Winter is coming, Berlin’s Festival of Lights

The days are shortening, the nights getting longer, tree leaves are changing colour and the temperature is … well, as it happens, the temperature is going up. It’s been well into the mid-20ºC for much of the past week which, in case anyone needed a refresher on climate science, is in mid-October in northern Europe. We should be dusting off winter coats and pulling on gloves, instead I’ve been wearing flip flops and applying sun block. I’ll probably live to regret saying this when winter finally arrives, but it’s like a recipe that’s missing the most important ingredient: the cold.

Brandenburger Tor, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Brandenburger Tor, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Tiger, Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Tiger, Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Europe is for Lovers, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Europe is for Lovers, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Thankfully, you only need darkness to have a festival that’s intended to chase away the winter blues, and Berlin’s Festival of Lights certainly does that. The warm weather has made for a party atmosphere as thousands of people have poured onto Berlin’s streets to wander the festival routes. Some of the city’s most iconic buildings like the Berliner Dom, Brandenburger Tor and Berliner Fernsehturm, amongst dozens of others, have been repurposed as canvasses for light projections.

It might sound like a bad pun, but having massive, building-sized projections really has illuminated the cityscape. There are around 150 different projections in various parts of town, representing artists from 25 countries. Many are clustered around Museum Island, Potsdammer Platz and Alexanderplatz, making it relatively easy to see quite a lot of them with minimal effort. The walking routes are several kilometres long and to see all the projections would require a few days.

The most impressive grouping was around Bebelplatz, where St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Hotel de Rome, Opera House and Law Faculty buildings link up with Humboldt University across the Unter den Linden. They are wonderfully lit and, in what I imagine is a symbolic gesture, they bring light to the place where in 1933 around 40,000 people watched as the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books. There’s an underground library with empty shelves and a glass roof that commemorates a very dark period in history.

We walked, or rather shuffled along with huge numbers of spectators, from Bebelplatz to the top of Museum Island where projections light up some of the museum buildings along the River Spree. In the distance the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm were brilliantly aglow. We joined throngs of people heading into James-Simon Park where a tree provided the canvas for an odd projection of Mickey Mouse, before passing the cathedral and heading into Alexanderplatz where St. Mary’s Church was also lit up.

In the other direction, the area around Potsdamer Platz is filled with projections, and hosted the World Championship of Projection Mapping, where artists compete by projecting their animations onto the Kollhoff Tower. It was pretty impressive, but not as stunning as the giant tiger projected onto the Potsdamer Platz 5 building, which was absolutely brilliant. There was a projection onto the ground near the S-Bahn station, but a demonstration earlier in the day meant there was a massive police presence and their vans were parked on it.

On our way there we passed the memorial site of the 1953 demonstrations against the Communist authorities, which proudly proclaimed European unity with the message ‘Europe is for Lovers’. This is what we’ll lose when the ridiculous Brexit finally proves to the world how stupid the British can be. The highlight for many is a short walk from Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburger Tor, which draws massive crowds. To be honest, it’s hard to have favourites, the whole thing is spectacular.

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Museum Island, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Museum Island, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Which explains why visitor numbers topped the 2 million mark last year. That number is likely to be higher this year thanks to the unseasonably hot weather, and that many people can’t be wrong.

The chilling Cold War history on the streets of Berlin

Last week, Berlin celebrated the 28th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. The day is marked with a public holiday and, while it was nice to have a day off work, all I could think about was just how little time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall reunited the city and paved the way for national reunification. I found myself recalling my first visit to the city in 1989. Cold War hostilities still existed, the Berlin Wall seemed like a permanent fixture, and passing through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin was like a scene from a movie.

The anniversary celebrations culminated with live music and a crescendo of fireworks, but seemed quite subdued given the momentous nature of the occasion. I guess there might be a sense of wanting to move on from the past, and it’s probably no coincidence that Berlin’s Festival of Lights starts where reunification celebrations end. A thumbing of Berlin’s collective nose at the darkness of decades of division. Yet, the city’s daily life is lived with near constant reminders of its Cold War history.

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

T34 Russian tank, Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

'Balancing Act' sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

‘Balancing Act’ sculpture at Axel Springer building, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany

Our apartment is built in what was known as the ‘death strip’, a strip of land behind the Berlin Wall that was filled with electronic devices and watched over by three hundred observation towers. Attempting to cross these formidable ‘defences’ cost at least 138 Berliners their lives, and maybe it is in their memory that the city has not only retained sections of the Wall, but has marked its entire 155km length as a permanent memorial – I often see people ‘walking the wall’, map in hand.

