St. Anthony’s pig, unravelling the mysteries of the Sierra de Francia

The greatest mystery of the Sierra de Francia surely has to be why this beautiful region of mountains and picturesque villages where time seems to stand still, is named the Sierra de Francia. Curiously, it’s located close to Portugal, but absolutely nowhere near France. The truth (most probably) dates back to the 8th century. French knights under Charlemagne fought Muslim forces here, an area already home to French immigrants displaced by the Islamic conquest.

Legend has it that it was one of Charlemagne’s knights who found a statue of the Virgin Mary on the summit of Peña de Francia, the striking 1,723 metre mountain that soars over the surrounding countryside. Whatever the truth, this is truly a region of mystery and myth. For centuries, this secluded area was largely isolated from the rest of Spain. Life in the half-timbered villages nestling in the mountains and wooded hillsides seems little changed by modernity.

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Views from the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The Black Madonna, Virgen de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Described as one of Castilla y León’s “best-kept secrets”, visiting the Sierra de Francia was something of a whim. It was so hot in Salamanca we thought this mountainous region 80km to the south might provide some respite from ferocious temperatures. It didn’t, but a few days exploring the region’s villages and vineyards made us glad we’d made the trip to this less visited part of the country. We were staying in the village of Mogarraz, but headed first to the Peña de Francia.

The drive to the Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, a sturdy looking church sitting on top of the mountain and containing a revered Black Madonna, is dizzying. The hairpin bends are severe, the drops off the side of the mountain deeply alarming, but the views are magnificent. We parked just beneath the dramatically located church, and walked the last short section. We seemed to have the mountain and church to ourselves.

The church, and accompanying cloister, was built by Dominican monks specifically to  house the statue of the Virgin of La Peña de Francia. The current statue was carved in 1890 but contains the remains of the original statue, which legend has it was found on the mountain in 1434 but stolen and badly damaged in the 1870s. We left the church and took in the panoramas, spotting mountain goats running across the rocks below. We could also see our next destination, La Alberca.

This charming village is the gateway into the heart of the Sierra de Francia, it gets its fair share of tourists but still feels low key and traditional. As we entered the narrow cobbled streets we passed a shop selling all manner of pig products. The pig is almost as revered as the Virgin of La Peña de Francia in these parts – the village has a statue to El Marrano de San Antón (The Pig of St Anthony). I can say with certainty that I have met St. Anthony’s pig.

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

This intriguing tradition dictates that one ‘lucky’ porker gets to roam the streets of the village being fed and cared for by the residents. The pig is set free on July 13th and, for six glorious months lives high on the hog. The pig’s luck runs out on January 17, when it’s raffled for charity. We were entering the Plaza Mayor when a man walked past with St. Anthony’s pig and proceeded to lovingly wash it in a water trough. No one seemed to find this strange.

The man then walked away and, for reasons best known to itself, the pig attached itself to us. Perhaps it sensed that we were its ticket to safety, and it followed us for several minutes. This was quite unnerving, especially as we approached the edge of the village. Would we have to take it to Galicia with us? Would we have to return it afterwards? Would it invalidate the car insurance? Thankfully, it decided to explore an alleyway and we made our escape … a luxury not afforded to St. Anthony’s pig.

Salamanca, ancient history in The Golden City

Salamanca feels old. Walk around the beautiful historic centre of the city and you’ll find yourself wandering ancient streets, between buildings that date back to the early 12th century. These include the University of Salamanca, one of Europe’s oldest, which was granted its charter in 1218. Salamanca has been around for way longer than that though. It was already important and rich enough for Carthaginian general, Hannibal, to put it to the sword in 217 BC.

Hannibal’s defeat, the destruction of Ancient Carthage, and the the rise of Rome, saw Salamanca become a strategic Roman trading centre. Sitting on the Ruta de la Plata, along which silver from the north flowed to Sevilla, it grew wealthy. The Roman bridge, that has spanned the River Tormes for over 2,000 years, is just one of the highlights of a visit to Salamanca. It seems remarkable that, in the 21st century, you’re able to walk across a perfectly functional Roman bridge.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, Spain

On the city side is a statue of Lazarillo de Tormes, the main character from Salamanca in an anti-clerical 16th century novella banned by the Spanish Inquisition. We strolled across it under a fierce sun, people cooled off in the water below and lazed on the river beach. On the opposite side of the Tormes a pleasant park provides views back to the city and over the cathedral. On a peaceful morning, the city reflected in the water, it’s gorgeous.

