Is Leipzig set to be the new Berlin?

Once Europe's largest cotton mill, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei has been turned into a trendy complex housing art galleries, studios and restaurants

city within a city: Operating from 1884 till 1993, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei was once Europe's largest cotton mill. photos:Sirinya Wattanasukchai

'Why don't you check out the Spinnerei? My son and I go there a lot," said a man who was hanging out with his young son by the canal, as I asked him for directions to the old industrial part of Leipzig, the largest city in Saxony, Germany.

That morning the hotel staff had warned me that there wouldn't be much to see in Plagwitz -- the old industrial part -- except for some old factories. I decided to go outdoors and get myself lost somewhere in the sunny afternoon.

Arriving in Leipzig, I had no clues other than "university town" and "beautiful old town", or some other contemporary description like "the next Berlin". After numerous checks on Google, I only found popular must-sees like St Nicolas Church, St Thomas Church and the Stasi Museum -- all in the old town square.

How could these make this former East-Germany city, with all the typical tourist attractions from the Middle Age, the next Berlin?

Then I met this man, as I got lost along the Karl-Heine Canal in the west side of the city, who recommended I visit the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, the old cotton mill-turned-art space, located just short walk away.

The Spinnerei isn't your typical tourist attraction. Don't expect an alley of restaurants and gift shops in this 10-hectare former industrial site, that ran from 1884 till 1993, like one would find at any warehouse-turned-community mall in Thailand.

From the largest cotton spinning mill in continental Europe with workers' accommodation, gardens, kindergarten and chapel, the place has today become a multi-function property. Among the many buildings of this well-preserved old factory, there is only one cafe and a wine shop; the rest of the property is home to a cinema, an outdoor theatre, studios, galleries and residences, mostly occupied by artists.

As I entered the Spinnerei, I met Sarah, an American artist who later became the tour guide that morning.

As the tour began, we visited the main exhibition that showcased the glorious past of the cotton mill, featuring equipment, including coffee maker and telephone, photographs of workers depicting their working and living conditions exhibited along the different types of thread that had been produced at the factory.

Photograph after photograph from the post-World War II era of women workers as the main workforce in the factory filled one wall.

After World War II, Sarah explained there was a severer shortage of able-bodied men. Many had been killed in combat or taken prisoner, while a large number of returnees were disabled, resulting in women becoming the main source of labour.

Of course, the century-old complex is well kept, not because the property boasts a glorious past, but due to its its architectural value.

In fact, apart from its status as the largest cotton mill in Europe in the 20th century, the complex didn't really have good working conditions back then.

city within a city: Above, the underground cinema. Main picture, operating from 1884 till 1993, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei was once Europe’s largest cotton mill.

With its long hours, tough work and insalubrious working environment, the factory would be condemned as indentured labour by contemporary standards. The daycare service was only introduced at the factory in 1954 so working mothers could leave their children on Monday morning and pick them up on Friday evening and they could perform worry-free work at the factory during the week.

Since there were no workers' rights and there was no better choice to make ends meet, thousands of women chose to work at the mill, said Sarah.

"You didn't have to leave the factory," she said, citing the kindergarten, accommodation and chapel to hold your funeral. "It was a city within a city."

The factory still had about 1,650 workers in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and production continued for another year. The factory was later sold to a West German company in mid-1993 which produced car tyres until 2000.

Of course, there were no health records of the workers at the mill, but it's not difficult to guess the state of their health if they had to work in an environment which Sarah described as "hot, moist, loud and with no ventilation". Decades after the mill was closed, one can still smell the oil in some of the exhibition halls.

The Spinnerei had been used in different ways before ending up as an art space.

In 2001, an artist from Cologne who bought the place started to turn the old factory into loft apartments but they didn't sell because hundreds of people were leaving Leipzig every week due to unemployment and other social problems since the Berlin Wall came down.

The Spinnerei was among the abandoned buildings which had been occupied and destroyed by squatters and drug addicts, said Sarah.

However, in the early 2000s, the art space began to attract young artists looking for cheap places to rent. After the first few years, the place gradually grew into the "New Leipzig School" as it became the base for rising artists and held numerous art events.

In 2005, the Spinnerei was officially opened and the event drew over 10,000 visitors, heralding this small city as another art destination.

curious details : Small square holes at the bottom of each window drained water or steam.

As the tour went on, Sarah showed how the building had been modern since it was erected in the late 19th century. To keep the factory at 23 degrees Celcius all the time, each building had a one-metre thick wall and double-pane windows to keep the light in.

"Do you know what that hole was for?" Sarah asked, illustrating how modern the building when it was built over a century ago.

Nobody had a clue what the six-inch square hole at the bottom of each window on the inside of the building was for. The hole was to drain water or steam, said Joelle. She explained that thanks to the differences in temperature -- always warm inside the factory and cold outside the building or freezing cold in winter -- condensation would build up between the two panels of glass, resulting in mould.

Don't let anyone fool you that the rooftop garden idea is a modern idea. The Spinnerei had long made use of its roof area to plant schnittlauch or chives.

Again, because of the heat inside the factory, chives were planted on the rooftop only because it is a water-consuming vegetable, always soaking up water, keeping the ceiling dry.

But the rooftop garden became camouflage for the building, helping the property escape bombing during World War II. The verdant rooftop was mistaken for a park during bomb raids.

As the tour continued, visitors were taken through building after building of this old factory. All of them have been well preserved and redesigned for new functions -- be it a gallery for contemporary art or an office or studio. Some managed to retain the original metal columns of the factory as a part of their exhibitions.

A subterranean cinema, located on the underground level, was one of the must-see sights at the old factory although you won't have time to watch a film. The hand-printed wallpaper inside is original, designed for the place when it was first opened.

When asked if she thought Leipzig is the new Berlin, Sarah agreed, saying young artists are moving to the city as the rents are much lower than Berlin's.

Although it's too early to say Leipzig is the new Berlin, the city definitely has another side beyond the typical Medieval attractions.

After all, an unplanned trip doesn't always end up as a disaster or disappointment. Getting lost in a new city or a random pick of a destination can be a pleasant surprise. n

Liepziger Baumwollspinnerei is located at Spinnereistrasse 7, 04179 LeipzigOpening hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am to 6pm

To get there: City railway S 1 from central station to Miltitzer Allee; exit S-Bahnhof Plagwitz Tram 14 from the central station to S-Bahnhof Plagwitz. Keep left and cross under the tracks, turn left into Spinnereistrasse and take the entrance of the Baumwollspinnerei on the left side after 50 metres.

Tips: Download, offline map app, which offers city maps around the world. It's pretty accurate.

Timetables of buses, trams and trains in Germany are available online and at the stops and stations. You can plan your return trip to town beforehand.

you don't see these anymore: An old-fashioned telephone used at the factory. photo:xxx xxx

lead-in: Caption An old building in Plagwitz, near the Spinnerei. photo: xxxxx xxxxx

fun on the water: Enjoying a canoe ride on the Karl-Heine Canal in the west side of the city. photos: Sirinya Wattanasukchai

Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei photo: Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei

subterranean entertainment: The entrance to the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei's underground cinema. photo: xxxxx xxxxx

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