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Moving mountains: the power of women-only tours in Morocco

Fatima sits down at a wooden loom at the mouth of the cave and gestures for me to kneel beside her. Handing me a ball of wool, dyed yellow with saffron, she nods in encouragement as I attempt the fiddly process of weaving the next layer of the rug she’s working on, pushing it down with a metal comb.

A nomadic Berber, Fatima lives in caves across the sparse, rocky plains of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains with her family, herd of goats, chickens and mule. Making a small living through weaving and selling goat meat, she pursues a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for thousands of years – except that, two years ago, she began to supplement her family’s income by hosting tourists for a taste of nomad life.

“She says she weaves for just one hour each day, because it’s such intense work,” says my guide, Chama Ouammi, pouring steaming cups of mint tea. Ouammi acts as translator between visitors and the nomads, who only speak a regional Berber dialect. “I am Berber, too, so I understand this life,” she says.

We’re here for a taster of a Women’s Expedition in Morocco – the first female-only trek from tour operator Intrepid Travel. It takes groups of up to 12 women on an eight-day immersive journey through the country, staying at homestays in the Atlas Mountains. These trips are also organised and guided by women, and men are noticeably absent from our travels. If they were here, we wouldn’t be baking bread, trying our hand at weaving and sipping tea with Fatima and her children.

“With men present you wouldn’t be able to enter women’s homes and break that cultural barrier,” Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid Group’s regional director for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, explained to me prior to this trip. “A lot of customers want to do challenging stuff like a trek, without being judged by men or seen all sweaty, but the main thing they want is to enter the women’s world.”

Women-only travel is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global travel industry – and demand for trips like these has been growing. The number of solo female travellers soared from 59 million to 138 million between 2014 and 2017, according to the World Tourism Organization, and 84% of all solo trips are now made by women.

Intrepid isn’t the only group responding to these figures. American operator smarTours launched women-only itineraries in Egypt, Morocco and Colombia last year, while Condé Nast Traveler invited its online community, Women Who Travel, on group trips to Colombia, Mexico and Cuba. But what makes these journeys into the Atlas Mountains special is that they’re actively encouraging women’s employment in Morocco.

“Intrepid is very committed to gender equality. But in 2017 we had less than 20% of female tour guides globally and in Morocco, we had none,” explains Bencheikh. “It’s a conservative country. Women seen leading groups of men and women in different cities, spending nights out of the house, was problematic.”

When her company instructed its global outposts to double their number of female tour guides by 2020, Bencheikh – who grew up in Canada, France and the UK before returning to Marrakech in her twenties – decided she had to unpick the cultural barriers stopping women from applying. She lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue 1,000 new tour-guide licences, and campaigned to raise awareness among local women, encouraging them to apply. “It’s prestigious and really well paid,” she says. “Why wouldn’t women want to do it?”

At the same time, she launched a campaign in the M’Goun valley, a popular trekking region of the High Atlas, for an itinerary run by women, for women. “We didn’t want to shock the culture – and this way, the men accepted it,” she says. “In fact, they loved it. Their wives and sisters bring in more income.”

Now around 100 Moroccan women have tour guide licences, and the Intrepid team has built a network of women-led suppliers and homestays that had been cut off from the benefits of tourism. We visit one of these on our first night in the M’Goun valley, after a six-hour winding drive from Marrakech, over the barren, snow-dusted Tichka summit and past the mud-built kasbah of Aït Benhaddou, where scenes in Gladiator and Game of Thrones have been filmed.

We pull up in Agouti, a hamlet of low-rise stone houses surrounded by almond and fig trees, and receive an open-armed welcome from a family of six women, dressed in full-length velvet dresses in purples, blues and greens. I spend the evening cross-legged on the concrete kitchen floor with our hostess Ajo Bendaoud, peeling vegetables for a tagine and making couscous from scratch, rolling flour with water and oil, and steaming it slowly. We eat together, scooping up the delicious, spiced mixture with our hands.

Bendaoud picks up a drum and the women break into song, encouraging me to clap and sing along, making up lyrics as I try to imitate their Berber dialect. Ouammi, who speaks six languages, is our smiley go-between, but for the most part we connect through hand gestures, smiles and hugs. There’s something comforting about being ushered around the house by mothers and grandmothers, finding your place by lending a hand in domestic tasks that don’t much vary between cultures. In a female space, it’s easier to feel like an added-on family member, trusted to have a toddler plonked on your lap or to laugh your way through new dance moves without fear of looking silly.

