The City of Leipzig
Published: April 2009
By Joseph Keller, Thomas Keller
Goethe, Schiller, and Bach slept here, but there's not much sleeping going on these days. Since the wall came down, Leipzig has retained its old-world flavor while becoming one of Germany's liveliest cities
"FAIRYTELLS CAN COME TROO," A FRENCH FRIEND OF MINE USED TO SING, mimicking Frank Sinatra. Returning one evening to my Neoclassical suite at the Hotel Fürstenhof in Leipzig, I felt the heel of my boot begin to come off. For once, I had packed sensibly (or so I thought) and brought only one pair. The heel wobbled when I walked, so it would have been risky to venture even to the nearest shoe store. I asked the concierge of the Fürstenhof if the boots could be picked up from my room, taken to be fixed, and returned to me by mid-morning. The staff seemed a little unused to this sort of thing—just a decade ago Leipzig was on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall—but said, very well, they would try. And sure enough, the next morning there was a tap on the door and a tall, blond creature, with pink cheeks and a strong resemblance to the Prussian officers whose army defeated Napoleon, handed me a crisp cotton bag that held my boots all glued back together. The Fürstenhof's insignia, appropriately enough, is a golden carriage of the 1700's.
I set off for the zoo.
It is a zoo you should rush to, because it has hundreds of wild animals—Bengal tigers, jaguars, snow leopards—that you can see at close quarters. Although a number of creatures will soon be moved to new, more modern facilities, for now they are housed in extraordinary pavilions behind hazelnut-colored arches, built in the late 1800's to form the entrance to the zoo. Polar bears and monkeys reside in horizontal, brick 1920's open-air palaces reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's elegant Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (demolished in 1968). Camels lope along happily, their hooves in plush green grass, their furry muzzles in delicate pink miniature rosebushes; the giraffes, who inhabit a far reach of the park, crane their necks against the flowery Art Nouveau façades of the houses across the street. The animals may not know just how startling and delightful the combinations are, but the cultured citizens of Leipzig do: they love their zoo, both as a zoo and as their favorite park.
When I left the zoo the sun was shining, and when the sun shines in Leipzig the natives emerge and almost kiss the ground: they immediately set out tables and chairs and sit, huddled in quilted jackets, sipping their beers. They worship the sun and everything that goes with it. There are 30,000 private gardens in Leipzig—plots of land on the outskirts of town where people grow flowers and vegetables, and where they go in their free time to be in contact with nature. Inside the massive glass-and-steel palaces that are the city's new fairgrounds, olive trees and mimosas have been planted in terra-cotta pots. The symbol of Leipzig, however, is actually the linden leaf, and the city got its name from the Slav word for linden, lipsk. It was called Lips before settling into the more dignified Leipzig.
Goethe, one of Leipzig's visiting geniuses, along with Mendelssohn, Schiller, and Liszt, was a nature-lover, too. In summer, he liked to write in the forest that once surrounded the town, and he would accuse the mosquitoes of stealing his best thoughts. In winter he preferred a dark, smoky beer hall. Guarding the entrance to the Mädler Passage, one of the oldest shopping arcades in Leipzig, are some imposing bronze sculptures representing scenes from Goethe's Faust. A guide in a black felt hat and ice-colored raincoat ushered in a group of tourists and with his umbrella pointed to the figures of Mephistopheles and of Faust himself. Down a flight of stairs is Auerbachs Keller, a restaurant that serves very good food and spills over with weddings and tour groups at every hour of the day and night. As a student, Goethe came here regularly; this is where he saw the murals depicting the legend of Faustus that were his inspiration.
In front of the Mephisto Bar, a pink enclave in the Mädler Passage decorated with framed black-and-white stills of actors impersonating the devil, a boutique named Push Up Underwear displayed a black bra and bikini brief trimmed in black ostrich feathers. With this delightful view, I took a plunge and ordered something called Tafelspitz in gesülzler Gemüse Bouillon. All I knew was that it might involve beef. It turned out to be strips of beef in a marble aspic with diced carrots and other vegetables and scoops of crimson horseradish—surprisingly fine.
Leipzig is a university town, and until just over 10 years ago, when East and West Germany were unified, the university was named after Karl Marx. As I sat I saw professors going by, the kind who flunk you if your Aramaic isn't up to scratch (something in the trim of a mustache that leaves the upper lip quite bare). And for every awe-inspiring professor, there was a corresponding huddle of students with dark circles under their eyes. I noticed that one out of two women had red hair, in all shades from clown red to titian, and more Harpo than Karl. They must think being a flaxen blonde is dull, since they were probably born that way.