We crossed back on the Puente de Enrique Estevan and walked uphill to the Convento de San Esteban. This ornate 16th century monastery is most famous for having housed Christopher Columbus. He lived in Salamanca between 1486 – 87, when defending his idea of sailing west to find the Indies against Salamanca’s scholars. In the early evening sunlight, the facade glows golden. In this light, the city’s many sandstone buildings earn it the nickname, The Golden City.

Leaving the church behind we wandered upwards past the cathedral to the university, weirdly serene outside of term time, and on to the delightful Casa de las Conchas. This palace is named after the 300 scallop shells that decorate the facade, and is the former home of Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a member of the Order of Santiago. No prizes for guessing the symbol of the Order. You see the scallop shell everywhere in this part of Spain – it marks the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

Despite a reasonable smattering of tourists, especially older Spanish tour groups, the city has the feel of an open air museum when the students aren’t around. We made our way through streets empty of traffic and people, and marvelled at the ornate facades of historic churches and palaces. It’s not just history on offer here though, Salamanca’s reputation for mouth-watering food is well known. Excellent tapas bars serve delicious regional wines, and there are a clutch of top notch restaurants.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Iglesia de San Millán, Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

For all its fine dining, the signature dish of Salamanca is the humble hornazo. A baked pastry traditionally filled with ham and egg, It’s now offered with a variety of fillings – including, whisper it, vegetarian options. It’s a great snack to take on long car journeys. The local wines were just as eye-opening as the food, and we sampled several grapes that we’d never previously come across. The rufete wines of Bodega La Zorra were a firm favourite.

Our final night in the city saw us in the buzzing barrios of Garrido and Buenos Aires, renowned for their nightlife and plethora of tapas bars. During term time, the streets in these interesting neighbourhoods are packed with students. Even though it was much more slow paced when we were there, we enjoyed an evening searching out the best tapas places. History is all well and good, but no one comes to Spain without plans to sample plenty of local delicacies.

Hot and bothered in Salamanca, Spain’s ‘Golden City’

Our only previous visit to Salamanca was almost twenty years ago. It’s a visit I can only recall with the foggy vagueness that a couple of decades in time and space will allow. Memory isn’t helped by the fact that the one thing I recall only too clearly, was that we arrived on a Friday evening and the whole town seemed to be in fiesta mode. Large and youthful crowds thronged the streets and plazas, eating and drinking. Music filled the air in the exquisite Plaza Mayor.

Caught up in this exuberance, we joined in with the festivities until well into the early hours of the morning. The resulting hangover severely curtailed our sightseeing plans for the following day. I’m certain we visited most of the important sights, but I have almost no memory of what we did or where we went. While I’m not proud of our lack of self restraint, the upside was that this trip to Salamanca was like visiting a town we’d never been to before.

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral roof, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

If that seems like an exercise in making the best of a bad lot, our previous experience also set a high bar for our expectations of the city. This time though, we were visiting outside of the university term time, and Salamanca’s big student population definitely added a vibrancy to the city of 20-years ago that we didn’t feel this time around. That, at least, meant we saw most of the things we’d planned to see and have total recall of the experience.

We arrived in Salamanca after driving from Madrid. I’m always surprised, and secretly delighted, by the fact that once you get out of Madrid the roads of Spain seem to be empty. The soaring temperatures meant that we had to deploy the air conditioning for most of the trip though. In the real world we don’t own a car, so I didn’t feel too bad about this, but it was hard to shake the feeling that we were contributing to the climate crisis.

Salamanca sits at an altitude of around 800 metres, which should make it cooler than the plains to the south. Not this year. The mercury was pushing mid-30sºC every day, and in Salamanca’s tightly-packed streets the heat was pretty oppressive. This is the sort of climate that led to the invention of the siesta, and adopting an early morning, late afternoon sightseeing routine, punctuated by power-napping, wasn’t a hardship.

We started our explorations in what is considered by many to be the finest plaza in the whole of Spain, the Plaza Mayor de Salamanca. Famously built to host bull fights, it’s the town’s 18th century centrepiece. It would probably be in my top three Spanish plazas, but it faces stiff competition from Cordoba’s Plaza de Corredera and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid for top spot. It’s still magnificent, and best experienced in the early evening when it comes alive.

