Leipzig - city of cool urban revival

Costa Rica

GHD admires once dowdy Leipzig, now one of the smartest city breaks in the former East Germany. His list of six includes the church where JS Bach worked, a famous old coffee shop, a revolutionary ring-road, a diabolical barrel ride, and a trip on a Veetian gondola.

Dine high

I reached Leipzig by high speed train from Berlin, an hour over the flat fields of the former East Germany, a landscape full of big wind farms. The vast railway station, one of the biggest termini in Europe, is a measure of former glory. I went one stop on the tram (go anywhere '' Leipzig Card'', 1 day) west to the city’s hub Alexanderplatz for a fabulous city view from the restaurant atop the 360 ft high Panorama Tower. The venerable Gewandhaus Concert Hall, where Mendelssohn was conductor, is on this wide open square. The newest building here rights a big wrong. In 1968 the then East German government blew up the C13th St Paul’s Church. They recreated its shape in a new multi-use hall, part of the university. It opened recently.

Peace Power

In 1989 East Germany’s communist regime was swept aside by the power of peace. It all began in St Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), the city’s oldest, where Monday prayers had become a focus for protest. October 9th was the decisive day. Protestors spilled out onto adjoining streets. Numbers grew and a tide of non-violent Leipzigers carrying candles closed the city’s ring road. The authorities had no excuse to fight. Not one person was hurt. Within days the government fell; in weeks the Berlin Wall was down. Modest little photos in this splendid Baroque church - they still hold peace prayers every Monday - underplay its pivotal role in 1989.

Go to the Devil

The story of a man selling his soul to the Devil for power and pleasure has close links to Leipzig. The great German writer Goethe’s Faust is the most famous version of the perennial tale. He studied here, and a city centre statue shows him in typical student indecision, one foot towards his lectures, the other pointing to the pub. He rewarded one of his watering holes, Auerbachs Keller, a pub/restaurant since 1530, by setting the scene where Faust rides up the stairs straddling a barrel there. The walls and great vaulted ceilings are decorated with scenes from the play. The food is wholesome Saxon fare, cooked in beer. I had the excellent beef roulade with red cabbage and potato dumplings, with a delicious glass of Ur-Krostitz dark beer. No soul selling required.

Note Worthy

Leipzig was a magnet for composers. Mendelssohn’s House, and the Schumanns'' House, where Robert and Clara Schumann lived for four years, are well worth the visit. (A copy of the composer’s statue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1936, was erected in 2008.) But this city’s musical legacy is built on J.S.Bach, choirmaster at St Thomas’s Church from 1723 to 1750. It is one of the great shrines in world music - Bach was reburied in front of the altar in 1950. Most Fridays (6pm) and Sundays (9 am) the St. Thomas Boys Choir, which Bach conducted, sing in a service. Get there in good time and join the queue.

The Bach Museum at Leipzig’s Thomaskirchhof square opened in 2010, on Johann Sebastian Bach’s 325th birthday. His original portrait is in the Museum of City History.

Water Ways

Pootling about the waterways of Leipzig in a Venetian gondola is a foretaste of this city’s great acquatic future. Soon they will open up the covered-over river through the city centre for recreation. It is also worth venturing out on the tram to the new Lakeland district on the outskirts. They flooded old opencast coal workings, greened the surroundings, lined them with cafes and restaurants, and started boat trips. Venetian gondolas run from Ristorante Da Vito. The water links up with one of the biggest urban green swathes in Europe. It includes the xoo, with its strong conservation ethic. The Auenwald floodplain forest, a rare nature habitat in a city, has walks and cycleways.

Old Bean

On behalf of coffeeholics everywhere, I took a cup at Coffe Baum (built 1696), Europe’s oldest coffeehouse. It’s a good example of Leipzig’s many fine old buildings. Soundly built when this rich city was at Europe’s trading crossroads, they survived the neglect of the Communist era.
Since the 1990s almost every old building has been spruced up.

The character of the city centre comes, in part, from the special features of its urban architecture. There is no other European city with a comparably compact inner-city system of arcades and passageways, emerging from centuries of trading and trade fair activities. I liked Pecks Hof, the city’ oldest arcade. Its deep, five storey courtyards, where wool merchants had their warehouses, are lined with murals, and pictures made from ceramic medallions. In another tranquil courtyard, Hainstrasse, I found 400-year-old restaurant Barthels Hof, for more good Saxon fare. A friendly English-speaking waitress served me succulent strips of beef cooked in black beer, with green beans and potato dumplings.

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