I didn’t expect too much from Leipzig when we arrived for the second portion of the SATW convention.
After all, Dresden had been such a delight – and we had very little time to see it all. And while Leipzig has some cool historic buildings, such as the Altes Rathaus (town hall) above, they are more spread out around the city so they don’t have the impact of many European cities.
But sometimes it’s good to arrive in a place without expectations. We found ourselves charmed by the modern art and sculpture that we found in Leipzig streets.
There’s been enough artistic momentum coming out of Leipzig’s Art Academy in recent years for academics and collectors to refer to the works as The New Leipzig School. Most of the more famous artists under this banner are painters, but there’s a fair amount of sculpture as well.
Even while it was under Communist rule, Leipzig had a flourishing art scene, primarily because of the Academy for Visual Arts, which has been around since 1764. While we admired the artwork in the street, the city also has a large Fine Arts museum as well as a Contemporary Art Museum.
We did have a bit of a personal connection that I wanted to explore. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe studied law in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. During his tenure in the city, he frequented a beer hall called Auerbachs Keller, which he later used as a setting in his famed play Faust.
First mentioned in records dating back to 1438, Auerbachs Keller is still an operating restaurant today. To get there, you go through the Mädlerpassage, an old shopping arcade in Leipzig’s historical district. We had a set dinner here in one of the historic rooms and while the buffet food wasn’t the greatest, the atmosphere made it worthwhile.
The legend of Dr. Johann Georg Faust predates Goethe. Faust was a real figure in the German Renaissance, and worked as an alchemist and magician in the early 1500s. Because of his ventures into astrology, the church denounced him as a blasphemer in league with the devil. This reputation led to stories such as the one that claimed Faust rode a wine barrel up from the cellar at Auerbachs Keller to the street, something that could only happen with supernatural assistance. Scholars believe this legend is what inspired Goethe to make Auerbachs Keller the first stop where Mephistopheles takes Faust.
My husband was excited to be at a restaurant where his name had such history. At one point, he and another travel writer went into a private dining room occupied by a group of men in their 50s and 60s. The writer introduced Don as Herr Faust and Don held up his name tag to shouts of laughter.
Auerbachs Keller may have an ancient reputation for debauchery, but we noticed that Leipzig had an active nightlife throughout the city. Some members of our group found a hookah bar; others reported a Soviet-themed dive. We sneaked away and had our own date night in one of the packed cafes on Barfubgabchen, a narrow cobblestoned street near the historic center.
The stop gave us a welcome break from the bratwurst and meats we had been eating. This salad had huge mushrooms that tasted delicious to our veggie-starved palate.
Although the night was chilly, we were warmed by the massive heat lamps employed by most of the cafes. We were surprised at how full many of the restaurants were on a Monday night. But our server scoffed. “You should see it on the weekend,” she said.
Perhaps Leipzig’s most famous historic resident is composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Born into a musical family in Eisenbach, Bach moved to Leipzig with his family in 1723 to take a job as cantor at St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche).
At the time, Leipzig was one of Germany’s cultural capitals, and the appointment at St. Thomas, known for its boarding school for choir singers, represented a prominent career point for Bach. Although he often traveled to act as an organ consultant, Bach spent the majority of his life in Leipzig with his large family (he had 20 children with two wives, although only 10 survived to adulthood). Some of Leipzig’s other famous composers, including Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner, performed and studied here. Wolfgang Mozart even performed the organ at St. Thomas in 1789.
Thomaskirche is a Lutheran church that is just as elaborate as many Catholic cathedrals. There’s been a church on the site since the 12th Century and Martin Luther himself preached here in 1539.
Bach’s remains have been interred in the church since 1950.
Every year, Leipzig hosts BachFest that attracts more than 65,000 classical music lovers from around the world. And this year, the city opened a state-of-the-art Bach Museum in March, just in time for Bach’s 325th birthday.
The Museum is a great way for a music lover to spend an afternoon. There are historical musical instruments, including an organ console that Bach examined himself, as well as original sheet music written by Bach.
Admission to the museum is 6 Euro and it’s free on the first Tuesday of every month.
Bach is by no means the only composer celebrated in Leipzig. Felix Mendelssohn’s private home is also a museum, where you can see artifacts and sheet music. There’s also a performance space in his apartment where concerts are occasionally held.
Besides its cultural legacy, Leipzig has played an important role in modern history. In September 1989, East Germans began gathering in front of the St. Nicholas Church in protest against the Chinese Communist regime’s crackdown on demonstrators in Tienanmen Square.
Because the Lutheran Church supported their efforts, the demonstrators eventually became more bold and started campaigning for rights in their own country. Eventually the non-violent resistance spread to other East German cities such as Dresden and Berlin. This Peaceful Revolution led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.
Our final stop in Leipzig? A visit to the space-age Porsche plant just outside of town.
Even the most jaded travel writers couldn’t resist getting their photo taken in the sweet Porsches – myself included!
If you’re a Porsche enthusiast, you can drive on the Leipzig test track and take a factory tour. It’s a big thing in Porsche circles to go to Leipzig or Stuttgart and pick up your Porsche in person. So maybe I’ll be back some day. Hey, a girl can dream!