In tune with Leipzig

Leipzig was recently voted ‘the most liveable city in Germany’, Bryn Frank can understand why.

Lunch in the park

Sitting in a public park across the road from Leipzig’s main railway station I am enjoying a Bratwurst mit Senf in a fresh bread roll. ‘Heavens’, some people might say – ‘all that mustard! It’ll blow your head off!’ But German Senf is not like Colman’s – it’s subtle and mild, and you slather it on like custard on a pie. It sets off those porkers a treat.
Perched about 10’ from me, not very high up in a tree by a lake, is a heron. Motionless for 20 minutes and counting, it could be one of those plastic fakes you can buy in garden centres. But as it watches a slice of bread someone has tossed into the water, the edges nibbled furiously by tiny fish, you realise those gimlet eyes watching the fish are very real and that it too is thinking about lunch.

Leipzig – spacious and green

Like so much of Leipzig this feels almost rural. Under wide skies, the city is spacious and green, dotted by canals and rivers.

It’s only a 10 minute tram ride to a small hotel, right by St Thomas’s Church, where I’m due to check in ahead of a J S Bach recital, but on this sunny autumn afternoon I prefer to walk, firstly towards the vast Augustusplatz and then through the tightly knit city centre.
I’m not a stranger here. With a couple of days to myself after being in Berlin for a conference, a two-day detour to Leipzig and its music beckoned again. From the stolid, grey, brooding place I first saw in fog and snow during the ‘bad-old-days’ of
the early 1980s, when it was deep inside East Germany, it has long since been transformed into a place of scrubbed cobbled squares, gilded cupolas, polished brass and marble and elegant shopping arcades.

Bach was once choirmaster here

Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Sachsen, Deutschland

En route I see at the Opera House that tomorrow evening there’s a performance of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’. They’ve only got top-price tickets left, but at least the Bach cantatas and motets I’ll hear are free, as they have been ever since 1723, when Bach took over as choirmaster and worked himself into the ground as a composer and father of eleven children.
It’s worth the 20 minute queue at St Thomas’s and (I was wrong about the cost) an obligatory €2 for a programme. The afternoon light through the high windows of the church is fading, the candles are lit, and the sailor-suited boys of the 800-year-old St Thomas’s choir take their places.

As the timeless, ethereal music soars up and around us a woman behind me whispers to her companion: ‘How DO they get that sound? It makes me go all tingly’.

Music seeps out of every lamp-post and tree

It has been said of Leipzig that ‘music seeps out of every lamp-post and tree’. For Bach was just the first of a whole parade of musicians and composers drawn to a city that grew increasingly prosperous. They included Mendelssohn, Telemann, Clara and Robert Schumann, Grieg, Mahler, Brahms and Wagner.
Was it something in the water? More probably that there were wealthy patrons ready to support the arts. You can visit composers’ houses and in the case of the Schumanns and the Mendelssohns go to concerts and recitals in the salons where they lived and worked. Among those early audiences was Johann von Goethe, great man of letters and scourge of UK-based German A-level students.

Goethe could overdo the beer

I think of Goethe – and my A-levels – when later in the evening I join a group having dinner and many drinks in the Auerbachs Keller, just five minutes’ walk from St Thomas’s. He can seem remote, but when I hear he was inclined to overdo the beer and to fall for pretty waitresses he seems more real. A scene from his ‘Faust’ is set here in the dark-wood-panelled and cosy subterranean second-oldest restaurant in Germany.

You’ll find it in the Mädler Passage which was created by a wealthy entrepreneur in 1911 – shop till you drop then call into Auerbachskeller for a meal or drink.
With rain in the air I walk back to my hotel through dark and quiet streets towards the Market Place and the picture-postcard Altes Rathaus. Literally ‘picture postcard’, for views of the Old Town Hall that commands most of one side of the cobbled square, are the biggest sellers among Leipzig’s holiday postcards.

Gemϋtlichkeit plus a lively night scene

A night-time tour guide dressed as a night watchman and carrying a lantern hurries through the shadows. Cosy candle-lit cafes and bars in the lee of the arched walkway are very inviting. It’s true what they say: the Germans really are good at Gemütlichkeit!
But the silence is a bit deceptive: Leipzig, with a youthful population, has a vibrant nightlife. For a taste of that, colleagues have recommended a peep sometime into the Moritz Bastei, a music and dance club partly built into the old city walls, much loved by students at Leipzig’s university – the second oldest in Germany after Heidelberg’s.