It’s fairly common to find yourself in an ordinary area of the city and to suddenly be confronted by segments of the wall. A version of ‘the banality of evil’, to steal Hannah Arendt’s phrase. Recently while walking along the Spree close to the Reichstag, we passed through the Invalidenfriedhof, a former German military cemetery. The wall sliced through here with little regard for the living, or the dead. A watch tower stands in memory of Gunter Litfin, the first person to be killed trying to escape to the West.

That was in 1961, and the Wall would stand for another 38 years. The Wall though, is only one reminder of the Cold War. Walk under the Brandenburger Tor down the main avenue of the Tiergarten, and you’ll soon reach the impressive Soviet War Memorial, which also doubles as a mass grave for over 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the Battle for Berlin. The massive statue of a Russian soldier that looks down on the Tiergarten is flanked by two T34 tanks, alleged to be the first tanks to enter the city in 1945.

This memorial sat in British controlled West Berlin and, when I visited in 1989, Soviet soldiers stood at attention guarding the site. It’s an impressive memorial to the utterly gobsmacking Soviet sacrifices made in the Battle for Berlin: 80,000 Soviet soldiers died capturing the city, to which must be added tens of thousands of German soldiers and civilians who also died. The mass grave sits a few hundred meters from the Reichstag.

As impressive as it is though, the memorial pales in significance to the enormous Soviet memorial and mass grave in Treptower Park. We recently visited this interesting bit of Berlin, walking through Gorlitzer Park and along the Spree on a hot day to reach what surely must be Berlin’s most impressive memorial to the victory of Soviet arms over Nazism. A huge statue of a Soviet soldier rests his sword on a crushed swastika while cradling a German girl in his protective arms.

The irony of which would not be lost on the millions (literally) of German women and girls who were subject to mass rape and deprivation at the hands of their ‘liberators’. This statue, like its Tiergarten twin, is an effective piece of propaganda, the reality behind which is far more terrifying: Soviet soldiers, having witnessed Nazi atrocities in the East and fed a daily diet of anti-German hate, ran amok, committing atrocities in return. It is a history that has been largely ignored, some have even tried to justify it.

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

East German Observation Tower, Berlin Wall, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall Memorial, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

Berlin Wall street art, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

That Germany, and Berlin, has retained all these symbols of its own historic crimes, and those visited upon it, for the 28 years since reunification, shows a maturity and bravery that I doubt many other nations would exhibit. There are far right politicians who want to get rid of these and other reminders of the past. That they remain is something to be celebrated.

Prussian opulence at Charlottenburg’s Schloss

Charlottenburg may be one of the more underrated and misunderstood of all Berlin’s many neighbourhoods. When we first arrived we spent a hot and sweaty six weeks (the summer was brutal) in an apartment in Charlottenburg, while looking for a permanent place to live. Charlottenburg is a large district with a wide range of social and economic disparities, yet the general perception is of a middle-class, verging on suburban, area that’s unlikely to ever cut sufficient mustard to be one of Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods.

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

During the Cold War the area around the Zoologischer Garten marked the boundary of Charlottenburg. Controlled by the Allies, it became the nightlife epicentre of West Berlin, a fun-loving rebuke to po-faced communists on the other side of the ideological divide a few hundred metres away. Even though this bit of the district was never truly representative of the larger area, the inevitable decline that came following the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have coloured people’s ideas of the whole area.

That said, if you want cutting-edge nightlife and an edgy artistic scene, this is probably not the place to be. Charlottenburg, at least parts of it, provides an insight into a more elegant version of Berlin that’s sometimes hard to find elsewhere. Close to the S-Bahn station you’ll find tree-lined streets with a decent number of original buildings spared destruction during the Second World War. There are good restaurants, boutiques, a smattering of museums and galleries, and plenty of antique shops.

It’s a relaxed area which at first gives little hint of its royal history. Walk along the River Spree though, and you’ll unearth one of the gems of Berlin’s Prussian past: the Schloss Charlottenburg. Built as a summer retreat for Sophie Charlotte, wife of King Frederick I, in 1699, the palace is a baroque and rococo architectural glory, inside and out. There are extensive landscaped gardens that sought to rival the finest in Europe, and which house a mausoleum to the Hohenzollern dynasty.

