A lazy Leipzig Sunday

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.

Nikolaikirche, Leipzig, Germany

Naschmarkt, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Holocaust Memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Holocaust Memorial, Leipzig, Germany

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.

Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig, Germany

Trabant in Plagwitz, Leipzig, Germany

Stasi Museum, Leipzig, Germany

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.

A Leipzig weekend, please don’t call it the ‘New Berlin’

If you believed the collective gushing of the multitude of travel articles that have been published about Leipzig over the last few years, you might arrive in the city convinced you were entering a mythical place. A city made of pure light. People seem determined to persuade you that this isn’t just one of the coolest cities in Europe, but that it might just possibly be the ‘New Berlin‘. Even if that was a good thing – and the jury’s still out for some of us – the reality could never live up to the hype.

True, this is a youthful city with an extraordinary history. Yes, it has a cutting-edge art and music scene, and a plethora of trendy galleries and art house places. Undeniably, some people, ‘disillusioned’ with Berlin’s gentrification (and rising prices), have chosen to move here, but that really seems to be the extent of the comparison. Berlin is seven times larger than Leipzig for a start. This fabulous city isn’t well served by the weight of expectation others have created on its behalf.

Bach memorial, Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany

Goethe memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Mendelssohn memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Schiller memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Wagner museum, Leipzig, Germany

Old Town Hall, Marktplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig is a fascinating place in its own right, and a weekend can only really serve as an amuse-bouche for understanding the city. One similarity that it does share with Berlin is that, geographically, it spreads out over an expansive area, and we didn’t get to see as much of the city as we’d have liked. Walking between its dispersed neighbourhoods on a day when the mercury was well over 30ºC cannot be recommended. Another visit, or two, will be needed to do it justice.

Unlike Berlin, Leipzig does have a well defined city centre, in which you can find many of its historic sights. The city’s history is perhaps most strongly associated with music and literature. It was here that Friedrich Schiller composed his poem, Ode to Joy, most famously the inspiration for the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer, conductor and musician, Mendelssohn, also lived, worked and died here. He founded the Leipzig Conservatory, which is still going today.

Goethe, perhaps Germany’s greatest literary figure, attended university here in the 1760s. Faust, the man who sells his soul to the Devil, would become his finest work. One famous scene is set in Leipzig’s Auerbachs Keller, out of which Faust flies on a wine barrel. A visit is compulsory, especially as this was one of Angela Merkel’s haunts when she was a Leipzig student during the GDR era. The entrance sits in the Mädler Passage, one of several wonderfully ornate arcades.

The city’s two most famous sons though are, without a doubt, the great Baroque-era composer, Johann Sebastian Bach; and, one of the world’s most influential, not to say most controversial, composers, Richard Wagner. Bach was organist and choir director at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he is buried. There is a striking statue of him outside, and a small display of musical instruments inside the church. He seems to be revered in a city where his music can be heard live almost daily.

Stalinist architecture, Roßplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany

Building detail, Leipzig, Germany

Mendelssohn memorial, Leipzig, Germany

Marktplatz, Leipzig, Germany

New Town Hall, Leipzig, Germany

Wagner, born in Leipzig, and living in the city in the 1820s and 1830s, is more strongly associated with Bayreuth. There is a small museum to him in Leipzig, but it feels like he plays second fiddle to Bach. Perhaps that is to do with his unconventional life – when he wasn’t having affairs, he was on the run from creditors – or maybe his anti-semitism, or because the Nazis embraced his music. The New York Times‘ classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, rated Bach well above Wagner in his top ten composers.

Wagner’s time in Leipzig overlapped with Mendelssohn and coincided with yet another German musical great, Robert Schumann. Incomplete as it is, that’s a remarkable roll-call of creative talent for a city that is seven times smaller than Berlin.