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City Living: Twin cities: All change; Feature writer of the year Mel Hunter discovers music, culture, and a healthy tradition of eating and drinking in Leipzig, the last stop in her series on cities twinned with Birmingham.

Byline: Mel Hunter

'Change is the main word for the situation in Leipzig,' says Kirstin Kirmes, speaking from Leipzig City Council. If Leipzig was left in the starting blocks for much of the last century, it has taken on the 21st century in leaps and bounds.

One of its former students, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, called the city a 'little Paris' and, indeed, Leipzig's residents are justly proud of its traditions of intellectualism and culture. Bookish it is. The tradition started back in the 15th century when printers and sellers from across Europe brought printed material into the city and the first book was printed in Leipzig itself in 1481.

By 1530, 1,300 books had been printed and the book fair, where publications from all over Europe were bought and sold, gained a significance of its own.

This literary tradition permeates the city, including the restaurant Auerbachs Keller, made famous in Goethe's dramatic poem Faust. Murals in the restaurant carry 19th century versions of scenes from the drama and a huge barrel is a replica of the one on which Faust rode from the cellar in 1525.

Continuing the literary theme, Leipzig has the not inconsiderable claim to fame that the first newspaper in the world was printed there in 1660. Today Leipzig is keeping up this media tradition. It boasts one of the most modern newspaper printing works in Europe, is the home of Central German Radio and is a major meeting point for telecommunications in Germany. It hopes this will stand it in good stead for developing into one of Europe's major media cities.

Intellectually, it is also still going strong. The university has always played an important role, boasting Nobel Prize winners among its alumni.

For today's city dwellers, culture is also in good supply. Interestingly, it is cabaret that has made a name for the city. Several satirical cabarets have become well established, helping Leipzig to become known as the 'Cabaret Capital' - a dubious accolade if ever there was one!

On a more highbrow note, the composer Felix Mendelssohn founded the first German Conservatory in Leipzig which is today the College of Music and Theatre.

The Leipzig Opera dates back to 1693, which makes it the second oldest musical stage in Germany. Showing, though, that it has lost none of its sparkle, it was twice honoured as European opera house of the year during the 1990s.

The city also has one of the best ballet companies in Europe, a children's choir and a ballet school.

Music is sewn into the fabric of city life, a fact reflected in the numerous amateur choirs that meet in their spare time to perform at various functions throughout the year. These include the Battle of Leipzig Monument Choir and the Leipzig Synagogue Choir, which is devoted to keeping Jewish songs alive. In the past, the city was home to one of the most famous choral composers - Johann Sebastian Bach, who was organist and concertmaster at St Thomas's church.

For the dramatic arts, there is the Leipzig Playhouse and the Theater der Jungen Welt, the oldest German-language theatre for children and young people.

For something a bit more avant-garde, the Lofft Theatre is described rather alarmingly as a 'living theatre for experiments with theatre aesthetics of the future and explosive productions.' It sounds like something that has to be seen to be believed.

Day-to-day life is becoming almost as exciting, according to Kirstin Kirmes, of Leipzig City Council. 'Changes are challenges and you can see such a challenge in the Plagwitz quarter, in the west of Leipzig. In former times it was the centre of Leipzig industry, now the factories are being removed and being replaced with other functions: living, shopping and working in small businesses.'

The change is perhaps most reflected in the shift in working practices. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, about 120,000 residents worked in industry. Today the figure is more like 15,000. Most people are employed in engineering, biotechnology and new media.

Outside work, Leipzig residents have full access to the fundamentals in life - food and drink. Mr Starbucks may think he invented the coffee shop, but Leipzig residents know otherwise. The city's Coffe Baum is the oldest surviving coffee house and restaurant in Europe. The coffee house tradition is still maintained in various traditional cafes in the city and is being revived by the new coffee houses as well - it seems that Mr Starbucks and Mr Costa might have caught up with Leipzig after all.

For those who like their ale - and, let's face it, the Germans didn't get their beer-swilling reputation for nothing - the 'tavern mile', known as Drallewatsch, runs along Fleischergasse. One particular speciality is Leipzig - a fermented beer that used to be brewed by Leipzig residents themselves. The tradition was almost lost until an enterprising local landlord revived it.

One of the most popular nightspots for city dwellers is an underground student club. The Moritz-bastei, at the foot of the university tower, extends to three floors underground and was dug out by Leipzig University students between 1974 and 1976. Today the cellar club is made up of several vaults and rooms and offers a programme ranging from concerts to exhibition openings. On the roof in the summer there are plays, concerts and films, while in the autumn the city plays host to the Leipzig Jazz Festival.

Other festivals keep residents and visitors on their toes throughout the year. In October the Laughter Fair attracts cabaret and theatre groups to Leipzig, making it the largest event of its kind in the world. Makers of film documentaries meet at the end of October for the International Leipzig Festival for Documentaries and Animated Films; and twice a year, in November and May, the largest pub festival in Europe, Honky Tonk, has 100 bands performing in venues across the city - from the less salubrious pubs to top-notch restaurants.

Shopping is perhaps not something you would rate particularly highly in a former Eastern bloc country, but Leipzig is fast catching up with the rest of Europe with its department stores and new shopping malls.

Perhaps its strongest point, however, is that it has managed to cling on to the market traditions that many more developed cities have lost (and are now desperately trying to get back). A favourite with citizens are the stalls in the market square on Tuesdays and Fridays, where growers from surrounding areas sell their goods, fresh from the farm.

Leipzig Factfile

Leipzig is a city with half a million residents. Five per cent of them are foreign

Leipzig's station is the largest rail terminus in Europe with 27 platforms

Composer Richard Wagner (1813-83) was born in Leipzig

Last year was the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death.

The composer lived in Leipzig for 27 years and is buried in the Thomaskirche

Bach has a statue outside the Thomaskirche - the guides say his pockets are always turned out because with 20 children to support, he was always broke


Main picture: The new Leipzig Exhibition Centre; inset far left, St Thomas's Church where the composer J S Bach was organist and choirmaster; left, St Nicholas's Church, focal point for the city's peace prayers before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 18, 2001
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