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Sunday, July 6, 2003
LINGERING IN LEIPZIG
The linden city turns over a new leaf
By YOKO HANI
LEIPZIG, Germany -- German cities, even the larger ones, are associated with -- among other things German -- linden trees. In addition to the memory of Frankfurt's linden-lined streets, I remember a joyous summer evening in the city a few years ago when I had supper out in the courtyard of a local restaurant, under a canopy of linden trees.
Revisiting Germany recently, my destination was truly the country's most famous linden city: Leipzig.
Located in southeast Germany and an hour's flight from Frankfurt, Leipzig is a city with more than a 1,000-year history, dating back to its founding by the Sorbs, a group of Slavic settlers, who named it "Lipzk," meaning "place of limes (linden)."
Leipzig has since grown to become one of the three principal cities in Saxony, along with Dresden and Chemniz, while playing an important role in Europe's commercial and intellectual history. The city's present population of 520,000 outnumbers that of Dresden, the state capital.
These days, this historic town is best known for the church of St. Nicholas, founded in 1165, which played a key role in the German reunification of 1990. Under the repressive East German regime, the church became the venue for peaceful protest. These gatherings took the form of prayer services, held every Monday during the late '80s. The Monday services stirred the public conscience, eventually giving rise to the Peaceful Revolution of autumn 1989 and paving the way for German reunification a year later.
The church -- now undergoing major renovation -- stands solemn and still in the center of town, as if to suggest that the dismantling of the Berlin Wall is but one of the world-changing events that it has witnessed in its long history. The church is a monument both to Leipzig's past and present -- a reminder to the city of its notable history and recent renaissance.
Stroll through the downtown area -- it takes about half an hour to walk around -- and you will clearly recognize the legacy of the former East German regime. If you venture into back alleys, you will notice abandoned and ruined apartments, sometimes standing beside or across from beautifully renovated housing complexes.
The town is changing fast -- too fast, for some of the locals. One resident told me she had bought rolls of film from a camera store, only to find on her return from vacation two weeks later, that the shop had moved as part of the city's redevelopment plans.
If you stand in the heart of town, in front of the 446-year-old Old City Hall, you'll see a typical European market square -- colorful stalls hawking flowers and vegetables to shoppers -- but what I noticed more was the huge construction site standing right in front of it. Tall cranes were at work helping build a shopping complex in the place of what was once a trade fair building in the East German era.
To get a glimpse of Leipzig's historic side, visit the church of St. Thomas, also surrounded by beautiful linden trees. A landmark of the city, St. Thomas' is famous for its honorable association with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who served as the choirmaster of the Thomaner Choir for 27 years, from 1723 till his death in 1750. Today, the Bach museum -- showcasing the life and times of the celebrated composer -- stands just opposite the church.
As I walked into the museum, where Baroque music concerts are held weekly, the peaceful atmosphere was palpable. The sounds of the cembalo and flute from Bach's days take visitors back to the time when such a delicate, soft sound was widely appreciated. The place gives visitors the impression that Bach's music is safe here, that it will be played in Leipzig for centuries to come.
In the past, however, Bach performances haven't always enjoyed an uninterrupted run in Leipzig, says Akio Paul Takano, PR officer for the Leipzig Bach Festival, an annual Bach event. The program of the 100-year-old festival has sometimes been affected by war or tinted with East German propaganda, promoting musicians from Russia and East Germany, Takano says.
"When we resumed the Bach festival in 1994, for the first time since the unification, Bach fans crowded this place from around the world," Takano says. "This may sound strange, but Leipzig can be called the 'Mecca of Bach.' "
People in this town of Bach also take pride and joy in local cuisine, making the most of fresh vegetables such as white asparagus. This vegetable, in particular, lends a beautiful ivory color to the spring menu at restaurants like Coffe Baum. Reputed to be the oldest coffee-drinking establishment in Germany and the second-oldest cafe in Europe, at Coffe Baum, you can enjoy the experience of dining where Robert Schumann (1810-1856) once did.
Virtually rubbing shoulders with history's most notable figures is not, however, such an unusual thing for the cheerful local people. In fact, Goethe, the father of German literature, also studied here, describing the city as a "little Paris."
Conversation at the many eateries in the city is often dominated these days by discussions about Leipzig's renovation drive, which is timely as the city is about to host a number of significant international events. In 2006, Leipzig will be one of the venues for the World Cup soccer finals, held in Germany. A soccer stadium with 45,000 seats is now under construction on the outskirts of the city. Also, the city was chosen in April as the German candidate to host the 2012 Olympic games. Candidate cities from around the world will compete for this honor in two years. If Leipzig wins, the people of this old linden town -- who already have so much culture and history to speak of -- will have exciting new things to talk about over their coffees.