Coming Home to a Cold Christmas

Christmas in Berlin

So, finally back from a mammoth 6 week trip to Australia – 4 cities in 6 weeks staying in 7 houses. Wow. Many dear old friends, some beach time and lots of great food. After 6 weeks on the road I was ready to come home to Berlin – to spread myself beyond a suitcase or a single room, to see dear friends here again, and – strangely enough – ready for some colder weather. We timed it beautifully coming back into the best bit of winter in Berlin – Christmas. The streets are aglow with thousands of fairy lights, Christmas markets pop up all over the place, and the smell of roasting chestnuts and glühwein fills the air.

There is something which just feels RIGHT about a cold Christmas. Growing up in Australia, Christmas day was always blindingly hot – these days most people spend it either on the beach, or inside with air-con, drinking a chilled sparking red and eating cold prawns and other seafood yummy-ness. But when I was a kid (and having a British mother) we did the whole English thing. We cranked up the air conditioning while Mum slaved for hours over an enormous roast Turkey and Grandma Nan made mince pies and spent – literally – weeks preparing the cake (rubbing with Brandy every week, re-wrap and store) which I would then gleefully decorate with marzipan, white fondant and gorgeous little Christmas decoartions which had survived moving countless times across two continents. We even bought spray snow to make the windows look foggy… All the cards had Santa in dressed in fur and we sang songs about Frosty the Snowman and Good King Wenceslas and drew pictures of melting candles.

So flip back to present day in Germany and I repeat: Christmas here makes SENSE. All those images and dreamings from my childhood have meaning here. Here it is cold, very cold and sometimes snowy. It is dark – really dark by 4pm. Candles make sense. Fur boots make sense (I have a pair now). Glühwein (warm, mulled wine) makes really sense to warm you up when you’re drifting through the markets when I’m guiding people on a winter Berlin tour.

I remember the first time I spent Christmas with my husband’s family. I was astonished when he told me they would have real candles on the Christmas tree. I thought – how does the house not burn down??? In Australia I thought the idea of the European Christmas on the 24th was bizarre – what do you mean you don’t wake up to Christmas morning and a stocking? But I have to say after nearly a decade in Germany I am now I am a complete convert to the traditional German Christmas. Or at least Christmas in my husband’s family. There is carol singing, candles, champagne, gifts and fabulous food.

Decorating the tree is serious business and something which I love. Simple clear glass balls, straw decorations that my mother in law made herself when she was a teenager, and red candles in brass candle holders which hang on the branches with a simple counter weight system. No gaudy tinsel. No electric lights. No glitz. Simple and elegant, the tree is the absolute centrepiece of our Christmas celebrations. The children are ushered out of the room while we light the candles and the presents are retrieved from their hiding places. Then, in silence, the door opens and the children stand there, eyes glowing with the same fire as the candles, mouths open with the wonder of this magnificent spectacle and to be honest – I’m a little in awe myself. Maybe we could have a Christmas tree every day of the year. Or at least every day of the winter. But then it wouldn’t be as special, would it?

Wishing you and yours a wonderful festive season.

Climbing up a former DDR Guard Tower

One of the things I love about Berlin is that this city can still surprise me. Even after years of working as a private guide I still discover new things – or old things with a new aspect to them.

Five years ago today I had the pleasure of leading a delightful couple from the United States around Berlin. We had a full 2 days so we were taking our time and talking about things in great detail. As we reached Potsdamer Platz and were talking about the division of the city I wanted to show them an old guard tower which hides around a corner. Most people have no idea it is there – hidden down a little side street next to a modern apartment block and behind a bunch of trees it is not easy to spot if you don’t already know where it is.

As we approached that day I saw something was different – the access door was open. Hmm I thought – strange, I’d never seen it open before. As we got closer there was a man standing next to the door and I asked him what was going on, why was the door open. Astoundingly he told me we could go up inside if we paid €3.50.

