The Future is Female … Berlin Street Art

Berlin seems to have invented a new genre of street art – mattress art. I came across the arresting sight of two mattresses being used to convey messages way beyond my understanding, while meandering aimlessly through Kreuzberg, a Berlin street art hotspot. If that wasn’t enough, on the same walk I also came across perhaps the most terrifying piece of street art I’ve ever seen. There is something properly disturbing about a giant baby/man hybrid.

Tempertot by Ron English, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Tempertot by Ron English, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

A Good Man, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Future Is Female by Case Ma’Claim, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Future Is Female by Case Ma’Claim, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Mattress art, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

What local residents think of the hideously muscular and angry-looking steroid-using baby that adorns a wall on Wassertorstrasse, is anyone’s guess. Ron English’s Tempertot is anything but easy to look at. As you might expect from an artist who paid $700,000 for a Banksy art piece and immediately threatened to whitewash over it, this Berlin piece is equally uncompromising. This isn’t the world’s only Tempertot, there’s a green one in New York that I’ll be be doing my best to avoid.

Not too far from the terrible tot, just across the Landwehr Canal, the once splendid The Future is Female by Case Maclaim has suffered defacement by what looks like someone throwing paint bombs. It’s a shame, this painting of the artist’s friend and his daughter is a great piece. I’ve seen this type of ‘attack’ on a couple of other large (building-sized) pieces in recent months, the exact same paint bomb MO.

Perhaps this is in response to the more organised and commercial form of street art that Berlin is now embracing, or maybe it’s just bog-standard vandalism. Whatever it is, it’s certainly annoying. I made my way towards Bülowstrasse, to check out what’s been going on in Urban Nation’s backyard. There were quite a few things I’d not seen before, including a wonderful art-meets-biblical history combo depicting The Last Judgement and an Angel of Mercy. These take up two side of the same building.

Along here were several new pieces, including one by Nafir, an Iranian street artist that I’ve seen a couple of times in Berlin. A woman holds a placard of protest reading ‘FREE WIFI’, which has been defaced to read ‘FREE WIFE’. There was also a woman cradling Disney’s cartoon dog, Pluto. Over the road from which is a piece called Grey Habitat. Along with a couple of other artworks, this building-specific piece has been there for a few years, but I’d never photographed it before.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Angel of Mercy by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Angel of Mercy by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Last JudgementThe Last Judgement by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Free Wifi by Nafir, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Free Wifi by Nafir, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Anti-consumerism polar bear by Stefan Ways, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Anti-consumerism polar bear by Stefan Ways, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

In a nearby window packing tape had been used to create portraits of four people, a type of art you don’t see very often. If you know who the portraits are meant to be, let me know. My favourite piece on this Berlin ramble though, was a sticker of Donald ‘he’s going to get us all killed’ Trump. Dressed in fox hunting gear, Trump’s riding a Twitter bird (pub quiz factoid, the bird is called Larry), presumably in his attempt to hunt down truth and kill it.

That’s the beauty of Berlin street art, whether it covers a building, or is no bigger than a beer mat, there’s always something new to catch the eye as you make your way through the city.

Grab Them By The Patriarchy, Berlin winter walks

It looks like we’ll be plunged into a more drastic coronavirus lockdown soon, it might be some time before we get to walk through Berlin again. Luckily, over a recent weekend we made use of a couple of days when it wasn’t grey or raining to potter about the city. One walk took us all the way to Berlin Messe, a convention centre where the Berlin Wine Festival was being held – yes, there was an ulterior motive for getting out of the house.

To be fair, we walked around 12km through the Tiergarten and along the River Spree into the far western part of Berlin to reach the wine festival. We felt we’d earned a free glass (or two) of wine. Which might explain why we came away with twelve bottles of Austrian chardonnay – a sentence my younger self would have been shocked to hear coming out of my mouth. Given the turn of events, stockpiling Austrian chardonnay doesn’t seem so crazy now.

Holocaust Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to those killed escaping to West Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Der Rufer, or The Caller, memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Der Rufer, or The Caller, memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

The Tiergarten starts just after the Brandenburg Gate, that symbol of Prussian power and of a divided Germany. Walking through the park from here, with a small diversion to the Reichstag, explores major events of 19th and 20th century Prussian and German history. To the side of the Reichstag is a tranquil garden commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, while on the banks of the Spree just behind here is a memorial to those killed escaping across the Berlin Wall.

A striking memorial to the horrors of war, Der Rufer, is close to the Reichstag. A figure roars out a warning, but are we listening? At its base is a line from Italian Renaissance poet, Petrarch: “I wander through the world and cry ‘Peace, Peace, Peace.’” It’s meant as a reminder to be alert to the dangers of such madness happening again. It reminded me of a Rotterdam memorial. A man looks pensively into the sky – from where death and destruction rained down on the city in 1940.