Escuelas Mayores de Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

We had a lazy, and a little overpriced, lunch at one of the many restaurants on the plaza before exploring the streets towards the Catedral de Salamanca. These streets are crammed with Gothic palaces, intimate squares, atmospheric lanes, ancient churches and dozens of tapas bars. It’s hard to get a sense of the true size of the cathedral from the street, it’s best seen from across the River Tormes, but the sheer bulk of it is clear from walking around it.

It was roasting in the streets so we popped inside to take advantage of the cool interior and to explore the 1,000 year history of the building – actually two cathedrals side-by-side. There’s an entry fee, but you get an unintentionally hilarious audioguide in the price. The newer Gothic cathedral is impressive, but the older Romanesque cathedral has more atmosphere and interesting wall paintings. A clamber up to the roof for views over the town brought us to ‘siesta time’.

A Spanish Roadtrip, Castilla y Leon and Galicia

It’s fairly normal to select a holiday destination based on the prospect of warm, sunny weather. The effortless combination of historic cities, natural beauty, excellent food and a seamlessly endless supply of blue skies, are just some of the many reasons Spain is a favourite destination. There are occasions when less is more though. Temperatures during our visit to Spain this summer were so hot that we ended up changing our plans and visiting ‘cooler’ parts of the country.

Madrid was like a furnace. As was the lovely university town of Salamanca, where we spent our time seeking out the shade in historic streets and plazas. The heat was just as intense during a few days exploring the spellbinding landscapes and beautiful villages of the Sierra de Francia. We hoped the hills would provide respite from the heat. No such luck. In the end the long drive to the Galician coast via the Ribeira Sacra was our only option. This proved to be an inspired choice, even if not an intentional one.

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Muros, Galicia

Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia

Galicia is absolutely fabulous. The magnificent landscapes of the Ribeira Sacra took us completely by surprise. As did the ancient winemaking traditions and grape varieties at welcoming vineyards, which often came with the option of having a lunch of delicious local specialities. Throw in picturesque villages, interesting small towns, an occasional castle and a couple of centuries-old monasteries, and I can see us returning to Galicia with monotonous regularity.

We based ourselves in Parada de Sil. This tiny village sits above the River Sil where the reservoir of Encoro de Santo Estevo creates an expanse of water that adds extra drama to the landscape. It’s also close to the beautiful Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, a 12th century ruin peacefully set amidst thick woodland. It was the perfect place from which to explore the region, although when we woke on our first day to find mist and light rain it seemed our search for cooler weather had backfired.

The weather in Galicia can be very changeable – it didn’t get to be this green without a decent amount of rain. Luckily, when the sun reappeared it not only stayed with us for the rest of our trip, it also revealed the glorious countryside of the Ribeira Sacra at its verdant best. It would have been easy to stay where we were, but we really wanted to get to Galicia’s wild Atlantic coast for an invigorating dip in the chilly waters, and to its famed Albariño wine producing region.

We drove cross-country along minor roads, with occasional spectacular views, to reach the historic town of Cambados. From where we explored north along the coast to Carnota, one of the most spectacular beaches in the region with a backdrop of forested hills. We saw dolphins leaping as they chased fish at the Praia do Ancoradoiro, and ate pulpo a la gallega in the lovely fishing village of Muros. This Galician-style octopus, is a delicacy along this sweeping coast.

Cambados, Galicia

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Albariño, Cambados, Galicia

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Parador de Santo Estevo, Galicia

The final days of our trip upon us, we headed south to Pontevedra, a town with a long maritime history. During the Spanish Golden Age it was a major port, and this is where Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, was built. Today, it’s equally well known for taking the radical step of pedestrianising its entire city centre, which makes it one of the best places in Spain to explore on foot.

Maybe we’d had too much sun but, for reasons that still remain fuzzy, our chosen route back to Madrid took us first to León. We spent a couple of nights in this extraordinary place, before heading south again. It involved a couple of long drives, but the Catedral de León alone is worth making the trip to this greatly underrated city. León receives a fraction of the tourists you might expect in such a beautiful city.

The brilliance of Berlin’s Festival of Lights

Berlin’s Festival of Lights is a magnificent showpiece for the city, with some of the most iconic buildings used as temporary canvases for beautiful and inventive projections of light. Artists come from a variety of countries, and for ten days their work brings whole areas of the city to life at night. This year the festival celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, themed as Lights of Freedom. This is Berlin remembering it’s unification, with more than a passing nod towards the European Union.