Resuming my walk around Leipzig, I came upon St. Thomas Church. That's when I started to feel that the city was becoming familiar, with its Saxon version of Gothic, which is the fairy-tale kind: the tall is very tall and the rest is narrow, to make the tall look even taller. The whitewashed façades of the church and its bell tower are outlined in chestnut-colored masonry.
For more than 20 years the cantor's apartment at St. Thomas School was home to Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenbach, Germany. He lived here with his second wife, Anna Magdalena, "a pure soprano," as he described her, along with four children from his previous marriage and the 13 born here, plus a sister-in-law, a nephew, and the son of a cousin who was Bach's private secretary and his children's tutor. For some time, Bach wrote approximately one cantata a week, beginning on Monday, having it transcribed by Wednesday, and then rehearsing for two or three days before performing it on Sunday. After five years of this routine, the poor man was understandably overwrought. In a letter to a friend he complained that the weather hadn't been quite foul enough to keep the funerals—and his performances at them—coming at the daily clip required to adequately supplement his income. After his death in 1750, he was buried at St. Thomas, where Mozart and Mendelssohn later performed.
The church had already been made famous by Martin Luther in 1539, when he stood at its pulpit to introduce Leipzigers to his Protestant Reform. Its white ceiling and vaults are rimmed in dull red; sunburst motifs at the intersections give it a festive feeling. One night, when I attended a concert of the Leipzig Canzonetta choir (sadly, the city's famous St. Thomas Boys Choir was away on tour), every pew was filled with people listening to a selection of Baroque music including several Bach pieces, naturally, most of them a cappella. The members of the choir wore black and white, and I sat so close I could actually see who was the booming voice and who the trill and who the throaty soprano.
Aesthetically, Leipzig runs on alternating currents of Art Nouveau and art decrepit, sixties glass and steel side by side with what might be called Bavarian Gothic. You never become lulled by any style; it is as though the eyes were wiped clean at every step. A steep-roofed building on Market Square has one large spire and nine small ones that all look as if they had been planted in bittersweet chocolate: black tiles curve obligingly around them. A triumphant golden ball sits atop the main spire, as if to celebrate its having risen above the rest. Right in front of Katharinenstrasse—which has perhaps the most striking row of Bavarian Gothic houses, with pale yellow-and-beige or brick-and-cream façades and sides carved into ascending steps—a mammoth concrete structure is being built to accommodate the new Museum der Bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts).
There are whole blocks of Leipzig where the seasoned modern prevails, looking older and wiser than the Gothic. Tall yellow cranes hover over the city. Now that it is no longer "GDR time," as I heard it labeled, money is once again being invested. The liveliest café street is clearly Barfussgässchen, which has two new restaurants: 100 Wasser, with bright-colored frescoes, high stools, and tiles in SoHo International style (too edgy to be called strictly "modern"), and the more demure Sacharow. But if you look up, the style of the buildings is Moorish Bavarian, Hansel and Gretel, and Scheherazade: turrets, narrow windows, arches, and balconies all framed in contrasting tones, and with a great deal of that cartoonish, porous stonework that looks like brain coral. Markt Neun and Spizz, two places on Barfussgässchen that are frequented mostly by students, are both quite dark and appealing. Peering in, I thought I could make out the plots of several Dogma films.
At six in the evening a high bell tolls from St. Thomas Church and a low, droning one comes from St. Nikolai Church; the sound goes on for several minutes. St. Nikolai is where the wall symbolically started to come down, toward the close of 1989. On several occasions, the congregation in the church was joined by a crowd of silent and peaceful demonstrators just outside its doors, all holding candles—thousands of people silently demanding an end to the regime.
Early one evening, looking down Grimmaische Strasse, I could see a strip of blinding gold on the side of a modern building. Only when I reached it did I realize that what I'd seen was the setting sun reflecting off a yellow plastic mural that depicts the city's historic buildings. Nearby is the Old City Hall, with gold writing across its façade and central clock.
Dollops of dazzling gold also ornament the Commerzbank building, across the street from St. Thomas Church. A combination of Art Nouveau and Gothic, its gold was a sort of mirage, easy to spot even from the end of a long street. It told me where I was in my explorations of Leipzig, and I became fond of it for that reason. Naschmarkt, a rectangular square, was another such landmark. It is presided over by a statue of Goethe, holding the hem of his coat in one hand and a notebook in the other, hair coiffed and shirt ruffles in place, as though a writer had it easy. Perhaps he did: a grand duke gave him a house to live in with many rooms, each in a different color to suit his changing moods. (It is in Weimar, about an hour and a half away.)
