2019, A Year in Street Art

Street art is one of the most intriguing artistic movements of our time, transforming cityscapes around the world into open air galleries. Regardless of where you go in the world today, it’s likely that you’ll come across street art in all its many forms. As city authorities (and businesses) have grasped the potential of street art, they have begun to harness its power to promote themselves as creative hubs, both for business and tourism.

It’s remarkable how many places I’ve visited that have building-sized street art. As all but the most repressive societies embrace it, a whole new cadre of artists has been very publicly introduced to the world. You’re now as likely to spot Belgian street art in Australia, as you are in the streets of Antwerp. The world has changed since the zero tolerance policies of 1990’s New York, when the tagging form of street art was Public Enemy No. 1.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Israel / Palestine by Shepard Fairey, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Israel / Palestine by Shepard Fairey, Berlin Street Art, Germany

Instead of being a casual and passive recipient of street art, I’ve started seeking it out. It helps that I live in Berlin, a true global crossroads for street art, but over 2019 I’ve encountered street art in the heart of Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter, scattered across fascinating neighbourhoods in Tbilisi, in hip downtown Amman, in the narrow streets of ancient Leon, in the Lutheran ‘capital’ of Wittenberg, and on apartment buildings in Warsaw.

Here’s a selection of my favourite pieces from 2019 and a happy New Year for 2020 …

Street Art, Leon, Spain

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Warsaw, Poland

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Street Art, Leon, Spain

Media Magdalena by Innerfields, Wittenberg, Germany

The Future is Now by Contra, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Street Art, Warsaw, Poland

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Warsaw, Poland

Street Art, Amman, Jordan

Street Art, Tbilisi, Georgia

They are called patience and hope and their fate is in my hands by Herakut, Wittenberg, Germany

Street art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

2019, a German year in review

Berlin has now been home for 18 months and, as 2019 trundles towards its inevitable conclusion, reflecting back on the previous 12 months this has been a year dominated by discovering more about Germany. We’ve interspersed our time with trips to other places, but mostly we’ve been trying to make sense of the place in which we live. This has not been without its challenges.

Even amongst Germans, Berlin is considered a grumpy, often hostile, city. At a micro level, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface of understanding this city. A little contradictorily, at the macro level it’s a welcoming and inclusive place. As the Brexit deadline rapidly approaches, that’s something for which we may soon be very grateful.

Berlin, Bowie’s ‘cultural extravaganza’

In the 1970s, for David Bowie, Berlin was “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” A divided city at the centre of the Cold War, it fostered an alternative, Bohemian culture. Thirty years after unification, that legacy continues to inspire the modern city, but today ‘Bohemian’ has been replaced by ‘Startup’, and gentrification is everywhere. This though remains no ordinary city, and one that it takes effort to know … a journey we’re still on.

Berlin Street Art

I’ve posted many times about the street art scene in Berlin. I don’t pretend to know it well, I just see it everywhere. There are signs of creeping corporatization in street art, but the sheer number and diversity of street artists is extraordinary, and something to celebrate. As I’ve said before, when it comes to street art, Berlin is the gift that keeps on giving.

Celebrating a centenary of Bauhaus in Dessau

100 years of Germany’s most celebrated artistic movement seemed like a good reason to make the trip to Dessau, the home of Bauhaus. Despite the anticipated celebrations, this former GDR city felt unprepared for the predicted tourist onslaught – several of the houses were being repaired and the new museum was scheduled to only open after the anniversary year was over. The idea of German efficiency died that day.

Phoenix from the flames, Dresden

Dresden, famed capital of Saxony, is a place where the ghosts of its legendary history are never too far away. It’s near-miraculous that the city built by Augustus the Strong is still standing – or rather, was rebuilt, Phoenix-like from the flames of the devastating bombing raids of 1945. A fantastic trip was crowned with a visit to nearby Meissen, home to Augustus’ porcelain factory.

Spreewald, the spiritual home of the gherkin

The Spreewald, an hour or so south of Berlin, is famous for its watery landscapes and the quality of its pickled products – pre-eminent amongst which is the gherkin. They are one of the few East German products to survive reunification. The epicentre of the gherkin area is the attractive village of Lehde. Known as the ‘city of punts and pickles’, it comes with a fabulous open air museum to Sorbian history and culture.