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

James-Simon-Galerie, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bode Museum, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

The organisers claim it’s the largest open-air gallery in the world and, with a massive two million plus visitors, it is certainly one of the most popular. If my experience at the Berliner Dom and the James Simon Gallery, both on Museum Island, is anything to go by, the 2 million mark will be easily surpassed this year. These are two of the best lights in the whole festival. The huge dome of the city cathedral becomes a canvas for a series of images, including one (tongue in cheek?) that says, “Let There Be Light”.

The park surrounding the cathedral was packed, and thanks to the weirdly hot weather people were camped out on the grass. A musician played street busker standards, and I couldn’t help a smirk when he launched into John Lennon’s anti-religion hymn, Imagine, with absolutely no sense of irony. Above us only light! I shuffled off through the crowds towards the James Simon Gallery, where a huge throng was gathered along the canal to watch a brilliantly animated light show.

Named after the 19th centuryJewish textile magnet and massive patron of the arts in Berlin, the James Simon Gallery is brand new and will serve as Museum Island’s visitor centre. Here, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem of Kuwait has funded an incredible 10-minute ‘light mapping’ animation that combines Arabic and Western cultural references, and shows some of the gems that reside within the museums that cast a shadow over the scene. Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise appearance.

I arrived as the final couple of minutes of the show played out, and then grabbed a good viewing spot to watch it all from the beginning. It really was fantastic, and is perhaps only rivalled for technical ability by the projections at Bebelplatz. That delight was on my way home, but first I visited the light shows on the Bode Museum, at the entrance of which was another busker strangely illuminated in the light. I walked along the River Spree, past the Berliner Dom and into Alexanderplatz.

Last year, this was one of the best light shows in the festival, this year it was more than a little underwhelming. I didn’t linger and headed towards the Nikolaiviertel quarter, where things were also a little disappointing. The evening was saved by the utter magic of the light displays in Bebelplatz. There are interesting static projections on two sides of the square, but the animated projection onto the Hotel de Rome was wonderful. It was a collection of different artists’ creations. You can vote for your favourite.

By the time I arrived in Bebelplatz the crowds had started to thin out, and it was a far more relaxing experience watching the displays. I’m glad I made this my last stop, the fabulous animations and single projections on the Hotel de Rome were worth the wait. As I wandered home under an almost full moon, I felt at one with the world. A lucky bonus projection awaited me though as I walked down a street close to my apartment. The Ministry of Justice was lit up with a 30th anniversary Berlin Wall projection.

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

St. Hedwigs, Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.

It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.

Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.

I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.

The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.

Getting a Handel on Halle’s Anglo-German history

The history of Halle an der Saale may be bound up with salt production, but this lovely little town has much more to offer. The dramatic central square, the Marktplatz, marks the centre of the Old Town. Ancient streets radiate outwards under the shadow of the 16th century Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the the Roter Turm which, with 76 bells, is the largest carillon in Europe (and the second largest in the world, the top spot going to a modern carillon in South Korea).

The other popular feature of Marktplatz, is the statue of Georg Friedrich Händel, or George Frederick Handel as he was better known in England, a country that he adopted as his own after his early years in Germany. Handel didn’t end up an English citizen by chance. He first had success there in 1711, and was a popular composer at the court of Queen Anne. Her death in 1714 though, led to Hanoverian prince, George Louis, taking the English throne as King George I.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Roter Turm and Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Handel statue, Halle, Germany

Museum of Prehistory, Halle, Germany

Hanover and Halle are a couple of hundred kilometres apart, and Handel was already in George’s service by 1710. George would never get to hear Handel’s most famous work, the oratorio Messiah, which premiered in 1741, by which time the most English of composers had come a long way from his childhood in Halle. The house where he grew up, known as the The Yellow Deer, is now a museum telling his story. Although undergoing a few restorations, it’s a must see.

After exploring the Old Town, I spent time wandering attractive areas to the north of the centre. Halle received fairly light damage during the Second World War, and numerous original buildings in this district survived. Today, many have been restored to their former glory, and wandering around you stumble upon some beautiful old town houses. I was heading to the Church of St. Paul, which sits on top of small hill in a funky and youthful neighbourhood filled with great restaurants and bars.

This is quite some turnaround. Halle was the epicentre of East Germany’s chemical industries, making it one of the most environmentally polluted regions of the country. The fall of communism was accompanied by the collapse of Halle’s industry, much of the city was dilapidated and young people left in droves. Slowly, the largest town in Saxony-Anhalt has reinvented itself, helped by a population of around 25,000 students who give it a vibrancy that would otherwise be missing.

