The brilliance of Berlin’s Festival of Lights

Berlin’s Festival of Lights is a magnificent showpiece for the city, with some of the most iconic buildings used as temporary canvases for beautiful and inventive projections of light. Artists come from a variety of countries, and for ten days their work brings whole areas of the city to life at night. This year the festival celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, themed as Lights of Freedom. This is Berlin remembering it’s unification, with more than a passing nod towards the European Union.

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

James-Simon-Galerie, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bode Museum, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

The organisers claim it’s the largest open-air gallery in the world and, with a massive two million plus visitors, it is certainly one of the most popular. If my experience at the Berliner Dom and the James Simon Gallery, both on Museum Island, is anything to go by, the 2 million mark will be easily surpassed this year. These are two of the best lights in the whole festival. The huge dome of the city cathedral becomes a canvas for a series of images, including one (tongue in cheek?) that says, “Let There Be Light”.

The park surrounding the cathedral was packed, and thanks to the weirdly hot weather people were camped out on the grass. A musician played street busker standards, and I couldn’t help a smirk when he launched into John Lennon’s anti-religion hymn, Imagine, with absolutely no sense of irony. Above us only light! I shuffled off through the crowds towards the James Simon Gallery, where a huge throng was gathered along the canal to watch a brilliantly animated light show.

Named after the 19th centuryJewish textile magnet and massive patron of the arts in Berlin, the James Simon Gallery is brand new and will serve as Museum Island’s visitor centre. Here, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem of Kuwait has funded an incredible 10-minute ‘light mapping’ animation that combines Arabic and Western cultural references, and shows some of the gems that reside within the museums that cast a shadow over the scene. Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise appearance.

I arrived as the final couple of minutes of the show played out, and then grabbed a good viewing spot to watch it all from the beginning. It really was fantastic, and is perhaps only rivalled for technical ability by the projections at Bebelplatz. That delight was on my way home, but first I visited the light shows on the Bode Museum, at the entrance of which was another busker strangely illuminated in the light. I walked along the River Spree, past the Berliner Dom and into Alexanderplatz.

Last year, this was one of the best light shows in the festival, this year it was more than a little underwhelming. I didn’t linger and headed towards the Nikolaiviertel quarter, where things were also a little disappointing. The evening was saved by the utter magic of the light displays in Bebelplatz. There are interesting static projections on two sides of the square, but the animated projection onto the Hotel de Rome was wonderful. It was a collection of different artists’ creations. You can vote for your favourite.

By the time I arrived in Bebelplatz the crowds had started to thin out, and it was a far more relaxing experience watching the displays. I’m glad I made this my last stop, the fabulous animations and single projections on the Hotel de Rome were worth the wait. As I wandered home under an almost full moon, I felt at one with the world. A lucky bonus projection awaited me though as I walked down a street close to my apartment. The Ministry of Justice was lit up with a 30th anniversary Berlin Wall projection.

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

St. Hedwigs, Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.

It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.

Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.

I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.

The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.

She Is Gone … Berlin Street Art

Berlin is synonymous with street art, and a handful of street artists are famed as much for their relationship with Berlin as they are for their art. That balance has been a little disrupted by initiatives like the Berlin Mural Fest, which brings international artists to paint giant murals on buildings in locations all over town. It has furnished the city with a wealth of dramatic statement pieces that attract visitors from around the world, and which comes with its own app.

I’m slowly making my way around the city to visit some of them. It’s pretty impressive and, for the time-being, this more ‘corporate’ approach seems to co-exist harmoniously with Berlin’s more traditional grassroots approach. Whether that uneasy peace will endure is yet to be seen, but as street art becomes ever more associated with tourism, I’d imagine the backlash in this city is only a matter of time.

