Travelling in the age of coronavirus- A weekend in Leipzig
The journey begins again.
This was our first trip anywhere since the 10th March when we went to Amsterdam for my birthday/work trip. After the stress and strain of the last few months, packing the bag feels like a release.
I dust off the packing cube. It has been sulking in the bitter depths of my backpack since early March. I’m little unsure of what to pack. I mentally go through my checklist. Sometimes, its these small rituals of travel that you miss the most about travel. We pack our existence into our trusted Arcido carry on backpacks and head to sleep. It is a restless night and we don’t sleep well. We are leaving on a very early train ( cheapest train tickets with Deustche Bahn are always at the crack of dawn or midnight ) from Berlin’s main train station.
The early light of dawn leaps through our bedroom and tickles our feet. I wake up before the alarm and feel a familiar surge of adrenaline. I suddenly feel like I’m 5 again and its Christmas Day. After enjoying a strong cup of coffee and a quick hot shower we slowly shuffle out of the door of the apartment. The tram to Berlin’s main train station is half empty. Everyone has their face masks on. I see a lot of tired eyes looking listlessly out of the windows at the unspoilt blue morning sky. Some cast an envious eye at us with our backpacks. I know you miss the drug of travelling, of escape. Hopefully, soon we can all travel soon.
There’s a deep knot in the pit of my stomach as I enter the train carriage. The act of travel nowadays carries the heavy weight of guilt. My friend pointed out that travel and the economy seems insignificant when people are dying. His words weighed heavily on my mind when I got on that train.A part of me rightly feels guilty that I shouldn’t be travelling with the virus still in circulation. The act of travel seems pointless when people are dying everyday. Millions of people are still under lockdown. Like my parents and sister’s family in Kolkata, India. They and millions more can only dream of the privilege of travelling again.
It is a tough one but as you know, travel for me is simply more than an escape. It is my job. It is my life. Travel industry in Germany contributes 43.2 billion euros to the Germany economy and supports 2 millions jobs. 100 million jobs are estimated to be at risk globally because of the current Covid crisis. The past few months have been tough. I’ve seen people in the industry lose their jobs. We’ve had some savings to live off over the past few months but we’re close to scraping the bottom of the barrel. There’s been little or no support from my government. The traffic to the blog has decreased by 80% plus I’ve lost a lot of my clients. I’ve been pretty demotivated and as you may have noticed, hardly blogged here for the last few months.
I know I’ll pull through. I hope we all do. I will continue to do what I do best -tell you the stories about places I’ve visited, the hostels, the tour guides, the street food stall owners -the everyday people who make your travel experience better. Travelling is more than just an act of escape. Done the right way, it can be a force of good. It can put money into the local economy and help sustain jobs. . So when we travel again, lets show even more care for the world and the people we meet, lets focus on spending and supporting the right kind of businesses. Plus lets keep social distancing until its safe , wear a mask please in public and clean our hands. Take all the precautions. Be responsible. Travel is and has always been a privilege. If we all do it the right way, we all win.
We’re heading to the city of heroes, Leipzig. A city where we have some great memories. ( Click here for the story of our last trip to Leipzig )
The national rail operator Deutsche Bahn indicated a low to average occupancy on the app. However in reality, the train was a lot busier than we expected and for the majority of the journey, we were sharing a table with another passenger. Everyone had masks on so that was grand but it still didn’t feel right.If I was Deutsche Bahn, I would have ensured that passenger seating is spaced out to ensure proper social distancing.Towards the end, we managed to bag our own table and then heaved a bit of a sigh.
We arrive in Leipzig’s grand central station. One of my favourite things about travelling to Leipzig is arriving in its grand train station-the epic scale of the terminus really is awe astounding. I only recently learnt that it is the biggest passenger railway terminus in Europe. We trundle out of the station and walk towards the city centre from where we would catch the tram to Sudvorstadt. Every time I come to Leipzig, I always take the same route. I love wondering through the extensive network of passages and walkways that are dotted throughout the downtown part of the city. Walking through these ornate passages feels like time travelling back to the era when Leipzig enjoyed the status of being one of Europe’s leading trade cities. I pass by the elegant Cafe Riquet with its two copper Elephant heads flanking the stunning art nouveau facade. We end up in the grand Markt square flanked by the beautiful Old Town Hall. There’s a huge outdoor farmers market packed with local traders. The air is heavy with the scent of smoked fish, cheese and fresh bread. There’s a lot of people packed in the square with some degree of social distancing being observed. It is worth mentioning now that Leipzig and the greater Saxony area dealt really well with the coronavirus crisis and on the day we arrived, Leipzig had reported no new cases for the past 5 days.
