New Year’s Eve has been for as long as can remember the most eminent anti-climax of the calendar year, so I was delighted to be invited to spend the last one at the parental home of a friend in one of Europe’s most hyped cities, Berlin. Admittedly, the city had never featured that highly on my list of places to visit (in spite of all the zealous reports I’ve heard about its unrivalled nightlife and burgeoning art scene) – probably because for some reason I was still under the illusion it was a grey post-war urban landscape populated with grim modern architecture. Upon arrival, the first thing that struck me was the enormity of the place – like London, Berlin seems to sprawl for miles and so unless you are flat bang in the centre getting out can involve long travel times. Despite its size, however, the population is only about a third of London’s, which means traffic is much lighter and the city feels more relaxed and much less congested. The public transport system – comprised of S-bahn trains (overground), U-bahn (underground), trams and buses – is also thankfully very efficient. Although it’s not a conventionally pretty urban destination, the more of Berlin I explored, the more I became intrigued by this once divided city with an incredible and unique history. With its wide streets and tall pastel-shade tenement blocks, parts of Berlin resemble the elegant streets of St Petersburg, but that aside it is completely unlike anywhere else I’ve visited (I’ve also been told by natives that it’s very different to other German cities). I was pleasantly surprised that many of its modern and experimentalist buildings were actually rather grand and that modern could be beautiful too. Berlin’s population is very international as, attracted by Germany’s strong economy and the capital’s creativity, energy, lively night life and comparatively cheap cost of living and housing, more and more young people around the world are making Berlin their home. This is a city that really demands more than a few days of sightseeing to get under the skin and, as this trip was largely consumed in New Year activities, hopefully I will have the opportunity to visit again – perhaps outside of winter next time as it is VERY cold here in December!
1.3km of the heavily graffiti-adorned Berlin wall still stands in an area now known as the East Side gallery. Erected in 1961, the wall divided the east part of the city from the west for 28 years before its destruction commenced in 1989. During that period, the West Berlin police registered at least 5,075 successful escapes through the wall and death strip (the area between the walls that contained hundreds of watchtowers) 37 bomb attacks on the wall and at least 136 deaths. The number of attempted escapes is unknown and many attempts were made to cross the border via various ingenuous means such as the construction of tunnels and even one (successful) attempt to flee the east in a hot air balloon.
Here are some snaps I took during my visit.
Italian artist, Fulvio Pinna, wrote on his mural below “Ho dipinto il muro della vergogna affinché la libertà non sia più vergogna. Questo popolo ha scelto la pace dopo anni di Inferno dantesco: tieni, Berlino, i miei colori e la mia fede di uomo libero” which translates as “I’ve painted the wall of shame so that freedom is no longer shameful. This people have chosen peace after years of Dante’s hell: keep, Berlin, my colours and my faith as a free man”.
The below piece is a quote by Austrian poet, Erich Fried, which reads: He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.
Murals by French artist Thierry Noir
Celebrating some German greats – Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Albert Einstein.
Berlin is in fact street-art heaven, and you don’t need to visit the wall to stumble across fantastic al fresco works of art. We spotted a courtyard full of artwork at the Otto Weidt museum (see images below) – we passed this place by chance and unfortunately didn’t have time to visit the museum itself, which is a shame as it looked very interesting (Otto Weidt was the owner of a small factory which employed mainly blind and deaf jews during WW2 and he helped to protect his employees throughout the war from persecution and deportation).
Love this piece by El Bocho (below left), a Berlin-based street artist who produces eye-catching stencils of women. The image below right is, of course, a drawing of the inspirational jewish diarist, Anne Frank.
I saw quite a few of these Blondie-in-a-phonebox images last year in Barcelona, and it was nice to spot another in Berlin.
Sights around town
Berlin’s overground rail system, S-bahn
Festive trees in central Berlin
The Brandenburg Gate illuminated at night- this is where the big official celebrations take place on NYE. I didn’t go to these as I went to a house party, but one million people were expected to attend.
I love this little book exchanged in phone box guise!
Christmas/New Year traditions
NYE (or Silvester as it’s known here) is a big night in Berlin and a great deal of planning goes into evening’s activities. We spent a whole day shopping and preparing various dishes for a house party in the evening. One thing that surprised me about Germany was the wealth of traditions that exist there. One rather peculiar and surprising tradition is that of watching an old British music hall comedy sketch from the 1960s on NYE. I, a native Brit, had never heard of Dinner for One but in Germany it’s very much part of their NYE rituals! The sketch features an elderly, lonely English woman who hosts a dinner every New Year’s Eve for her deceased friends – her butler makes his way round the table imitating each of her guests in turn and gets amusingly hammered in the process. It’s bizarre that this little known sketch in the UK has become such a popular classic abroad – I well recommend worth a watch if only for curiousity!
These lovely star-shaped Christmas lanterns (pictured below) can be seen everywhere in the city
Christmas trees are decorated with candles – I guess this is what people did back in the ol’ days before electricity and fairy lights were invented.
Berliners, a German pastry similar to a donut available in a variety of delicious fillings, are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve and were being snapped up all around town.
Afternoon tea mit Berliners – the ceramic figure on the left is a traditional Christmas figurine which, once lit, emits smoke from the man’s mouth. These are available in many guises from the city’s Christmas markets.
The tradition I really enjoyed was that known as Bleigiessen as depicted in the image below. This NYE ritual involves selecting a lead shape and melting it in a spoon over a candle; once fully melted the molten lead is dropped into a bowl of water where it hardens almost immediately. The person then has to identify what they see in the shape of the hardened lead figure and this will then determine their future for the next year. My attempt created a star shape which I was informed means “fortune in love!” These fortune telling kits can be purchased in most department stores and supermarkets across the city together with a huge array of fireworks. DIY fireworks are HUGE in Berlin and on NYE residents let these off EVERYWHERE. The deafening noise of fireworks is also accompanied by gunfire and it’s quite an exhilarating experience!