The House of Hohenzollern began life as fairly insignificant Black Forest nobility but, over an 800-year period, would become one of the most powerful families in Europe, claiming the title of Kings of Prussia before going on to unify Germany as Emperors. The household that gave birth to Frederick the Great only lost its grip on power with defeat in the First World War, and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Or Kaiser Bill as he was known to British soldiers on the Somme.

There’s a fascinating 3-D film showing the building’s evolution from summer house, to an immense palace designed by the finest architects of the period. It was intended to rival Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The film also shows the near-total destruction of the palace from Allied air raids and Soviet artillery in the Second World War. Parts of Schloss Charlottenburg were reduced to little more than a shell, but decades of careful reconstruction have restored much of its former glory

The exterior is pretty dramatic and, if our experience was anything to go by, a popular spot for newlyweds to have their photographs taken. You can enter the gardens for free but to visit the interior costs a fairly hefty €17, plus another couple of euros for the privilege of taking photos. It’s probably overpriced to be honest and, bizarrely, it’s cheaper for a family of four to visit than for two adults. Alas, there are real gems inside that you won’t get to see otherwise.

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Charlottenburg mausoleum, Berlin, Germany

These include the exquisite porcelain room, filled with Chinese and Japanese porcelain pieces, a reminder that in the 18th century, porcelain was one of the most valuable commodities available. So much so, it was known as ‘white gold’, and was subject to the frenzied attentions of royalty and alchemists alike. Augustus II of Saxony, one of many avid German collectors, founded the legendary Meissen porcelain factory and tried to capture the market in European porcelain.

There are other grand ball rooms and dinning rooms to explore, but the interior feels a little sterile. It didn’t help that it was hot and stuffy inside, and we were glad to get back outside to wander around the gardens. At least the mausoleum was cool.

Moving to Berlin: the search for Utopia

There’s no doubt Berlin is a fantastic city, but there are times when it appears more a shimmering mirage than a city of concrete, air pollution and of flesh and blood humans being. Gushing tales about the city could make you believe it existed only as fantasy – whether it’s digital nomads living the dream in cutting-edge startups, the razor sharp arts scene, the dazzling hedonistic nightlife or the hipster-filled fashion world. This is the funky, creative and youthful Berlin carefully crafted into the stuff of marketing legend.

As I cycle to work – albeit under the Brandenburg Tor, past the Reichstag, through the Tiergarten and along the Spree – it’s not always easy to reconcile the idea of Berlin as some sort of 21st century Utopia with the work-a-day city I see each morning at 8am. After reading too many travel guides it’s possible to imagine it as a modern-day City of the Sun, Tommaso Campanella’s 17th century fictional city that is a temple of learning, where there is an equal division of labour and all people are treated with dignity.

Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany

Grave of The Red Baron, Invalidenstrasse Cemetery, Berlin, Germany

East German art, Berlin, Germany

East German art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany

Kaiser-Wilhelm Church war memorial, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

I studied Campanella’s philosophical work at university and his vision of Utopia, like the dozen or so other fictional works I read on utopias, ultimately leads to a dystopian vision of humanity’s future. Think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In Berlin you can tell you’re not living in Utopia by the complexity of the recycling rules. In the abstract, German recycling is utopian. It covers almost every commodity known to humanity and should benefit the planet. Yet, like all utopian imaginings, it has quickly become my own personal dystopia.

You need a PhD in bloody-mindedness to understand the recycling rules. I’ve counted seven different colours of recycling bin that, even with a two-sided colour-coded A4 leaflet, I still can’t work out. Some of them are even different shapes. It’s complicated enough to need an app to guide you. God-forbid you put your recycling in the wrong bin. The seventh circle of Hell is reserved for people who do that. If the tourist schtick is to be believed, this is the “anything goes” city. Just make sure it goes in the correct colour-coded receptacle.

I’m also pretty sure that in Utopia the service would be better, and even occasionally delivered with a smile. It’s cliche to knock Berlin’s service culture, but experience has taught me to recalibrate expectations. We’ve had good experiences in restaurants but the reality is that bad tempered and wildly inefficient service is commonplace. You may be handing over your hard-earned cash, but don’t think for one minute that it pays for anything more than thinly veiled contempt in some places.

