Revitalized Leipzig

By Doug Linton

The year 2000 saw celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of composer and cantor Johann Sebastian Bach. One of the largest celebrations took place in Leipzig, where Bach lived and worked for most of his creative life. His grand Passions were reserved for the Nikolaikirche, while the day-to-day, transcendent cantatas were performed alternatively at the Nicholaikirche and the Thomaskirche, Bach's church of residence. During the recent celebration, both churches were used as performance venues, along with the old town hall, the central market square, and the arrival hall of the city's enormous train station. After listening to a Bach cantata in one of the Bach churches, a visitor could tour the museum which was once Bach's home, view the painting of Bach at the old town hall, have a gander at the Bach statue in front of Thomaskirche and the Bach memorial behind. Certainly, Bach can be found all over town, but, besides remembering this great composer and musician, is there anything else to do in Leipzig?

The answer is plenty. In fact, Bach is just one piece - albeit a large one - of the attractions awaiting visitors in Leipzig. Ten years after the fall of the Wall, this eastern German city has become a bustling and revived university town with enough attractions and atmosphere to command a visit. Many guidebooks say that anyone pressed for time should skip Leipzig and concentrate on Dresden, but you will be missing out if you don't make time for both.

What first attracted Bach to work in Leipzig was its importance as a cultural center, which was funded in large part by the town's economic importance as a trade and market town. The market stalls and trade shows generated the money that supported the city's flourishing artistic and intellectual development.

A Little History

The character of the town dates back to the 15th century, with the founding of the University of Leipzig in 1407 and the establishment of a regional trade monopoly by Emperor Maximilian in 1497. The university attracted such greats as the dramatist Gotthold Lessing, poet Friedrich Klopstock, and all-around-talented Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, all of whom came to the city as students, thus leavening the city's home-grown talents such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Richard Wagner.

Goethe once said in a fit of purple prose: "Give me my Leipzig any time: it's a miniature of Paris and it cultivates the people who live there." This quintessential German Romantic used the town as a backdrop for his masterpiece, Faust. It is in Leipzig that the worldly scholar meets the devil, falls in love, and loses his soul.

But it was with trade fairs that the city both made its money and acquired its architectural character. Wandering through the old town, what you notice most is the multitude of 19th century shopping passages. These handsome turn-of-the-century malls have little to do with their gangly American counterparts. The arcades in Leipzig are models of decorative detail with Jugendstil relief sculptures, gleaming glazed tiled walls, and tall, glass-covered courtyards. They were heavily damaged by bombs in the Second World War and then neglected in the days of the German Democratic Republic. Today, most have been painstakingly restored or rebuilt, and then cluttered with a wealth of shops and restaurants. The most famous are Speckshof, Bartelshof, Hansahaus, and the Mädlerpassage, but just about every block has one type of passage or another that is worth exploring, even if it is just to see how restoration work is coming along.

On a side note, one misguided innovation created in the trade halls of Leipzig is the proscribed walkway. This annoying shop design forces customers to walk through an entire store to get to the cash register (a la Ikea), thus forcing shoppers to survey all the store's goods, even if they just want to buy a few paper clips or a mixing bowl. These evil inventions were first used at the Städtisches Kaufhaus in Leipzig, and, since Goethe places Mephistopheles at the Mädlerpassage just down the street, maybe the inventor was the devil himself.

Leipzig also lent its name to the 1813 battle that took place just outside of town, the Battle of Leipzig, a.k.a. the Battle of Nations. The war saw the defeat of that arriviste Napoleon at the hands of the old-moneyed Russians, Prussians, Austrians, and Swedes.

Today, this clash is memorialized by the enormous 91-meter Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of Nations). This massive pile of granite is quite a sight to behold and certainly worth visiting, even though most guidebooks emphasize its ugliness. A stone marks the spot where Napoleon surveyed the battle and a requisite diorama reenacts the battles general mayhem.

The Fall of Communism

Not all Leipzig's great moments in history are so long ago. The city played a key role in the collapse of communism in East Germany.

From 1982 on, the city's Nicholaikirche was the site of small peace services held every Monday afternoon. With all the changes going on throughout Eastern Europe in early 1989, these peace gatherings gained new importance and grew to over 8,000 demonstrators.

