In ‘Faust’, Goethe’s masterpiece, one of the characters calls Leipzig ‘little Paris,’ for its beauty and love of arts. Long hidden behind the Iron Curtain, in communist East Germany, Leipzig’s beauty can now be seen again by the whole world.
Art is everywhere in the city, even my hotel doubled as an art gallery for local artists. I’m no big fan of modern art, but the paintings I saw were striking; I almost bought one to bring home. Most of the artists shown were from the Leipzig School of Arts, a term describing the generation that emerged in the 1990s, during Germany’s post-reunification euphoria. Among them is world-famous painter Neo Rauch.
Leipzig has always been an art center. The city’s best-known son is Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque 1700’s composer known for outstanding instrumental pieces. He was master of the choir at Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church) from 1723 until his death in 1750, and his choir is still going strong today, with 100 boys aged eith to 18. Bach’s remains were buried in the church, near the altar. The place was empty the day I visited and I had an eerie sensation of being alone with Bach.
Right across Thomaskirche is the Bach Museum, showing his extraordinary life and works with sound and multimedia stations. The museum also displays Bach’s family tree, a group of great importance in the history of music for nearly 200 years, with more than 50 musicians and composers.
Something that surprised me in Leipzig was the cutting-edge technology seen everywhere, from train stations to hotel rooms. I felt like a barbarian in my sleek hotel: from a self-cleaning toilet that at first scared the heck out of me, to the way the water drained in the shower, everything was super modern and efficient. The same was true for roads, trains and cars all over Germany, by the way; the country is undoubtedly the most technologically advanced I’ve seen.
As much as I appreciate good engineering (my uncle Sady Hartmann was a great engineer and liked to explain how things work), my passion is art, and Leipzig is a treasure trove for art lovers. Besides Bach, the city gave Germany its number one contribution to world literature, the great philosophical poetic novel called Faust.
Written by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805, the book was conceived in a restaurant called Auerbachs Keller, still open in Leipzig and one of Germany’s best-known restaurants. The scene in the book describing an encounter between Faust and Mephistopheles is depicted on a carved tree trunk in the room where Goethe, allegedly, got the inspiration for his masterpiece. Auerbachs Keller is nothing special as a restaurant, but I couldn’t pass the chance to see Goethe’s favorite room. ” Who knows,” I joked with my waiter, “maybe his genius will rub off on me.”
Leipzig has also been important politically; it was where Communism in East Germany first started to crumble. Despite religion being outlawed by the regime, the ‘peace prayers’ of Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church), started in 1982, eventually brought down the Iron Curtain. The nonviolent movement culminated with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, in 1990. I particularly love the story that the praying group of Nikolaikirche used to leave messages in front of the STASI building, home to the powerful and feared secret service police that spied on its own people. But instead of attacking, the group invited the STASI officers to join them in prayers. And one day, to everyone’s surprise, that was exactly what the STASI did.