Your hard-earned cash will also need to be carried in its physical form, because Berlin, like much of Germany, is only just getting around to recognising credit and debit cards as an acceptable form of payment for services and goods. The Berlin ‘walk of shame’ is attempting to pay with a card and then having to search nearby streets to find an ATM. This seems crazy in one of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy nations on earth. It’s the polar opposite of the Netherlands, where some shops don’t accept cash.

Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to Ronald Regan, Berlin, Germany

David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany

David Bowie memorial, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany

Berlin TV Tower, Berlin, Germany

World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

World Time Clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

These small frustrations aside, the unnaturally good weather has allowed us to get out and explore the city. There is much that makes Berlin a fascinating and wonderful place to live, whether riverside walks along the Spree, fantastic food in intriguing areas like Kreuzberg, a multitude of open spaces like the former Tempelhof airport, or the daily comings and goings of Germany’s political capital – the city centre was in lockdown for the recent visit of Turkey’s President Erdogan, making my cycle to work a nightmare.

Almost everywhere you go you find yourself bumping up against Berlin’s history. We recently found ourselves standing in front of the grave of the Red Baron – First World War fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen. His headstone, still bullet-riddled from the Second World War comes with a backdrop of pieces of the Berlin Wall, which cut a swathe through the cemetery. A short walk away is a memorial to the first person to be killed attempting escape to the West. In Berlin, the ghosts of its own dystopian past are all around.

My home might be no palace … Berlin street art

A few years ago, in an act of angst-ridden destruction, one of the artists who created a couple of Berlin’s more famous pieces of street art, spent a night painting over them. This he explained, was done as a symbolic gesture against the role the artworks had in aiding and abetting the gentrification of Kreuzberg, an area of the city regarded as a mecca for artists thanks to its cheap housing and counter-culture cool. That ‘coolness’ attracted well-heeled residents and was appropriated by property developers to push up prices.

For those who worry about such things, the green shoots of gentrification are but the harbingers of worse to come: full blown capitalism in the form of high street brands. I recently walked down a street in Kreuzberg on my way to a good Mexican restaurant (an act that itself is probably gentrifying), and overheard someone telling their visiting friends how a Subway in the neighbourhood had been repeatedly vandalised. There was pride in the way he told the story, an emblem of his own coolness. Subway seemed to be selling plenty of sandwiches when I walked past it later.

My home might be no palace, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

My home might be no palace, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Don John, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Don John, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

A year before the iconic Kreuzberg art was painted over, British artist, Grayson Perry, stated (probably tongue in cheek) that artists were “the shock troops of gentrification”. It sparked a debate that has yet to subside, and which has become the focus of serious study. Gentrification, the narrative goes, pushes up prices and pushes poorer residents (artists included) out, creating cultural wastelands and become the very opposite of the vibrant neighbourhood that attracted people in the first place.

Worse than this though, neighbourhoods often experience a sort of social apartheid, becoming exclusively for those with the cash. Just take a look at what has happened in parts of London, New York and most other major cities. This is a fate that many fear for Berlin, a city already teeming with hipsters, as more and more digital start ups descend on the city. For many, that is a good thing. Berlin is catching up with the 21st century, but for those who would prefer a different type of change, it is a challenge.

Whether street art is partially to blame is an altogether different question. Against this backdrop, and with a little trepidation that I might be contributing to the social version of coral bleaching, I’ve been photographing random bits of street art as I’ve made my way through the city. It would be fair to say that Berlin doesn’t disappoint. Like many other ‘global’ cities, street artists have been attracted in their droves, Berlin’s unique history making it a strangely glamorous canvas.

That’s not to say it’s all glorious, building-sized pieces that transcend the mundane. The plague of ‘tagging’, a form of street art that I just don’t get and which singularly fails to engage me, is virulent. It depends which bit of Berlin you’re in, but tagging can be found on a lot of buildings. More interesting for me, there are hotspots of more substantial art pieces in several neighbourhoods. These range from the whole side, front or back of buildings, to small sticker art pieces.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Dancing Women, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Dancing Women, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

As a newcomer to the city, it’s interesting to explore new areas where there is a strong and creative street art scene. It makes aimless wandering more rewarding and much more fun. I occasionally stop in these neighbourhoods for food or a drink, even to visit the occasional museum. Hopefully this isn’t contributing to malicious changes in the social ecosystem. If it is I apologise, but the real culprits are surely the street artists?