That warning seems apt as you pass the monumental memorial to the Soviet Red Army, a short walk away. It stands as a triumphant statement of Russian victory over Nazi Germany, but behind the memorial is a mass grave of thousands of Russian soldiers who died in the Battle for Berlin. In the distance is another symbol of Prussian military triumphalism, the Victory Column. Commissioned in 1864, it celebrates a victory over Denmark which enlarged Prussian possessions in Schleswig.

By the time the Victory Column was finished in 1873 Prussia had also defeated Austria and France, leading the way for German unification under the Prussian monarchy. The architects of which are commemorated nearby. The most aggressively impressive of three statues is of Otto von Bismarck. Atlas holds the world at his feet, while Germania stamps her foot on the neck of a subdued lion. Subtle it is not. Either side of Bismarck are statues to two other Prussian military men, Roon and Moltke.

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Moltke Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

The history lesson continued after we left the Tiergarten and entered Moabit. Here on the unassuming Levetzowstrasse is a poignant memorial to the Holocaust. The site was formerly one of the largest synagogues in Berlin, the memorial consists of a railway goods car that was used to transport Jews to the death camps in Poland. There’s  also  a statue of huddled people waiting to get into the car. A metal sculpture details Berlin’s synagogues prior to the rise of National Socialism.

On one of the granite figures a prominent ‘Z’ can be seen. This is a references to Zyklon B, a cyanide-based gas used to murder more than a million people in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. It’s a shocking and sobering sight. We definitely needed a glass of wine, so crossed the Spree and the Landwehr Canal to the Deutsche Opera where a U Bahn was waiting to takes us the last leg of our journey.

The Postman Always Rings Twice … Berlin Street Art

I’m regularly impressed by the way Germany continues to openly confront its 20th century history, whether the horrors of National Socialism or the divisions of post-war communism. Some might say that the scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis make it impossible to do otherwise, that a defeated and occupied Germany after 1945 had little choice but to account for the crimes committed in those terrible few years, but it’s rare to find such honesty in a European nation.

Consider Britain’s role in perpetuating centuries of human suffering when it controlled the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Twelve million Africans were enslaved and shipped to the Americas, the consequences of which continue to haunt all three continents to this day. You’ll be waiting a long time to hear a similarly honest recognition of those crimes in British public life. Historical denial, and a longing for a fictional past when half the world map was coloured pink, is one cause of Brexit.

The Unforgotten by Nils Westergard, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by queer artist Hugo Gyrl, Berlin, Germany

It’s almost impossible to imagine a piece of street art adoring the side of a building in London similar to the giant artwork, The Unforgotten, by Belgian-American artist Nils Westergard found on Berlin’s Bülowstrasse. This striking image is of Walter Degen, deported to Auschwitz and later Mauthausen concentration camps for being homosexual. The bright pink triangle, the symbol the Nazis forced gay men to wear, illuminates the grey camp uniform.

At the bottom of the image, railway tracks enter the gates of a concentration camp. This piece of art is fittingly in the Schöneberg district, a neighbourhood that’s home to many gay run and gay friendly businesses, bars and restaurants. It’s also home to the best burger in town, but that’s another story. Like the epic, Refugees Welcome, this is a strand of ‘artivism’. Yet again, it’s part of Urban Nation’s One Wall project, known as One Wall – One Message.

Bülowstrasse is the epicentre of Urban Nation’s world, and it’s a fascinating area with an ever-changing collection of street art to explore. It was along here that I came across several pop art-like pieces of poster art by The Postman collective. In this case the postman rang three times, not twice. There’s also plenty of street art to be found along Köpenicker Strasse, which runs through the anarchist-chic Kreuzberg district. In fact, there seems to be a bit of a street art revival along here.

Walking through this district is also a handy route to reach my favourite Mexican bar-cafe, Ta’Cabrón Taqueria – an ideal way to combine a love for Mexican food and street art. It was while wandering down this road that I came across the amazing Engeika by Irish artist Fin DAC. This is a deceptive piece, merging with the surrounding walls and ground so that it becomes tricky to know what’s real and what isn’t. It’s also very colourful, making it easier to spot.

Street Art by The Postman, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by The Postman, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Swiss Made, Street Art by The One Truth Brothers, Berlin, Germany

Swiss Made, Street Art by The One Truth Brothers, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

It was along this stretch of road that I came across a piece that caught my eye thanks to the words, ‘My First Pride Was A Riot’. This is the only art I’ve found by US-based queer artist, Hugo Gyrl. It seemed fitting to have this positive message about sexuality and diversity in the same city that commissioned Nils Westergard’s The Unforgotten.