We hop on the tram to Sudvorstadt. We were lucky to stay at a friends apartment for the weekend. She was out of town so we had the place to ourselves. I love Sudvorstadt. It’s a happy hippy concentration of nice bars, cafes and some really nice restaurants. Plus there is the wonderful Feinkost flea market and also the beautiful Clara Zetkin Park nearby. It is late in the afternoon and we’re hungry so we first head to a local Vietnamese restaurant. This was probably not our best meal of the trip but by no means was it bad. I think once you’ve tasted proper Vietnamese food in Vietnam, everything after that feels like a major disappointment. Still, it was ok and decent prices. It was a small hole in the wall kind of diner with a handful of social distanced tables outside and we were lucky to bag one of the remaining tables. After devouring our meal we head to an old favourite, the magnificently named Killywilly Irish pub. We sup on a pint of the not so local Lowenbrau beer. It was a pretty decent beer and I tell you what, after a train journey and on a muggy humid day, ice cold beer tastes like heaven. Killywilly is perfect for people watching and that pint of beer, was one of the best I had tasted for a long time. There is no greater comfort that being a stranger to town and watching the world go by.
Keen to preserve our modest budget, before heading back to the apartment we head to the nearby Aldi supermarket to buy breakfast essentials and some wine for the evening. God, I love Aldi. Incredibly good value. I wish we had one near our house in Berlin.
After chilling for a few hours in the apartment we headed out to see what Leipzig had to offer on a Friday evening. Our options were limited. Because of Covid, as with Berlin and the rest of Germany, all clubs were closed. Nightlife was restricted to mainly bars and restaurants. Bars, which only opened last week are allowed to open from 6 till 11.30pm. Plus, it is table only service in the bars-no standing allowed. We went back to Killywilly but it was packed with no tables available. We then headed to three other nearby bars and were turned away from all of them-no tables available. This was a sobering reminder of the new reality of going out. On the other hand, it was great to see all the bars taking all the precautions and making their customers feel safe. We were close to giving up but tried one final bar- Horns Erben and we got lucky. A popular location for live music, on the night, the bar was only open. Nice spaced out tables, place dimly lit , soft crackle of something jazzy in the background and the nice hum of human conversation-it was as close to the real thing of having a drink in a bar and we loved it. Sabrina had a delicious whisky sour while I went for a Vodka Mate drink which was OK. Next time, I would be better sticking to something more traditional cocktail wise. We went home happy.
The next day was a cloudy one with occasional breaks of sunshine. The aim was to walk and see as much of the city on foot. We first headed to the nearby Clara Zetkin Park which we had missed out on during our visit in 2018. I didn’t know much about the history of the park but it was beautiful to wonder through. There’s towering oak trees arching over wide marked out paths lined with neatly arranged colourful flowers and the odd pond -it looks very idyllic and blissful.
In the heart of the park there’s the Glashaus im Clarapark restaurant and bar. It’s just hit 12 and there’s a few people having a beer or enjoying some coffee and kuchen. We decided to stop for a cheeky beer. With plenty of outdoor tables, social distancing wasn’t an issue. The weather was perfect too. I think while going to the toilet I must have counted 4 hand sanitising stations so top marks to the restaurant.
With a spark in our step we then headed further, soon crossing the iconic Sachsenbrucke. There’s a few people gathered around on the bridge with takeaway coffees. Below us on the river , there’s a few people sauntering up river on their kayaks. A part of us wanted to just sit there all day and watch the comings and going of people. We soon nudge our way out of the park in the direction of the hip neighbourhood of Plagwitz, another favourite part of the city for us.
We come across another stunning bridge Könneritzbrucke that marks the entrance to the neighbourhood of Plagwitz. We pause for awhile to admire some of the beautiful 19th century industrial architecture lining the canal here. As our eyes swim in the canal, suddenly a man in a Venetian gondola comes into view with a few people in tow. It is a surreal sight that I did not expect in Leipzig-later I discovered that the nearby Ristorante da Vito offers its customers a ride on their gondola to admire some of the fine industrial architecture lining the canal.
In Plagwitz we head for lunch at an old favourite, Salon Casablanca. The food here is fabulous, well priced and service is fab. Despite being a Saturday, Karl Heine Strasse did look pretty quiet. I wasn’t sure because it was the afternoon or maybe there was a distinct lack of tourists. The bars were closed because of the restricted hours so that could have been a factor. The cafes were busy though.
We wanted to visit another old favourite, the nearby Spinnerei but due to the coronavirus, the complex remains off limits for visitors which is a shame. The Kunstkraftwerk, another favourite museum was open but we were not to keen on the Vincent Van Gogh experience so we headed back up Lutzner Strasse to another old favourite Tapetenwerk. As we had expected, the Tapetenwerk was also closed and off limits like the Spinnerei. Last time we were visiting, they were hosting their biannual Tapetenwerkfest when all the galleries open their doors to visitors all night. It was such an incredible atmosphere with all the people, music and food. Our heart sank a little at the sight of the empty yard and the closed ateliers.