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe my ears – I had been to this tower so many times before and it had always been shut up tight with nothing more than a little sign. And now I was able to actually go up in it??? To stand where the border guards had stood, armed with their long range rifles, looking for people desperate enough to try and run the gauntlet of the notorious death strip to reach freedom. This was an opportunity not to be missed.

Inside the tower was a small, vertical ladder and I climbed hand over hand. Up the top was a small room with windows in all directions. You would not want to be too tall here. Or claustrophobic. I was really very small. The windows were dirty and there were old electrical wires on the floor. There was graffiti, some of it showing the symbol of the radical left group Antifa (the abbreviation of Anti Facism).

I looked out on to the back courtyard and rubbish bins of the luxury flats and thought about how it would have looked back then – an empty expanse full of alarms, signal fences, vehicle barriers, sand traps and more.

Since that day 5 years ago I have had the privilege of taking many more people on a private tour to see the former DDR tower.  Some choose to make the climb, others don’t.  Each time we meet the volunteers who make this remarkable opportunity possible.  Some have amazing stories to tell of the former times in the GDR, all are informative and engaged with what they do.  And each time I am reminded how grateful I am to live in Berlin now, and not back in the 1960’s.


Hoppegarten – the best Berlin day out you never knew about!

There’s a kids nursery rhyme in German which says “ Hoppe hoppe Reiter, wenn er fällt den schreit er, Fällt er in dem Graben, Fressen ihm den Raben, Fällt er in den Sumpf, Macht der Reiter Plumps!”

This means: “Hop hop rider, when he falls he screams, if he falls in the holes the crows will eat him, if he falls in the marsh then he goes Plop!”

I thought of this the other day when I went to the horse races at Berlin’s racecourse, which is appropriately named “Hoppegarten” – the Hopping Garden. Where the horses hop (or rather gallop) around while we onlookers excitedly strain to see if our chosen chariot has crossed the line first.

If you’re here through the summer in Berlin and have a Sunday to spare, then it is well worth checking the schedule to see if you can catch a racing afternoon at Hoppegarten. Well off the tourist track it is worth the effort to get there (easy to reach on the S-bahn with a short walk) to enjoy an afternoon with Berliners of all creeds and colours, to picnic on the grass and perhaps make a friendly wager or two.

Dating back to the old imperial days, Hoppegarten first opened it’s doors back in 1868, three years before Germany even became a country, under the King of Prussia, soon to become Kaiser Wilhelm the 1st. It soon became one of the premier racecourses in Europe, hosting some of the biggest races on the continent with over 40 stables and 800 horses in training.

Of course during the war it came to a grinding halt and during the DDR times it never really recovered. Slowly the bigger races moved to western Europe and Hoppegarten lost significance, but it still hosted 22 races a year and 8 times it hosted the International Meeting of Socialist Countries.

After Reunification in 1990 it reopened to great euphoria, only to slowly stagnate once more, in part due to lack of investment and lack of clarity over who really owned the property (it had been taken over by the East German government in the communist period). However in the early 2000’s this was clarified, only to have the official owners go broke in 2005. Fortunately, a German investment banker living in London called Gerhard Schöningh bought the racecourse and undertook the not insignificant task of renovating and upgrading the facility.

I first visited Hoppegarten with horse mad friends in 2011. It was a fabulous day out, with pony rides for the kids, cheap bratwurst and you could picnic on the grass right in front of the finish line. There was a bouncy castle, a playground for kiddies, yummy quarkbällchen (think the holes of doughnuts being fried) and the kiddies could run amok in safety while we sipped red wine and ate cheeses in between races. We have been back regularly every year since. My son even had the chance to ride a mechanical horse usually used in training and was told he was a natural jockey 🙂

Since then I have seen more and more people flocking to Hoppegarten. Now the grass is much more crowded and you’re not allowed to picnic right in front of the finish line. Pony rides are super expensive and the bouncy castle is no more. But there is still bratwurst and red wine, friendly wagers and the excitement of picking your horse. Watching them prance in the ring before the race, reading the statistics, choosing the name you like best and cheering your horse on.

