Folklore connects the name, Berlin, to the German word for bear, Bär, so expect to see bear art ranging from elegant to whimsical, like this framed life-size bear and bench.
Story and Photos by Marianne Scott
Berlin has had a special allure for my husband, David, and me. My Dutch dad had been a forced laborer in Berlin during World War II and I’d always wanted to visit the city where he spent so many months while being bombed from the air every night. David and I had stayed in Berlin for brief stints and had visited the major museums. But we longed to spend extended time, especially to experience Berlin’s public art without a schedule … at leisure and on foot. We think of it as “slow travel,” a bit like “slow food.” Our wish was fulfilled during a three-week home exchange holiday in Berlin.
Walking through Berlin is a mighty task. This is a city with a “museum island” and numerous historical, political and religious edifices described in many guides. I added to these popular places some self-directed walks to admire the less-familiar public art this vibrant city has to offer. The choice of creating my own public art walks rests on several factors: my back can only stand a few hours of walking without a rest. And I like to take my time looking at art. Guided tours have a schedule. I prefer to set my own.
Hitler’s dictatorship, years of bombing and the final 1945 Allied assault on the city left Berlin in ruins. It was divided into eastern and western zones and by 1961, the communists had erected a 27-mile (43km) wall through the city to prevent its citizens from leaving. The wall turned West Berlin into an island with only a single 100-mile road and a railway connecting it to West Germany.
After reunification in 1989, the West began to repair wartime damage that had been neglected under the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and even the dreary Soviet-style apartment blocks have gentrified, making the whole city highly liveable. Berlin’s population has grown to 3.5 million and the federal government has once again made it Germany’s capital. So many artists have moved to Berlin, it’s being compared to Paris in the 1920s. Public art has been restored and augmented—some celebrating the union so ardently desired. Some of it presents the traditional bronze warrior on a steed, but much of it is recent, colorful and whimsical.
A mural of peace doves lifting the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes reunification of the city in late 1989.
Berlin: Seven Times a Capital in 600 Years!
1417 to 1701 = capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg.
1701 to 1871 = capital of the Kingdom of Prussia.
1871 to 1918 = capital of the German Empire.
1919 to 1933 = capital of the Weimar Republic.
1933 to 1945 = capital of the Third Reich.
1945 to 1989 = East Berlin was capital of the communist German Democratic Republic. (West Germany moved its capital to Bonn.)
1990 to present = Berlin became the capital of a reunited Federal Republic of Germany.
I mapped out three walks, long enough to enjoy multiple public art offerings, short enough to survive sore feet. All three can be walked at a brisk pace in about 60-90 minutes, or more slowly, savouring the views, and interspersed with a sidewalk café lunch, a latte or a tasty German lager.
Our first walk began at the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1789, this massive monument became Berlin’s defining reference point and served as Prussia’s triumphal arch. After partition, it was positioned just inside the GDR—a relentless reminder of Germany’s disunity. A bronze quadriga, made up of a chariot pulled by four horses and driven by the winged goddess of Victory, crowns the Gate. Sculptures and heraldic arms are carved into the side niches.
A good part—but not all—of Berlin’s public art is associated with war, politics and patriotic celebration. Walking west from the Gate on the 17th of June Street, a bronze sidewalk plaque pictures U.S. President Reagan and his oft-quoted prophetic words: “MR. GORBACHEV, OPEN THIS GATE! . . .TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!”
The Quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses atop the iconic Brandenburg Gate, is a classic sculpture recognized around the world.
A short stroll later, the impressive but sad Soviet Memorial with its tanks, canons, and a daunting soldier in full battle dress recalls Russia’s war sacrifices. On the center boulevard, a three-meter bronze personage faces the Gate. It is the “Caller,” by Gerhard Marcks, shouting out Petrarch’s quote through an agonizing wide-open mouth, “I wander through the world, and cry ‘Peace, Peace, Peace.’”
In Berlin’s Treptower Park, the Soviet War Memorial is a vast war memorial and military ceremony. Opened in 1949, it commemorates Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in Spring 1945.
Two kilometers later, we reached the Victory Column, which commemorates no less than three 1850-60 wars. The monument, moved and enlarged by the Nazis, includes the gilded 8.3-meter symbol of victory, Victoria. On the balcony glittery mosaics epitomizing an allegorical “Germania,” emphasize the glories of a unified Deutschland. Bronze friezes depicting glorious battles complete with WWII-inflicted injuries festoon the monument’s base. For me, the headless horsemen and cut-off legs reveal the true costs of war—not glory, but boundless suffering for ephemeral reasons dreamed up by bellicose men.
I next explored the Kurfürstendamm (colloquially known as Ku’damm), Berlin’s answer to France’s Champs-Elysées and New York’s Fifth Avenue. Starting at the magnificent red granite and bronze World Fountain, the cascading waterfalls mesmerized me as I ate scrumptious crepes in the adjacent restaurant. On nearby Tauentzienstrasse stands the grand Matschinsky steel tube sculpture, symbolizing both the closeness and fracture of Berlin’s recent past.