As we left the silence courtyard and turned back on the main road, in the distance I spotted a small bar with a’ Delta Coffee’ sign visible. Now, if any of you have been to Portugal, you will be familiar with Delta Coffee. I really love their coffee so I thought we could swing by for a cup. We discovered the bar was actually a Portuguese bar and run by two guys from Madeira! Now, for those of you not aware or new to the blog, you will probably not know that I once lived in Madeira. 4 years I think. Incredibly beautiful island , wonderful people and yes, the island has some wonderful food and drink to savour. Besides stocking a range of popular Portuguese beers like Sagres and Super Bock they also had the native Madeiran beer, Coral. So I had treat myself and Sabrina to a bunch of corals. While sipping on the Coral I then had to ask Andre and Fabio, the owner if they could make us a very traditional and special Madeiran drink, poncha and they said yes! A poncha is the most typical of Madeiran drinks and is a mix of Aguardente de cana which is distilled from the sugar cane that grows on the island, lemon peel and sugar or honey. You can have poncha with orange or passion fruit but the guys made us the real thing. Boy, oh boy, this stuff blows your socks off. If you are ever in Leipzig and curious to learn more about Madeira and its cuisine, please go to their bar.
Our head was in the clouds after those drinks. We went home to rest for awhile, feeling quite drained from the long walk. Maybe a sensory overload we were not used to after weeks, months of being cooped up indoors? It was a warm wonderful evening and I was keen for Sabrina to checkout Conne Island, a bastion of Leipzig subculture that and a local hub of everything alternative with an iconic skatepark. It also is a popular venue for musicians from all walks of life. I had visited Conne Island briefly back in 2015 when we came to film a video about streetart culture in Germany and really fell in love with the vibe of this place.
We slowly walked our way south towards Connewitz from Sudvorstadt. It’s close to 9 but the sky is still partially bright and there’s a soft warm breeze. I can hear random pockets of laughter bursting through the air, carrying on their crests the occasional hum of music blaring from a radio and also the heavy waft of beer mixed with smoke. It feels emotional. Like meeting an old friend.
In Connewitz, we stumble upon an impromptu concert outside Könich Heinz bar, a popular local divey bar hangout that attracts a colourful mix of characters. It’s probably the first concert of any kind I’ve heard for months and we immediately stop to listen to the music. The band was called Bar Philosophen and their music was jazzy and uplifting. Everyone was snapping their fingers and singing along with the charismatic lead singer. It was an emotional moment. Music. People. A warm beautiful evening. A cold beer in hand. What more could you ask? We catch the last 2 songs of their outdoor gig and then move onto Conne Island. We arrived at the skatepark shrouded under a cloak of darkness except for a bunch of people gathered around dim candle lit tables drinking some wine. There is a bar onsite but it was closing as we arrived. One of the ladies sitting on the tables intervened and brought us two beers and invited us to linger which was nice. Its tough to make out the place at night but still I was happy we came and Sabrina had the chance to see the place. Afterwards, we head home with mixed feelings. These are the things we miss. The endless freedom of the night, of serendipitous conversations … the feeling of letting go and for a brief few moments, losing ourselves.
The following day is a miserably cloudy morning. Perfect Sunday to laze in bed and almost do nothing. However there was the small matter of the Black Lives Matter solidarity march at 1pm near the main train station. We had sadly missed the epic demonstration in Berlin the day before but were excited to be joining the Leipzig demo and show our solidarity with our black friends in Germany and around the world. The last demo I went to was 18 years ago was when I went marching to protest against racism with a bunch of my university students in Glasgow. 18 years on, countless protests later, at the ripe old age of 41, here I was again, along with Sabrina, marching against to protest against the injustice of the events of the past weeks and also the centuries of previous injustice against black people. Given the current threat of Covid, I was nervous at the prospect of being in close proximity to thousands of people. But, we both decided it was important to show up and stand for what we believe in. We live in such crazy times. I can sense a general dissillusionment with politics and the general lack of moral leadership in the world. In times like this when we feel hurt, directionless and feel like we are losing our purpose, it is important to remember that we can make a change, if we stand together. In our case it was to standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers and say that the system has to change, that black lives matter and they cannot continue to live in the dark shadow of hatred, ignorance and fear. We cannot to live in ignorance and turn a blind eye. We have to make a change, however difficult the road lies ahead. I have more to unwrap and talk about this topic but this probably is a blog post for another day.
There was a wonderful irony that we were marching in Leipzig.
Leipzig is after all , the city of heroes, where back in 1989, the locals were the first in East Germany to protest against the oppression of the GDR regime. Dubbed the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ , the locals set in chain a series of events that eventually led to the reunification of Germany.
We leave Leipzig the next day, our hearts filled with hope and some optimism for what the future holds for us.
The journey begins again.
It is not a road I know but I will walk it. I know this road ahead will be difficult , filled with risks and riddled with difficult compromises. Then again, I never signed up for an easy life. Did you?
If you’re planning a trip to Leipzig, checkout our earlier guide to the best things to do in Leipzig.