When we booked our trip from Berlin to Mainz back before we started the trip, we decided to give ourselves a 6-hour layover in Leipzig. We’re glad we did, because it’s an interesting town and it fleshes out a little more our East German experience. Goethe studied law here, for example, and Schiller apparently worked on his “Ode to Joy” here. But oh, it was chilly. Have we said that before?
We arrived just after 9 am after leaving Berlin just before 8 am, and had to get the 15:11 train to Mainz. Fortunately, Leipzig is a very walkable city, with most of the main sights in the old town so, after a quick trip to the Tourist Office, off we set. Here are the highlights.
St Thomas Church
Leipzig is probably most famous for – no, not the Stasi! – but Johann Sebastian Bach who was the city’s musical director for 27 years, from 1723-1750. It is where he created many of his most famous works including the “Goldberg Variations” and “The Well-tempered Clavier“. His main base was St Thomas, built 15th century, so that was one of our first stops. The church’s interior is not as it was in Bach’s day, having been updated to neo-Gothic style in the 1880s, but one of its two organs, a relatively new one, is one on which “the organ music of Bach can be played in proper style”, and much to our delight it was being played – by young organ students we think – for the duration of our visit.
Leipzig is quite a musical place, and you could walk a music trail if you had time. Other musicians who have lived here include Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner.
As the adjacent Bach museum was closed – it was Monday after all! – we set off for our other main priority stop …
Runde Ecke (Round Corner)
This, as you probably know, is the building occupied by the Stasi during the GDR/DDR regime. The exhibit, titled Stasi – Power and Banality, is managed by the Leipzig Citizens’ Committee and was open. They have left the building pretty much as it was in 1989 when the wall fell. The audioguide said that the offices were much like any government offices of the time but, oh dear, even my office in a demountable building in 1980s Canberra was cheerier than this! The exhibit is pretty small, comprising one short corridor with around 8 rooms leading off it. The audioguide took us through various aspects of Stasi operations, including the odour samples, postal surveillance, demoralisation activities, border control and passport checking, telephone tapping, the co-opting of the young. The displays were pretty much of the old-fashioned museum style but this felt appropriate for what seemed like such an anachronistic, albeit horrifying, regime.
Anna Funder in her book Stasiland describes the “horror-romance” of the regime:
The romance comes from the dream of a better world the German communists wanted to build out of the ashes of their Nazi past; from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs. The horror comes from what they did in its name.
The exhibit at Runde Ecke made all too clear how so very “grubby” the regime became in the name of idealism.
St Nikolai Church
Our final stop before lunch was the rather astonishing St Nikolai. Old on the outside, with parts going back to 1180, the inside was rebuilt in 1785, in neo-classical style. We were fascinated by the palm branches on the capitals of the classical style columns, which were created by cladding the original gothic ones. The colours are white, pink, soft apple green and gold, and are meant to symbolise paradise. Even the pews are white. The effect is light, airy and inviting – and very surprising.
This is the church where prayers for peace started occurring in 1982, leading eventually to the peaceful revolution in 1989, which helped end the GDR regime. In the square beside the church is the Nikolai column commemorating the demonstrators.
We decided to lunch at the historic Auerbach Keller, which Goethe visited when he was in his teens. He included it in his Faust poetry. It was fun to eat in this very German place – with tourists and locals alike.
We saw many interesting and historic buildings during our visit, but will just mention our last main stop of the day, the Augustusplatz which is apparently the largest square in a German city. Our guide book said it was once also one of the most beautiful, but much of it was destroyed in WWII. Only the north side has retained its original buildings. Historically it’s interesting because this is where the peaceful anti-GDR Monday demonstrations would gather in 1989. There was a lot of construction work going on when we saw it. Its famous fountain was dismantled and surrounded by barriers – for restoration and cleaning we presume.
Leipzig, we decided, is a town well worth a longer look.
Then it was back on the train for the four-hour trip to Mainz. By the time we got to our airbnb place it was after 7.30pm. Our very friendly host, Alex, popped in around 8.15pm after which we set off to find something for dinner. After wandering around for over 15 or more minutes, we found a little Italian restaurant directly across the road from our place that we hadn’t seen! It was OK. Sue’s vegetables had been precooked (she saw them in trays at the counter) and her lamb cutlets were pretty tough, but the place was open at 9pm on a Monday so we weren’t about to complain. It’s interesting how much harder it is to orient yourself when you arrive in a town in the dark.
SUE: History, Citizen Power
LEN: Music, Food, Goons
… and the stills slideshow