A winter’s morning on Peacock Island

The whimsical-sounding Pfaueninsel, Peacock Island, isn’t some magical place straight out of the pages of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Odyssey. It’s not even from the fevered imaginings of Jerome K. Jerome’s literary yarn, Three Men in a Boat. Pfaueninsel is the very real creation of the pleasure-loving King of Prussia, Frederick William II – if a pleasure-loving Prussian isn’t an oxymoron. Set amidst lovely forests, Pfaueninsel is an easy day trip from Berlin.

Despite inflicting an unbending Protestantism on his subjects, Frederick William II was an indolent individual whose religious views seemed to apply only to others. He was twice married, divorcing his first wife and having seven children with his second wife. He had a mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, with whom he had another five children, and simultaneous morganatic marriages with two other women. To anyone who isn’t King of Prussia, this is known as bigamy.

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Peacock, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

It was his desire to please his mistress Wilhelmine Enke, who Frederick William made a countess in 1796, that led to the creation of Pfaueninsel. To the fairytale twin-towered white palace overlooking the River Havel, Frederick William added a menagerie. This included crocodiles, kangaroos, wolves, monkeys and peacocks, as well as some lions. Most ended up in Berlin Zoo, but some peacocks remained at liberty, their descendants freely roaming around to this day.

Given how many children Frederick William and Wilhelmine had, the island’s original name, Rabbit Island, seems just as fitting, if less ‘royal’. The ferry ride to reach the island is perhaps the shortest in Germany. It takes less than 60 seconds to cross the narrow stretch of water. A return trip costs €4, making it perhaps the most expensive ferry ride in Germany.

I arrived after a fantastic walk from Glienicker Bridge along the forested banks of the Havel. The route follows along the line of the Berlin Wall, which at this point separated the outer limits of the Allied-controlled parts of Berlin from Communist East Germany. If it wasn’t for a few information boards, it would be almost impossible to imagine Cold War tensions in this tranquil place. Unlike all the other Prussian palaces in Potsdam, Pfaueninsel was in West Berlin.

On the island, I headed first to the castle (closed for renovation) which offers great views over the water, and then criss-crossed my way along paths towards the Meierei auf der Pfaueninsel, the dairy, on the furthest point of the island from the castle. I had yet to bump into any peacocks, but found myself passing cages where exotic birds are kept. The island is also home to several species of endangered chicken.

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

There are a few other buildings on the island, as well as some statues and fountains, but the main reason for coming here is for the peace and quiet the island affords. One reason to get there early. When I crossed to the island I was in the company of a family but, even in February, when I crossed back to the mainland two hours later there were about forty people waiting for the ferry (that’s a lot of €4 tickets). I imagine the island gets pretty crowded in summer.

There’s one bus per hour from the ferry to the S Bahn station at Wannsee, I could see it leaving just as I got off the ferry. I was tempted to put my feet up in the Wirtshaus zur Pfaueninsel restaurant and wait for the next bus, in the end I walked back to Wannsee along peaceful trails through the forest. It was beautiful.

Willkommen Refugees … Berlin Street Art

Art is meant to stir the soul, divide opinion and reflect humanity’s deepest, darkest desires. The Catholic Church prudishly painted fig leafs over the male genitalia of Michelangelo’s epic, The Last Judgment, fearful of the effect of such obvious sexuality on innocent minds. The Nazis banned ‘degenerate’ art, art that didn’t reflect their political, ethnic and social views. Although it didn’t stop many of them from admiring it in secret.

The power of art to provoke such responses is one reason that it retains its influence, even in an era of social media and wearable technology. I was reminded of this when I was wandering through a Berlin housing estate close to Tegel Airport. It’s not an obvious open air gallery, but it has street art powerful enough to have polarised opinion and be seized upon by opportunistic politicians seeking to exploit discord.

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Cycle of Life by Fintan Magee, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blue Starling by Colin van der Sluijs and Mr. Super A, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blue Starling by Colin van der Sluijs and Mr. Super A, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

It’s an odd feeling to be walking between tower blocks, local residents going about their daily business of walking dogs, pushing prams and carrying shopping, while forty-metre tall paintings loom overhead. Some, like the glorious Blue Starling from Dutch artists Colin van der Sluijs and Super A, seem unlikely to cause disquiet. Willkommen Refugees, by Italian artist Borondo, seems calculated to do the exact opposite.

This massive painting depicts a vulnerable and distressed young girl, a refugee, semi-naked and apparently covered in blood. In the background of a snow covered forest, a naked figure is pierced by arrows. It’s a difficult sight to ignore. With people who are fleeing terror and war dying in the Mediterranean, and being persecuted when they reach dry land, I assume that was the artist’s point. For some residents, the point was that no one asked them before it was painted.

