March 28th, 2010
Note: this post written on March 19 for posting after we return.
We arrived at Leipzig — surprisingly — about 5 minutes late on Wednesday morning. My friend Brad was at the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (central stration) to meet us. As we walked through the city with him, he commented that I hadn’t yet tried Currywurst, and there was a stand selling them with different levels of spiciness. I tried one and liked it; Terah was afraid to touch them. After a light lunch with Brad and Anna, we went back into town and saw the Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument to the Battle of the Nations). We were warned that it was weird and ugly. And when we arrived, I noticed that it was enormous. And, well, somewhat ugly. And, yes, weird.
After that, we walked through the old trade fair grounds. Leipzig has a long history as a trade center, and after they built the new trade fair grounds, the old ones were reused for other things — except for the old Soviet building, which is now both gaudy and abandoned. We picked up Fritzi, who is a very cute 4 years old, from preschool and returned to their house for supper.
After that, Brad and I went back into town, intending to hear a reading at the old city pool. When we realized it was a different day, we walked around the city center for awhile and then had a beer at a — yes — combination cafe/laundromat.
Thursday was our day to explore the city. Brad showed us a couple of buildings in the university, including the library, then dropped us off at St. Thomaskirche. That’s the church where J. S. Bach was music director for many years, and was buried. Like so many, it was impressive in its height and history.
Next we went to the Stasi museum. The Stasi were the feared and powerful East German secret police during the Communist times. The museum itself was housed in the former Stasi headquarters for Leipzig and was involved with the history of the overthrow of the Communists. The museum covered a lot of the history of the Stasi, including its frantic last days during the 1989 revolution. The level of spying on people was incredible and sophisticated, and they tried to destroy records as the overthrow of the government was imminent.
One of the offices in the inner part of the building was left untouched from the Communist years, right down to the typewriter and coffee machine.
After that, we went to the Altes Rathaus (old city hall or townhouse, built in 1556) to do a bit of shopping. Terah was wanting some souvenirs, and I had spotted a shop I thought she might like when walking through the city with Brad the night before. We had already bought some souvenirs at the Schloss Charlottenburg museum store in Berlin (some East German-style crosswalk fridge magnets, and a decorative egg), but wanted something a bit nicer for us and were on the lookout for gifts for others too. We wound up buying a wood carved church scene with a woven wheat tree for us, and another item for others. The shopkeeper spoke no English, and my German vocabulary is small, but we managed to communicate the question of whether or not she could wrap it up in a box for our trip home — and she could, and did. Excellent. (I didn’t know how to ask about box, but knew how to say that we were Americans, and with a fair bit of gesturing all around, managed to get the idea across.)
Then we went in the Altes Rathaus itself, which was both a museum and an interesting cultural experience. We bought our tickets at the booth downstairs, then went upstairs to the entrance. We asked for the English audio guide, which is very common at museums in Germany. (They are small digital audio players that contain recorded information; each room or display has a number you can key in to hear about it in your own language.) We got it, and were told in incredible detail how to use it, even though they are quite easy to figure out and we had used them before. The museum employee told us where the audio tour starts, and in what order it usually goes, which was an effort for her given her limited English. But we all understood and went on our way.
It wasn’t even 5 minutes later when she had left her desk and came over to us. She was slightly alarmed at two things: one that we didn’t have the volume at full blast (which was loud enough for the entire room to hear), and secondly that we weren’t looking at the exhibits in the proper order. Never mind that it’s easy enough to pull up the audio information about any room just by keying in the number posted in it, I guess. Anyhow, we sort of inwardly shrugged, let her turn the volume up to “potentially disturbing the other visitors” level, and went through the museum in the order she wanted us to. (Note that this wasn’t a museum where there is a one-way flow of traffic or something; you walk into one exhibit, back to the main hall, and then pick your next one.) So we went through the rest of the museum with our English audioguide blaring throughout the large, echoing, wood rooms, feeling a bit rude to the other visitors (maybe 5 of them while we were there) due to its volume.
Anyhow, the Altes Rathaus was beautiful and interesting, covering mainly the pre-industrial history of Leipzig. We learned about some of the guilds, the city treasury (vault), and where the town council/parliament met along with rich merchants. There were about as many museum guards as visitors there, and one or two of them sort of followed us around, pointing out the large and completely obvious signs with audio guide numbers in the rooms for us. They are serious about their audio guides in Leipzig.