Like many things in Berlin, it has become more and more popular and has developed past it’s initial promise into a very successful business venture for Herr Schöningh. But unlike other sites in Berlin it is not created for tourists. Not at all. You hear very little English spoken here. This is a place for Berliners. And even though it’s busier and more expensive than it was 7 years ago, I still think it’s one of the best afternoons you can have on a sunny summers Sunday. So take a chance and get away from the inner city for a true taste of Berlin summer!

The Trabant Turns Sixty!

If you’d visited Berlin whilst the Wall was still up, say in the 1980’s and you’d applied for a day visa to visit the East and crossed at the Friedrichstrasse border crossing, one thing would have struck you immediately as you wandered the streets of East Berlin. The cars.

Small, identical, cramped and looking like they’d crumple in any accident, the Trabant was the standard vehicle of the DDR. They look like play toys for giant babies. And they turned 60 this month.

The factory in Zwickau started producing Trabbis in November 1957 and over the years produced around 3 million of the tiny, cutesy cars. However demand far outstripped production and many people had to wait years and years before their car was ready. There are many jokes about trabbis – “first you smell them then you hear them then you see them” goes one. It’s not far wrong.

After the collapse of the DDR, many easterners loaded up their trabbis with whatever they had and drove as far West as they could. When they ran out of petrol the cars were often simply abandoned on the side of the autobahn whilst their owners hitched a ride to the next town. Indeed, I once had a client on a private tour in Berlin who was ex-British military. He’d been on duty in Germany at the time the Wall fell and said he’d seen US soldiers going along the Autobahn giving out free petrol to the drivers in the hopes that they’d keep driving on into the British zone and then the cars would no longer be their problem!

Despite government subsidies to try and keep the factory going after the wall fell, production ceased in 1991 and the Trabant became officially a thing of the past.

Now, 28 years on the Trabbi has developed an almost a cult status as an icon of a bygone era. You can do tours where you get to drive one yourself, or you can be chauffered around town in a custom made Trabbi stretch limo. Ironically, the cheap and inefficient “cardboard box with a motor” has now become a collectors item. Seeing original Trabbis (not the tourist ones) driving through Berlin is becoming more and more rare. But every now and then you’ll see one parked on a corner, or rumbling along belching out 2 stroke fumes and rattling as though it’s about to fall apart. Cartoon cars from an era when even having this little vehicle was considered a luxury and a sign of status.

Festival of Lights

Every October, Berliners start to sigh and moan about the summer being well and truly over. The days get noticeably shorter and we all dread the turning back of the clocks which heralds the onset of long, dark, cold winter months.

But one thing happens every year to cheer the souls of Berliners and tourists alike at this time of year. The Berlin Festival of Lights. For 2 weeks every October, Berlins biggest icons are lit by some of the worlds best lighting designers, creating amazing displays of colour and pattern. It really is something to behold.

The first Festival of Lights

I remember the first ever Festival of Lights in Berlin – which I must say I found profoundly disappointing. The TV tower was pink. The Berliner Dom was purple. Big deal. I didn’t go again for years. But now, a decade or more on, the festival has developed to become something truly fabulous. This year there was a giant insect crawling on the top of the Berliner Dom. Shadows of tourists raced along it’s upper balcony. Lighting artists are able to use digital mapping to exactly match projections to the architecture, creating some amazing effects unique to the shape of that particular building.

I saw the Staatsoper on fire

Before a pudgy angel walked along it’s upper storey and destroyed the floor below with her wand. I saw performers projected larger than life on the Hotel de Rome and a pop art/baroque hybrid mural of magnificence on St. Hedwigs Cathedral. Some buildings simply had interesting interchanging patterns, some had kaleidescopic 3D illusions. The European House had all the flags of the union and the EU flag projected onto it – rather a statement in these uncertain European times.

