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.

Wittenberg, home to Martin Luther and the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation, that split the Catholic Church asunder and paved the way for centuries of religious persecution and warfare, was the culmination of fundamental change taking place in Western Europe. Yet, two of the most important events that led inexorably to the emergence of Protestantism are the responsibility of two Germans. Johannes Gutenberg died in 1468, a mere 15 years before Martin Luther was born in 1483, but both would revolutionise the world around them.

In 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press in Strasbourg, and was responsible for the first book ever printed in Europe from movable type, the Gutenberg Bible. In 1510, five years after becoming a Catholic monk, Martin Luther visited Rome. So scandalised was he by the corruption he witnessed there, that he returned to Germany to publish a series of pamphlets attacking papal abuses. Married to Gutenberg’s new technology, Luther’s ideas spread like wildfire across Europe.

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherism around the world, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther was living in Wittenberg during this period, and here in 1517 he published his ’95 Theses’, legend has it by defiantly nailing them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, the 95 Theses were a list of questions that directly challenged the Catholic Church’s authority by claiming salvation could only be achieved through faith and divine grace. This would eventually lead to his excommunication as a heretic in 1521.

A couple of years ago I was myself in Rome. A visit that also left me scandalised, not by religion, but by the flagrant commercialism and deep unpleasantness of a tour around the Vatican. There was a particularly troubling ten minutes in the Sistine Chapel. I probably didn’t feel the same sense of outrage Luther felt, but it seems things haven’t improved much since 1510. A recent visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as Wittenberg is now known, served to underscore the ideological divide that drove the emergence of Protestantism.

I walked through this small sleepy town wondering how it could have been that, during the 16th century, this was the epicentre of a radical strand of Christianity that directly challenged the immense power of the Catholic Church. Wittenberg would probably fit inside the Vatican, can boast few artistic masterpieces and the closest I came to seeing a crowd was a small group of elderly Americans on a guided tour of the Luther House, the former monastery that the Reformer called home for 35 years.

Luther first lived here as an Augustinian monk, before using it as a base to develop the ideas that would help bring about the Reformation. Compared to the Vatican, this is a small building, yet it’s still the largest museum anywhere in the world dedicated to the Reformation. It was just about the first building I saw walking from the train station to the old town centre, and was the starting point for a day of exploration around this lovely place.

All Saints’ Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

95 Theses Door, All Saints’ Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Martin and Katharina, Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

I was here on a Saturday and couldn’t believe how quiet it was. The building is largely the result of 19th century add ons to the earlier building, but there are areas that have been preserved almost intact from when Luther lived here. The famous ‘Table Talks‘ took place in the Luther Room, which still has its original features from a time when he would debate religion and other, more mundane, matters around a table with guests. In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. She moved in that same year.

It turns out that Luther had a great fondness for women, and wasted no time in putting the new Reformation rules about marriage to full use. He and Katarina raised six children in this house. In fact, Luther had a rather modern (if somewhat sexist) take on some areas of life, stating once that, “Drinking wine in moderation and enjoying a lovely girl; that is in community with the fear of God, the sweetest life.” I started to get the feeling his beef with the Pope wasn’t just about the sale of indulgences.

She Is Gone … Berlin Street Art

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

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

Believe in Dog by Fannakapan, Street Art, Berlin

Ricky Lee Gordon, Street Art, Berlin

Underwater Kiss by insane 51, Street Art, Berlin

Snik & Nuno, Street Art, Berlin

We Are by Innerfields, Street Art, Berlin

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

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

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

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

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

Little Lucy and El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

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

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