The communist government came close to a crackdown on October 9, but negotiations led by the director of the Gewandhaus, Kurt Masur, avoided a Tiananmen Square-style confrontation. The demonstrations were allowed to continue, swelled to as many as 300,000, and inspired similar gatherings across East Germany. The protest brought down the Honecker government about a week later and the entire political system a month later.

Since the Wende (turning point), the city has really rebounded with a purpose. Incredible rebuilding efforts have taken place to restore Leipzig to its former glory. Although the city was heavily bombed during the war, the compact layout of its old town has made it easier to rebuild. Some changes are hard to believe. For example the ornate neo-Gothic stone building on the corner of Barfussgässchen and Dittrich-Ring looks just as lovely as the day it was built, which obscures the fact that only a few years ago the building was missing the top three floors. One way to spend an afternoon is to get a book with photos of what the city looked like before and after the war, and compare how it looks today.

Touring Leipzig

The city's compact and mostly pedestrian city center is easily toured on foot. The main sites include the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche (the latter contains Bach's remains). The Bach Museum houses memorabilia from his life, including musical instruments and furniture dating from that period. There is also an early 20th century statue at the front of the Thomaskirche. Originally, it had Bach holding a conductor's baton. Fortunately, before it was cast someone realized the anachronism - batons weren't used at that time - so it was changed to a scroll of music.

The great romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, who did much to re-popularize Bach (he was the driving force behind the Bach memorial located behind the Thomaskirche), also worked in Leipzig. He was the director of the Gewandhaus, the city's highly regarded concert house, and its orchestra. Other famous conductors at the legendary Gewandhaus include Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, and Kurt Masur.

Besides the orchestra, the other treasure of the Gewandhaus is the statue of Beethoven by Max Klinger. In 1902, it was the guest of honor at a celebrated exhibition in Vienna's Session building. The Viennese artist Gustav Klimt created his famous Beethoven frieze to surround the painting as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work (a term inspired by Leipzig-born composer Richard Wagner). Leipzig bought the statue before Vienna could make a bid, so today you can find the frieze at the Secession building in Vienna and Klinger's Beethoven statue in the Gewandhaus.

A sharp contrast to the Gewandhaus' brutalesque (from "Brutalism;" a term coined in England to characterize the rough, exposed-concrete style of certain buildings designed by Le Corbusier) is the 16th century old city hall designed by the eccentric architect Hieronymus Lotter (it is said that he made the windows crooked on purpose). Inside is a museum detailing the history of the city and displaying an assortment of curios, including the sword used to execute the real Wozzeck, memorialized in Georg Büchner's play and Alban Berg's opera.

The shopping arcades make window-shopping feel like a history lesson, though the town's biggest arcade is the enormous train station, built in 1915 and extensively renovated in 1997. The station's massive size stems from the amount of daily rail traffic and from the fact that it originally had to house two equal parts: one side of the station was controlled by the Prussians, and the other side by the Saxons. Today, besides trains, the station holds a cornucopia of shops and a large food court. One treat is the coin-operated toy train set located just next to the train platforms.

The Communist Era

The GDR also left some notable architectural monuments. One of the more interesting is the wavy metallic Herta building which, during the days of communism, housed East Germany's largest department store. This 60s Op-art building stands exactly over the spot where Germany's bigoted operatic genius, Richard Wagner, was born.

Another noticeable period piece is the skyscraping University building, designed to look like an open book, though its dated stylishness has earned it the nickname "the jagged tooth."

Tragically, this and the correspondingly horizontal library were built on the grounds of the lovely old university building and the 16th-century St. Paul's church, both of which were razed to build these unworthy followers. A large, red iron frame in front of the library now marks the outlines of the old church building that survived the war but not communist aesthetics.

The communist years are captured in two fascinating museums. The first is the Modern History Forum (Grimmaische Strasse 6), which charts the history of communism in Germany from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Wall and a bit beyond. The multimedia exhibits include video footage of the destruction of the St. Paul's church and the building of the Berlin Wall, old Communist propaganda films, a real Stasi surveillance truck, and displays detailing the protests that led to the end of Communism.

One surreal montage is a videotape that shows the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the GDR intercut with footage of the peace protests which, a month later, led to the country's end.