Tbilisi

I’d been planning a trip to Georgia for as long as I can remember, but I was still blown away by its capital, Tbilisi. An ancient city at the crossroads of cultures between the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, all these influences have combined to create a fascinating and vibrant capital. Decades of communist rule – the birthplace of Joseph Stalin is nearby – may still haunt the city, but this is a place firmly looking to the future.

The High Caucasus

Breathtaking in every sense of the word, Georgia’s High Caucasus region is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places ever I’ve visited. A unique culture exists amongst mountains and valleys dotted by ancient villages with their iconic watchtowers and isolated monasteries. The Kazbegi region, an area of myth and legend, is a perfect place to first experience this culture – it’s easily accessible from Tbilisi.

Exploring the streets of Amman

It was a case of third-time lucky for me in Amman. I’d passed through the city twice before but had failed to spend any time there. This time I only had a day at my disposal, but it was enough to explore some of the ancient wonders that have survived centuries of civilisation. Not only that, I got to eat some of the best food the city has to offer, and discovered the street art boom that is transforming the bleak cityscape.

A Warsaw Weekend

I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by just how vibrant modern-day Warsaw was. I may still have had images of the bleak communist city, but by the time I left after an incredible few days exploring its neighbourhoods and visiting its museums, my opinions had been completely changed. It’s made me want to explore more of Poland which, given that it’s only 80km away from my front door, should be an easily kept New Year resolution.

Galicia’s ancient vineyards and wild coastline

Galicia was a revelation. A region of Spain that felt a million miles from the flamenco and Mediterranean beach resort stereotype. The wild Atlantic Coast, with its historic towns, rugged beaches backed by forested hills, and world famous seafood, combined perfectly with the mountainous interior of the Ribeira Sacra – on the steep limestone hillsides of this spectacular region are ancient vineyards first planted by Romans.

A Sierra de Francia hideaway

If there’s a place in Spain where I could happily drop out of society for several months, it would be the gorgeous Sierra de Francia. Rolling wooded hillsides dotted with red-tiled villages connected by walking trails are accompanied by legend and myth in a region that is just being discovered by the outside world. The tradition of St. Anthony’s pig is just one reason for a visit.

Tunisia, a desert road trip remembered

I had a serious car crash in Tunisia, which resulted in me hanging upside down, the car on its roof, in the middle of the desert. This though wasn’t the most remarkable thing that happened. Out of nowhere three Tunisian men appeared and pulled me from the wreck. They called the police and an ambulance, one even came to visit me at my hotel to check that I was OK – I was fine, if a little bruised. That’s everything one needs to know about the hospitality of Tunisians.

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.

Getting a Handel on Halle’s Anglo-German history

The history of Halle an der Saale may be bound up with salt production, but this lovely little town has much more to offer. The dramatic central square, the Marktplatz, marks the centre of the Old Town. Ancient streets radiate outwards under the shadow of the 16th century Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the the Roter Turm which, with 76 bells, is the largest carillon in Europe (and the second largest in the world, the top spot going to a modern carillon in South Korea).

The other popular feature of Marktplatz, is the statue of Georg Friedrich Händel, or George Frederick Handel as he was better known in England, a country that he adopted as his own after his early years in Germany. Handel didn’t end up an English citizen by chance. He first had success there in 1711, and was a popular composer at the court of Queen Anne. Her death in 1714 though, led to Hanoverian prince, George Louis, taking the English throne as King George I.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Roter Turm and Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Handel statue, Halle, Germany

Museum of Prehistory, Halle, Germany

Hanover and Halle are a couple of hundred kilometres apart, and Handel was already in George’s service by 1710. George would never get to hear Handel’s most famous work, the oratorio Messiah, which premiered in 1741, by which time the most English of composers had come a long way from his childhood in Halle. The house where he grew up, known as the The Yellow Deer, is now a museum telling his story. Although undergoing a few restorations, it’s a must see.

After exploring the Old Town, I spent time wandering attractive areas to the north of the centre. Halle received fairly light damage during the Second World War, and numerous original buildings in this district survived. Today, many have been restored to their former glory, and wandering around you stumble upon some beautiful old town houses. I was heading to the Church of St. Paul, which sits on top of small hill in a funky and youthful neighbourhood filled with great restaurants and bars.

This is quite some turnaround. Halle was the epicentre of East Germany’s chemical industries, making it one of the most environmentally polluted regions of the country. The fall of communism was accompanied by the collapse of Halle’s industry, much of the city was dilapidated and young people left in droves. Slowly, the largest town in Saxony-Anhalt has reinvented itself, helped by a population of around 25,000 students who give it a vibrancy that would otherwise be missing.