Believe in Dog by Fannakapan, Street Art, Berlin

Ricky Lee Gordon, Street Art, Berlin

Underwater Kiss by insane 51, Street Art, Berlin

Snik & Nuno, Street Art, Berlin

We Are by Innerfields, Street Art, Berlin

Berlin has been described, perhaps blasphemously, as “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world”. It’s certainly hard to think of a city of similar size with such a diverse street art scene. This evolution isn’t  so surprising when you consider that street art was an integral part of the protests against the Berlin Wall. I vividly recall reading the political messages painted on the West of the wall during my first visit in 1988. Years’ later they were selling painted chunks of concrete as souvenirs, regardless of their provenance.

After the wall came down, street art rapidly spread to the former East, as much protest as making the concrete easier to look at. It’s a little weird then, that a city with that sort of heritage spends €35 million a year removing street art to restore the natural beauty of the city – or the grey façades of the post-war, communist-era cityscape, as it’s better known. The ‘tagging’ that blights some neighbourhoods is probably not appreciated by residents, and the city has to act.

On the other side of the coin, one of Berlin’s most loved street artists is El Bocho. As his name suggests, he’s not a local. Originally from Spain, his works have been appearing on Berlin walls for the best part of two decades, and his distinctive portraits of Berlin ‘citizens’ is a homage to the city they love. I’ve only ever come across female ‘citizens’, but there are male versions as well. They are all paper cut-outs, prepared in the studio before being pasted onto walls.

Perhaps El Bocho’s most famous work though, is a series devoted to Little Lucy. Based on a Czechoslovakian TV series called Little Lucy – Fear of the Streets, his Little Lucy is a bit more deranged and psychotic. In his work she is waging a perpetual war against her cat, finding ever more inventive ways to kill it. She appears in one of the images below, her left eye bulging maniacally. As ever, the cat seems to have met a violent end at her hands – literally, in this case.

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

Little Lucy and El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

This is one of the joys of being a street art fan in a city like Berlin, street art narratives can be followed over prolonged periods of time. I’ve been unearthing El Bocho’s work since we arrived, and have found it in other German cities, like Hamburg. His work is a clear example of how a street artist can use the city as a canvass to launch a lucrative mainstream career. His works, like those of Banksy and others, can be bought at not inconsiderable prices.

This is far from the origins of street art, and certainly far from the philosophy of street art deriving its power from representing the margins of society. That’s something to be welcomed in my opinion, but only if there remains space for a new generation of artists to emerge onto our streets.

Sailing down the Spree to Müggelsee

Berlin is a city of water, and the surrounding region of Brandenburg is teeming with lakes and waterways. If you fly into the city just at sunset, you can see dozens of bodies of water glowing orange in the sun. One of the most ‘Berlin’ things to do in summer is to head to a lake, any lake, to swim and relax on the freshwater beaches. Some of my colleagues at work hop on their bikes and cycle to a nearby lake for a lunchtime swim. It makes a lot of sense when the city is sweltering in sultry summer heat.

Langer See, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Old factory on the River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg is said to have 3,000 lakes, around 80 are considered to be Berlin lakes. This includes some formidable waterways. The impressive Tegeler See, close to the nearby airport, is joined to the Wannsee by the River Havel, eventually merging with the Tiefer See at Potsdam. These were popular spots for West Berliners during the Cold War, but residents in the East could claim the biggest of all Berlin’s lakes, the Müggelsee, as their own.

On a recent Sunday we decided to explore some of these waterways on a boat trip to the Müggelsee. We started from Treptow Park and, for the next five hours, we chugged along the River Spree through the eastern suburbs of the city to Köpenick. The journey along the river passed through a predominantly industrial part of former East Berlin, interesting but not beautiful. At Köpenick, we sailed down a tributary of the Spree into the Müggelsee – the middle of which feels more like the ocean than a lake.

From here we cut through a narrow channel in the Müggelspreewiesen, a picturesque nature reserve. This is home to an area known as New Venice, between the Müggelsee and the Dämeritzsee. New Venice came into being in 1926 with the construction of several canals, and it’s home to a mix of upmarket houses and small shacks. Bizarrely, it was first named New Cameroon. I’ve been to Cameroon, there are few similarities. In Communist times, this is where high ranking officials had their dachas.