Moving to Berlin: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

It may be a little unfair to use Lady Caroline Lamb’s assessment of her tempestuous lover, Lord Byron, to describe Berlin, but ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ seems to fit the city’s character. At least in part*. Just like Byron, there is also culture and beauty in abundance, but let’s face it, any city that identifies as strongly as Berlin does with the currywurst is a risk taker. The iconic sausage smothered in thick curry sauce is a staple of the city’s street food scene. There’s even a museum devoted to it.

Mural in former GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

Mural in former GDR Council of State building, Berlin, Germany

This improbable culinary treat was invented in 1949 in post-war West Berlin after a chance encounter between Herta Heuwer, owner of a food kiosk in Charlottenburg,  and a British soldier who introduced her to both tomato paste and curry powder. The original recipe is rumoured to have contained Worcestershire source and, presumably after a lot of experimentation, the legend of Berlin’s favourite snack was born. I’m not a food purist, but currywurst is only safely consumed after several drinks.

Currywurst aside, Berlin has a growing reputation as a world-class foodie city, and it’s possible to find cuisines from around the world in its diverse neighbourhoods. It’s just one sign of Berlin’s evolution into a cultural melting pot that transcends its past and makes it one of Europe’s most extraordinary urban areas. The cat has been out of the bag for several years now, and the city once described as “poor but sexy” by its former mayor has been transformed into a vibrant metropolis.

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Schlossbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Schlossbrücke, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

U-Bahn, Berlin, Germany

U-Bahn, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

It’s definitely still sexy, but it’s hard to claim it’s still poor despite a cost of living quite some way below that of many European capitals. It may not yet rival San Francisco or London for creative industries, but it’s rapidly becoming Europe’s startup hub. This doesn’t always sit easily with ‘old’ Berlin, and the resistance and protests that have greeted Google’s relocation to the city is indicative of a counter-culture underbelly, which gets full exposure during the annual May Day riots.

It’s not only global tech brands that are changing the demographics and geography of Berlin though. The city is experiencing a period of rapid growth and change, the reviled gentrification is making itself felt in almost all parts of the city. In response to a chronic housing shortage, new buildings are springing up everywhere, and construction cranes seem to form the upper canopy of jungle Berlin. The nature of the city is changing, and maybe not for the best, but it feels dramatic and exciting.

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin, Germany

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, Germany

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Throw into the mix Berlin’s unique history that encompasses its development as the capital of a newly united Germany in 1871, the freewheeling decadence of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, destruction during the Second World War, and a divided city during the long decades of communist rule. Reminders of this past are everywhere, but as recent fights between developers and those who want to preserve remnants of the Berlin Wall show, that is no longer certain in the future.

Combine all of this with a bizarre love of bureaucracy and a dysfunctional approach to public services – the next available appointment to register our new address is over six week away – makes this is a complex and perplexing place to live. It’s hard to disagree with Lorenz Maroldt, editor of the local Tagesspiegel newspaper, when he says, “It is hard to escape the impression that Berlin’s government has a certain contempt for its citizens”. Unique amongst European capitals, Berlin is a financial drain on the rest of the country.

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin, Germany

Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Currywurst, Berlin, Germany

Currywurst, Berlin, Germany

As one of my colleagues reminded me, it’s the mix of Berlin’s Byzantine bureaucracy and bizarre rules – Why don’t people cross the road when there are no cars? Why are Germans obsessed with the way you urinate? – that can make new arrivals feel a sense of dislocation. But, she assured me, it wouldn’t take long before I feel “so comfortable that I’ll never want to leave”. Challenge accepted.

* This was written before I discovered the cellar to our building had been broken into, and the ‘secure’ unit where some of our possessions are stored was smashed open. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the would-be thief didn’t steal anything. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know indeed!

Moving to Berlin: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Everyone warns you about the housing ‘crisis’ in Berlin. But only when you’re standing on a street early on a Monday morning to view an apartment, surrounded by thirty other hopefuls, does the true horror of the situation become clear. It wasn’t even one of the more desirable areas of town, but this is Berlin 2018 and all bets are off when it comes to finding an apartment. People attend viewings expectantly, in the hope that Berlin’s capricious housing gods will look favourably upon them.