The next morning, I embark on an early morning trek to visit the nomadic community with another local woman, Mama Bie. We stroll through lush orchards until we reach a craggy gorge, leap over rivers on stepping stones and pause to eat fresh tangerines while she tells me her story via Ouammi.

In rural Morocco, more than 80% of women are illiterate, and arranged marriage is common – at as young as 13 for girls – typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework. Mama Bie, now in her late fifties, is one such woman. She divorced aged 17 and became a single mother to her young son – her legal right, but a socially precarious decision. “After my divorce I couldn’t trust anybody,” she says. “Society thinks you are a bad woman.”

Luckily, her brother supported her, and she’s worked at his hostel ever since. It was already in the Intrepid network but it wasn’t until the Women’s Expedition came along that Bie took on an active role with guests, leading treks and teaching them to make bread, with a female guide as mediator. “When I’m doing the expeditions, I’m not just thinking about housework,” she smiles.

Ouammi was raised in the next valley along. “There are ladies in Berber villages who are very smart, but can’t finish their studies because no one can support them,” she says. “I was lucky to have open-minded parents who encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

She studied computer management and went on to be a freelance tour guide in Marrakech, before Intrepid headhunted her for the Women’s Expedition. But being the youngest and first female tour guide from the M’Goun valley hasn’t come without obstacles. “My uncle is a tour guide and he said: ‘This job is too hard for you. You can’t carry heavy bags or trek up mountains, you’ll never marry in the future.’” But she didn’t listen to him. “Women can do everything men can, and more.”

After tea in the caves, we trek to the Gîte Tamaloute in Boutaghrar village, the hostel run by Bie and her brother Hussain. We reunite with some women from the night before, who greet us with all the excitement and affection of lifelong friends, before I’m whisked away and dressed up in regional celebration wear: a full-length toga-like dress, an elaborate headdress of pompoms and a back-combed fringe.

We parade outside and I’m thrown into a folkloric dance demonstration, learning the steps as my new friends spin me around to an increasingly frenzied drumbeat. Attempts to sit down are vetoed: we dance and laugh together for hours, unable to exchange words but finding a close bond nonetheless.

In rural Morocco, women lead private, domestic lives. Without the link set up by Bencheikh, and cultivated by guides like Ouammi, it would be near-impossible for women like Bie and Fatima to participate in the tourism industry – and for non-Moroccan women to communicate with them.

A business model like this gives an economic boost to women at every level of the supply chain, whether they are visible or not: from utilising the country’s only female-owned transport company to kick-starting careers for smart, ambitious would-be leaders, like Ouammi. Most striking of all, it leaves misconceptions by the wayside, opening the door to travel that creates real cross-cultural connections.

“With women, I can talk about anything, and they can, too,” says Ouammi. “We can share and learn from each other. My dream is to travel outside of Morocco and show the women who live in the mountains in Morocco, and the world, that Berber women can do anything.”

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Feminist Renaissance: the Florentine restorers rescuing art by women

As the wooden shutters fold back, the dark restoration studio is flooded with Tuscan sunlight, illuminating an enormous canvas. Seven metres by two, it’s a 16th-century rendering of the Last Supper, a favoured theme for painters of the Renaissance. Versions of the scene are found in monasteries all over Florence – but this one has some unusual traits.

“There’s a wonderful attention to how the table is set,” says Rosella Lari, an art restorer who’s just completed four years on this work – etching away years of dirt and damage, and applying earth-tone paint and protective varnish. “It’s the only Last Supper I’m aware of that has an ironed tablecloth.”

As well as the cloth, with its perfectly pressed folds, the table is replete with chunky bread rolls, fava beans, roasted meat and salad; wine glasses are filled to the brim. It makes a down-to-earth contrast with other Last Suppers, which mostly display empty plates and glasses, and a distinct lack of actual eating. There’s a good reason for this, according to Lari. It was painted by a woman.

