YES, Germany is well-known for its conference facilities and, yes, for weekenders, we British love the down and dirty vibe of the new Berlin and the madness of Munich’s Oktoberfest, but much of the country has lain forgotten by visitors in recent years, yet it’s only a 90-minute flight away.
In the east, the fall of the wall has led to a more benign, pastoral and green agenda spreading eastwards and a rediscovery and pride in the region’s cultural heritage. Bucketloads of investment have poured into restoring historic city centres and into creating new national parks, cycleways and waterways for the benefit of locals, but also to attract you and me. Now, a generation after reunification took place, a wealth of history and culture, nature and outdoor pursuits awaits the visitor to Saxony.
A LONG WEEKEND IN LEIPZIG
The eastern city of Leipzig, 100km south of Berlin, is a surprise. It’s not shy in acknowledging its world-class classical music heritage (where Johann Sebastian Bach was a choirmaster, Robert Schumann took piano lessons and Mendelssohn founded Germany’s first conservatory in 1843). The opera house (where Mahler conducted) takes pride of place, and, with a strong student population (the university is 600 years old), there’s a thriving DJ and live music scene plus plenty of nightlife. It all adds up to a thriving, cosmopolitan city that has followed East Berlin out from behind the Iron Curtain.
With a flying time of less than two hours into Leipzig Halle airport, and then a fast train into the centre, the city is easily accessible for a long-weekend break yet, unlike Dublin, Paris or Rome, there’s no danger of running into swarms of tourists and rowdy stags and hens.
Head straight for the central market square and the new Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof (or, simply, the Steak’n’Burger). It has all the qualities you look for in a stylish five-star gaff, but without the wallet-sapping rates. Here, you will be perfectly placed for mooching around the shops on foot, as the city centre is a pedestrian-friendly 1km sq.
Architecturally, Leipzig is characterised by its early 20th-century shopping arcades, which have been cleaned up and restored in recent years. The most lavish of these is the Madler Passage, built between 1912 and 1914, now housing cool boutiques and classy restaurants, confectioners and stationers, plus Goethe’s favourite haunt, Auerbachs Keller, a cellar restaurant with original glass skylights, which was his Grosser Keller in Faust. The oldest original arcade is the 1909 Specks Hof, restored in the 1990s and now selling fine leather goods, hand-crafted jewellery, chocolates, accessories, tea, books and the like – and all at prices where your euro goes further.
Next it’s time to dive into Leipzig’s thriving arts scene: the Museum of Fine Arts (www.mdbk.de) has a permanent collection spanning the 15th to the 21st centuries, including 400 17th-century Dutch paintings and works from 19th-century Germany, notably Caspar David Friedrich – more on him later.
The New Leipzig School of art appeared on the global scene 10 years ago. If Dresden-born Gerhard Richter (currently at Tate Modern) has been lauded as “the world’s greatest living artist”, then Leipzig’s Neo Rauch is up there, too. He has a studio at the Spinnerei gallery (www.spinnerei.de), a former cotton mill in the west of the city – canals and rivers flow freely here. It’s the availability of these post-industrial buildings at cheap rents for artists that has led to Leipzig being compared to the emerging Berlin of the early 1990s. Yet, despite this industrial heritage, a third of Leipzig’s cityscape is given over to parks and gardens – the Riverside Forest is a nature reserve covering 2,500 hectares of prime city land.
ON THE WATER
Drive 15 minutes south of Leipzig to the outskirts (or even take a canoe 10km from the City Marina along scenic Route 1 to Lake Cospuden), and Leipzig New Lakeland (www.leipzigerneuseenland.de) rolls out before you.
Pre-reunification, 20 open-cast coal mines, 27 briquette factories and eight power stations dominated the skyline here and employed thousands of people to produce electricity, petrol and oil for East Germany. Now, some mines have been re-equipped with the latest technology, but most have been flooded to return them to nature, creating what will eventually be 19 interconnecting lakes, a Lakeland that already has sailing schools, Laser dinghies, canoe and paddleboard rentals by the hour; bikes for rent and wide, flat cycle paths all around the lakes; sandy beaches, cafes and restaurants and, at Markkleeberger See, even a man-made high-thrills, white-water canoe circuit to try.
ART AND NATURE
Even further east, a two-hour drive through agricultural countryside, passing Dresden, you are at almost the furthest reaches of the river Elbe before it passes into the Czech Republic. Here you find one of the most famous National Parks in all of Germany, Sachsische Schweiz (named Saxon Switzerland in the 18th-century). Enter at the Bastei (the Bastion) for a panorama of sandstone pinnacles which was also an early medieval fortress, commanding views over the Elbe valley and the pretty village of Rathen, half an hour by train from Dresden. The rocks are a climbers’ paradise, each soaring hundreds of metres high above fir, spruce and beech forests. It was from here that Caspar David Friedrich was inspired to paint Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog in 1818 – a figure staring out over nature’s awe-inspiring beauty – and at a stroke putting early 19th-century German Romantic landscape painting on the map.
To explore this valley by bike, hire one from Kanu Aktiv Tours at Konigstein (www.kanu-aktiv-tours.de; 9 euros per day) a short drive from Rathen. The Elberadweg cycleway (www.elbe-cycle-route.com) extends all the way along the river valley, 860km from here at the Czech border to the port of Hamburg in the north. If you stay at the forward-looking eco Hotel Helvetia on the riverbank you may even catch jubilant cyclists receiving a congratulatory bottle of bubbly from the management for doing the whole route.
The peace and tranquillity of the place is best savoured sprawled in a lounger in the hotel’s riverbank garden watching the deep green water flowing past, a dark German beer in hand and only the sound of the freight trains along the valley or a working barge to interrupt the solitude.
Lufthansa flies daily from Heathrow to Dresden, from £89 return (www.lufthansa.com). Ryanair flies daily from Stansted to Leipzig from £9 one-way (www.ryanair.com). For more on Leipzig visit www.leipzig.de.
LEIPZIG | WHERE TO STAY
Steigenburger Grandhotel Hadelshof
The interiors of this 1909 building, a former exhibition space for the fine arts, fronting the pedestrianised market square, have been completely remodelled into a spacious, contemporary five-star hotel and spa, which manages to appeal both to business and weekend guests.
The quality and furnishings of the guestrooms, in black, cream, caramel and a hint of damson, and marble bathrooms, is pleasingly high. Drink and dine here, or a ten-minute walk away at Panorama Tower Restaurant (www.panorama-leipzig.de) with its impressive views from the 29th floor. From €130, room-only (www.leipzig.steigenberger.com).
Hotel Helvetia, Schmilka
This quirky eco-hotel is on the river Elbe and became a certified ‘bio-hotel’ in 2009. All the produce is 100% organic – even the cocktails. Interiors use local crafts and natural materials, there’s a complimentary sauna and bike and canoe rentals. Doubles from €65 per person including four-course dinner and breakfast (www.hotelhelvetia.de).