Dresden’s old New Town

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

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

Augustus the Strong statue, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

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

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

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

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

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

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

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

Dresden, the city of Augustus the Strong

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

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

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühlschen Garten, Dresden, Germany

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

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

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

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

Fürstenzug, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Augustusbrücke, River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

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

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

Slaughterhouse-Five, the making of modern Dresden

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

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

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

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

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

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

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

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl's Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

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

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

Free Hard Sex … Berlin Street Art

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

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

Mona Lisa by Die Dixons, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Free Hard Sex, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Monkey, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

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

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

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

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

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

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

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

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

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

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Landwehr Canal and weird water circulation pipe, Berlin, Germany

Landwehr Canal and weird water circulation pipe, Berlin, Germany

Martin Luther statue in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Martin Luther statue in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Berlin, Germany

Ikarus, Berlin, Germany

Ikarus, Berlin, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funkturm, Berlin, Germany

Funkturm, Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Fat Herrmann watertower, Berlin, Germany

Fat Herrmann watertower, Berlin, Germany

The Hoff, Toilet Door, Berlin, Germany

The Hoff, Toilet Door, Berlin, Germany

Puppet Shop, Berlin, Germany

Puppet Shop, Berlin, Germany

Buddha statue, Berlin, Germany

Buddha statue, Berlin, Germany

I bought a ticket to the world* … Spandau

I’d never fully understood the true meaning of ‘Spandau Ballet’ or, at least until now, I’d  never been inquiring enough to find out why a 1980s British band gave itself the name. The New Romantic era of British music was confusing enough without digging around and working out the history behind band names. Plus, the internet was still waiting to be invented. For a fleeting moment on a recent visit to the Berlin suburb of Spandau, I thought I’d uncovered the truth behind the band’s name.

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Elector Joachim II, Spandau, Berlin, Germany

Elector Joachim II, Spandau, Berlin, Germany

Juliusturm, Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Juliusturm, Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau was a centre of arms manufacture, and it was here that the MG 08 ‘Spandau’ machine gun was invented in 1908. Firing 500 rounds per minute, the deadliness of the MG 08 would become all too familiar to British and French troops in 1914. As the First World War descended into trench warfare, ‘Spandau Ballet’ became shorthand for the sight of dying soldiers caught on barbed wire. Gallows humour was rarely far from the minds of soldiers in the Great War.

I read this information at the vast 16th century fortress known as the Spandau Citadel and assumed that the band had adopted the name as a nod to the horrors of warfare. How wrong I was. Later, making use of the now invented internet, I discovered the real origins of the name. According to music journalist, Robert Elms, he’d suggested to the band that they change their name to Spandau Ballet after seeing it scrawled on a wall in a Berlin nightclub toilet. Some things are best left unknown.

I once made the trip to the middle of the US State of New Mexico to visit the town of Albuquerque. My only motivation for doing so was because the town featured in a song by another 1980s British band, Prefab Sprout (the post-Punk music scene was a car crash for band names). The song was called ‘The King of Rock N Roll’, the line in it that attracted me to Albuquerque was, “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”. I now realise this story makes me seem a little deranged.

Even if I hadn’t read that Spandau had an attractive and historic centre, and a massive fortress, there was no way I wasn’t visiting the spiritual home of Spandau Ballet. We hopped on the S Bahn in central Berlin and arrived in Altstadt Spandau thirty minutes later. It wasn’t exactly the historic old town I’d read about, many buildings seemingly dating from the mid-20th century, and not the nice ones. Spandau did have a market though, unusually it was a cloth market.

Other than the impressive church of St. Marien am Behnitz, the town seemed to have few attractions on a Sunday morning, so we headed to the one world-famous sight, Spandau Citadel. It was a pleasant walk along the river to reach the entrance to the fort, the huge defensive walls surrounded by a wide moat. It’s an impressive structure, no wonder it remained unconquered from 1594 until Napoleon arrived in 1806.

I’d always been under the impression that this was where Nazi war criminals, including Rudolf Hess, were held and executed after the Second World War (the motion of the hanged men also nicknamed ‘Spandau Ballet’). It turns out it was actually the Spandau prison, which was demolished in 1987. No one was held in the Citadel for a very simple reason, it was too dangerous. The Nazis moved their chemical weapons research here in 1935, the lethal nerve gas, sarin, was one of their inventions.