Botanical touches

By the following morning, the rain has cleared. In bright sunlight, the market place is thronging. People are scooping up sunflowers as if to keep the memory of summer alive, and shrubs for autumn planting in their private allotments.
There’s a botanical touch just three minutes’ walk away in the Nikolaikirche, one of the most exalted churches in Germany, and not just because of its beautiful interior. I’d only ever looked in briefly, but remembered the high, fluted cream columns, inspired by palm trees, opening at the top into a burst of pale green.

The Peace Movement takes hold

From small beginnings here in October 1989, ostensibly in ‘prayer meetings’ attended by just a few people and then by hundreds, a spark turned into a fire. The hundreds took to the streets, then became thousands as they protested against the harsh conditions endured by ordinary people under the cosh of the East German regime.
The momentum of Leipzig’s ‘Peace Movement’ shook the government to its core, and when it became clear that police and security forces would – crucially – not actually shoot the demonstrators the die was cast. A hundred or so miles away, East Berliners were watching, and eventually, as the world held its breath, border crossings in Berlin were opened and the Wall was torn down.

I spot an acquaintance who works occasionally as a tour guide, who was at the sharp end of all this. He was one of the marchers. We talk about those events. I find he has mellowed. It’s clear that in Leipzig there’s quite a lot of what is called ‘Ostalgie’ – a harking back to the old days of the old regime. There is a café that serves rarely seen old-time favourites, and he says he misses the grubby and rattly old white trams. Some of these survive, happily, in the city’s Tram Museum.
He asks me however if I have ever been to the Runde Ecke, the ‘Round Corner’, an office building notorious from that dark time. He explains that this is where, as a Stasi – secret police – headquarters, post from within and beyond East Germany thought to be subversive was literally steamed open. I know of it, and it’s on my list for future visits here.

A hotel chef with the secret of eternal youth?

I check my watch, as I have been invited to coffee at the Five Star Fürstenhof Hotel, but want also to look in one of my favourite art galleries, the huge, ultra modern, glass sided, airy, other-worldly Museum der bildenen Künste. This Thoroughly Modern Milly, typically for Leipzig, sits harmoniously among the ancient buildings of the inner city.
Of all the things I expected to find at the Fürstenhof the secret of eternal youth (at least something like it) was not one of them. Head chef Hannes Schlegel, a local legend, tells me he gets up at six in the morning in season to collect wild mushrooms for his signature dishes.
But I am puzzled about something. How can such a rosy cheeked young man have achieved so much in such a short a time? He asks ‘How old do you think I am?’ I venture ‘Twenty-five? Twenty -six?’ He laughs. ‘I’m 40’. But he has been asked the same question so many times. ‘I think it’s the combination of the steam and fat in the kitchen’, he says. ‘It affects the complexion. Many other chefs have commented on it.’

The Monument to the Battle of the Nations

Afterwards I treat myself to a 20 minute tram trip on the No 15 out to ‘Völki’, the like-it-or-loathe-it, beautiful-or-ugly Völkerschlachtdenkmal that was opened in 1913 by ‘Kaiser Bill’ to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the victory of the Battle of the Nations, when Prussia and her allies proved that Napoleon really had got too big for those boots.
It’s well worth the 500 steps up to the top. They gave me a good appetite and a good excuse when I got back to tuck into saddle of hare with red cabbage at the Weinstock restaurant on the market place – all tinkling long-stemmed glasses and deep-pile carpets – before the opera.

A city of architectural jewels

The performance sparkles, and I think Mozart would approve of the opera house itself. Opposite the more high-profile Gewandhaus, austere but elegant from the outside, it is a world-class beauty inside – a spacious symphony in wood surfaces of different texture and colour, warm and all-embracing. You hardly notice you’re using stairs as you glide up to the auditorium – but you certainly notice the perfect acoustic when you’re there.
It more than holds its own among the architectural jewels of this astonishing, vibrant city, where steel and glass 21st century buildings sit harmoniously alongside palatial art nouveau or high ceilinged baroque mansions of a gentler age.
Leipzig is a joy. ‘Liveable’? Yes please – count me in.

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