It’s a beautiful area and, speaking as someone who lives in the middle of Berlin, it’s a little envy-inducing. To really explore the area you’d need a small boat or canoe, we were on a large boat and headed instead for the Gosener Canal which connects to the Seddinsee and then the Langer See, two long stretches of water surrounded by forests. It’s utterly beautiful, and completely wonderful to be in nature so close to Berlin’s 3.5 million residents.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Eventually we arrived back in Köpenick, passing Schloss Köpenick on the way. Here everyone on board had to duck their heads as we passed under the Lange Brücke. After stopping to drop some people off, we set off back down the Spree towards the heart of Berlin. We’d been sailing for five hours but had barely scratched the surface of Berlin’s waterways. Despite that, by the time we arrived at Treptow it felt like we’d left the city days earlier.

There are hundreds of kilometres of waterways here, and exploring this watery urban landscape gives a completely different perspective on the city. Oddly, it makes it more human, especially compared to the often grimy concrete parts of Berlin.

This is not a tourist attraction … Berlin Street Art

There’s a certain irony to be found in someone painting the wall of a Berlin squat with the phrase, “This is not a tourist attraction” – instantly turning it into a selfie-taking hotspot. A case of unintended consequences, or mischievously self-aware parody of po-faced ‘lifestyle squatters’? Either way, it made me chuckle as we strolled past on a recent walk around the Kreuzberg district during the unusually hot weather Berlin has been enduring.

Natalia Rak, Street Art near Görlitzerpark, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

My head is a jungle by Millo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Formerly one of Berlin’s poorest areas, Kreuzberg has become one of its hippest in recent years, with an ever expanding mass of galleries, restaurants, bars and – the true mark of gentrification – coffee shops, catering to a trend-conscious crowd. The anti-establishment, counterculture, radical reputation of the area may have been lost to Neukölln as the demographics have changed, but it is still one of the best places in the city to spot street art – large and small.

We live on the edge of Kreuzberg and regularly spend time exploring its mix of elegant streets (the area was saved from the worst of the damage inflicted during the Second World War), scruffy parks (Görlitzerpark is home to highly visible drug dealers, but rarely feels unsafe), and lovely squares. On one side of Görlitzerpark is the vibrant Tomorrow Never Come from Polish artist Natalia Rak, which takes up the side of a house overlooking a children’s playground.

Not too far away from here is the quiet weird looking Rounded Heads that sits snuggly in the gap between two buildings – the work of German artist, Nomad. Heading back towards central Berlin along Oranienstrasse we came across the wonderful My Head is a Jungle by Italian street artist, Millo. The last time I saw a piece by the same artist I was in Tblisi. Interestingly, My Head is a Jungle, takes up the opposite side of a building that is also home to another great street art piece by German duo, Herakut.

In between these monumental pieces can be found many smaller artworks adorning a variety of surfaces. I was particularly pleased to discover a work that copied a famous sketch by 19th century artist, Heinrich Zille. We headed towards Alexanderplatz,  where French group, Le Mouvement, had pasted a series of pieces depicting groups of people united under brightly coloured umbrellas – bringing some cheer to what is a fairly low rent area.

Heinrich Zille copy, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Rounded Heads by Nomad, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The internationalisation of street art is a major development, just walking through this one district there were half a dozen nationalities that I could identify – and probably many more of which I’m not aware. It adds an interesting dimension to visiting cities, and it would be tempting to ‘collect’ artists when they create a new work. A street art version of the film, The Big Year, perhaps? Remember, you read it here first.

East meets West, a summer stroll along the Spree

Berlin transforms in the summer and the River Spree becomes a magnet for leisure and entertainment. We live close to the river where it glides past the Fischerinsel, Fisher Island, and Berlin’s Historischen Hafen, where a collection of old tugs and boats remind passersby of the days when this was a busy inland port. This area is a remnant of Berlin that managed to survive the Second World War intact. It didn’t survive communist city planners and the area was flattened in 1957.