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Juliusturm, Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Juliusturm, Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

Spandau Citadel, Berlin, Germany

St. Marien am Behnitz, Spandau, Berlin, Germany

St. Marien am Behnitz, Spandau, Berlin, Germany

Spandau, Berlin, Germany

Spandau, Berlin, Germany

It’s the fear of chemical traces that has caused the renovation of the building to be so slow. Passing through the central courtyard and then along the battlements, providing lovely views of the surrounding waterways, we explored the old fort. Before heading back to Berlin there was just time to climb the Juliusturm, the tower in one corner of the fort. From the top, the whole of Berlin was on show, glittering in the winter sun.

* A lyric from Spandau Ballet’s True

Berlinograd, Berlin’s Russian legacy

The demographics of Berlin are unusual, a result of both its geography and its history. Approximately one in every six people living in the city is foreign-born. Many of whom come from other European Union countries (including around 17,000 British waiting for the Brexit guillotine to drop). Surprisingly, some 32,000 Vietnamese live in Berlin, a legacy of ‘temporary’ workers from Communist Vietnam who settled in East Germany, and others fleeing the Vietnam War who settled in West Berlin.

Berlin has a famously large Turkish community. At close to 200,000, the mix of Turkish citizens and German-Turks makes it the largest community outside Turkey. Many Turks arrived here in the 1950s and 60s as guest workers to plug Germany’s chronic labour shortages. Many thousands of Italians arrived in Berlin at the same time for much the same reason. All of these communities have left their mark on the city, most obviously in the form of their national cuisine, and have made Berlin a cultural melting pot.

Ernst Thälmann statue, Berlin, Germany

Ernst Thälmann statue, Berlin, Germany

Bar Gagarin, Berlin, Germany

Bar Gagarin, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Treptow Park, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Treptow Park, Berlin, Germany

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

There is one nationality though that has influenced the city more than most: Russians. Walk around Berlin and you’ll hear Russian spoken frequently. Some Russian speakers might be tourists, but there’s a reasonable chance they are members of the 300,000 Russians or Russian-Germans who call the city home. Thanks to the unique history between the two countries – World Wars, post-War communism – Russians have left a visible imprint on the city.

In the wake of the October Revolution in 1917, Berlin saw a massive influx of Russian émigrées fleeing the Red Terror. They arrived in a German capital on the eve of First World War defeat through which Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had only recently passed on his way to impose the Bolshevik Revolution on Russia. It’s no small irony that it was the German government which helped Lenin reach Russia, setting in motion events that culminated in the Berlin Wall.

Lenin returned to Berlin in 1945 as the figurehead of the Soviet armies that captured the smouldering ruins of the city. The 40-year post-war occupation meant that plenty of Russians remained in the city, and Soviet iconography was to be spotted all over the eastern half of Berlin. Today, explicit reminders of Soviet times are limited to a handful of Second World War memorials and burial sites. The ones in the Tiergarten and the monumental mass grave in Treptow Park are dramatic examples.

There’s an iconic scene in the film, Good Bye, Lenin!, where a huge statue of Lenin flies across the city underneath a helicopter. Berliners would have recognised this as the statue that once graced Leninplatz (now Platz der Vereinten Nationen). The real statue was destroyed and buried in a pit, and images of the Bolshevik leader were removed from public view. One Soviet-style statue remains though. Ernst Thälmann led the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic, today his statue sits largely ignored.

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Bar Gagarin, Berlin, Germany

Bar Gagarin, Berlin, Germany

Cafe Moscow, Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Cafe Moscow, Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Treptow Park, Berlin, Germany

Russian memorial, Treptow Park, Berlin, Germany

For a real sense of Soviet-era Moscow in modern Berlin though, head to Karl-Marx-Allee. Stretching between Alexanderplatz and Frankfurter Tor, on either side of this broad boulevard are monumental Moscow-style apartment blocks dating from the 1950s. They were incredibly badly built but, at the time of the Workers Paradise, they were known as ‘tenement palaces’. The avenue was once named ‘Stalinallee’ in honour of the Russian leader and mass murderer. In the 1960s you’d have been able to pop into the Cafe Moskau.

Lenin might no longer be on display, but fake Soviet memorabilia is to be found on sale across the city. More interesting are Soviet-themed cafes and restaurants specialising in faux-Soviet chic. My favourite, Bar Gagarin, does a German-Russian brunch, as well as some classic Russian dishes, in homage to Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. A couple of doors down is Pasternak, a restaurant named after the author of Doctor Zhivago, the epic love story set during the Russian Revolution. It’s almost as if Berliners are missing the former Socialist Paradise?