While many of us will be familiar with the big male names of Renaissance art who worked in Florence in the 1500s – da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio – few will have heard of their female counterparts. Like self-taught artist and nun Plautilla Nelli, whose newly restored Last Supper is the largest known canvas by an early-modern female artist.

The painting’s crowdfunded restoration is the latest and most ambitious project from Advancing Women Artists (AWA) – a Florence-based non-profit organisation that searches for forgotten works by women artists, restores them, and supports galleries and museums in exhibiting them to the public. Since its launch in 2009 by the late American philanthropist Jane Fortune, AWA’s four-women-strong team has restored 65 works. There are now 124 by female artists on display in the city, but still a further 1,600 in storage – most of which are in dire need of restoration.

“When people come here, they want to see Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci,” says Linda Falcone, a former journalist and close friend of Fortune who now runs AWA and believes there’s just as much to gain from artworks by women. “They’re valuable from both an artistic and social point of view,” she says. “In some cases they’re the only social documents that testify to their lives.”

The organisation was born after Fortune came across a woodworm-infested oil painting by Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, in the San Marco Museum – and vowed to pay for its restoration herself. That led to a city-wide quest for the nun’s forgotten works, eventually found in Florence’s museum deposits, particularly the San Salvi monastery (now a museum).

It’s no coincidence that women’s art is often found in religious buildings, as much of it was produced in convents, which were unexpected centres of female creativity in 16th-century Italy. “To enter a convent like Nelli’s, families had to pay a dowry, and women of talent, who could paint or sing, could pay less because they were considered a resource,” explains Falcone. “People wanted to buy devotional art from nuns to feel closer to God.”

But while their talents were recognised – and some were commercially successful – a life of quiet chastity left little opportunity for nuns to study the human form, leaving them mainly with drawings from prominent male artists to work from. “They were painting things they had access to when they weren’t allowed to go to academies or paint nude models – so women’s portraits, and what they were preparing for dinner.”

It’s not known how many women artists were working in this period, but Giorgio Vasari, their contemporary and the world’s first art historian, mentions just four in his Lives of the Artists. There are complex obstacles to uncovering their works. “When we first approached galleries, they had no gender-based records of what they had,” reveals Falcone. She has personally sifted through countless museum archives to find art by women – a frustrating task, as the records are often handwritten, inconsistent and gender ambiguous, listing artists by initials rather than their full names.

This is, however, good news for today’s visitor who’s interested in knowing more, as they don’t have to do any digging. There’s now a Women Artists’ Trail, put together by the AWA, which is printed at the back of Invisible Women, Fortune’s book charting her hunt for forgotten women’s art. Following it, book in hand, is an easy way to see art by women while also taking in some of the city’s finest institutions.

One of the stops is San Salvi, which Falcone says has become known as “Nelli’s home… There are five of her works there now, four of which we restored and asked them to exhibit. Before, they were covered in pigeon droppings, they’d been gnawed by rats, someone had gone at the warping with a hammer.”

The revived paintings have a raw, emotional power that sets them apart from their more idealised counterparts by male artists. Nelli’s Lamentation puts the feminine experience in focus, her female characters’ eyes red-raw from crying as they cradle Christ’s lifeless body.

One of the trail’s other must-visit spots is the Palazzo Pitti – a vast Renaissance palace linked to the Uffizi by the arched Ponte Vecchio bridge, where the Pitti and Medici families (the world’s first modern bankers and the primary patrons of Renaissance art) lived between the 15th and 18th centuries. The setting alone is a visual overload, thanks to its deep-red walls, gilded cornices and chandeliers.

AWA runs an Invisible Women tour through the Palazzo Pitti with guiding company Freya’s Florence, that even goes into locked-off areas to view a set of 21 still lives by Giovanni Garzona – the most represented female artist in the gallery, although her work is not on public display. It’s also home to an unusual Baroque masterpiece: David and Bathsheba by Artemisia Gentileschi – the “poster child” of early modern female painting, according to Falcone. She and Fortune campaigned to have the work restored in 2008 after 363 years in storage.

A 10-minute walk north is another hidden work by Gentileschi at Casa Buonarroti – a mansion once owned by the artist Michelangelo. On a wood-panelled ceiling alongside 41 works by men, it’s a self-portrait under the guise of an Allegory of Inclination. Invoicing records show that she was paid three times more than her male counterparts for the work.