Like much of former East Germany, after three decades of unification, Halle still feels like it hasn’t made as much progress as its residents might like. Probably thanks to its student population, Halle was one of the few areas in the southern half of the State that didn’t vote for the Far Right, Alternative für Deutschland, at the last election. The surrounding districts all did. Things do seem to be on the up though, with luck Halle will begin to attract more international visitors, and not just for the Handel Festival.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Cemetery, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Cathedral, Halle, Germany

I walked a large loop around the area to reach the Museum of Prehistory – they have a mammoth – which is both interesting and in a monolithic building. Then made my way back to the main square passing the town’s cathedral. It’s rare to find a cathedral that is less impressive than the main church, but in Halle their traditional roles have been reversed. It’s worth popping inside, if for no other reason than it’s 700 years old and Handel played here.

I had spotted an independent brewery on my meanderings and intended to finish my trip with something cold and local. There was just one destination left on my list, the cemetery. I like a good cemetery and, although few luminaries are buried here, I’d read that it was worth a visit for the peace and tranquility it provided in the  city centre. Built in the 16th century, it’s considered the finest Renaissance cemetery in Germany. It was quiet, shady and quite small. I soon found myself sampling the local brews.

Halle, a salt of the earth East German town

I expected much from a town called Halle an der Saale. After all, Halle is derived from the Celtic word for salt; Saale, coincidentally the name of the river that runs through the city, is derived from the German word for salt. No surprise then, that the town’s history is intimately intertwined with the harvesting of salt. A local industry that can trace its origins to the Bronze Age. Salt made Halle rich and important, so a museum dedicated to telling that history must be worth its salt?

I arrived in Halle late on a Friday evening. The long and uninspiring walk from the train station led me into the medieval Marktplatz, where I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the illuminated Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen, the Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the Roter Turm, or Red Tower. These two 16th century structures give the city its nickname, City of the Five Towers. The expansive central square includes a statue of the city’s favourite son, Georg Friedrich Händel.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Saale River from Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

It was late, so after grabbing something to eat I found my hotel, my introduction to the city whetting my appetite for more exploration in the morning. First on my list was the Salinemuseum. A geologic fault beneath the modern-day town led to numerous saline springs appearing in the area. Boiling the saline solution produced salt crystals and an industry was born. In an era of salt abundance, it’s easy to forget how precious salt was. There’s a reason it was called ‘white gold’.

I once read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, a fascinating tale of humankind’s relationship with salt. As a commodity it’s been central to human history, acting as a currency in some cultures. Its importance is underlined by the aphorisms and proverbs salt has inspired. I was keen to learn more from a museum housed in the former Royal Prussian Saline Works, which were founded in 1721 and only closed in 1964. Sadly, it was a case of rubbing salt into the wound.

The museum still produces small amounts of salt, and offers demonstrations, but I was out of luck. This, coupled with the fact that all the explanations in the small museum were only in German, meant that I learned next to nothing of Halle’s salty history. This wouldn’t be the only disappointment of my trip. The Moritzburg Palace museum and art gallery was closed for a whole month. I took this setback with a pinch of salt and set off to discover what else Halle had to offer.

The Salinemuseum sits on an island where the River Saale splits in two. Along the river banks, there are kilometres of parkland stretching to Giebichenstein Castle. The walk was lovely on a hot early autumn day, and I was even able to squeeze in a visit to a beer garden next to the river. I eventually found myself face-to-face with a massive horse at Giebichenstein Bridge. One of a pair of sculptures, the horse represents the vibrant life of the city; on the other side, an equally huge cow represents the countryside.

Giebichenstein Bridge, Saale River, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

I made my way to the castle on the other side of the bridge, and clambered upwards to get views over the city. The castle was built in the 10th century, in part to protect the salt monopoly of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. There is little left but ruins today, although a far newer part of the complex has been turned into a school for fine arts. I could see sculptures in the grounds, but it wasn’t open to the public. From up here, I spotted the City of the Five Towers and my route back.

 


* Yesterday, Halle found itself at the centre of an atrocity. Two people were murdered by far-right terrorists espousing extremist ideology. An attack on Halle’s synagogue was timed with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The attacker was unable to enter the building where a congregation was at prayer, but he killed a woman passerby and a man in a nearby kebab shop. I can imagine that the sense of shock in this typically quiet town is profound.