Donald eres un Pendejo … Berlin Street Art

If all art is political, some is definitely more political than others. Calling Donald Trump a ‘pendejo’ seems less political and more a description of reality, regardless of whether you choose to be charitable and read the meaning of pendejo as ‘stupid’, or you prefer probably the more accurate interpretation of ‘asshole’ (it can mean much worse!). The huge image of the Berlin Wall falling and then being resurrected as €100 bank notes, is definitely politically provocative in a city where communities are increasingly divided by wealth.

Wall by Blu, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Wall by Blu, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Donald eres un Pendejo, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Donald eres un Pendejo, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Stop Wars, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Stop Wars, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Coffee, Cupcakes and Contemporary Art, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Coffee, Cupcakes and Contemporary Art, Berlin Street Art, Germany

We came across this latter piece by artist Blu while out on a long walk along the river. I’ve mentioned Blu before, he was one of the artists who painted over a famous piece of his own art as a protest against the corrosive role street art has in the gentrification of communities. His work has a conscience, as well as being eye-catching. Although not as eye-catching as the huge red letters that adorn the former East German, Haus der Statistik, a now derelict building just behind Alexanderplatz.

Those words, ‘Stop Wars’, have now been joined by a second message, ‘On Migration’.  It doesn’t get more political than that in modern-day Germany even if artistic merit is completely missing. The Haus der Statistik would be an eyesore even if not derelict – the East Germans had a penchant for brutally ugly buildings. It was scheduled for demolition, a mercy killing in all honesty, and redevelopment as apartments or offices. Something that is almost as political in Berlin as migration.

The happy news is that after years of community activism the authorities have now decided to turn it into artists studios and affordable housing. The less happy news is that it won’t now be demolished, and the city will need to bear its ugliness for at least another generation. Given the role of artists in this decision, I’m hopeful that art will cover its facade.

On Bülowstrasse recently, I came across some social commentary tucked close to the entrance to a parking garage (I think the location was coincidental). The painting of a pipe-smoking, slightly wild-looking man was accompanied by a speech bubble: Coffee, Cupcakes and Contemporary Art Destroy My Neighbourhood. I didn’t spot any hipster coffee haunts selling overpriced artisanal drinks while people played on MacBooks, but the point is well made even if it’s an odd way of complaining about contemporary art.

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Kidz, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Kidz, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Kidz, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Kidz, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

Berlin Street Art, Germany

It's My Roof Bitches, Berlin Street Art, Germany

It’s My Roof Bitches, Berlin Street Art, Germany

There is also street art that is political by the very nature of the way it is created. Berlin Kidz are a street art collective that go to extreme, and probably illegal, lengths to paint their enigmatic ‘language’ onto the sides of buildings. Whoever is behind these pieces, they are clearly trained acrobats because some of the locations they reach are truly inaccessible. At least to anyone without a good head for heights and a mountain goat’s sense of balance.

Their work harks back to an earlier age of graffiti artists: unauthorised, unmonetized and distinctly anarchic. Something seemingly belonging to an earlier era in Berlin, one that is disappearing amongst urban renewal.

How do you solve a problem like … the Buddy Bears of Berlin

They can be found scattered in dozens of locations across Berlin. One dressed as the Statue of Liberty, another as Caesar, one is masquerading as Marilyn Monroe, another Marlene Dietrich. A daring group of five have stolen a chariot and are pretending to be the Brandenburg Gate statue. They are the Buddy Bears of Berlin which, due to habitat destruction and human wastefulness, have been drawn to life in the city and away from their natural habitat in the woods surrounding Berlin.

Most survive by scavenging food from bins, although some earn a good living taking selfies with tourists. Some of the more enterprising have been recruited to support high ideals like human rights or international friendship. Many though, have sold out to become stooges for corporate interests, standing outside hotels and businesses for the amusement of passing humans. Like those people who work as ‘human signposts’. For these bears, life is little better than being in a 19th century circus.

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Back in 2001, there were only two recorded sightings of Buddy Bears on the streets of Berlin. Their numbers since then have multiplied at an alarming rate, possibly due to global warming. There are now so many that, not unlike the pigeon and urban fox, they are considered to be a bit of a pest. Buddy Bears? More like bloody bears. Politicians have begun to demand a cull of excess Bears – unemployed Bears have been accused of aggressively demanding honey from passersby. Drug-related bear crime has spiked in recent years.

Others argue for more humane treatment and are working with the World Buddy Bear Foundation to capture and release them in the wilds of Poland and Hungary. So far, this has met with limited success, with many local humans voicing opposition to the bears. Worse, many bears unable to cope with the harsh lifestyles of their wild cousins are reduced to extreme measures. Incapable of competing with native bears, they have been found offering selfies (or worse) in exchange for food in rural Polish towns.

