My Saxon friend (and here, in Leipzig, in the heart of Saxony, he is a Saxon first, German second) raises his beer glass, clinks it with mine… “Prost!”
Around us, there is a hubbub of laughter and conversation and waiters hurry to and fro (what else would you expect from the Germans?) serving the hundreds of guests under the high vaulted ceiling of the cellar.
Within minutes, our orders arrive – schnitzels, accompanied by creamed spinach, potatoes, and the speciality of the region, spargle. This is long, white and thick asparagus, accompanied by hollandaise sauce. It’s delicious.
For 500 years, diners, revellers and tourists have been supping in Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig, one of the most historic and atmospheric eating places on the planet. There’s even a well-known German saying which recognises this: “He who has been to Leipzig and not been to Auerbach’s Cellar has not been to Leipzig…” That, admittedly, is a rough translation, but it underlines the importance of the restaurant in the life of the city.
Auerbach’s Cellar has been there since the 1400s, when it was a cheap and convivial haunt for students of the university in the city – one of the oldest in Europe.
The legend has it that the cellar was the site of the bizarre witchcraft wrought by the alchemist Dr Johann Georg Faust.
The story goes that Faust, accompanied by some students, witnessed porters struggling to move a huge barrel of wine. The innkeeper, seeing the amusement of Faust and his companions, offered to donate the barrel to any man who could move it by himself.
This the alchemist duly did, by mounting the barrel, horse-riding style, and flying up and away. The only way he could have achieved this, so the legend goes, is because he made a pact with Mephistopheles (the Devil) where he traded his soul for the extraordinary powers.
That legend was known to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who studied in Leipzig between 1765 and 1768 and who frequented Auerbach’s Cellar. Goethe’s later classic work, Faust, included the wine barrel-riding scene.
Today, Auerbach’s Cellar is where it always has been, though renovated and modernised over the years. You walk down from the Adler’s Passage (Adler’s Arcade) into the cellar – and into history.
But it is like that all over Leipzig, one of the most historic cities in all of Germany. It was always a prominent landmark, because it was situated at the junction of two major trade routes and was, for hundreds of years, a city of trade, offering some of the world’s first trade fairs.
As the city grew, it became a city of culture and education and became one of the richest cities in Europe.
It is perhaps best known for its music, for it was here that Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy settled and wrote their immortal pieces. The St Thomas Church (the Thomaskirche) is home to the oldest choir in the world, which has been singing constantly since 1212.
The intellectual ferment of the city drew many: apart from Goethe, Schiller, Liebnitz, Nietsche and others worked and studied there. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, gave one of his world-changing sermons in the Thomaskirche in 1549… and the days of the domination of the Roman Catholic Church were numbered.
The city was the site of one of the most important battles in European history in 1813, when a combined force of armies from Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden went up against the French army of Napoleon in what was the biggest land battle in Europe until the World War I.
More than 600 000 troops from all sides were involved, and there were more than 100 000 deaths – but the allies forced Napoleon to withdraw and so began the process which would lead eventually to the French emperor’s defeat and his exile to the island of Elba.
Not far from the city centre is the monument erected in commemoration at that battle, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, which is the biggest monument in Europe and is said to have been part of the inspiration for our own Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The Völkerschlachtdenkmal is 91 metres high and there are 500 steps up to the viewing platform, from where one gets spectacular views of Leipzig.
But it is the modern history of Leipzig, and of what used to be the area of the communist-ruled German Democratic Republic (GDR) which fascinates me.
Our guide Birgit takes us to the impressive baroque-design Nikolaikirche (the St Nicholas Church) which, apart from being the venue for amazing organ recitals (don’t miss this if you are a fan of music); was the place where the “Peaceful Revolution” against Communism gained real impetus in 1989.
For decades, communist regimes in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) had seen popular uprisings… and put them down ruthlessly, with the help of their comrades in Moscow. In 1989, regular gatherings began outside the Nikolaikirche, following the “prayers for peace” movement which started spontaneously in response to the increasing militarization of Europe by both the Soviet and Nato.
The prayers for peace quickly became political, as posters proclaiming “Out with the Stasi” and “We are the people” were displayed.
On October 9, more than 70 000 people gathered outside the church and then took to the streets in rolling mass action. The following week, there were 120 000 marchers – and the GDR plutocrats realised their police and troops would not open fire on their own people. The dam was cracked – and would burst less than a month later when East Germans poured across the border into West Berlin… and the hated wall (and whole system) began to be dismantled.
There are two museums in Leipzig which capture those times – and should be a must for any visitor interested in the history of those times: The Stasi Museum and the one dedicated to the “ Peaceful Revolution”. The Stasi museum is a chilling reminder of how the GDR’s secret police so deeply infiltrated the national psyche, with as many as one in eight East Germans becoming (willingly or unwillingly) informers who passed along information on their family and friends.
Birgit – who lost her job in the construction industry (which collapsed along with communism in the GDR) and then retrained as a tour guide – shares a personal observation about the Stasi and its ways. She obtained her own official Stasi file after making an application in the 1990s… and discovered her friend’s husband had been giving the secret police information on her for years.
She shares the story – and some honest assessments of the tough times all Germany went through in the 1990s and 2000s as they rebuilt their country (at a total cost of about n1.9 trillion) and healed the wounds of the past.
There are signs all around Leipzig of how things have changed, and you have to remind yourself that this was once ruled by communists.
The city’s train station – said to be the biggest in Europe – was the site of a n500 billion development in the 2000s which established a multi-level shopping mall and parking garages. Buildings in the city centre have been restored or built from scratch, including the massive Opera House and the Gewandhaus, site of musical recitals and plays.
Outside the city, open cast coal mine pits have been transformed into lakes – and are now the site of great recreational opportunities, ranging from sailing to white water rafting (on an Olympic standard artificial course) and trips in a World War II amphibious land craft.
Also well worth considering if you’re a car fan, or Porsche owner, is a tour of the Porsche factory which was set up in the early 2000s to assemble the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sports saloon. You can have an excellent lunch and then tour the factory or, for a fee (ranging from n350 and up for a two- to four-hour experience) experience track performance with a drive in a Cayenne, Panamera, or even in the iconic 911.
Leipzig is a surprise of a city. It is as full of history and culture as any European city, its food (and particularly its confectionary and cakes) are stunning; it has a comprehensive and efficient public transport system and has beauty spots and sporting opportunities within easy reach.
To paraphrase that saying: If you haven’t been to Leipzig, you haven’t been to Germany…
lwww.leipzig.travel; www.leipzig.de; Flights: www.lufthansa.com Train travel: Deutsche Bahn – www.bahn.com - Saturday Star