But the Gate – oh the Gate.

It is usually always the highlight and this year was no exception.

I stood for over half an hour at the Gate and did not see a single image repeated. Several different artists had been chosen to create different installations for the Gate which were as unique as they were beautiful. One explored the theme Freedom, which projected statement after statement from Berliners about what freedom meant to them, followed by large hands breaking through the Gate, seeming to tear it down, wearing the iconic watches previously known from the infamous (now painted over) mural by street artist Blu. One had a mixture of nature and portraits which fitted the Gate like a glove, transforming it into something breathtaking. The next was a long but interesting concept using emojis to explore notions of diversity and strength through difference through modern symbols. Interspersed with psychadelic patterns and fluid motions, one designer even mimicked the wrapping of the Reichstag by the artist Christo many years ago to make the Gate appear that it had been wrapped. Which indeed, it had been – wrapped in light.

Wonderful optical illusions to lift you out of the depression brought on by early dark autumn evenings and transport you into a world of possibilities. Light streaming through the darkness.

(*and yes, we offer private guided tours of the Festival of Light installations each year!)

Urban Nation – The Newest Gallery in Berlin

So in September, a new space opened in Berlin, called Urban Nation. They call themselves a Museum of Urban Contemporary Art and have had a long and labyrinthian journey to opening. In some ways the journey of this art/museum space mirrors that of street/urban art in Berlin itself – long, winding, and ever changing.

Street art (or as some call it, Graffiti) used to be a reflection of Berlin

In my humble opinion. It was grungy, underground, surprising, playful, in-your-face, unapologetic, sometimes profoundly beautiful, often political and always site specific. There were often recurring themes and characters created by artists which would pop up in unexpected places, commenting on various political situations, like irreverent friends of friends you would bump into on the street every now and then. And somehow street art became part of Berlins identity, meaning of course, more and more artists would come and leave their stamp somewhere in the city, adding to the colourful kaleidescope of artworks big and small.

Ten years ago Berlin held its first street art festival

Many international artists were invited to make some huge murals around the city, including well known names such as Victor Ash and Blu (who made waves three years ago by painting over his artwork as he didn’t want his art to contribute to the gentrification in the Kreuzberg area). Since then street art in Berlin has gone through a major makeover. Now most of the large murals throughout the city are commissioned by Gewobag – one of the major Housing companies who own literally tens of thousands of apartment blocks in the city. Companies such as Red Bull, Nike and Levy Jeans have used street art murals in their corporate ad campaigns. You can do street art tours in massive groups, and even order images from your favourite street artists online. And this year, the first ever ‘museum’ dedicated to street art. Or as they more aptly name it – Urban Contemporary Art.

Several friends had told me it was great, very well curated and I turned up very inspired and very curious for my first visit. One thing that struck me upon entering was it is free. No entrance cost. Fantastic, I thought, that is one advantage of having a big brother sponsor like Gewobag. However, my reaction to the space was a little… confused. I guess I had expected something different. For starters, calling itself a museum I expected to see some kind of historical context, talking about the origins of Graffiti, the difference to Street Art and how that evolved, it’s connection to the Hip Hop culture, urban poverty etc etc. Nothing. A couple of panels scattered throughout the exhibit only addresses various traditional artistic categories such as portraiture, conceptual art, pop art etc. Ad somehow I had expected the commissioned artists (because they were usually actively commissioned) to be invited to actually work within the space – Street Art is of course, highly site specific (a bit like at Teufelsberg). But it wasn’t. No paint on the walls whatsoever.  The artists had simply done their work on rather traditional canvasses (apart from a couple who worked on wood, or cardboard etc). But most were simple canvasses, framed in white, and nicely lit.