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Some cultural commentators have accused the Buddy Bears of falling short of the ideal of the Berlin Bear, which after all has been a symbol of the city for a thousand years. Many people would like to see a return to the more traditional ‘brown’ or ‘black’ bear depicted on the city flag. Some fear the brightly coloured bears could corrupt children, others argue that they should be allowed to express themselves and live free of the shackles of societal pressure. The Bears unwittingly find themsleves at the heart of a modern-day culture war.

It’s unclear what the future holds for the Buddy Bears, but they have found a powerful ally in the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has frequently been photographed with them and visiting foreign dignitaries. This use of the Buddys as an extension of German foreign policy has brought condemnation from far right political parties. They claim the larger, more aggressive Bavarian bear is a better ambassador than the effete, semi-urbanised Berlin Buddy, who they suspect of supporting human rights. Most of the bears just want to live in peace.

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

Buddy Bear, Berlin, Germany

* Most of the above is entirely fictitious, apart from the stuff about Angekla Merkel. If you’re interested in a humane bear hunt, someone has developed a map of all the bear sightings, here.

A meeting with the Captain of Köpenick

The S Bahn to Köpenick was a revelation. The 20km journey from central Berlin winds its way through eastern suburbs and past industrial districts, and then into forests that make it feel like you’ve left the city far behind. Stay on the train beyond the suburban town of Köpenick and you’ll soon arrive close to the shores of the delightfully named Müggelsee, the largest of all Berlin’s lakes. Winter may not be the best time to visit the lake, but Köpenick makes for a pleasant day trip.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Captain of Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Captain of Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick sits picturesquely on an island where the Rivers Dahme and Spree meet and, despite damage during the Second World War, has an attractive historic centre that clusters around the Church of St. Laurentius. This was a relief after walking from the station through the uninspiring modern part of town. We came to a bridge that leads over the river to the old town, and which provides beautiful views over surrounding waterways to Schloss Köpenick.

If you’re not heading to the lake, the main reason to visit Köpenick is for its pretty 17th century palace. A baroque beauty standing on the riverbank, this was once the home of Prussian Kings. In 1730, the palace was the scene of a great scandal, when the future Frederick the Great and Hans Hermann von Katte were tried by a military court for treason. Frederick had recruited Katte, who was almost certainly Frederick’s lover, to help him escape his tyrannical father and flee to England.

Frederick was caught, personal letters implicating Katte were discovered and, as both were military officers, they were tried for treason. Both were sentenced to prison but, while Frederick was pardoned by his father, King Frederick William I, Katte’s sentence was changed to death. Despite the pleas of the Crown Prince, Katte was beheaded and Frederick was forced to watch. You can contemplate these delights on a stroll through the gardens behind the palace.

We made our way to the tourist information office to see what Köpenick had to offer, and received a walking map of the town. Luckily this took us past the Ratskeller. Every German town has a Ratskeller, a traditional beer hall-style restaurant serving hearty helpings of German food. The Ratskeller Köpenick is one of the very best I’ve visited, doing modern takes on culinary classics. German food is best described as pig-based and served in coma-inducing portions. This was light and tasty.

Afterwards, we wandered down the street and came face-to-face with the Captain of Köpenick, or at least a statue of him outside the red brick town hall. It was here in 1906 that Wilhelm Voigt, known to posterity as the Hauptmann von Köpenick, a convicted thief and forger, arrived masquerading as a Prussian military officer with some soldiers he’d commandeered en route. He proceeded to arrest the town’s mayor and treasurer, before stealing 4,002 marks in cash.

Voigt changed into civilian clothes and fled. It took the bewildered authorities only ten days to find and capture him, by which time his exploits had become the stuff of legend. Sentenced to four years in prison, public opinion was on his side and he was pardoned after less than two years. He became famous, touring Germany and Europe in a stage show, and later visiting the USA and Canada. A play and a film have lionised him, and he even appeared on a German stamp. None of which prevented him dying in poverty.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick market square, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick market square, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick market square, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick market square, Berlin, Germany

Köpenicker Blutwoche memorial, Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenicker Blutwoche memorial, Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Captain of Köpenick street art, Berlin, Germany

Captain of Köpenick street art, Berlin, Germany

On our walk back to the S Bahn, we passed a Soviet-era memorial to the Köpenicker Blutwoche (Week of Blood) commemorating the arrest, torture and murder of political opponents of the Nazis in June 1933. Köpenick was considered a hotbed of anti-Nazi opposition, and was targetted by Hitler’s newly elected government to erradicate its enemies and consolidate power nationwide. Over 500 people were arrested, at least 23 were murdered.