OMG! How hard is it to find an apartment in Berlin? U-Bahn advert, Berlin

OMG! How hard is it to find an apartment in Berlin? U-Bahn advert, Berlin

It’s a scene witnessed countless times across Berlin each and every day, and one that’s become all too familiar to us. Each apartment viewing follows a similar routine: you view the apartment, then hand over bundles of paperwork to an estate agent, including employment contracts, pay slips, references, credit ratings, and a family member as a hostage against non-payment of rent. Okay, not this last thing, but the process feels pretty exploitative.

Back on the street you enter a housing twilight zone. If you’re lucky you hear that you weren’t shortlisted, but mostly Berlin’s landlords and estate agents feel no need to communicate with you. These are glorious days to be an estate agent. Writing as I am from our new apartment, I can just about laugh about it now, but it’s a dehumanising process. Of course, the challenges don’t end there. We arrived in our new apartment only to discover that the light sockets – all fourteen of them – had been removed.

Mitte, Berlin

Mitte, Berlin

Molecule Man, Berlin

Molecule Man, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Berliner Pilsner, Berlin

Berliner Pilsner, Berlin

We moved here at a good time, summer in Berlin is legendary. People hit the streets, parks and lakes in their droves, and life is lived outside in those few precious summer months before the onset of the grey and cold winter, for which the city is also famed. Berlin felt welcoming and we’ve embraced it despite all the petty irritants that come with moving to a new place. Pride of place is the stark contrast between the modern, liberal international city and the German love of rule-based living and bureaucracy.

The experience of registering our residency has convinced me to abandon plans to open a German bank account. Gone is the one digital identity I needed to access every service known to humanity in the Netherlands, to be replaced with … paper. Berlin is only just embracing online, which seems strange in a city that is the epicentre of digital start ups. That, though, is less irritating than the 19th century attitude to marriage or, rather, towards unmarried couples.

Street Art, Berlin

Street Art, Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Bear on a bridge, Moabit, Berlin

Bear on a bridge, Moabit, Berlin

Russian War Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin

Russian War Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin

In the Netherlands, unmarried couples can share a health plan. Want your partner to have the same rights in Germany and you’ll have to get married. It’s as if the German state is pimping unmarried couples up the aisle into the arms of the Church. Not that they make getting married easy. Many Germans go to Denmark to tie the knot and get the tax breaks that come with wedded bliss. The result is an additional €2,000 per year in healthcare fees. That just seems immoral.

One of the more striking things about our new home is the number of people who are living rough. I’ve lived in London, where the problems are significant, but after living in the Netherlands where you rarely see homeless people, the number of homeless in Berlin is a real shocker. Given the lack of available housing in almost every price range, it’s hardly surprising, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept. Although, it does mean there’s a thriving recycling industry – beer bottles carry a refund in Berlin.

Friedrichshain, Berlin

Friedrichshain, Berlin

River Spree, Berlin

River Spree, Berlin

Street style, Berlin

Street style, Berlin

Old Post Office, Mitte, Berlin

Old Post Office, Mitte, Berlin

Homeless in trendy Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Homeless in trendy Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

That might not mean very much unless you know about Berlin’s beer drinking culture. At almost any time of day or night you can spot people on the streets drinking from a bottle of beer. Drinking in public is not just legal, it’s perfectly normal, and to underline this the cost of beer is very low, often cheaper than bottled water. No wonder drinking beer seems to be the number one pastime. For homeless people, a near endless supply of refundable beer bottles appears to be a financial lifeline.

Besides a couple of forays into some of Berlin’s more interesting neighbourhoods and a few visits to museums, we’ve not seen a great deal of the city. Too much time has been devoted to finding an apartment. Now we have a place to call home we can finally start to explore. Winter may be on the way, but I can’t wait.

Wolfenbüttel, where Casanova and Jägermeister collide

Despite a long and grand history, and a wealth of ancient buildings, Wolfenbüttel is an unassuming sort of place. Yet, amidst an old town that still contains over six hundred timber-framed buildings, there are even grander sights that make a visit here truly worthwhile. The most dramatic is Wolfenbüttel Palace, a Baroque masterpiece that served as the residence of the Dukes of Brunswick for over 400 years. I could barely believe my eyes, it was as if a highly decorated wedding cake had dropped from the sky.