“Artemisia was a smart businesswoman and very successful,” says Falcone. “Because of the institutions’ focus on the male masters, people aren’t aware of that. We’re restoring more than paintings – we’re restoring these women’s identities.”

Nowhere is this more important than at the world-famous Uffizi, which houses the most works produced by women before the 19th century. In 2017, the gallery held its first Nelli exhibition, with free entry to women on International Women’s Day and a pledge to run an annual series on women’s art.

“We spent 10 years restoring 13 works by Nelli, which laid the groundwork for the Uffizi show,” Falcone explains. “Our attitude is collaborative and kudos to those who get the message, but there’s still a lot of art that’s not accessible to the public.”

There are still plenty of frustrations, too. “There are directors who ask why you’d want to restore art by women, and the general public wants to stay on the beaten track, which doesn’t yet include work by female artists. It’s about educating on the value of these works and understanding who your public is.”

It’s slow progress but early women’s art is becoming increasingly visible around the world. Visitors this month to the Prado, in Madrid, can see an exhibition on Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola, a painter in the court of King Phillip II, and Lavinia Fontana, thought to be the first professional female artist. In London, the National Portrait Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters reveals the hidden stories of those on both sides of the easel (until 26 January). Next year will also see the UK’s first Gentileschi show, at the National Gallery.

Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi’s director, has seen an exponential rise of interest in Gentileschi’s work, which appears on social media second only to Botticelli’s.

“She’s a kind of Quentin Tarantino of the past, which has become fashionable,” he says, referring to her violent portrayal of Judith Slaying Holofernes – which shows the artist herself taking a sword to the throat of her antagonist (and, as some like to think, the patriarchy).

The drama surrounding Gentileschi has somewhat overshadowed Nelli’s more contemplative work, but her Last Supper, which went on permanent display last month at the Santa Maria Novella Museum, should up her profile considerably. Nelli was clearly proud of the work, as she has, unusually, signed the art, in the top corner, followed by the words: “Pray for the paintress.”

“Artists didn’t sign their work at that time,” says Lari. “She’s saying, ‘Plautilla made this.’ She knows she’s worth something.”

This is even more poignant when you consider that Nelli sold small devotional paintings in order to fund the huge painting, with the sole intention of hanging it in the refectory, just as the men did in monasteries. “Women’s history is just not told,” says Falcone. “But restoring a painting is restoring a moment in history. Plautilla’s signature makes an appeal to the future – and we’re answering it.”

N by Norwegian

A wellness guide to witch city: Salem, Massachusetts

A makeshift altar stands on the cobbled waterfront of Salem’s misty harbour. Fashioned from a wooden cabinet, it’s draped with animal skins and topped with candles that flicker in the cool East Coast breeze. Holding hands, 10 women and two men encircle it, sporting long, flowing robes, wolf-tooth earrings and flowers in their hair. One by one they place offerings: a rosebud, a sunflower, a rabbit’s paw.

Justice the Wizard, an oracle who’s leading this evening’s ritual, rolls up the sleeves of his cloak and tears a sprig of mint leaves into a stone font of water fragranced with rose petals and lemon juice. I rinse my hands before taking the silver chalice of grape juice he’s holding out. “May you never thirst,” he says, smiling.

Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts – or Witch City, as this former fishing port is nicknamed. It’s best known for its leading role in the witch trials of 1692, which saw the execution of 20 people and imprisonment of more than 200 others, most of them women. Over the past 50 years, it’s developed a thriving tourism industry around its gruesome history. Less well known, though, is that Salem is now home to a community of real-life witches – as many as 1,600 out of a 40,000 population – who’ve been reclaiming the town as their own. Rather than black capes and pointy hats, these enchanters and enchantresses are identified by their liberal politics: performing protective charms for vulnerable groups, engaging in cleansing rituals, and sharing spells on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag.

Salem is now, somewhat ironically, considered one of the most inclusive communities on America’s East Coast for Wicca, witchcraft and paganism. And, although tourist tat shops still peddle a cartoon version of witchery with black-cat coasters and broomstick key rings, the town is now welcoming a growing number of guests for alternative wellness holidays – ones that swap spas for tarot cards and saunas for Moon circles.

