Leipzig is hot. It’s Saxony’s fastest-growing city (Germany’s too). And that’s par for the course. Talk about creativity, from art to music to social reform. Where else can you enjoy an orchestral performance in the train station, part of the Bach in the Subways movement? A sidewalk rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the tuba? Or a concert in St. Thomas, the church where Bach worked as cantor—boss of music—for 27 years (after Telemann turned down the job), also serving as dorm master for its famed boys’ choir and composing a cantata for virtually every Sunday service? Fittingly, he’s buried in the nave and his statue reigns outside, across the cobblestones from the Bach Museum. It houses his organ console, many manuscripts, the family tree compiled by the composer, and listening stations galore.
Mendelssohn, himself a fan, launched the Bach revival. Visit this composer’s house-turned-museum to spot his writing desk and piano, the compelling watercolors he painted while abroad, and a model of the famed Gewandhaus concert hall, where he served as longtime conductor. In the museum’s most popular room you, too, can conduct. Choose a composition (mine: his “Reformation Symphony”) and regulate the tempo, volume, and performance of each instrument as the score moves along on your music stand. (Unlike Mendelssohn, I failed to win a contract.) His statue was destroyed by the Nazis (he was born Jewish), but in 2008 a replica to honor him returned.
The man for whom that great “Reformation Symphony” was named passed through Leipzig on frequent visits. Martin Luther, who famously broke with the Catholic Church, for which he’d served as a priest, took part here in the Disputation of 1519, debating the differences between his view and the church’s. He won. When the reformer returned in 1539 to preach at St. Thomas, the church was so packed that folks climbed ladders to the open windows. In 1545 he came back to re-consecrate the University Church as Lutheran. Centuries later, the Communist GDR government shocked Leipzigers by dynamiting the holy site (now being restored).
Speaking of the GDR: Leipzig can claim honors as the start of the peaceful revolution leading to the fall of the Berlin wall. Regular Monday protest meetings in St. Nicholas Church erupted into a demonstration march in 1989 that ignited the whole of East Germany. To understand their grievances, visit the former Stasi headquarters, a dreary, dreaded setting of interrogation rooms with no door handles, wiretapping equipment, hidden surveillance cameras, ways to spy on those church meetings, and demoralization techniques to turn citizens into informers.
The far more cheerful Fine Arts Museum holds masterpieces by Lucas Cranach, Luther’s buddy, and modern masters like Emil Nolde with his vivid colors. For the art of tomorrow, head to Spinnerei, a former cotton mill where a hundred artists fill studios and galleries, along with restaurants, theater, and shopping opps.
And now for my favorite art form. When it comes to dining, Leipzig doesn’t disappoint. Watch the passing parade on Market Square at the al fresco tables of Weinstock, inhaling asparagus soup bouncing with wild-garlic capelli, then—’tis the season—spargel! That glorious white asparagus is served classically with boiled potatoes and oceans of hollandaise. The trout’s delicious, too. And so’s the spargel at Coffe Baum, the oldest coffeehouse in all Germany, where composer Robert Schumann sipped many a kleine tasse. Even more venerable: Auersbachs Keller, a convivial beer hall where Luther visited and Goethe hung out. (You’ll spot it by the statue of a leering Mephistopheles.) If they were smart, they ordered the tender boar served with red cabbage and dumplings as big as my head.
Torgau, an hour northeast of Leipzig, is a town Luther called “more beautiful than Bible times.” Lush with Gothic and Renaissance edifices, it boasts a fairytale castle (bears in the moat!) owned by one of Martin’s supporters. It includes a jewel-like chapel—the first Protestant church to be consecrated by the Reformation. (Yup: Luther did the deed.)
However, it’s his wife Katharina (a former nun whose convent escape he aided) who’s Torgau’s VIP. Visit the home she occupied as a widow, with replica of her bonnet and wedding ring. Stop for lunch at the café named for her, Herr Kathe. (Guess who wore the pants in the family?) Then visit her grave in St. Mary’s Church, which also boasts a Cranach masterpiece.
