The year that brought us to Berlin, 2018 in review

2018 has been a year of upheaval. After four-and-a half-years living in The Hague we relocated 700km east to start a new chapter of life in Berlin. Truth be told, we didn’t want to leave our Dutch lives behind, but circumstances don’t always give you the choice. So, with heavy hearts, we loaded up our belongings for the third time in seven years and headed towards a new beginning.

Six months in Berlin has been enough to underscore the cultural chasm between the two countries – plus it’s over 250km to the beach from here. As we adjust to our new world there will be opportunities to explore Germany’s fascinating regions, and to look further east (Poland is a 100km away) and after sampling Berlin’s winter, I’m already looking forward to the Berlin spring.

These are my 2018 highlights (France features ‘biggly’, to quote the US President) … and here’s to 2019, the Year of the Bear.

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Bear in a train station, Berlin

Leaving the Netherlands

If there’s one thing to be said for leaving a country, it’s that it gives you pause to recall all the wonderful places you’ve visited. For me, it also meant a few days photographing and writing about the city we called home, The Hague. We hadn’t planned to move to the Netherlands, but it is a country that has seared its way into our affections in a big way. Each photo is a place I’d like to return to, at least once I’ve visited the places we missed the first time around.

Arriving in Berlin

Contemporary Berlin comes with huge expectations: history and culture merge with a reputation as one of the coolest cities on the planet. Yet our early impressions were  of dealing with bureaucracy and trying to find an apartment in a hostile housing market. This took place in a heatwave, temperatures hovering around 35ºC. Uncomfortable in our new home in more ways than one, we’re slowly adapting to Berlin life and trying to learn basic German.

Seafaring history in Bremen and Hamburg

An early summer road trip introduced us to two of Germany’s great North Sea port cities, Bremen and Hamburg. I’d never been to either and both left a lasting impression. They suffered massive damage in the war but both have reinvented themselves for the modern era. Bremen mixes Hanseatic history with cultural riches and good food; while Hamburg became my favourite city of 2018, effortlessly cool, relaxed, friendly and full of culture.

Remembering da Vinci in the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley is a place filled with glories. Beautiful landscapes hide magnificent château, ancient towns and world class vineyards. I’d been bouncing around the French countryside and stopped in the utterly beguiling town of Amboise. Dominated by the Château d’Amboise, this is where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years, dying in the town and buried in the Royal château. My final day was spent at the extraordinary Château de Villandry.

World Cup fever in Metz

Just before we left the Netherlands, there was one final road trip to France – it won’t be so easy to hop in the car and head to Champagne, Burgundy or the Loire from Berlin. It was a trip of firsts that included the city of Metz, home to the Pompidou Centre and where I got to experience the massive street party that was France winning the World Cup. It was a crazy few days of culture, good food and partying.

The wine routes of Alsace

We stopped in the distinctly French town of Nancy en route to Alsace. The difference between it and the decidedly Germanic Alsace region came as a bit of a surprise. That didn’t take away from the rolling landscapes and the even more extraordinary historic villages of timber-framed buildings that we encountered. Our journey through Alsace’s vineyards was fantastic and introduced us to German wine varieties – which, ironically, has subsequently come in handy.

Roman history and foodie heaven, Segovia

Rarely a year goes past without a visit to Spain. 2018 was no different, with a few days in Madrid followed by a trip to nearby Segovia. I’d heard of this historic town but was unprepared for just how beautiful it was, especially coming with a backdrop of snow covered mountains. There is so much to admire in the town, from the 12th century Alcázar to the lamb and suckling pig specialities, but it is the Roman aqueduct that takes centre stage.

24 hours in Copenhagen

It’s been nearly 30 years since I last visited Copenhagen, a few hours of wandering its historic centre had me wondering why it had taken so long to return. It was a shame that, after spending a week in various meetings and at a conference, I only had a day to reacquaint myself with the city. It was enough to make sure we’ll be returning when the weather improves in the spring.