This was also the former border between Communist East Berlin and the Capitalist West. The area was a customs and border zone. The Berlin Wall used to run through here, and you can still see traces of it today. A walk along the river towards Treptow Park begins in the former GDR, before crossing the line of the wall back into West Berlin before crossing back into the East. It’s a route that highlights the absurdity of the divided city.

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

Oberbaumbrücke, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

I hadn’t realised it at first, but our route along the river was redolent with Cold War history. The Wall may have gone, but you’re still not able to walk the whole way along the river. Occasionally you’re forced into the surrounding streets, which isn’t always a delight, and an eclectic mix of pre- and post-war buildings along Kopenickerstrasse. It’s not always easy to know which ideological area of Berlin you’re in, but from where we live, you’re firmly in the East until you hit the Schillingbrucke across the Spree.

Beyond here it’s the West for a few blocks, but on the other side of the river is another Cold War remnant, one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is a hugely popular tourist attraction with painted segments of wall that attract selfie-takers by the thousands. Which is ironic, this is probably the least original street art in Berlin. Still in the West, we passed the Oberbaumbrucke, the entire length of the bridge was East Germany, the southern bank of the river was in the West.

The Oberbaumbrucke is one of Berlin’s most iconic, a double-decker carrying trains, cars and pedestrians built in red brick Gothic and dating from the late 19th century. It was a critical border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors. Finally, you cross the Landwehr Canal and it’s back to the East again. Today the area along the river here is home to a cluster of painfully hip nightclubs, bars and restaurants. It’s all very un-Soviet and grungy.

Glinting in the sun in the distance is a towering 30 metre high sculpture, the Molecule Men. This striking sculpture was installed in 1997. The work of American artist, Johnathon Borofsky, the three shiny aluminium men are meant to represent unity, yet look like they are locked in a three-way struggle. Ironically, in a city that trades on its originality, they’re not unique. First appearing in Los Angeles in the 1970s, there’s even a version in Yorkshire, England.

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

River Spree at Insel der Jugend, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

They are, however, strategically located in the middle of the river at the intersection of three Berlin districts. Kreuzberg, Treptow and, over the river, Friedrichshain. Our goal was Treptow Park, where you can visit a Soviet war cemetery. We had other ambitions – a beer garden on the Insel der Jugend, or the Island of Youth, with its famous bridge, the Abteibrücke. This is supposed to be the oldest composite steel bridge in Germany, something only a dedicated steel bridge enthusiast could get excited about.

Our walk was about 7km, enough to justify a couple of hours watching the world go by on the river from a deckchair – in the company of a cold Berliner Kindl.

Odious, noisy, dirty, and grey: a year in Berlin

“And you, you can be mean, And I, I’ll drink all the time, ‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact, Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that…” – Heroes by David Bowie.

The two years David Bowie spent living in Berlin’s Schöneberg district inspired three groundbreaking albums, and gave birth to Heroes, a song that for many is the unofficial anthem of the city. He summed up his experience in the divided but bohemian former German capital in one of the most frequently used quotes about the city, “Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” This was the late 1970s and, while filled with Cold War intrigue, West Berlin was undergoing an artistic renaissance.

Museum Island, Berlin

Reichstag and River Spree, Berlin

Berliner Fernsehturm, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Church, Berlin

Davis Bowie plaque at his former Berlin home

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin

It is an image of the city still cultivated today – the freewheeling creative centre where experimentation is encouraged. In reality, it’s is a very different Berlin to the one Bowie knew, but also one going through a profound renaissance. Albeit this one is much more about gentrification and a booming economy in tech start-ups. As the mass of building sites and roadworks can attest, the face of Berlin is changing irrevocably.

It’s just over a year since we, somewhat reluctantly, moved our lives from The Hague to Berlin. It’s been a year of adjustment and frustration (this is the bureaucracy capital of the entire Solar System), a year of adaptation and slowly finding our place in a city that, in Bowie’s words, is “… so easy to ‘get lost’ in — and to ‘find’ oneself, too.” We’ve had periods of feeling lost, but a year on from those first confusing days and we are at last finding our feet, if not ourselves.