A lazy Leipzig Sunday

A Saturday night exploring the buzzing nightlife south of Leipzig’s historic centre in the area surrounding Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, set us up for a slow Sunday. We planned to walk some of Leipzig’s many parks and green spaces, across the White Elster River, to the Plagwitz area of the city. This being Germany, and a Sunday, those plans had to wait until after frühstück. Germany’s relationship with breakfast, especially at the weekend, is complex – bordering on obsessive-compulsive.

Expect plates piled with a bizarre mix of breads, jams, meats, cheese, eggs, yogurt, fruit, vegetables and much more. Frühstück requires a significant time commitment, most of it devoted to digestion. Leipzig has a strong association with coffee, once boasting the second oldest kaffeehaus in Europe. When we stumbled upon the historic Kaffeehaus Riquet, we settled down to a trial by eating. Safe in the knowledge that food would be unnecessary for another 48 hours, we finished breakfast and set off to explore.

Nikolaikirche, Leipzig, Germany

Naschmarkt, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Holocaust Memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Holocaust Memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Plagwitz is quite a distance from the centre, but our walk passed through lovely parks. Leaving the city though, we first visited the heart-wrenching Holocaust Memorial. The simple but emotive space where the main synagogue once stood, it was burnt down on Kristallnacht, is home to 140 empty chairs representing the city’s 14,000 murdered Jews. It’s an emotional reminder of Leipzig’s Jewish history dating to the 13th century, and sits, unassumingly, amidst apartment buildings, cafes and restaurants.

As with everywhere else I’ve been in Germany, the authorities don’t shy away from the reality of the nation’s past. This memorial, in such ordinary surroundings, was more moving than most. Afterwards we strolled through Johannapark to the river, and into Plagwitz. This former industrial area was once so run down and polluted that, following the end of communism, there was a very real discussion about whether it wouldn’t just be better to flatten the whole area and start again.

Instead of wholesale destruction, the city has invested in urban renewal. Plagwitz is now an up-and-coming area populated by artists, and filled with alternative cafes, bars and cultural venues. There are also some gentrified streets along the river where old warehouses have been turned into pricey-looking apartments. We’d planned to visit a couple of galleries, but pretty much everything was closed – Sunday in Germany! We mooched around for a while before jumping on a tram and heading back to the city.

We didn’t have much time left, but wanted to visit the Stasi Museum, dedicated to the fearsome East German secret police. For anyone who has watched The Lives of Others, the film about a Stasi officer responsible for the surveillance of a writer and his lover in 1980s East Germany, this museum is a must. It’s not a very interactive experience – the displays look like they might have been made as part of a school project – but it packs a punch.

Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Trabant in Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Stasi Museum, Leipzig, Germany

What’s remarkable is just how low-tech the Stasi were – the disguises department is hilariously amateur – yet their ability to infiltrate all aspects of life, public and private, was unparalleled. Leipzig was one of their main centres, and it was events in this city that would play a vital role in the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, the repressive state that was neither a republic nor democratic. Peaceful protests in 1989 contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

On our way back to the station, we visited the place where the 1989 protests began, the Nikolaikirche. Every Monday, people would peacefully gather and protest against the East German regime. What started as a few hundred people spiralled to a massive 120,000 protesters on 16 October. Two days later Erich Honecker, the East German leader, resigned. Three weeks later the Berlin Wall fell. As a side note, the interior is amazing and Johann Sebastian Bach regularly played here.

A Leipzig weekend, please don’t call it the ‘New Berlin’

If you believed the collective gushing of the multitude of travel articles that have been published about Leipzig over the last few years, you might arrive in the city convinced you were entering a mythical place. A city made of pure light. People seem determined to persuade you that this isn’t just one of the coolest cities in Europe, but that it might just possibly be the ‘New Berlin‘. Even if that was a good thing – and the jury’s still out for some of us – the reality could never live up to the hype.

True, this is a youthful city with an extraordinary history. Yes, it has a cutting-edge art and music scene, and a plethora of trendy galleries and art house places. Undeniably, some people, ‘disillusioned’ with Berlin’s gentrification (and rising prices), have chosen to move here, but that really seems to be the extent of the comparison. Berlin is seven times larger than Leipzig for a start. This fabulous city isn’t well served by the weight of expectation others have created on its behalf.