“A lot of people come to Salem to experience modern witchcraft,” says Now Age Travel guide Melissa Nierman, who runs walking tours of the city that aim to tell a non-sensationalist version of the events of 1692 and to unpick Salem’s complex relationship with witchcraft. “People think Salem’s always had witches,” she says, “but we didn’t have any witch shops here before the ’70s. That’s because in the past, the term ‘witch’ was very disempowered and led to the murder of innocent people.”

While on the surface Salem has come to terms with its witchy history, she points out that most of the witchcraft imagery around town still tends to focus either on the tragic deaths of the trial victims, or on a kitsch, cartoonish archetype. The latter is typified by the cutesy statue of sorceress Samantha Stephens (from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched), which sits on the site where “the hanging judge”, John Hathorne, lived. Its installation in 2005 prompted protests by real practitioners of witchcraft, who take issue with the patriarchy-friendly image that’s often seen on screen.

Her tours shows how this trivialisation of a violently misogynistic period of history points to a wider tendency in Western culture to neutralise the threat that witches traditionally represent. “I ask how this ties in with cycles of persecution that are happening today,” she says.

While this sub-text certainly doesn’t deter the many thousands of visitors who come here (as many as 250,000 just for its Halloween Happenings each October), Nierman has found an increasing number are eager to learn about how magical beliefs manifest today – and how “modern feminist witchcraft offers an alternative to the status quo”. Those who don’t move in Wiccan circles might be surprised by this level of interest, but as membership of traditional religions has fallen among younger generations, nature-based spirituality is booming. Surveys show that 40% of Americans now believe in psychics and 30% in astrology. The country’s psychic services industry – which includes astrology, tarot-card reading and palmistry – is worth US$2 billion.

One major highlight for these pilgrims is HausWitch Home + Healing. Opened in 2015 by self-identifying witch Erica Feldmann, its airy, minimalist interior wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen. On the whitepainted shelves are origami-encased spell kits, velvet-bound spell books and herbal cosmetics. “We only stock things we truly believe are medicine and magic, from makers that are women, queer, people of colour,” says Feldmann. “We focus on self-care as witchcraft. You can effortlessly bring magic into your everyday life, to empower you to create the life you want.”

This idea of witchcraft as wellness isn’t so different from the philosophies seen in popular self-help manuals like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, where practitioners hope to harness natural forces to manifest positive futures. Books like last year’s The Witch’s Book of Self-Care, Spellwork for Self-Care and the forthcoming Magical Self-Care for Everyday Life, are part of a new phenomenon that seems particularly tailored to millennials, who are driving the $4.2 trillion global wellness market with their love of yoga, meditation and, now, love spells and moonstones.

In Salem today you’ll find every possible wellness trope given a uniquely witchy bent, with spiritual treatments for a litany of life ills. There are Full Moon, Half Moon or Dark Moon rituals, lessons on the guiding power of crystals, tarot card readings and candlelit seances. You can visit a high priestess at Omen (a “Psychic Parlour and Witchcraft Emporium”) and learn to “manifest your life” on a “Ritual Transformation” that involves discarding symbols of unwanted habits into a “dark cauldron”. Or – for those who are particularly worried about Mercury entering retrograde this month – work out which herbs will protect you at a “folk herbalism” workshop.

Across town, Artemisia Botanicals, home to the “Green Witch School of Herbalism”, is the place to find out more about how plants can aid well-being. Stepping inside, there’s a rich scent of dried petals and incense sticks. The walls are stacked, floor-to-ceiling, with essential oils, handcrafted goat-milk soaps, gleaming crystals and dried herbs. The owner, herbalist and coven-sister Teri Kalgren, points out that historically wellness has always been plant-based. Before we had medicine in the scientific sense, humans put their faith in wise women to cure ills, whether they claimed to have magical powers or not.

She describes casting spells – quite simply – as a therapeutic form of meditation. “If you’re going through a rough time, you might naturally want to have a bath, make a cup of tea, light a candle. When you light it, you’ll meditate on it and visualise yourself getting better. Positive affirmations are so good for the spirit.”