A German colleague, who moved from Munich to Berlin, told me it had taken her three years to feel comfortable in the city … and she speaks fluent German. Others have told me that when the city gets under my skin I’ll never want to leave. Anneliese Bödecker’s pithy statement captures this split personality with alarming accuracy, “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”

Berlin might actually be the urban embodiment of ‘can’t live with, can’t live without‘. I’ve not quite reached that point yet, but as we embark upon our second year I’m looking forward to seeing if the city gets under my skin, as opposed to on my skin – anyone who has worn a pair of flip flops in Berlin for any length of time will understand. Spend a day walking around and you’ll return home with feet that look as if they’ve been dipped in used engine oil. Air quality should be a major topic of conversation.

Funkturm, Berlin

Sculpture on Karl Marx Allee, Berlin

Sculpture, Berlin

Typical toilet, Berlin

Tiergarten, Berlin

Will our time in Berlin end like Icarus?

Such is the city’s reputation, moving here came with myriad expectations, more from others than ourselves. It’s a little too easy to only view the city through the lens of start-up schtick or the counter-culture cool marketing. Berlin is a more complicated place in reality – as anyone who has ever had to work out the recycling rules will tell you. There are many positives to living here, but the city can still leave you grasping at thin air when it comes to feeling like you belong.

Berlin is growing, and maybe the fact that we find ourselves here at a time of upheaval, as old and new clash, has made our first year more challenging. Yet we’ve loved many things, and have found ourselves exploring pockets of the city that only occasionally attract tourist attention. Piece by piece, the city and its people are coming into focus. The next 12 months start afresh, as T.S. Eliot, whose books once burned in Berlin, said:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– The Little Gidding

La Maladie d’Amour … Berlin Street Art

When it comes to street art, Berlin is truly the gift that keeps on giving. The Berlin that has emerged following reunification in 1990 has become synonymous with street art. The city’s revival as one of Europe’s most dynamic capitals has, in part, been forged by its association with cutting-edge street art. Formerly grim neighbourhoods have been revitalised and many are now in different stages of gentrification. For better or worse, street art has been a significant driver behind this trend.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany

I’m a little fascinated by the role of street art in communities, and the way it changes perceptions of a neighbourhood – good or bad. The evolution of street art from fringe, barely legal, activity to mainstream culture in which the most famous street artists can command serious money for their work, is a phenomenon. One that begs a number of question. What is street art? How does it differ from graffiti? Who gets to adjudicate on what is art and what is graffiti?

Ugly and alienating, graffiti is viewed by many as vandalism and is strongly associated with crime and anti-social behaviour. Ever since the Broken Windows Theory became popular in the 1980s – which influenced the zero tolerance approach to policing in New York City in the 1990s under the leadership of the increasingly deranged Rudy Giuliani – a debate has raged over whether illicit or illegal street art is socially acceptable. Does it feed the sense of social disorder that leads to increased crime?

Dynamic, attractive and increasingly seen as a ‘must have’ accessory for the modern urban environment, contemporary street art seems a millions miles from the former image of graffiti. It can position a city on the global stage and lure lucrative tourist euros into local businesses. So much so that street art festivals have become popular ways of expressing the modernity and dynamism of an aspiring city. This runs the risk of the corporatisation of street art and the loss of its anti-establishment appeal.

This is especially true in a city like Berlin, where street art is often overtly political, a chain of thought that began when I came across a story of a street art ‘installation’ in a communitiy in the Tegel district. Nicknamed ‘bloody refugee’, it depicts a young girl refugee bloodied and bruised, and standing in a pool of blood. At 42-metres in height, it’s a massive piece that covers the side of an apartment block, and is so life-like that it upset local residents when it was unveiled in 2016. They started a petition to have it removed.

Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art by Nomad Clan, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Captain Berlin, street art, Berlin, Germany

Perhaps the powerful message was more shocking because of the political context of Germay’s acceptance of over a million refugees, but isn’t that the role of art? Especially, perhaps, of street art? It may not be on a par with Picasso’s Guernica, but it cemented for me the idea that street art can and should be challenging, even if it’s hard to view sometimes. I get the feeling that in the rush to be ‘liked’ and ‘accepted’, street art has lost some of its soul. I’ve yet to visit this bit of town, but one day soon hopefully.