A few days into my visit I decided to eat at Auerbachs Keller Leipzig, thinking I should at least try German food. Until then I'd had mostly delicate bits of fowl and tender vegetables and variegated salads. Finally, I would have sausages and sauerkraut. The waitress came and said, "Ja?" I stared uncomprehendingly at the forest of consonants—nothing on the menu seemed familiar, let alone edible. I asked timidly, "Do you have sausages?" Her reply was fierce: "No sausages." I settled for potato soup, which I ate rather gratefully. For the rest of the meal she treated me like someone who had asked for spaghetti with meatballs in a genuine Italian restaurant. (As it turned out, sausages are served in the restaurant's Grossenkeller room.)
One day it rained, a fine, stealthy drizzle. Sometimes the drops would get larger and I had to open an umbrella; then the drizzle would resume. Sitting in a café, I saw billowy layers of mist falling to the ground and then rising again to where they had come from, as if they were on a loop. I felt myself withdraw from the realm of the concrete.
I had dinner that evening at the Fürstenhof, the place of the golden carriage. The hostess, Claudia Kräker, looked like Grace Kelly, who in turn looked like the Good Fairy. Maître d' Tino Bauer was extremely young, and princely in height and demeanor. Like the hotel rooms, the atmosphere is Neoclassical—tall Palladian windows swathed in pale-blue silk curtains.
The food, the goodness and beauty of it, came as a total surprise. I chose from the "prince's menu," starting with a wild hare terrine accompanied by a salad of apple and celery. That was followed by morsels of anglerfish in a beet-colored foam in which floated fingertip-sized carrots, turnips, and beets, all with their greens trimmed to tender stalks. My dessert was "variation of sorbets with fruit sauce and fruit assortment": slices of star fruit, prickly pear, orange, and crimson pitanga; lime, strawberry, and kiwi coulis; as well as a fruit I'd never encountered that was round and white with black seeds, and edged in fuchsia. This dazzling display came on a large glass plate with chips of dark and white chocolate. The dishes might have been thought up by a master of the Japanese tea ceremony: they were not only beautiful to look at but also seemed to have been spontaneously arranged. You could travel to Leipzig just for that.
The walk east from Augustusplatz, where the Neues Gewandhaus and the Opera House are, is uninspiring: a progression of bleak and monumental architecture. But it's worth it to reach the magical Museum of Instruments, which is part of the Grassi Museum Complex. You can sit in an armchair next to ancient instruments, such as a red fortepiano with gold figures painted on it, and look out the high windows at a little park. Meanwhile, you don a pair of earphones to hear a recording of the instrument being played, the notes so distinct you can distinguish the clacking of the keys as they're hit and the ensuing twanging of strings. I chose "a sonata for hammers loud and soft," dedicated to His Serene Royal Highness the Dauphin of Portugal. In another room, a computer allows you to choose from various pieces of music, and activates a speaker above the instrument being played. I heard a tiny harp and a ranket, which sounds like a small animal wheezing.
Back in the center of town at the Egyptian Museum, which is part of Leipzig University, I found a striking contrast in one large room: the Art Nouveau of the tall, lead-framed windows whose square panes were stained in pale yellows and mauves, and a limestone funerary couple of the Old Kingdom.
After all that gentility and culture, the wild beasts were calling again. The first I came across on my second trip to the zoo were two boys uttering bloodcurdling shrieks before the charming pond where incandescent pink flamingos promenaded in circles among long grasses. The bottom of the pool that was the precinct of the Baika seal was being vacuumed clean. A cart full of strawberries, lettuces, celery, and other produce looked as though it might have been headed for the Fürstenhof Restaurant, so fresh did it seem.
Before the tiger cages, there was a row of rabbit cages, and a nearby sign accounts for the little German I picked up in Leipzig: bitte finger nicht durch das gitter stecken . . . können beissen! ("Don't stick your finger through the bars; rabbits can bite!") There were violet-eyed white rabbits, droopy-eared, tufted, and sleek ones, covering every species of irresistibility.