I’m a bit wary of trying some of the more occult-sounding stuff, but in the interests of research I find myself at The Cauldron Black, a Mediterranean folk-magic shop opened on the harbour in 2017. Tarot reader Nick Dickinson leads me behind a velvet curtain at the back of the shop and hands me a deck of cards to shuffle. To soothing sitar playing over the speakers, he leans forward and smiles. “Things have been a bit up in the air lately,” he says softly. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

As my tarot reading progresses into an impromptu counselling session, I start to understand the appeal of these treatments. For witchcraft to work as self-care, you have to be receptive to its influence. Like talking therapies, meditation and arguably prayer, these practices are simply tools for making sense of and coping with daily life.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Americans are turning to these natural touchstones during an era of political upheaval. As Feldman told me: “People are feeling a bit powerless right now, and women and other oppressed people feel a connection to witchcraft as a language. People practised Earth worship for millions of years. It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that it’s been looked at as a wacky idea, but it’s in all of our ancestry.” To seek harmony with the natural cycles of the Earth, when global insecurity weighs heavy, is an act of well-being in itself.

I meditate on this as I end my stay at Justice the Wizard’s sunset ritual, holding a rose to my heart, then placing it on the makeshift altar by the sea. As I sip from the chalice and pass it back to Justice, to my slight surprise I’m full of calm and feel present on a more fundamental level than a spa weekend could have wrought. I smile back at him. “May you never thirst.”

N by Norwegian

The beast goes on: 10 years of bearpit karaoke in Berlin

The scorching sun is momentarily masked by a cloud as the young woman softly breaks into song, wavering over the opening cadences. Her voice cracks as the first verse draws to a close. Lifting her eyes to the dozens of rows of listeners – shoulder-to-shoulder and silent in anticipation – she takes a deep breath, and launches into the chorus at full power. The crowd erupts into euphoric applause, swaying and singing along as she belts out Adele.

“This is the first time I’ve sung in public in two years,” says Rhona Smith afterwards, visibly shaking as she puts the mic down. She laughs, then cries overwhelmed tears as the audience’s applause turns into a standing ovation.

This is Bearpit Karaoke – and it’s just reignited a former singer’s love of the stage. Consisting of a microphone hooked up to portable speakers, powered by a car battery and transported on a bicycle, it’s a Berlin institution that, this year, has been running for a decade in Mauerpark – the green lung of the upmarket Prenzlauer Berg district.

The event is held each sunny summer Sunday, in a concrete amphitheatre built on a spot that was once on the “Death Strip” that straddled East and West Berlin. Today, Mauerpark welcomes up to 50,000 people each weekend, who come to meander through flea-market stands piled high with knick-knacks and street foods; watch buskers and basketball players; spray-paint tags on the remaining 800m stretch of Berlin Wall; and test their mettle singing in front of some 2,000 spectators.

Although it’s now one of the capital’s most legendary alternative spectacles – attracting professional singers, wannabe stars and total beginners alike – Bearpit Karaoke had modest beginnings. Dublin-born expat and bike courier Gareth Lennon (who runs the event under the name Joe Hatchiban) saw the potential in karaoke for creating alternative tourist souvenirs.

“YouTube was just getting big,” remembers Lennon. “My idea was to film karaoke around the Brandenburg Gate or something, and offer it to the singer as a YouTube upload. I got a rudimentary loud speaker, battery and converter, and set off on my courier bike in February 2009.”

He would set up the speaker, start singing and grab people from the street to join in. “I could tell there was something in it, because I was able to get people to sing and others would watch. It was cool,” he says. “But the random nature of it meant that if someone didn’t want to sing, the crowd would break up.”

The way to mediate that was to find a permanent location – and Lennon was living near Mauerpark at the time. He decided to try out the concrete pit; the first hosting of Bearpit Karaoke was primarily just a technical test. “I hadn’t established the life of the car battery, so one Sunday I decided to set it up at the amphitheatre and find out how long it would go for,” he says. “It was cold – there weren’t many people about, but I got a lot of them to sing.

“As the weather improved I started to go back regularly. Word got around and by the end of May, there were people there waiting every Sunday. I knew if I wasn’t going to be there the week after, I’d have to tell the crowd. That’s when I knew it had begun.”

It might have been an instant hit with the public, but over the years the karaoke has come up against obstacles with the local council, which tripled the cost of its permit in 2012. The event was almost cancelled for good this year, following a series of noise complaints from local residents.