Some people complained that it would scare, or even scar, their children, pointing to the nearby infant school. A local political candidate for the centre-right CDU (the party of Angela Merkel) saw this as a potential vote winner, and started a campaign to have it removed. I can understand local residents who had no choice in what was painted, and it is perhaps a little patronising to be force-fed this ‘lesson’ every day as they walk past. Political opportunists on the other hand …

Close to the painting is an area of refugee housing surrounded by security fencing – a familiar sight in German cities. The views of a local resident on their proximity to each other gave me pause for thought, “For the refugees … I don’t know, but if I would have seen what they had seen, I would want to see something different at a place, which will be my new home in safety … no reminder every day of a horrible past.” That’ a pretty good reason to take all residents’ views into consideration.

On Tip Toes by Hownosm, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by The London Police, Berlin, Germany

Willkommen Refugees by Borondo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Willkommen Refugees by Borondo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

2268miles & Luchadora Pachamama, Tankpetrol and Queenkong, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

I Will Not Let You Down by Herakut, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The controversy is a couple of years old now, but it highlights the impact street art can have on a community. It’s not all gentrification and independent coffee shops. This area close to Tegel is a typical working community, and while I’m sure a majority of residents thought a street art project was good for their neighbourhood, it provides proof of what happens when art offends people’s’ sensibilities. Luckily, the rest of the pieces are much more fun to look at.

I particularly liked the Herakut piece called I Will Not Let You Down, which draws on the close relationship between Berlin and the wild countryside around it. The lovely Cycle of Life by Fintan Magee, depicts the indomitable spirit to rebuild after disaster. People and plants appear on top of urban rubble, a not so difficult to understand reference to post-war Berlin. My favourite, Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, stands in isolation a 10-minute walk away. It’s well worth the effort.

Toi et Moi … Berlin Street Art

When the sun hits it, the colours of Layer by Layer, an immense six-story high piece of art adorning the entire side of a building close to the Tagesspiegel newspaper building, glow amongst grey Berlin offices. The penetrating gaze of the child who’s about to launch a seagull from their arm is what really catches the attention though. The child is made up of multiple ‘layers’ of different people representing multiple nationalities. A comment on the multicultural city? Or the refugee crisis perhaps?

Read into it what you will, this is just one of many epic pieces from Urban Nation’s One Wall project, which can be found dotted around diverse neighbourhoods in Berlin. The idea is that these huge artworks connect people to the urban landscape in which they live. A more obvious outcome is probably creeping gentrification.

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘We are many, but allways one’ by Elle, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘We are many, but allways one’ by Elle, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s street art scene has come a long way since the days when people graffitied one side of the Berlin Wall with messages of hope and despair. Urban Nation is one of the driving forces behind the city’s ever-inventive street art. The One Wall project has been bringing artists to Berlin to paint giant murals since 2014. The results are pretty spectacular.

The beautiful We Are Many, But Allways One by New Yorker, ELLE, stands as tall as the neighbouring trees in nearby Görlitzer Park. A little like Layer by Layer, it’s a mosaic of different pieces of people. This time, famous women, real and imagined. I’m fairly sure I recognise a couple of the people that make up the face that looms over pedestrians below. If you recognise anyone, let me know!

‘Toi et Moi’ by El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

One of the best parts of One Wall, is that they are often to be found in neighbourhoods and on streets that the average tourist, or Berlin resident for that matter, is unlikely to wander down by chance. If you want to see some of the most impressive street art the city has to offer, you have to work for it – and probably get a day pass for the public transport system.

The Urban Nation website has a handy map to help find artworks, but they are only the most visible part of Berlin’s street art scene. Wander almost anywhere and you’ll find a vast array of pieces. I spent a morning plodding the streets close to home, and came across Person to Person near Moritzplatz. Heading to ‘street art alley’, Bülowstrasse, where Urban Nation is headquartered, I ended my tour in the underrated Schöneberg district. You get plenty of exercise as a street art enthusiast.

‘Person to person’ by Agostino Iacurci, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Black and White Cat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Black and White Cat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

En route, I came across a couple of stencils of a black and white cat, I’ve seen others since. Despite my best efforts, I’ve not been able to unearth the name of the artist, but these amusing cats sitting on top of unlikely things (some of which clearly get removed afterwards), seem likely to be feature of Berlin’s streets for a while. There were a few animal-related pieces on my walk, including a polar bear climate refugee, A. A. Milne’s Tigger and a rat from French artist, Blek le Rat.

In Schöneberg, I was meandering my way towards my favourite burger joint, when a bright yellow wall caught my eye. Covering the entire side of a building next to a playground, a baffling scene of contemporary Berlin kids graffitiing a broken wall while watched by children who seemed to come from an earlier century appeared. An owl flew overhead. No idea what it’s supposed to represent, but it was a fun final wall of the day.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blek le Rat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

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.