Leipzig doesn’t immediately live up to its reputation as the birthplace of a revolution. It doesn’t have the grandeur of, say, St Petersburg. It doesn’t have a Bastille worth storming. Yet, this is the City of Heroes, the city that led the vanguard against the communist regime which governed East Germany for some 40 years.
If you come to Leipzig looking for gritty Cold War relics you’ll be disappointed. Leipzig’s answer to the Berlin Wall is the beautiful St Nicholas Church. Unusually, for a Protestant church, its interior is richly ornamental with columns designed to resemble palm trees – symbols of peace. On October 9, 1989 it became the focus of a decisive standoff between thousands of peaceful protesters and the might of the East German authorities. I was there!” says Birgit Scheffel, a local guide. “Most people demonstrating didn’t know if the police would shoot or not. But nobody so much as threw a stone.”
According to church legend, 600 party members were ordered to fill up the church, but on hearing the sermon, they were inspired to join the protesters. Outside, thousands more lit candles and kept a vigil. Such scenes hastened the demise of the old order and prompted one German Democratic Republic Central committee member to remark, years later: “We counted on everything. But not for candles and prayers.”
But what is it about Leipzig that made it rise to the occasion? Annett Morche from the Leipzig Tourist Service tries to explain: Leipzig has always been a city exposed to the western world because of trade fairs. We are more restless here because of the university and all the young people. And we have this distance from Berlin – this is my theory.” So when Gorbachev relaxed the border controls, Leipzigers couldn’t wait to be reunited with the Wessies.
They have been partying ever since. This city of half a million people pulses with energy and there is a palpable sense of hedonistic goodwill on the streets. Leader of the reformation, Martin Luther, apparently visited Leipzig 17 times and complained it was like Sodom & Gomorrah. If he were to come back today he’d find little has changed. Since 1990 al fresco culture has really taken off with 350 open air pubs and restaurants jamming the streets.
Not content with one pub mile, Leipzig has three. There’s the theatre district of Schauspielviertel; there’s also Südmeile (or southern mile) south of city centre, mainly along Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse. But the hub of Leipzig’s pub district is Drallewatsch – the area behind Kleine Fleishergasse and Barfußgaßchen. Part of Drallewatsch, the little triangular square in front of Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum (The Arabian Coffee Tree) is known to locals as the Bermuda Triangle because it gets so crowded in summer that it’s easy to lose your friends.
Things really get going in the city centre after 11pm when revellers spill onto the streets. But the atmosphere is convivial and not boozy or sleazy. And there are no opening hours as such. “Pubs are open until the last guest is gone,” says Scheffel proudly.
With an unemployment rate approaching 20%, Leipzig has its fair share of social problems, but there is no doubting that it’s a city on the up and up. There are precious few of the boxy Trabants – the car of (limited) choice in the former East Germany – to be seen these days. Porsche and BMW both have plants in Leipzig. “This is a major prestige thing for us,” says Morche, “and has created jobs.” In 2006 Leipzig will host games at the World Cup and what’s more, boasts a “zoo of the future” in which animals are housed in cage-less natural habitats.
It’s also a shopper’s paradise. Leipzig train station, for instance, was renovated in 1998 to accommodate a three-storey shopping mall and there’s enough shoe shops to keep the Carrie Bradshaws among us happy.
“We’ve done a lot of renovation in 15 years, but not what we could have done,” says Scheffel. She’s got to be kidding. Leipzig just doesn’t appear to bear any of the physical scars typical of ex-Soviet cities. Apart from the rare example of Stalin Baroque, the architecture is strikingly innovative. Plagwitz, the industrial area, is a case in point: the old gas works have been converted to artists’ spaces and the slaughterhouse converted into trendy loft apartments. Even more remarkably, the MDR building belonging to the local television station has been constructed in the shape of a TV screen. Opposite the sleek, ultramodern Museum of Fine Art on Sachsenplatz are four of the ugliest Communist-era buildings you are ever likely to see. Due to be demolished soon, they are symbolic of how much Leipzigers have achieved in such little time, and just how much they are likely to achieve in the future.”