Its saving grace was its popularity with the party crowd – who, luckily, also happen to make the rules. “The council is made of very young people,” explains long-term Bearpit supporter Dr Martin Haring, who sat in on their meetings. “They listened to the neighbourhood but ultimately were positive about the vibe that’s created by the karaoke, where everyone is welcome.”

This vibe plays out in the diversity of performers that have played here over the years. Syrian refugees have taken to the stage. Hopeful young men have proposed to their future wives and opera singers have graced the amphitheatre with arias in between Staatsoper shows. And a grey-bearded older man in a grubby chequered shirt has performed My Way by Frank Sinatra, in German, every single Sunday, his eyes misting up with tears as the audience rises to its feet to applaud his final note.

“A lot of moving stuff happens, and all sorts of weird stuff,” says Lennon. “But those moments when everyone feels the same thing at the same time, when something clicks? You can almost reach out and touch it.”

Bureaucracy dictates that it would be a difficult event to pull off anywhere else in the world, and Lennon is convinced that he wouldn’t be allowed to run Bearpit Karaoke in Berlin now if it wasn’t already so established. While the popularity of karaoke reaches near-hysterical levels in South Korea, the Philippines and Japan (where it originated), it’s generally confined to soundproof booths rather than in the open – as it is in the West, if not before an inebriated pub crowd.

But Bearpit’s atmosphere of freedom and acceptance is unique thanks to Lennon. Despite having received advertising offers from the likes of Coca-Cola and Volkswagen, he’s rejected any notion of commercialising the event, preferring to fund it via small-change donations that he discreetly collects when he’s not emceeing. Every performer is equally encouraged and all of Mauerpark’s weird and wonderful characters (and there are many) are welcome. If Lennon sees a singer falter, he joins in the verse, dances beside them, nods in encouragement.

“He coaches the singers and helps them perform better,” smiles Dr Haring, who has sung here more than 10 times and is sporting a Bearpit-branded T-shirt. “He knows how to pick out the right people from the crowd.”

Lennon is also a born showman, and bookends each Sunday session with his own performances. Today, he rounds off proceedings with a theatrical, gravelly rendition of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, getting the crowd going one last time as the police arrive to shut things down at 7pm sharp.

“Standing in front of so many people and performing is a thing I usually never do,” says firsttimer Marjolein Bieri, who’s in Berlin celebrating her engagement. “But everyone claps, sings along and cheers.”

One performer, Mario Giacometto, has been singing here since 2009 – around 14 times so far. “Sometimes we’ve had famous singers,” he remembers (in May, the winner of 2017’s The Voice of Germany, Natia Todua, performed). “But really it’s about losing your fears and being one with the public. Singing is a spontaneously happy act. It resonates with and unites people that hear it.”

For Dr Haring, attending Bearpit Karaoke since day one has even informed his university research. A professor in entrepreneurship at an Amsterdam university, he uses karaoke as a core part of his teaching programme. “It gets them out of their comfort zone,” he explains. “I’ve specialised in karaoke as a way for people to connect with each other. Singing makes us more open and friendly.”

It’s all high praise for a one-man set-up that happened almost by accident and that still takes place under a striped parasol in one of Berlin’s scruffiest parks. But Lennon doesn’t seem fazed by its success. His thoughts on the phenomenon’s 10th anniversary are typically understated – never overhyping the come-one, come-all vibe of what is arguably both the city’s coolest and most accessible event.

“It’s something to stick on a T-shirt, for sure,” he says. “But 11 years would be cooler than 10, and so would 14. It’s just another year.”

N by Norwegian

Big green mountains: visiting the world’s greenest ski resort

At daybreak, from the gondola station in the LAAX ski resort, the distant lights of snow groomers can just be made out through the fog. The vehicles crawl up the slopes on the last leg of their night shift, striving to finish before throngs of winter sports enthusiasts arrive, piling 80 at a time into the gondola cars at the first sign of sunlight.

There’ll be fresh powder for these early birds, thanks to the yellow snow cannons that line the newly smoothed runs. These blowers, which resemble giant hair dryers, have been topping up the natural snowfall overnight, fed with water from a nearby man-made lake.

At first glance, neither groomers nor cannons seem particularly eco-friendly, but they’re working together in a way that makes this Swiss mountain resort a world leader for green initiatives.