Meanwhile, our meanderings around Berlin have brought us face-to-face with plenty of interesting peices of wall art. Some new favourites include the Wolf of Prenzlauer Berg by Argentinian artist, Alaniz, a mural of rabbits burrowing under the Berlin Wall by British artist collective, Nomad Clan, not to mention Captain Berlin, found on the walls of a comic book store.

A early summer stroll along the River Spree

Berlin has transformed with warmer spring weather, after several cold grey months it’s time to dare to believe that summer is only days away. The city’s many parks and open spaces have once again filled with life, but it’s the slow-moving River Spree that draws most people. Berlin has designed the areas alongside the river to accommodate people at leisure rather than buildings or cars – looking at you London – and you can walk for several uninterrupted kilometres on or close to the waters edge.

The River Spree runs a 400 km course from the Lusatian Mountains on the border of the Czech Republic. On its journey to Berlin and beyond it creates the wetlands of the Spreewald and Berlin’s largest lake, the Müggelsee. Not long after leaving the city – in Spandau – the Spree disapears for ever, merging with the River Havel at the site where the enormous Spandau Citadel watches over the water. It is in Berlin though that the most famous stretches of the river can be found.

Berliner Dom, River Spree, Berlin

Reichstag, River Spree, Berlin

Three Girls One Boy Statue, River Spree, Berlin

Statue, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Spittelmarkt, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

We live close to Spittelmarkt (one of Berlin’s old markets) and the Spreekanal. A short walk brings you to Museum Island and the River Spree at the point where it passes the historic heart of Berlin, Nikolaiviertel. Head west from here and the river will take you past many of the city’s most famous landmarks. The banks of the river are crowded as you pass the massive Berliner Dom, and the Bode and Pergamon Museums across from Monbijou Park, but the views are worth it.

A bend in the river brings you to Friedrichstrasse train station, or the Palace of Tears as it was known during the Cold War. Although the Berlin Wall was further to the south of the station, where Checkpoint Charlie once was, West Berliners could use the station to transfer to other rail lines, making it a high security zone. West Germans with the right papers could enter East Berlin here to visit family. This was also their final point of departure back to the West, and a place where many tears were shed.

On a recent sunny day, we walked along the river and decided to continue going all the way to Alt Moabit. Not far from Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof, you find yourself marvelling at the Lazarus-like Reichstag with its Norman Foster-designed glass dome. It may be the second most visited attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral, but stay on the northern bank of the river and you can avoid the crowds. The views are also better from across the river.

The next stretch of the Spree is one of the most attractive, passing stylish government buildings designed to be counterpoints to the neo-classical Reichstag. The outstanding building here is the German Chancellery, a vast post-modern structure affectionately (I think) known as the ‘washing machine’. With views over the Spree and the Tiergarten, this is where Chancellor Angela Merkel spends her days. It proudly claims the title of ‘largest government headquarters in the world’.

Bear, Berliner Brücken, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Government buildings, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Nikolaiviertel, River Spree, Berlin

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cross the river on the historic Moltkebrücke, where German forces made a desperate defence of the Reichstag from the attacking Russians in 1945. The reason will soon become clear when you see the umbrellas of Zollpackhof beer garden. This is the perfect place to stop and sip a refreshing beer or indulge in gut-busting Bavarian cuisine. Fortified, carry on until you hit the impressive Schloss Bellevue, home of the German President.

You could make a detour to the Victory column at one end of the Tiergarten here or, as we did, head straight on into a small park before emerging into Alt Moabit. The lovely Berliner Brücken, guarded by two pairs of jaunty-looking bears, awaits. You could carry on from here to Schloss Charlottenburg, but a little bit further on there’s a small bridge that you cross to reach Tiergarten S Bahn and a train back to town.

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.