I’m glad we went, and I’m glad we had the experience we did, too. Terah told me later that she felt reprimanded about the audio guide and visiting order. My take on it was a bit different: the museum is impressive and interesting, but obviously not visited by tourists as much as museums in other cities, or even touristy sites like Thomaskirche in Leipzig. I think they they noticed two people, obviously very foreign (speaking only a little German, and with an American accent) with an interest in their city’s history, and took pride in making sure we got the most of our visit and learned as much as possible about something they care about.
Here is the main hall of the Altes Rathaus.
We met up with Brad in a cafe near St. Thomaskirche for coffee and cake, then it was on to St. Nikolaikirche (the Church of St. Nicholas), the other large church in town. We stepped out of a passageway to face the large building, and walked in. The interior was decorated in pastels, and was also beautiful and historic. I can’t get enough of that sort of building, I think. This building was especially important because it was the site of organizing for the Monday evening protests against the Communist government in 1989. People met at the church, sang a few hymns (to qualify it as a religious service, perhaps), then organized their protest for the evening. Sometimes they would wind through city streets and put flowers at the Stasi headquarters steps, and once the citizens actually overtook the Stasi headquarters.
After awhile we grabbed a bit more for lunch: a pretzel for Terah and a Currywurst for me. (This one wasn’t spicy and wasn’t all that good.) Then we went to the GDR museum, which was large and interesting, but unfortunately for us, completely in German with no English guide available.
That evening, we went to a Bach concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, celebrating Bach’s 325th birthday. That was fun, and a neat experience with such good music in a very nice venue. The program included Bach’s Suite for Orchestra no. 1 in C Major (BWV 1066), Concerto for Violin no. 2 in E major (BWV 1042), Ich habe genug (BWV 82), and Suite for Orchestra no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069). Sir Roger Norrington was conducting, and was rather fun and atypical to watch. He had the audience chuckling a few times with his minimalist conducting — or perhaps his flamboyant gestures. Anyhow, the music was excellent and the tickets included free passage on the public transit system 3 hours before and after the concert — a nice touch.
Due to our schedule, we didn’t spend much time with Fritzi, but we did get to play with her a bit. She likes to pretend to be a shopkeeper, and had her “store” all ready to lay out. We would ask her for some items, which she’d put in a basket for us, and then of course there would be a child’s twist: we’d get our items, and she’d pay us for them too.
Terah and I brought some books for Fritzi. The particularly enjoyed Goodnight Moon because inside it is an picture of The Runaway Bunny, which she already had. Fritzi chose one of her books to give to Jacob — it was a German book (Maulwurf) based on a Czech cartoon mole. That was nice of her, and Jacob really liked it (I’ll write about that later).
We had a good time in Leipzig, and I was getting fairly good at navigating downtown and with the trams — and then, of course, it was time to move on. So Friday morning we caught our 7:50 train from the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. We took the ICE train to Dresden, then walked a few feet to get onto the EC to Prague. That was a bit of a funny experience. The ICE trains are all sleek, modern, meticulously maintained, and the passengers tend to be very quiet. Talking is barely above a whisper, and people seem alarmed if their cell phone rings, even outside the quiet car. The EC passenger car appears to have been built, or last renovated, in the 1970s, and may have been Hungarian. The seats and curtains are old and faded; some of the seat backs have rips in the vinyl headrests. People were talking or eating loudly, in a very different setting than on the ICE train.
As we rode along, we were on the right side the river Elbe for many miles. The scenery was beautiful, with small houses in the river valley, and the occasional house up in the hillside. At one point (a bit before we passed through Königstein on the way to the Bad Schandau stop), we spotted what looked like an old walled city up on the hill. I figured out later that it was Festung Königstein (Königstein Fortress).
Update: I forgot to mention a couple of things about Leipzig. One was our walk through a forest — yes, a forest in the city. That was a nifty, quiet, and pleasant surprise. Secondly was seeing all the DDR apartment blocks, where the apartments evidently were quite literally blocks. It is interesting to see the Communist architecture.