As I waked over a small bridge and through the ornate entrance I was keeping good company. King George I of Great Britain, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Peter the Great of Russia were just some of the aristocratic luminaries to have visited before me. Even more importantly, between the Thirty Years’ War and the Second World War, the building has suffered almost no war damage. Given the serious fighting that took place in this region in 1945, that is just short of miraculous. There’s a good museum inside.

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel Palace, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Wolfenbüttel, Germany

I only came to Wolfenbüttel as a way of breaking the journey between The Hague and Berlin during our relocation to the German capital. I’d read that it was a historic place, but had no idea the town was this beautiful or that this was its 900th anniversary. My first impression wasn’t so great though. Thanks to a dodgy satnav, I ended up parking next to the prison. I later discovered that Wolfenbüttel was a Nazi stronghold in the 1930s and the Gestapo executed hundreds of political prisoners in the prison.

I made my way to the historic centre past a lot of timber-framed buildings and a couple of historic churches. I found the tourist office in Wolfenbüttel’s lovely Stadtmarkt. The square is home to a statue of Duke Augustus II, one of the town’s most famous rulers, and the man who created the second most wondrous sight in Wolfenbüttel, the Herzog Augustus Library. With over a million titles today, a third of which date from between the 12th and 18th centuries, at the time of his death the collection had 134,000 books and manuscripts.

It’s at the library in 1764, that one of the great figures in European history enters the scene. A man known more for his amorous entanglements, Casanova was primarily a man of letters. This was one of the great European libraries and he spent several days here researching his translation of Homer’s Iliad. The tourist literature was silent on whether he had been involved in any assignations. The library is home to one of the rarest (and most valuable) books on earth, the Gospels of Henry the Lion. It might sound like a children’s book, but it cost over €9 million at auction in 1983.

The library’s famous associations don’t end there. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing were both librarians here during their lifetimes. Not bad for a small town, and given all this I’m genuinely surprised that there were so few people on the streets, and few signs of other tourists. I figured they were all at the one place that has put Wolfenbüttel on the map in recent years. The one place I wouldn’t venture. For this, surprisingly, is the home of Jägermeister.

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Timber-framed houses, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Having once been ‘forced’ to drink Jägermeister by a ‘friend’ who claimed it to be the elixir of life, I can confirm that it is in fact like drinking a liquid herb salad mixed with poison. It was invented here in Wolfenbüttel in 1934, presumably as a way of cleaning the drains. Against the odds it was a hit with the German public. The sickly concoction of 56 botanical ingredients is still made here, only today it has a global audience. A fact I find almost impossible to comprehend. You can take a tour of the factory. I didn’t.

The Renaissance glories of Château de Villandry

No trip to the Loire Valley would be complete without visiting at least one spellbinding château. That though creates its own dilemma: with so many extraordinary château to visit, which one is the one? We went to the magnificent Château de Chenonceau two year’s ago, which was swamped with tour groups by mid-morning but is still an amazing place to visit. I did some research over dinner and decided the Renaissance glories of the Château de Villandry would be an appropriate Loire finale before driving back to the Netherlands.

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Jardin de l’Amour, Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

While this is one of the most beautiful, and certainly one of the most visited, of all the Loire’s château, people don’t really come for the building. At Villandry, people visit for the spectacular gardens. The château sits close to the Cher river, about 40km away from my base in Amboise and, despite arriving just after it had opened, the car park was already pretty busy. I made my way in, just sneaking ahead of a large school party, and soon found myself clambering to a terrace with exquisite views across the gardens.

The elevated view provided sweeping vistas over the 9 hectares of manicured grounds that are divided into six distinct gardens. They are mostly formal gardens, but there is also a kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables, and an area furthest from the château that is more like a wild garden. On the terrace you can see the symbolism of the garden designs. The jardin de l’amour is a patchwork of boxed hedges filled with flowers that are symbols for Tender Love, Fickle Love, Tragic Love and, of course, Passionate Love.

Not for nothing is the Château de Villandry known as one of the most romantic of all France’s châteaux. The flower colours match the type of love: yellow for betrayed love, red for love rivalries that ended in bloodshed. It’s ridiculously picturesque, but also has a love story and great romance to go wth it. Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, and Ann Coleman, met and fell in love while they were living in Paris, where she worked in his medical research team.

