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.
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.
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.