If Leipzig bustles, Dresden preens. Its ruling elector, Augustus, upgraded it from a dozing town to “the Florence on the River Elbe” with art collections housed in ultra-gorgeous Baroque palaces. All that glory turned to dust when the Allies carpet-bombed the city in the last days of World War II. It’s been painstakingly recreated, starting with the Royal Palace housing Augustus’s acquisitions, ranging from weapons (“the ornaments of power”) to royal garb to weirdly wonderful collections of gold, ivory, precious jewels, and, of course, art with a capitol A. The Alte Meister collection boasts all the bold names, from Cranach (natch) to Raphael, Rembrandt to Vermeer.
Nearby, the esteemed Semper Opera House (Wagner’s home turf) has been rebuilt in all its splendor (lots of it fake, as you’ll learn on a guided tour). A former stable wall now sports the “Procession of Princes” mural, made of countless tiles of precious Meissen porcelain. Stroll by it en route to the heart and soul of the city, the beloved Frauenkirche, a white-and-gold wedding cake put back together from a heap of rubble, in the style of Martin Luther: altar and pulpit in the middle, accessible to all.
Then, for those who wish, cross over to the dark side: recent history that needs to be remembered in order not to repeat itself. A bench on the elegant river promenade bears a sign forbidding Jews to sit. A nearby synagogue has been rebuilt after destruction, with a six-armed menorah representing the six million lost. It stands in the shadow of the former Gestapo HQ.
Tour guide Seema Prakash (seemydresden.com), a trained psychologist, explains the calculated rise of Hitler and what drove the maniac. She explores history’s next chapter at the Stasi Museum, housed in its former prison, whose personnel were guided by resident Putin of the KGB. Providing a wider picture, Starchitect Daniel Libiskind has designed the Military History Museum to examine war. He’s taken a Baroque mansion and pierced it with a huge steel structure, to show what war does: upset and destroy. Chambers deal with war music, dress (bomber jackets, trench coats become civilian wear), toys (“to buy or not to buy, that is the question”), movies, and more.
Food for thought. Food for the body is happier to come by. Dine elegantly near Augustus’s palaces at Alte Meister, a modern setting where it’s easy to overdose on lamb chops in sour cherry sauce; mango-lemongrass soup with duck bonbon; and chocolate-currant cannelloni presented with gin and tonic granite. For a divine descent into grandma’s cooking, seek Kurfurstenschanke, occupying a sweet building of 1708, a dumpling’s toss from the Frauenkirche, where liver cooked with stewed pears vies with sauerbraten and schnitzel to seduce your palate.
Should you prefer it on fine china, then head to Meissen, an hour distant, and home to arguably the world’s finest porcelain. Watch workshop artisans form leaves as tiny as a teardrop, times about a million, to complete a decorative piece, then ogle others in the museum-like displays. Reserve a spot in Restaurant Meissen for a spot of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate with lessons on their origin and status while eating as many cream puffs and macarons as you can manage, all served on the elite china.
This wasn’t the first operation. Albrechtsburg Castle was standing empty, so why not install a factory, the boss of Saxony decided, after his alchemist failed to turn dross into gold but hit on porcelain instead. Tour that 15th century hilltop castle, Germany’s oldest, then the cathedral of 1266 beside it to overdose on more Cranachs and, at noon, an organ concert. Then scamper across the cobblestones to restaurant Domkeller, whose vista-spanning outdoor balcony spurs many a Kodak moment while gobbling goulash and spargel and schnitzel, all the better for a glass of local Riesling, such as that of nearby Wackerbarth Winery, open to tour and linger for dinner.
Who says you can’t have it all? They’ve never visited Saxony. To prove it, visit www.saxonytourism.com. In Leipzig, where tolerance is table stakes, the gay scene is hot and young. Check out Europe’s biggest gay sauna, Stargayte, which includes a cinema and bar, open nonstop Friday afternoon through Monday morning. Or investigate the popular party series Pony Club with its big-city gay scene. Queer night KissKissBangBang takes place at Club TwentyOne every second Friday.