For me, this caused a bit of cognitive dissonance…

Things which I am well aware would have looked remarkable at 5 times their size painted on the side of a building, looked somehow puny and overblown all at once when squished into a 6′ x 4′ frame on a white wall. Artistic styles which have developed to be amazingly effective seen from far away (like the blasted off portraits of Vhils for example) look somehow shoddy and haggard up close. Taken out of their natural urban environments and hung on a gallery wall, these artworks felt to me to be very much like a square peg jammed into a round hole. And when you take the ‘site’ out of site specific work, what is left? Roa’s chameleon, cleverly worked into folding wooden boards so you can see his signature ‘inside out’ animals was a lovely art work, but I much prefer his rats running up the side of the building in Prenzlauerberg, or the confrontational dead animals hung from the apartment block at Manteufelstrasse in Kreuzberg. Seeing this little chameleon at Urban Nation was like seeing a butterfly pinned in a book compared to a buffalo roaming free.

Interestingly, I noticed that some of the most prolific and admired artists in Berlin were not represented.

In fact most of the artists (although many now have works also in Berlin), were international. Countries like Italy, Spain, Netherlands, UK, Brasil, Poland, France, even Australia were there. But names like El Bocho, MTO, Alias, Plotbot, Kripoe CBS, Mein Lieber Prost which litter the streets of Berlin and have been around long before Street Art became popular or profitable – they were conspicuously absent. Which I found rather disappointing. But perhaps they had been asked and had refused, who knows? Certainly some street artists wouldn’t want their work to be represented in such a gallery, and I can really understand that.

That being said, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad at all. It simply made me think. About context. Taking art out of context means you lose something really fundamental to its essence. About the crossover of art, subculture, commercialism, moneymaking, artistic integrity versus paying the rent. About acknowledgment. About both cultural and artistic appropriation. Many thoughts. To me there is something disturbing about taking this art out of its usual context. Like people who chisel a Banksy off the wall to sell it at auction to hang in a rich persons house, it feels somehow… deadening. Like looking at something lifeless rather than living and breathing.

My recommendation?

Perhaps spend half an hour at the Museum, wandering through the rooms, see what they have on offer (yes, including the small and probably extremely expensive Banksy on display). But if you really want to see the real deal, you have to hit the streets. You have to see the murals on the sides of buildings which span 6 stories high. You have to see the portrait from across the river. You need to peer into the corner of an alleyway to find the minute figurine. Hunt through the neighbourhoods to find that elusive last Evol fuse box painted to look like miniature Plattenbau. If you don’t know where to go, take a local, experienced private guide. Put in the legwork. Then you’ll be rewarded with much more than 6′ x 4′ brightly lit frames and a butterfly pinned to a board.  Just my thoughts of course.

The Grand old Dame of Mühlenbeck

It’s the time of year again when the air turns crisp, the leaves begin to yellow and I begin to especially treasure every day of sun and blue skies. Especially after such a rainy summer as this year these clear days which has a final breath of summer warmth on the air are especially not to be wasted. So today I shut the laptop, grabbed my long suffering husband and my phone and headed north of the city into the wilds of Brandenburg. Friends had told us of a pretty little lake with a run down old Schloss (palace) there and it sounded perfect for a short daytrip while the sun was shining and our boy was in school.

A quick 20minute drive and we were in a little village of Summt, turning down a narrow cobblestone laneway ending in a dirt track. Within minutes we felt miles away from the city with shafts of yellow light streaming through the trees and the glimmer of water telling us we were almost at the lake. We walked, we wandered, we meandered. We sat on some convenient benches and closed our eyes, soaking in the quiet as much as the sun. in the 5 hours or thereabouts we spent in the area I think we saw 4 people. 3 were with dogs and one was (strangely enough) poling a home made raft across the lake. The old palace itself was a grand sight. Paint peeling and with metal shutters on all the (clearly broken) windows this old lady was obviously once a glorious forest home for the aristocrats who built her. Indeed, the late Roccoco style pleased the wife of Frederich the Great so much that she was a frequent guest at this small palace on the lake. It then passed through several families before it’s owner needed to flee Nazi Germany because of his Jewish wife and it became the property of one Heinrich Himmler. During the DDR times it was used by the Ministry for Staatssicherheit (otherwise known as the Stasi) as a Hunting Lodge for the privileged few. And only since reunification was it returned to the family of it’s pre-war owners.