Bach memorial, Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany

Goethe memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Mendelssohn memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Schiller memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Wagner museum, Leipzig, Germany

Old Town Hall, Marktplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig is a fascinating place in its own right, and a weekend can only really serve as an amuse-bouche for understanding the city. One similarity that it does share with Berlin is that, geographically, it spreads out over an expansive area, and we didn’t get to see as much of the city as we’d have liked. Walking between its dispersed neighbourhoods on a day when the mercury was well over 30ºC cannot be recommended. Another visit, or two, will be needed to do it justice.

Unlike Berlin, Leipzig does have a well defined city centre, in which you can find many of its historic sights. The city’s history is perhaps most strongly associated with music and literature. It was here that Friedrich Schiller composed his poem, Ode to Joy, most famously the inspiration for the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer, conductor and musician, Mendelssohn, also lived, worked and died here. He founded the Leipzig Conservatory, which is still going today.

Goethe, perhaps Germany’s greatest literary figure, attended university here in the 1760s. Faust, the man who sells his soul to the Devil, would become his finest work. One famous scene is set in Leipzig’s Auerbachs Keller, out of which Faust flies on a wine barrel. A visit is compulsory, especially as this was one of Angela Merkel’s haunts when she was a Leipzig student during the GDR era. The entrance sits in the Mädler Passage, one of several wonderfully ornate arcades.

The city’s two most famous sons though are, without a doubt, the great Baroque-era composer, Johann Sebastian Bach; and, one of the world’s most influential, not to say most controversial, composers, Richard Wagner. Bach was organist and choir director at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he is buried. There is a striking statue of him outside, and a small display of musical instruments inside the church. He seems to be revered in a city where his music can be heard live almost daily.

Stalinist architecture, Roßplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Building detail, Leipzig, Germany

Mendelssohn memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Marktplatz, Leipzig, Germany

New Town Hall, Leipzig, Germany

Wagner, born in Leipzig, and living in the city in the 1820s and 1830s, is more strongly associated with Bayreuth. There is a small museum to him in Leipzig, but it feels like he plays second fiddle to Bach. Perhaps that is to do with his unconventional life – when he wasn’t having affairs, he was on the run from creditors – or maybe his anti-semitism, or because the Nazis embraced his music. The New York Times‘ classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, rated Bach well above Wagner in his top ten composers.

Wagner’s time in Leipzig overlapped with Mendelssohn and coincided with yet another German musical great, Robert Schumann. Incomplete as it is, that’s a remarkable roll-call of creative talent for a city that is seven times smaller than Berlin.

Lutherstadt Wittenburg, where history and street art collide

Wittenberg is a town full of surprises, the first being that the smallness and tranquility of the place belies the town’s global significance. This is, after all, the town that birthed the Reformation, the spiritual home of the world’s 850 million Protestants. The second is that, in a place that feels as if it has collectively taken a horse tranquilliser, there’s an active street art scene. In fact, the town has even hosted a street art festival. I’ve yet to work out whether that’s something of which Martin Luther would approve.

I hadn’t quite realised how small Wittenberg was in real life, the town’s place in history being many times larger than its physical size. The old town only has two streets, they run in parallel with each other, converging only where two important Luther-related sights are found: the Luther House and All Saints’ Church. In between, the town has a number of beautiful squares, ancient churches and town houses that survived the ravages of the Second World War largely in tact.

Media Magdalena by Innerfields, Wittenberg, Germany

They are called patience and hope and their fate is in my hands by Herakut, Wittenberg, Germany

The castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The Future is Now by Contra, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Segregation by Case, Wittenberg, Germany

Walking a loop around the old town took less than an hour. Luckily there were plenty of distractions to keep me occupied until my train departed. These included churches that had paintings by a contemporary of Luther, and one of the most famous German artists of the era, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Based in Wittenberg he is considered the principle artist of Luther’s Reformation, even providing the woodcuts that illustrated the Luther Bible.

His house and studios where he worked for over four decades are located in the centre of town, with displays of his life, times and work. Maybe it’s the influence of his non-conformism that makes street art popular in Wittenberg. The old town has a number of striking pieces, some by artists, like Herakut, that are familiar from Berlin. It was the illuminating Media Magdalena, ironically subtitled “our daily bread” by Innerfields, that first caught my attention though. It seemed fitting for the epicentre of Lutherism.

