Arriving in the outskirts of Leipzig in the old East Germany, it's easy to lose the city of Bach, Goethe, Schiller, Wagner, Schumann and Mendelssohn in the greyness that persists from Communist times. Travel further in, however, and its historic riches are revealed. Leipzig is Prague before it became fashionable; an architectural jewel that is still affordable and authentic. Named after the linden tree, Leipzig was built in Roman times on a swamp at a crossroads of the Via Imperii and the Via Regia. A trading centre, it became, in 1497, the first German town to win the right back from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I to hold a trade fair, and it was its trade-fair tradition that helped to create the city's unique system of 18th- and 19th-century arcades.
Come by train and it will deliver you to the Hauptbahnhof, into the buzz of the world's largest dead-end passenger station (and one of Europe's largest railway termini) with 26 platforms. It's a massive monument of early 20th-century architecture.
These days, as much building is going on in Leipzig as as in Berlin; everybody is striving to embrace capitalism. My indefatigable guide, Birgit, had lived through 40 years of communism and talked about waiting 15 years for a car, and five for a phone. Food and heating were lacking, and the friendly neighbour might have been spying for the Stasi.
One centre of the peaceful revolution of 1989 was the Nikolaikirche. Founded in 1165, the church is a dark, dull medieval hulk from the outside but inside all pinks, greens and golds with Corinthian columns of palms reaching the Neo-classical ceiling. Nikolaikirche contains the Nail Cross of Coventry, made from pieces of the city after it was bombed during the Second World War. It was here, every Monday from 1982, that the pastor held peace prayers which became the focus for discontent in the old GDR (German Democratic Republic). After the fake election of May 1989, the Stasi arrested hundreds of protesters and closed the roads, and desperate people converged on the church. On the night of 9 October, thousands of people gathered in the square outside and lit candles, while troops and military police trained their guns on them. The peacefulness of the protest was what gave it its power, and not a shot was fired.
The history of other ages is here too, but it's not treated too solemnly. Opposite Nikolaikirche is the former St Nikolai school, attended by Wagner but now containing a nice bar run by some of Leipzig's 40,000 students. Local beer includes the Leipziger Gose and delicious black beer.
Leading off the square is Speck's Hof, one of the famous Leipzig passage ways. Built so that during the trade fairs the carts could be loaded and unloaded without having to turn them around, each of these inter-connecting walkways seems to have its own unique character. Just outside Specks Hof is the decorative Riquet café, reputed to sell Leipzig's best coffee. Around the corner is the Old Town Hall, containing the only authentic portrait of Bach painted while he was alive (the US one, says Birgit, is a fake). Next to the Town Hall, the old Stock Exchange is a beautiful Baroque building with Goethe's statue resolutely facing the city's bars outside.
Nearby Barthel's Hof contains Leipzig's oldest Renaissance buildings, described by Goethe as "whole cities in themselves". The Barthels restaurant here is the city's oldest, with Saxon specialities on the menu. Madler Passage is a must, not least for Auerbach's Keller, the ancient restaurant where Goethe set one of the chapters in Faust, and the Mephisto bar, one of Germany's best - according to Playboy magazine
We were entranced by St Thomas Church where JS Bach spent 27 years as cantor. In the warm evening dusk of Leipzig there can be little more uplifting experience than sitting in one of the cafés or bars in Thomaskirche square, listening to the strains of Bach's sublime organ compositions drift through the night air. Not much about the 12th-century church and surrounding small square has changed since the days when Bach arrived in Leipzig with his children. His statue stands outside the church with one pocket turned out - he was continually broke. St Thomas hosted Martin Luther's introduction of the Reformation in 1539 and both Mozart and Mendelssohn have played the organ here.
When we visited, a choir from Minnesota made the mistake of mentioning to Birgit that they were about to perform an impromptu rendition of one of Bach's cantatas. Call it religious karaoke (choiroke?) if you will - choirs from all over the world are inspired to sing where Bach composed and is now interred. "Where's your permit?" Birgit called to them. "You think you can just invade our church singing when you want. You can't." But they had their cantata moment, leaving Birgit muttering about American imperialism all the way to the Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, a popular watering hole.
Turn left from St Thomas Church and you stumble on pub mile where, bizarrely, Leipzig turns into Ibiza, with thousands of beautiful people lining the streets laughing, drinking and partying into the small hours. It's these bars which will doubtless attract World Cup fans next year, when Leipzig's football stadium will take centre stage. Although not known as a football hotbed, it was Leipzig where the German Football Foundation was founded in 1900. The stadium has been built inside the old one, making it unique in the world. A bit like Leipzig.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
The writer travelled as a guest of the German National Tourist Office and Lufthansa (0870-8377 747; www.lufthansa.co.uk). It offers return fares to Hannover from Heathrow from £210 return. Return rail tickets for the three-hour journey from Hannover to Leipzig cost €86 (£58) booked through Deutsche Bahn (08702 43 53 63; www.bahn.co.uk). Air Berlin (0870-738 8880; www.airberlin.com) also offers direct flights from London Stansted to Halle airport near Leipzig from £110 return.
Where to stay
The Westin Leipzig, Gerberstrasse 15 (00 49 341 9880; www.westin.com) offers double rooms from €109 (£78). Breakfast costs an additional €15 (£10) per person.
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