Vultures surveyed the farthest reaches of immensely tall, domed metal cages that Buckminster Fuller would have approved of. Pygmy hippos swirled in a rectangular pool. The snow leopard refused to be looked at: it slept on a rock, with its head buried under one paw. Its cage was a vast metal grille filled with trees and foliage and bushes. I felt a kinship with creatures so far from their natural habitats. From the first time I ventured across Market Square onto the civilized streets of Leipzig, I could feel that everyone I encountered somehow knew me to be a foreigner. It is the talent of a small city that has lived within its own climate and culture, uncontaminated by the "general world" of media, our New World. But every time I heard Bach, in a café, a church, or a museum, I knew that foreignness to be flimsy. For all its changes, Leipzig is still one of the last bastions of Old Europe. And what could be more exotic?
By plane, Leipzig is only 50 minutes from Frankfurt, or less than four hours by train. Though new investment is bringing about much construction and renovation, it remains a quintessentially old-fashioned European city—quiet, elegant, industrious. There are cafés everywhere, and the many churches hold frequent concerts of Baroque music. It's easy to find your way around on foot, especially once you get the hang of the city's concentric layout.
Hotel Fürstenhof 8 Tröndlinring Strasse; 49-341/1400, fax 49-31/140-3700; www.arabellasheraton.com; doubles from $188. A 92-room Neoclassical hotel furnished with neo-Biedermeier furniture (blond-wood armoires, green curtains, little round tables). The beds are a triumph: plump pillows covered in fine satinized cotton, billowy eiderdowns, and everything crisp and white without a trace of synthetic fiber. Weiss Wanger, the chef at the hotel's restaurant, is talented and light-handed. There's a rather pretty pool in the subterranean chambers with a cloud-painted ceiling and a grotto.
Seaside Park Hotel 7 Richard Wagner Strasse; 49-341/98520, fax 49-31/985-2750; www.seaside-hotels.de; doubles from $100, including breakfast. A less expensive hotel that will suit those who prefer Modernist décor. The general mood is businesslike.
Auerbachs Keller Leipzig Mädler Passage, 2—4 Grimmaische Strasse; 49-341/216-100; dinner for two $48. An immense vaulted cave of a restaurant where Goethe went as a student. Nearby is the pink Mephisto Bar, with photos on the walls of various theatrical renditions of the devil.
Mr. Moto 21 Grosse Fleischergasse; 49-341/212-7898; dinner for two $35. A new, huge, and excellent sushi restaurant.
BARS AND CAFÉS
The cafés near St. Thomas Church are the best places for lunch and dinner; on sunny days you can sit at a table on the sidewalk. Bachstüb'l (12 Thomaskirchhof; 49-341/960-2382), with its pale green wallpaper, is a soothing place for afternoon hot chocolate; Café Kandler (11 Thomaskirchhof; 49-341/213-2182) sells "Bach coffee" in little pouches illustrated with a portrait of the master, as well as a delicious foil-wrapped chocolate with a kind of crumbling nougat inside.
The livelier cafés are on or near Market Square (the Markt stalls are open Tuesdays and Fridays). Markt Neun (2—8 Barfussgässchen; 49-341/211-1386) gets going around 5 p.m.; Spizz (9 Markt; 49-341/960-8043), right on the square, has live jazz and disco in the basement. Café Riquet (4 Schumachergässchen; 49-341/961-0000) is a famous old café whose classic Art Nouveau façade is decorated with two elephant heads and tall, swaying letters. Just around the corner from Market Square is firstname.lastname@example.org (18 Reichsstrasse; 49-700/1999-3000), a Web café that's open daily for "surfen, e-mails, chatten" and "power drinks."
Ohne Bedenken (5 Menckestrasse; 49-341/566-2360) is a charming pub in the suburb of Gohlis, once a village where Leipzigers spent the summer. Get there by bus or taxi.
The thronged Hainstrasse has many thrift shops as well as H&M, the European equivalent of the Gap, where you'll find chic, multicolored wool caps and endlessly long and narrow striped scarves at prices starting at $5.
A fascinating antiques shop with good silver and linens is Antiquitäten Hartmut Beier An- und Verkauf (55 Nikolaistrasse; 49-341/980-6666).
CONCERTS AND EVENTS
The Leipzig Tourist Office (1 Richard Wagner Strasse; 49-341/710-4260) is the best place to obtain schedules and tickets for concerts (such as those at the Neues Gewandhaus Hall and at the Opernhaus—facing each other on the massive Augustusplatz—and at the grandly Baroque Gohlis Palace) and other events, such as the horse races at the Scheibenholz Hippodrome. The Leipziger Tanztheater (49-341/338-5530) stages good performances of contemporary dance in "alternative" spaces.