Like much of former East Germany, after three decades of unification, Halle still feels like it hasn’t made as much progress as its residents might like. Probably thanks to its student population, Halle was one of the few areas in the southern half of the State that didn’t vote for the Far Right, Alternative für Deutschland, at the last election. The surrounding districts all did. Things do seem to be on the up though, with luck Halle will begin to attract more international visitors, and not just for the Handel Festival.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Cemetery, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Cathedral, Halle, Germany

I walked a large loop around the area to reach the Museum of Prehistory – they have a mammoth – which is both interesting and in a monolithic building. Then made my way back to the main square passing the town’s cathedral. It’s rare to find a cathedral that is less impressive than the main church, but in Halle their traditional roles have been reversed. It’s worth popping inside, if for no other reason than it’s 700 years old and Handel played here.

I had spotted an independent brewery on my meanderings and intended to finish my trip with something cold and local. There was just one destination left on my list, the cemetery. I like a good cemetery and, although few luminaries are buried here, I’d read that it was worth a visit for the peace and tranquility it provided in the  city centre. Built in the 16th century, it’s considered the finest Renaissance cemetery in Germany. It was quiet, shady and quite small. I soon found myself sampling the local brews.

Halle, a salt of the earth East German town

I expected much from a town called Halle an der Saale. After all, Halle is derived from the Celtic word for salt; Saale, coincidentally the name of the river that runs through the city, is derived from the German word for salt. No surprise then, that the town’s history is intimately intertwined with the harvesting of salt. A local industry that can trace its origins to the Bronze Age. Salt made Halle rich and important, so a museum dedicated to telling that history must be worth its salt?

I arrived in Halle late on a Friday evening. The long and uninspiring walk from the train station led me into the medieval Marktplatz, where I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the illuminated Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen, the Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the Roter Turm, or Red Tower. These two 16th century structures give the city its nickname, City of the Five Towers. The expansive central square includes a statue of the city’s favourite son, Georg Friedrich Händel.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Saale River from Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

It was late, so after grabbing something to eat I found my hotel, my introduction to the city whetting my appetite for more exploration in the morning. First on my list was the Salinemuseum. A geologic fault beneath the modern-day town led to numerous saline springs appearing in the area. Boiling the saline solution produced salt crystals and an industry was born. In an era of salt abundance, it’s easy to forget how precious salt was. There’s a reason it was called ‘white gold’.

I once read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, a fascinating tale of humankind’s relationship with salt. As a commodity it’s been central to human history, acting as a currency in some cultures. Its importance is underlined by the aphorisms and proverbs salt has inspired. I was keen to learn more from a museum housed in the former Royal Prussian Saline Works, which were founded in 1721 and only closed in 1964. Sadly, it was a case of rubbing salt into the wound.

The museum still produces small amounts of salt, and offers demonstrations, but I was out of luck. This, coupled with the fact that all the explanations in the small museum were only in German, meant that I learned next to nothing of Halle’s salty history. This wouldn’t be the only disappointment of my trip. The Moritzburg Palace museum and art gallery was closed for a whole month. I took this setback with a pinch of salt and set off to discover what else Halle had to offer.

The Salinemuseum sits on an island where the River Saale splits in two. Along the river banks, there are kilometres of parkland stretching to Giebichenstein Castle. The walk was lovely on a hot early autumn day, and I was even able to squeeze in a visit to a beer garden next to the river. I eventually found myself face-to-face with a massive horse at Giebichenstein Bridge. One of a pair of sculptures, the horse represents the vibrant life of the city; on the other side, an equally huge cow represents the countryside.

Giebichenstein Bridge, Saale River, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

I made my way to the castle on the other side of the bridge, and clambered upwards to get views over the city. The castle was built in the 10th century, in part to protect the salt monopoly of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. There is little left but ruins today, although a far newer part of the complex has been turned into a school for fine arts. I could see sculptures in the grounds, but it wasn’t open to the public. From up here, I spotted the City of the Five Towers and my route back.

 


* Yesterday, Halle found itself at the centre of an atrocity. Two people were murdered by far-right terrorists espousing extremist ideology. An attack on Halle’s synagogue was timed with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The attacker was unable to enter the building where a congregation was at prayer, but he killed a woman passerby and a man in a nearby kebab shop. I can imagine that the sense of shock in this typically quiet town is profound.

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.