One photo at the Forum shows a protester carrying a sign that says "Krumme Ecke - Schreckenhaus/Wann wird ein Museum draus?" That protest took place in front of the "Round Corner," the name of the building that housed the offices of the dreaded Stasi, the GDR's secret police. Translated, the sign means "Crooked corner, scary house, when will you become a museum?" Surprisingly, this protester got his wish - the building is now a museum, dedicated to preserving the former offices of the Stasi in all their evil blandness. These impersonal offices filled with cheap ready-made furniture controlled the lives of millions of East Germans, mostly through keeping files on its citizens. The museum is at Dittrichring 24, and has a permanent exhibition titled Stasi: the Power and Banality.

But we should not end on a dark note, because the atmosphere of Leipzig today seems brimming with potential. The city has been tastefully rebuilt and offers a wealth of attractions. Bach and all.

Leipzig Accommodations

Hotel Adagio

The family-owned Adagio is a comfortable, modern hotel set behind an attractive 19th century façade. It is well located in a nice, quiet neighborhood just a 10-minute walk to the Gewandhaus and the Augustusplatz.

The staff was especially friendly, always smiling and eager to please. The rooms had no surprises good or bad: they were just bright, clean and up-to-date. The doubles have built-in dark wood furniture with white walls and light blue fabrics and carpets. Singles differ only in that they have light wood furniture with red and amber fabrics and carpets. The white-tiled baths are spacious and come with showers in the singles and tubs in the doubles. Most of the doubles face the quiet street, while singles face the verdant back garden (the preferred view). Nonsmoking rooms are also available. The hotel is not really made for disabled guests, as you have to climb a few steps to get to the elevator. Street side parking is free.

One interesting feature for a small hotel is that breakfast is served "whenever you want." I didn't test this by trying to have breakfast at 3 am., but the staff assured that I could if I wanted to. I can, however, testify that breakfast at a normal hour was a very good selection of cold cuts, cheese, fruit and rolls, served with a selection of juices. The waitress was so genuinely cheerful that I looked forward to seeing her at breakfast the next day. The hotel also has a pleasant garden restaurant that serves food good enough to rival most options in town.

Overall, the Adagio is an attractive hotel with a friendly staff that made me feel right at home.

Daily Rates: Singles: $99, Doubles: $113 to $121
Contact: Hotel Adagio, Seeburgstrasse 96, tel. +49/0341/21 66 99, fax 96 03 078.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20

Seaside Park Hotel

This is the only small mid-class hotel within the Ring and is located across the street and a broad plaza from the train station. The exterior has a plain, early century look, while the interior is brash Art Deco that is at times stylish or over-the-top. For instance, the wall of TV sets in the lobby would fall into the latter category. Even without the TV sets, the lobby might have you seasick with all the glittering chrome accenting the swirly marble pattern on the floor and the cut-away atrium overhead.

The restaurant located in a mock train carriage is meant to evoke the Orient Express, but all seems a bit overdone.

The rooms themselves, however, are quite nice. Their design is equally neo-Deco, but it somehow works in the smaller space. The open bathrooms are wonderful with diamond shaped windows looking onto the rooms and black marble counters set on dark cherry-stained cabinets. The floors are covered with dark carpets with vine-like Deco patterns that really enliven the room. The comfortable beds are cloaked in crisp white linens, and a smooth leather chair with footstool, complete the furnishings. Tobacco-free rooms are also available.

While the Park Hotel is too brash to be cozy and comfortable, its prices are surprisingly good, especially considering the central location and the overdose of design.

Daily Rates: Singles 89 euros ($120), doubles 105 ($140)
Contact: Seaside Park Hotel Richard-Wagner-Strasse 7, tel +49/0341/98 52 0, fax 985 2750, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20

Hotel Markgraf Leipzig

This small privately-run business hotel offers good rates and a modicum of flair. The setting is a bit uneven, with the hotel facing the partially developed Kröner-platz (some buildings seem abandoned - a not too unusual situation in the neighborhoods outside the Ring), but it's just a 15-minute walk from the Ring, and just around the corner is the lively Karl-Liebknechtstrasse.

The lobby is small and perfunctory; the staff tall and efficient (at least on our visit). The lounge and rooms are well maintained, but not particularly memorable dressed in light tones and plain catalog furniture. Small tile baths are only large enough to accommodate showers. The hotel's most attractive feature - besides the price = is the lovely courtyard garden. The Markgraf is a good place to cut costs if you don't mind a business-y atmosphere.