A Sicilian adventure

Italy remains an under-explored country for me. This trip to Sicily was a first visit to the country’s most southerly region. We immersed ourselves in millennia of history while enjoying excellent seafood and local wines; took in ancient hilltop villages that are a byword for baroque architecture; ate fresh fish on the Mediterranean in a former tuna fishing village; and visited the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins of Morgantina and Villa Romana del Casale. The highlight though, was the near-mythical city of Syracuse.

A whirlwind visit to Copenhagen

I’ve just returned from a week spent not quite in Copenhagen. I could see the city from my hotel room on the 18th floor of a conference centre a couple of kilometres from the heart of the city, but Copenhagen itself remained tantalisingly out of reach. I was eager to have some time to explore a city that I last visited in 1988. A thirty year gap between visits is way too long for a city that is renowned as being one of Europe’s most liveable, and which comes with an enviable cultural life and a world-class reputation for good food.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, DenmarkSeafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Nordics, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Nordics, Copenhagen, Denmark

This comes with a singular and notorious downside: the cost of living. Arriving late at night I checked the in-room dining options, a burst of hollow laughter rang out of me at the prospect of ordering a €23 cheese burger. I don’t care how good Danish medical, education or social welfare systems might be, or that Copenhagen is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable cities, any country that has taxes so high as to produce a €23 burger clearly has issues to work through.

When I finally had the opportunity to escape to the city, all that remained to me was an afternoon. The sunny weather of the previous few days had turned to wind and cloud with a threat of rain. Winter was in the air and I regretted not having the sense to bring gloves with me. Still, it was invigorating to wander through the historic centre, which is small enough to allow you to get a feel for the city, and gave me plenty of reasons why a return visit shouldn’t wait another thirty years.

The metro deposited me in Kongens Nytorv, an attractive square surrounded by stylish buildings, including the Royal Danish Theatre. The square is currently a building site, so I made my way to one of Copenhagen’s most famous sights, Nyhavn. Probably the most photographed area of town, Nyhavn is both surprisingly small and wonderfully pretty. The picturesque canal is lined with brightly coloured houses (now cafes, shops and restaurants) and historic sailing boats.

It may be the epicentre of tourism in the city, but it’s well worth a visit. If for no other reason than when he was living here, Hans Christian Andersen wrote several of his most famous works, including The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus and The Princess and the Pea. The houses date to the 1680s and, on another day, I’d have been tempted to hop on a boat tour around the city’s waterways. You can cross over the water here to Christiania, or Freetown as the more whimsically delusional call it.

I visited Christiania in 1988. It had a strongly alternative peace and love culture then, but everything I’ve read about it recently makes it seem like it’s become an anarcho-drug haven. Perhaps I should have visited to see it with my own eyes, but I just find that stuff tedious, and it’s not like Berlin is short of anarcho-drug culture. Instead, I headed to the complex of 18th-century rococo palaces surrounding the Amalienborg square, dominated by a statue of King Frederik V riding a horse.

A pleasant walk along the nearby waterfront brings you to one of Copenhagen’s iconic sights, Den Lille Havfrue or The Little Mermaid. Based on the story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, I only remembered the sense of disappointment from my first sighting of it all those years ago – like the Mona Lisa, it’s smaller than its reputation would lead you to believe. Close to the shore, it’s easy to reach from land and has been a victim of vandalism and political protest as a consequence. In 1964, it was beheaded. No one knows why.

The view to Copenhagen, Denmark

The view to Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Amalienborg, Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

King's Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark

King’s Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

Seafarers monument, Copenhagen, Denmark

I headed back through Kastellet, a remarkably well preserved 17th-century fortress, and then to Nyboder, a district of 17th and 18th century naval barracks. The distinctive rows of yellow houses reminded me of Almshouses, many seemed to be undergoing renovation or rebuilding. A short walk brought me to the King’s Garden park. This is a city of parks, but this one is home to a remarkable 17th century Dutch Renaissance-style castle, and formerly the favoured home of King Christian IV, Rosenborg Slot.

As I strolled the sun disappeared behind gathering clouds and with it the temperature took a nosedive. Time to find somewhere warm to while away an hour or two before going to the airport. I’d passed a cosy-looking gastro-pub in Nyboder and made my way back to sample some Danish micro-brewery beers. It seemed like a good way to end my almost visit to Copenhagen.