Now she lies empty – a citizens initiative tried to rejuvenate the place for a few years in the early 2000’s but with little success and eventually went broke. Oh to have a couple of million dollars spare to renovate her and restore her to her former glory! It would be a wonderful place for weddings and other grand events. I can see clearly the potential of this place with a little love (and a lot of money). But alas, on my humble tour guide wage this will remain simply a vision and not a reality! However on the way home whilst checking the history of the building it seems someone has indeed had the same vision as I did – as soon as building permission is granted renovations will begin and it will open as a hotel and wedding venue. I hope and pray they get it right this time – perhaps we’ll be able to celebrate our 15yrs of marriage here! Fingers crossed.

Berlin summer in 2017 – Wet and Wild!

I’ve spent the last 12 summers in Berlin. My first one I thought was fairly dodgy, fairly bleak and grey and rainy, but then I’d just moved from sunny Australia and didn’t really know what to expect from a northern European season (my first winter was hell but that’s another post!). My second summer was much better and it was then I really began to appreciate that after a long and freezing winter any ray of sun is to be celebrated. And perhaps danced in. Over my more than a decade in Berlin I have had glorious hot summers and others where it’s been less than fabulous, grey and drizzly apart from a few weeks here and there.

Breaking all records

But this year is something else. May was drizzly. OK, there’s still time to improve. June was also not so great, but at the end of June things just imploded. From the 29th-30th of June in one single 24hr period, Berlin got more than it’s average rainfall for the whole month. Ever. Oranienburg – where many guides go several time a week to visit the Sachsenhausen memorial – received a jaw dropping 247mm in 24hrs.

Friends and colleagues starting posting extraordinary photos of flooded subways, buses with water sloshing in the aisles, someone being pulled behind a car on a blow up boat (only in Schöneberg…).

OK, we thought. Freak event. But no. Through until now, almost a month later it has continued to rain and rain and rain. And not the light drizzly dampness that comes in fits and spurts like I’m used to, but rather all day steady downpours.

Forecast ahead…

As a guide I am used to checking the weather every day before heading out. Normally a forecast of more than 5-6 mm of rain in any couple of hours I would class as ‘heavy’ for Berlin. Yesterday was 22mm. Today 19mm. This is something really unprecedented in Berlin, in my experience of the last 12 years anyway, this unrelenting, massive outpouring of water from the skies. And in the middle of summer at that.

So what do you do if you’ve had a trip to Berlin planned for the last 4 months and now the weather is bad?

large umbrellas.  really big.

Well, large umbrellas – available from most concierges – help to a certain degree. And waterproof shoes are a must (even galoshes) as well as a light but effective rain jacket. But the best thing which can help turn a soggy day into a great experience is a really fabulous private guide (but perhaps I’m biased). They know all the best cafes to duck into. They can take you through various exhibits. They can hail a cab and negotiate with the driver for a couple of hours chauffeur service on the spot. They can keep you so fascinated with Berlins stories that you don’t notice the bottom half of your jeans getting soggier until the day is over. Allm y colleagues have been busily swapping tips amongst each other about how to keep peoples spirits up when their drooping in the rain. Where best to take people in heavy rain, where you can skip the queues, where you can get those awful plastic rain ponchos which look dreadful but actually work ,which cafes to avois because they are full of large groups. All those useful insider tips you simply don’t get if you’re wandering by yourself in the rain feeling miserable. A good guide can keep you interested even in the rain. A great guide will keep you interested AND keep you as dry as possible.

So wrap yourself in plastic and enjoy summer 2017 in Berlin – it’s a once in a decade experience!