“Where Luther debated, Goethe studied and composed, Napoleon surrendered: Leipzig- a small place where you can experience the whole world.” I remember seeing this quote of questionable translation last year as I trawled through a myriad of travel articles and amateur blogs in my quest to find more out about Leipzig. I didn’t know a lot about the city when I first saw it listed as one of the places we could choose to study in for our Erasmus year. I knew it had been a part of East Germany and that it had been bombed quite heavily during the Second World War, but that was about it. The more I looked into it however, the more it seemed to suit me- its university had a great reputation with a highly acclaimed faculty for foreign languages and translation. The city itself had quite a large student population, partly due to the low rents. It was also a haven for artistic and musical types, having earned the title ‘Hypezig’ in recent years for its artistic and cultural dimension.
When I told people I would be spending my Erasmus year in a city in former East Germany, I was often met with raised eyebrows.
“Do you not want to go and study in the South, where all those nice castles are?” a concerned relative asked me with fervor. “Is East Germany not boring and ugly? Could you not go to the West?”
I could have but I decided to come here instead. Leipzig was attractive to me for so many reasons. Its Soviet past was intriguing, not repelling. I’d always been fascinated by the history of East Germany so shrouded in a tenebrous cloak of espionage as it was, with the Stasi’s censorship and corruption at the fore. Living in a city which used to be behind the wall itself seemed like the best way to embrace its past. Sure enough, I was confronted with its history as soon as I set foot on former GDR soil.
One of the first things I noticed in the historical centre- apart from the smell of sizzling bratwursts- was the sheer contrast between the styles of architecture. Leipzig’s main square, Marktplatz, is dominated by the Old Town Hall. This typical Renaissance building with its pale ochre façade, bell tower and stone columns has stood majestically on this square since the mid-16th century and exudes an aura of statesmanship and old, civic pride. Right around the corner from this however looms a concrete slab of boxy Soviet architecture with airplane sized windows and polystyrene framed plastic front doors, a homage to sixties and seventies Soviet style architecture. Such contrasts in architectural style are visible in all parts of the city and are reminders of just how badly Leipzig was destroyed by air raids during the Second World War.
The air attacks of the Second World War resulted in the deaths of over 1,800 citizens, the destruction of more than half of the university buildings including its library containing centuries old books as well as the Opera House and Concert Hall.
Somewhat miraculously, the Pauliner Kirche, the city’s main Catholic church dating from 1240, remained intact during the air raids. However, while it managed to survive the British and Americans’ explosives and fire bombs, it wouldn’t emerge from the Communist regime unscathed. In May 1968 a decision was made by the Communist SED party that the church would be dynamited to allow for the “redevelopment of the university”. It was destroyed a mere week later, with protesters being arrested in the meantime. Native Leipziger and head of state Walter Ulbricht played a significant part in this decision and grew to be despised among his fellow Leipzigers.
In 2009 the University underwent major redevelopment which included the construction of the ‘Neues Augusteum’, the main university building. The facade plays tribute to the design of the original Paulinum church with ostensibly similar Gothic features such as pointed arches, tracery and rose windows.
Leipzig was surrounded by surface mining and heavy industry, and all buildings were heated with coal during the GDR. Before the fall of the Berlin wall, the SED party had drafted a chilling plan in which they planned to destroy the city of Leipzig by 2010 in order to have complete access to the brown coal which lay under the city’s foundations. Little did they know how developed and globalised the city would have become by this time.
Thankfully Leipzig has come a long way since the repressive, dull days of the Karl Marx Stadt and has seen a lot of developments since its gentrification after the Wall came down. I live on Karl-Liebknecht Straße, or the Karli as it’s better known, a long, lively, tree-lined stretch with trendy bars, restaurants of varying cuisines, French bakeries, Shisha bars and fashion boutiques. This street is the eccentric and arty student hub of the city which is located in the Südvorstadt. In the past month it’s been jolted from the hibernation it fell into during the sub-zero refrigerated winter that unleashed a gripping cold so animate you could feel it follow you to your bed. People are now venturing outside without the sole purpose of having to get to work or college, with locals sitting outside in t-shirts drinking pints of Pils, middle aged women enjoying leisurely breakfasts of crepes or eggs Benedict and young people wolfing down Bun Bo noodles from the Vietnamese restaurant on the corner. Tall, French style 19th Century buildings stand elegantly along the street’s perimeter, with their characteristic long windows, stuccowork and Georgian arches. Goethe said that Leipzig was like a small Paris. The architecture in this part of the city really does give one a sense of French harmony.
Cycle along the lush parkland to the west of the Karli and you’ll end up in Plagwitz, the city’s grungy hipster district. Plagwitz was originally a small village which was industrialized heavily in the mid-1850s by the solicitor Karl Heine. This was achieved by the construction of various canals and factories, as well as new bridges across the White Elster river, thus creating a direct connection between Leipzig and Plagwitz. Of particular importance during this period was the Baumwollspinnerei– a cotton spinning factory. In the 1990s, this vacant factory complex began to be used by artists as studios and workshops. Today you can visit these studios which feature mainly contemporary styles of artwork. The throbbing atrium of Plagwitz is the lively Karl-Heine Straße which runs along the canal. Its graffiti covered cafes and shops give it a somewhat edgy vibe, but it is filled with cosy cafés, kitsch boutiques and fusion restaurants. Some of my favourite haunts are Café Kater which is ideal for a relaxed afternoon sipping coffee and reading a book, Little Italy which serves the nicest pizza I’ve had so far in Leipzig (good pizza is hard to come by in a land synonymous for its schnitzel and soggy pasta) and Salon Casablanca, the local Moroccan restaurant which does a mean tagine. The one place I end up without fail every time I come to Plagwitz is a bookshop just off Karl-Heine Straße where books cost a euro each- I kid you not. The nightlife scene is not to be missed with places like Westwerk, Elipamanoke and Doctor Seltsam offering an alternative experience of going out.
The city also offers an endless list of things to do in your free time with its various green parks offering cycling routes and nature trails, while lakes in the south are the perfect place to go for a dip if the temperature gets too hot. During my first semester I took up canoeing with the university’s sport centre. While it took me a few lessons before I could actually reverse the canoe without paddling in a circle with the radius of a cruise liner, I instantly loved the freedom of being out on the canals, gliding along the water beneath trees that were heaving with autumnal ochre leaves.
I should also mention the university- the main reason why I’m here is to study, after all. Universitat Leipzig offers a wide range of subject choices for students of all disciplines with an extremely high standard of teaching as well as modern facilities and resources. One of the best things about Erasmus is being able to study essentially whatever tickles your fancy- I was lucky enough to have been able to choose basically whatever interested me. My list of modules is somewhat motley this year, featuring everything from beginners’ Russian, psychoanalysis, the Neapolitan Mafia, travel writing, German history, an Irish language course and translating psychology texts from Italian to German. I also have Fridays off, which is ideal. Our university merely requires us to pass our exams which takes a lot of pressure off and allows us maximum time to travel. In spite of all my gallivanting I am confident of passing my exams. But what would happen if I failed? It would be a travesty if I had to repeat my Erasmus year…