She also happened to be heiress to a US steel empire, which was convenient when they fell in love with the dilapidated château in the early 1900s. They ploughed both their money and passion into returning Villandry to its past glories. The love garden reflects their passion for each other and the château itself. I’d timed my visit well, the gardens were in full bloom. I left the terrace and spent a couple of hours meandering around the grounds. It was very peaceful.

The château was built in the 1540s on the site of a much older castle, which in 1189 was the site of one of the great moments in Anglo-French history. At Villandry, Henry II of England – the king who had Thomas Beckett murdered – surrendered to Philip II of France. Henry’s son and future King of England, Richard the Lionheart, had defied his father to support Philip II, whose daughter, Alice, Richard was supposed to marry. He, of course, left for the crusades and never married Alice. Complex things, royal families.

The new château and gardens were built by Jean Le Breton, who served François I of France as finance minister, and was the first of many illustrious owners. Villandry was also home to the Marquis de Castellane, who served as ambassador to Louis XV. Later, Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, would take up residence here. The buildings and gardens are today an UNESCO World Heritage Site, an honour that, despite all of Villandry’s famed owners and history, properly belongs to Joachim Carvallo and Ann Coleman.

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

Château de Villandry, Loire Valley, France

‘A well spent day brings happy sleep’, Leonardo in Amboise

Amboise has two world-class attractions, the Château Royal d’Amboise and the equally extraordinary Château du Clos Lucé, or Clos Lucé as it is almost universally known. It was to here that I headed after a morning exploring the history of Château d’Amboise, but first it was time for lunch. The exit from the château disgorges you onto a street directly opposite La Cave, a wine shop that offers charcuterie and tastings. I took this as a sign of divine providence, sat in the shade and ordered a glass of the owner’s own Vouvray wine.

The heat was now ferocious, the mercury rising to a terrible 38°C. It took an immense amount of determination not to head to the air conditioning of my hotel room. Instead, I plodded uphill towards the estate where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life as a guest of the French King, Francis I. Amidst wonderful gardens, the Italian genius of the Renaissance spent his time inventing and painting. The story goes that when he left Italy for France, he carried with him the Mona Lisa.

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Château du Clos Lucé, Loire Valley, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

It would be fair to call Leonardo one of the most influential painters of all time, but as a visit to the Clos Lucé proves, he was a man of many talents. He had an endless thirst for knowledge that led him to become an expert in many disciplines, including engineering, botany, architecture, mathematics and music. A mind never at rest, inventions seemed pour out of him: prototypes of tanks, airplanes, helicopters and an adding machine. Not to mention musical instruments, water pumps, bridges, the parachute, sculptures and anatomical studies.

It wouldn’t be unfair to call him a genius. Yet despite all of this, it is Leonardo the artist that is most popular. The Mona Lisa may be the most well known piece – and he was still working on it when in Amboise –  but it’s the 1490s painting of The Last Supper that is his true masterpiece. All of these different aspects and periods of Leonardo’s life are covered at Clos Lucé, and perhaps it is testament to his enduring popularity that when I arrived at the entrance (dripping in sweat) there was a queue of thirty people.

In fact, the whole of the magnificent gardens and the period interior of the house were packed with people. I was so hot that once I had my ticket I headed into the gardens and the shade of some nearby trees. There is a trail that leads around the gardens, and I followed it past reproductions of various inventions and of his drawings and paintings hung amongst the trees. The mysterious eyes of the Mona Lisa could be seen peeking between trees in a shady glade.

Although there were a lot of people, the gardens were quite peaceful, and I spent a good hour meandering around before plucking up the courage to go into the house. There are some fascinating displays and lots of good information about the man, his times, and his work. It was crowded though, and the heat was suffocating. I rushed my visit just to get back outside and into the shade of a tree. Afterwards, I strolled back into the town and along the banks of the River Loire.

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci's Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

Leonardo da Vinci’s Château du Clos Lucé, Amboise, France

In the end, I had to give in to the temptation of the air conditioner, and went to cool off at the hotel. Later that evening I had a table booked at the restaurant Chez Bruno, run by the same people who run La Cave. As well as a well stocked cellar, they do excellent food. It felt like fate that, just a few days before we would leave the Netherlands for Germany, a Dutch couple sat at the next table. We struck up a conversation and shared a few glasses of wine. A fine end to a well spent day.