to decorate its cityscape, it was Berlin-based collective, Die Dixons, that recently brought the Mona Lisa here.

Not the enigmatic beer mat-sized Rennaisance masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci that hangs in The Louvre. But a 30-metre high version that covers the entire side of a hotel close to the river in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighbourhood. It is claimed that this is the largest reproduction of the Mona Lisa anywhere in the world. It was an arresting sight as walked across the Oberbaumbrücke. Strangely though, it wasn’t the most arresting sight of the day.

Mona Lisa by Die Dixons, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Free Hard Sex, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Monkey, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Designed to attract attention, there was always the possibility that the A4-sized white paper with bold black lettering attached to a lamppost in Kreuzberg was a real advert – this is Berlin after all. I assumed it was a bit of street art creative mischief, but it turned out to be something even more fun. A well designed advert of someone looking for an apartment to share. You have to read between the lines to see the real message, it’s quite brilliant.

I hope that the advertiser found a room to rent, perhaps whoever ripped off one of the small tickets with his phone number? If anyone knows, I need closure on this mystery.

One thing is certain, after our first winter in Berlin I’m glad for the color and humour street art contributes to the physical appearance of the city. Amidst the unrelenting gun-metal grayness of the winter months, I think  Argentinian artist, Alaniz, has a point when he claims street art is a gift to the inhabitants of a city. It may well be the dread of the winter months that has made Berliners so accepting of street art.

The Kreuzberg area around Oranienstrasse where we spotted this piece of genius, is a hotspot for street art, large and small. This is one of Berlin’s big nightlife zones and for decades was considered a hotbed of radical and anarchist politics. Much to the despair of locals, it is experiencing an onslaught gentrification that street art has most likely helped incubate. For the time-being, it’s still a neighbourhood that has an edge to it, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess.

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

The role of street art in gentrification is something that fascinates me, how a counter-culture scene can suddenly be ‘on trend’ and then become mainstream. This made the discovery of several pieces of street art at an outdoor squat (if that isn’t an oxymoron) all the more unusual. Perhaps it was intended as satire. It does make me wonder if a time is coming when street art will fall out of fashion, like all art forms at some point in time?

We remained in Kreuzberg sniffing out other street art, and very soon found ourselves admiring a legendary piece just off Köpenicker Strasse that has been here for several years. The work is by the same Alaniz, this piece depicts a sheep cradled in the arms of death. As bizarre as it is unsettling, it is something of a Berlin classic. Where it fits into the philosophy of giving something back to the community is a little harder to fathom.

A spring stroll in Berlin, ‘Fat Herrmann’ and the ‘Eiffel Tower’

The collective sigh of relief was almost audible. Berlin’s winter has been a ‘cabin fever’ experience. The long, dark and grey days finally giving way to warmer and sunnier ones literally seems to have altered the mood of the city – for the better. People are playing table tennis in the parks at lunchtime (concrete table tennis tables are everywhere); groups of people pack the parks and line the banks of the River Spree drinking beer. It feels like a massive weight has been lifted from the city. Thank Berlin for the spring.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Landwehr Canal and weird water circulation pipe, Berlin, Germany

Landwehr Canal and weird water circulation pipe, Berlin, Germany

Martin Luther statue in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Martin Luther statue in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Ikarus, Berlin, Germany

Ikarus, Berlin, Germany

In truth, the winter hasn’t been especially cold, or particularly hard, but it does seem to have gone on and on and on … and on. There are only so many gun-metal grey skies you can endure before going crazy. My home town of Kendal is called The Old Grey Town, but Berlin beats it hands down for life-sapping greyness. Luckily, warmer weather has finally arrived and has even featured the sun. The squares and street tables have been busy. I got sunburned having breakfast outside the other day.

The change of weather has allowed us to pick up the urban ramblings we abandoned sometime in November. Berlin offers a near-endless spectacle of fascinating sights as you stroll. Try hard enough and you can spot anything from the beauty of the Berliner Dom, to a semi-naked photograph of Davifd Hasselhof on a toilet door; a statue of Martin Luther in formerly atheist Alexanderplatz, or a bizarre memorial dedicated to Michael Jackson. Berlin has something for everyone, even if you don’t want it.

Berlin may be known for its public transport, S Bahn and U Bahn services run through the night, but the best way to see this city of 3.5 million people is definitely on foot. Some people might quibble with that and argue the bicycle is best, but cycling doesn’t allow for slow exploration. At first glance, Berlin looks like a vast place that would give even the hardiest of foot soldiers second thoughts, but it’s surprising how much can be seen on a day of purposeful ambling. This is a very walkable city.

Our home turf is around Mitte and Kreuzberg. Both offer street entertainment galore, including some of Berlin’s most famous sights, but we spend a lot of time in Prenzlauer Berg, which is an intriguing mix of gentrification and urban grittiness. It’s also home to my favourite beer garden. A recent walk here got us up close and personal with Fat Herrmann. This 1877 water tower sits in a tranquil park that belies the history of the area: this was the site of the Nazis first concentration camp.

Despite the many weird and wonderful things you can see as you walk through the city, its history is rarely far away. As we made our way around Prenzlauer Berg, we passed through small parks and lovely squares. It’s an attractive area, and one still to retain much pre-war architecture. In Rosa Luxemburg Platz, commemorating the early 20th century revolutionary who was executed in 1919, sits the famous Volksbühne, the Peoples’ Theatre. Giving a hint of the pre-gentrification politics of the area.

If Prenzlauer Berg is on the beaten track, Charlottenburg seems far removed from city life. It’s where we first lived when we moved to Berlin and revisiting recently we came across an extraordinary sight: a skinny, art nouveau Eiffel Tower. This is the Funkturm, a radio tower built in the 1920s which, despite its size, remains off the tourist trail. It’s close to Berlin Messe, where we spent a very happy afternoon at a German wine fair. By the time we got there, we’d walked half way across the city. Luckily the S Bahn runs all night!

Funkturm, Berlin, Germany

Funkturm, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Fat Herrmann watertower, Berlin, Germany

Fat Herrmann watertower, Berlin, Germany

The Hoff, Toilet Door, Berlin, Germany

The Hoff, Toilet Door, Berlin, Germany

Puppet Shop, Berlin, Germany

Puppet Shop, Berlin, Germany

Buddha statue, Berlin, Germany

Buddha statue, Berlin, Germany