Daily Rates: Singles 77 -127 DM ($34-$56), doubles 134 -139 DM ($60-$62)
Contact: Hotel Markgraf Körnerstrasse 36, tel +49/0341/30 30 30, fax +49/0341/30 30 3 99, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20

Kosmo Hotel

This hotel's pension really deserves mention because of its low price and quirky charm. The Kosmo consists of a few floors of guest rooms atop the Kosmopolitan revue and comedy theatre.

Each room is decorated in a different theme. There are rooms dedicated to countries and regions (the Spain room and the Arab room), as well as to art movements (the Romantic room and Pop-Art room). The reception staff is youthful and friendly.

While the Kosmo is not for everyone, those who would appreciate the hotel's artsy and personable atmosphere would probably not mind the throw-pillow comforts.

Daily Rates: 90 DM ($40) with minibar and breakfast, 20 DM ($9)
Contact: Kosmo Hotel, Gottschedstrasse 1, tel +49/0341/233 44 20, fax +49/0341/233 44 21.
Rating: Quality 10/20, Value 14/20

Leipzig Restaurants

Thüringerhof

This new/old restaurant, owned by the Würzburger brewery, has roots in the 15th century, though the building and interior date from a major restoration completed in May 1996. Pains were made to give the restaurant an historic look, especially in the arched and colonnaded main hall called the Luther Room. The Thüringerhof offers a variety of atmospheres to choose from, such as the dark wainscoting of the main hall, the bright skylight of the winter garden, and the outdoor breeziness of the street side patio.

The food was well prepared and hearty. Soup choices included a creamy celery root soup and the traditional Saxon potato soup with sliced sausage for 7.5 DM ($3.33) and 5.5 DM ($2.44) respectively. The main course was tender braised lamb smothered in rosemary cream sauce and served with a spongy Saxon potato dumpling (19.9 DM/$9). The pan of roast potatoes and mushrooms (23.8 DM/$13) was also good, though a bit too oily. Beer choices were, of course, courtesy of the Würzburger Hofbräu, while the wine list was short but well-chosen. The desert selection was a bit minimal and the day so lovely that we decided to have ice cream somewhere else.

Contact: Thüringerhof zu Leipzig Burgstrasse 19, tel +49/0341/9 94 49 99, open daily 11 am-midnight
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 11/20

Auerbachs Keller

This hotel has the good fortune of being mentioned in Goethe's Faust, thus insuring it a steady stream of customers. But even with all its touristy associations - including a souvenir stand - this Keller still manages to please. Fortunately, the decor avoids demonic themes, and instead manages to be quite elegant with stenciled arches, wood cloaked pillars, gleaming parquet floors and dark stained wooden chairs and tables.

The food was as tasteful as the decor. The soup selection sounded familiar with options such as Saxon potato soup (5.9 DM/$2.62) and onion soup (7 DM/$3.11), so we decided to split the smoked fish plate (22 DM/$10) as a starter. The tasty lineup included delicate slices of smoked salmon, trout, and Heilbutt accompanied by thick chunks of chewy brown bread.

For the main course, I chose the special of the day, which was roasted pork with sauerkraut and the traditional Saxon potato dumpling (19.9 DM/$9), while my companion had broccoli casserole with smoked duck breast and sliced potatoes (19.9 DM/$9).

Another dish that looked good - and was served to the table across from us - was the tender beef roulade with apples and sauerkraut. The beer was Radeberger, a locally-appreciated brew that I haven't especially warmed to. The wine list, however, was ample and encompassed selections from Germany, Italy, France and Austria. Dessert choices were much better than at the Thüringerhof. The quark cake served with baked apples (9.5 DM/$4.22) and the warm crêpes filled with chocolate mousse and vanilla ice cream (10 DM/$4.44), made two fine selections.

Contact: Auerbachs Keller Grimmaische Strasse 2-4, tel +49/0341/21 61 00, open 11-midnight.
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 11/20

Also of Interest

Leipzig also has two good coffeehouses that should be visited. The lovely Art Nouveau Kaffee Riquet on Schuhmachergässchen 1, was once the headquarters of a coffee, tea and spice importer with a taste for exotic naturalist decor.

Although the Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum on Kleine Fleischergasse is located in a building that dates from the 16th century, it has only been serving coffee since 1711. This "coffee tree" also has an interesting museum dedicated to the black bean and all its accoutrements. The cakes are especially delicious.

September 2000