Innerfields, a trio of German artists, seem fascinated by the impact of smart phones on our lives. They are responsible for a large piece in Berlin along the same lines. Other artists I found included a colourful piece by Contra , called The Future is Now, and a piece called Segregation by German muralist, Case, showing a person’s hand holding a book – a reference to the Luther Bible perhaps? There was more art in the new town, but it was in the mid-30ºC, way too hot to be roaming the streets.

Instead, I attempted to visit All Saints’ Church, where Luther is said to have nailed his theses. Surprisingly, there was a wedding taking place and I was told to come back in a couple of hours. By the time I returned the wedding had been replaced by a group of hand bell-ringers. This was more than I’d bargained for and, after enduring one ‘song’, I headed into the park behind the town castle and headed to Brauhaus Wittenberg for a refreshing local beer.

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The Future is Now by Contra, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

They are called patience and hope and their fate is in my hands by Herakut, Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

St. George and the Dragon are symbols of Wittenberg, Germany

There was a final surprise for me on my way back to the train station. Earlier in the day, I’d noticed two dragons on one of the pieces of street art and thought nothing of it. Close to the station though I came across another dragon, this time a sculpture. At first I thought this was a reference to St. George and the Dragon, which has an association with Wittenberg. Later, I discovered this was a flying serpent holding a golden ring in its mouth – the emblem of the artist, Cranach the Elder.

The Rome of the Protestants, Wittenberg

It was 31 October, 1517, when Martin Luther walked from his home, down the cobbled main street of the small, sleepy town of Wittenberg, to All Saints’ Church. It was a walk that would turn the world upside down. Legend has it that when he arrived outside the church he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to its door. This simple act would set in motion a religious revolution, propel Europe towards the Renaissance, and bring the old order crashing down. It was an act that changed the course of history.

Luther himself never intended for that to happen. He hoped instead to start a scholarly debate on what he saw as corruption in the Catholic Church. Once the genie was out of the bottle though, there was no putting it back. The Reformation had begun and there would be no stopping it. As I recreated one of the most famous moments in Western European history, I found myself increasingly incredulous that Wittenberg had played such a central role in the creation of modern Europe. It’s tiny.

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Globe, Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Church of St. Mary, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Statue of Philipp Melanchthon, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Church of St. Mary, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

A university was founded in Wittenberg in 1502 and, despite its size, the town became a hotbed of radical thinking and was home to some of the most progressive scholars in Europe. These included Philipp Melanchthon, a man who argued for the education of women, and a staunch friend of Luther. I stopped at his former home before heading towards the spires of the Church of St. Mary. All Saints’ Church might be the site of the Ninety-Five Theses, but St. Mary’s is where Luther preached.

The church exterior has a brutal reminder of another aspect of Luther’s faith, and the commonly held beliefs of the time. High up on the church walls is a carving depicting a Rabbi looking into a pigs anus. They might have broken the rules on celibacy and even argued for female education, but these Reformers were still rooted in the traditions of antisemitism that also characterised Christianity for centuries. Luther’s attitude is most clearly seen in his 65,000 word treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies.

The views Luther expressed had a direct connection to the ideology of the Nazis, and his words undoubtedly led to Jews being persecuted at the time. In fact, he argued that they should be. It’s no coincidence that nearby is a memorial to the Holocaust. There are around fifty churches in Germany with similar antisemitic carvings, and a debate exists on whether, as symbols of hate, they should be removed. Expunging historical fact seems a dangerous activity. However unpleasant, we unlearn history at our peril.

This is also the church where Luther married Katharina von Bora, the interior has some wonderful paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I wandered back into the sunlight and made my way through a narrow alley into the town’s showpiece: the Marktplatz. This beautiful square is framed by the 16th century Town Hall, elegant town houses, and is overlooked by the twin spires of St. Mary’s. It’s a dramatic sight, especially reflected in a mirrored globe of the world that sits on one side of the square.

Antisemitic sculpture, St. Mary’s Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Holocaust memorial, St. Mary’s Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

House of Philipp Melanchthon, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

It was well past lunchtime when I arrived in the Marktplatz, something of a risk in small German towns. Luckily, I spotted the Brauhaus Wittenberg close to the square, took a seat in the courtyard and settled down to enjoy some earthly pleasures of local beer and flammkuchen. The temperature was in the mid-30s by this point, and it took a huge effort to dislodge myself from the seat to continue my tour around the town, and down the only street in the world that is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.