“The drivers have a GPS system that indicates exactly how much extra snow is needed where,” explains Reto Fry, environmental officer for the local area. Eco-friendly, high-tech machines like these can work together to enable more efficient use of resources: a key tenet of his sustainable vision for the resort.

Fry has become an expert in efficient use of resources since spearheading LAAX’s think-global, act-local sustainability concept, Greenstyle, which he’s run single-handedly since it launched in 2010. The resort was one of the first Alpine destinations to respond to the growing idea that mountain resorts might not be good for the environment.

Around 120 million people visit the Alps each year, and a big part of the draw is the proximity to the vast beauty of mountainous nature. Yet mass tourism – added to melting glaciers, rising snow lines and increasingly unpredictable snowfalls – threatens to harm the very environment that visitors seek to connect with.

Some suggest that skiing itself is too impactful and we should put down our ski poles for good but this is a drastic solution and one that would be devastating for Alpine communities. Mountain tourism has been the saviour of tiny, cut-off villages all over the Alps, particularly in Switzerland, where almost 170,000 citizens are directly employed by a tourism industry that generates CHF46.7 billion (US$46.7bn) annually.

Instead, the challenge today is for tourists to pick resorts with an eco-conscious approach – and for resorts to prioritise that approach. “The most important three topics for today’s generation are climate change, energy consumption and biodiversity,” Fry explains. “So I set out a solid framework for what we want to achieve.”

It’s not the first time that LAAX has attempted to project its ambitions ahead of the curve. The area was once marketed as part of the traditional and wealthy nearby town of Flims, but was rebranded, along with its 224km of slopes, under the banner of LAAX in 1997, reimagining itself as an extreme sports destination. It now has a world-renowned snowboarding freestyle and off-piste scene, is home to the world’s biggest halfpipe, and is attracting more youthful visitors each year thanks to its mountaintop co-working spaces and “urban slopestyle”. The modern resort has an average visitor age of 38 – significantly lower than the middle-aged average elsewhere in the Alps.

Greenstyle was the next logical step – a dedicated focus on sustainability that would chime with its eco-savvy clientele. It’s not just lip-service. Since 2010, the resort has run on 100% renewable electricity, mostly hydropower and solar (non-sustainable fuels are still used for heating). Last year its rocksresort hotel was recognised as the World’s Best Green Ski Hotel. It even produces a range of natty bags made from its recycled marketing pamphlets.

Fry is now ready to take it up a notch, recently proclaiming the plan to become carbon neutral and self-sufficient by 2030. To accomplish this feat, he’s divided his targets into seven focus areas: energy, zero waste, water, transportation, food and purchasing, biodiversity and communication. “Because of our renewable energy and energy efficiency strategy, I can now say that 100% renewable energy by 2023 in LAAX is totally possible,” he says. “We’re installing heating systems that run on biomass pellets and we’re planning to build a wind farm on a glacier.”

Fry’s food waste target feeds into the strategy, too. “We’ve set a goal to reduce residual waste by half, mainly through plastic recycling,” he explains. “We’re encouraging people to use reusable coffee cups and food waste is made into biogas.” As well as encouraging chefs to use local, seasonal and organic produce, the resort has invested in an automated food-waste management system called Kitro. In use at the Riders restaurant, a bin is fitted with a scale and a camera that photographs food waste each time more than 30g is deposited and sends reports back to the kitchen.

Other ongoing initiatives include providing electric-car charging stations and free bus shuttles; building roof gardens to create habitats for wild butterflies and bees; and recycling water so that mountain-fresh spring water is no longer used for sanitation as well as drinking – 7.5 million litres have already been saved since 2010 through new efficiency measures.

These ideas aren’t unique to LAAX: Chamonix has set its own target to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, while Villars, towards the Swiss border with France, has installed hybrid buses and solar panels. For Fry, it’s not about creating competition with other resorts but working together and taking inspiration from similar resorts’ initiatives. “I’m convinced that it’s possible to solve lots of our problems.”

Although he recognises there’s much work still to be done, he feels positive he can achieve his goals. “I have a family. I want to commit to their future. And the last year or two, I finally see the vision in my head coming together. Now, we just need to show others what we’re doing. We can’t influence everything but we can try to be a good example in the hope that others will join us on this path.”