A detail of the Europa Center Earth fountain.
The original 1890s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was badly damaged in a 1943 bombing raid. A new church was built while retaining the remains of the old church’s spire and damaged interior elements like these fine mosaics.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with its broken spire reminds visitors again of WWII ravages. Open to the public, the (now reinforced) 1890 ruin contains remnants of biblical and princely mosaics, sculptures and bas-reliefs. The New Church next door reveals a concrete honeycomb containing 21,292 stained glass inlays. A vast, brass-alloy Christ figure floats above the altar.
One of many decorative street-side water fountains.
Sauntering down Ku’damm, I continually looked up. This avenue, originally designed for well-heeled Berliners under Bismarck, was bombed but is now THE upscale shopping street. Buildings are super-modern, or hark back 150 years. These are frequently bedecked with sculptures, bas-reliefs, balconies supported by nymphs, gilded wrought-iron balustrades and extravagantly carved doorways. They perch above chic stores for Hermes, Louis-Vuitton, Armani and even Tesla electric motor cars.
Many street corners, and the center boulevard include sculptures. Black and White buddy-bears on Olivaerplatz recall a bear has been on Berlin’s seal since 1280. Another life-sized bear, covered with images of Ku’damm’s monuments, stands inside a picture frame. Several whimsical water fountains grace street corners, along with a spouting fountain with bronze ducks. I walked as far as the Adenauerplatz and rested my feet at a café before walking back on Ku’damm’s opposite side, quite satiated by so many artistic creations on view.
My tour of the East Side Gallery (the name for the former Berlin Wall) began at the Oberbaum Bridge, a red-brick double-decker gothic structure, completed in 1902. It became part of the East-West border in 1961, making it appropriate that the preserved 1.3 km segment of the Berlin Wall nearby on Mühlenstrasse still stands along Berlin’s main river, the Spree. Today both sides of this Berlin Wall segment are decorated.
The Gallery is an international memorial for freedom, and perhaps the largest open-air art gallery in the world. More than 100 artists painted their murals, depicting hope and peace. Some paintings recalled history: the large Star of David superimposed on a German flag, refugees attempting to climb the Wall, a tribute to those who died crossing the Wall, Breshnev kissing Honecker on the mouth, East German armed guards, a U.S. and German flag in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Others are whimsical, swirly and abstract. Unfortunately, taggers (graffiti writers, not artists) have damaged many of the murals. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the images, the bright colors and wild imagination. This can be a relatively short walk or you can dawdle for hours, as I did.
A colorful mural on the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall commemorates a most unlikely method of escape.
The advantage of viewing public art is that it’s accessible, ubiquitous and free of charge. I love museums and their treasures, but by necessity, their displays are static. Public art is unfettered, often appearing in unexpected places. I most remember the East Side Gallery for its untamed imagination, history, color, sadness, hope and for the courage it took for Germany to maintain this monument, a direct result of its World War II madness.
Visit Berlin, www.visitberlin.de/en, provides comprehensive information. David and I used public transport to travel around the city. Multi-day passes are available at most train stations, and the pass is good on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, busses and trams.
Many guided walking tours are available through the Internet, providing a good introduction to Berlin’s major monuments. Some small-group tours focus exclusively on alternative street art (mainly colorful graffiti and mural art), a tour example of which is this backstreet guided tour described on TripAdvisor.
Enjoy other articles by Marianne Scott in our feature article collection: Music Sounds Better by the Sea, Spain’s Self-Catering Apartments or Hotel Accommodation: Which Works Best?, An Exploration of Oregon’s Wild Pacific Coast and A Geological Adventure in Utah’s National Parks.
Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Marianne Scott writes for numerous publications in the U.S., Canada and the UK. She’s the author of “Naturally Salty — Coastal Characters of the Pacific Northwest”, “Ocean Alexander, the First 25 Years”, and “Before I Forget—a Memoir”, with Ben Vermeulen. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lonely Planet’s Pocket Berlin is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. 20 color neighborhood maps; highlights and itineraries to help tailor your trip to personal needs and interests; insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots. Expect honest reviews for all budgets – eating, sleeping, sightseeing, going out, and shopping.
Pocket Berlin by Andrea Schulte-Peevers, 4th Edition, January 2015
192 pages, pocketbook, US$13.99, ISBN 9781742208817
Lonely Planet’s Make My Day Berlin is a unique guide that allows you to effortlessly plan your perfect day. Flip through the sections and mix and match your itinerary for morning, afternoon and evening. There are more than 2000 itinerary combinations with insider tips to get you to the heart of the city’s must-see sights and experiences. Full color images of every sight and activity, maps and a transport planner help you get your bearings and navigate between sights with restaurants and cafes identified close to chosen destinations.
Make My Day Berlin, 1st Edition, October 2015
40 pages, spiral bound, US$13.99, ISBN 9781743609309