MAGDEBURG is sometimes described as Berlin in miniature and there’s some truth in this, even if it’s not much larger than one of the national capital’s neighbourhoods. Certainly Magdeburg was destroyed to a similar extent, with World War II bombs levelling four-fifths of the city. Then, postwar rebuilding projects blighted it with large socialist buildings, soulless boulevards, loveless plazas and windswept parks. Yet tiny pockets of cobbled streets with nineteenth-century tenements did survive, notably at the southern end of the city around Hasselbachplatz, where a buoyant bar and club scene has taken hold. Magdeburg has also struggled economically and is propped up by generous federal funding – in this case thanks to the town’s role as capital of Saxony-Anhalt. With this economic boost has come a major makeover of many parts of town: bold new architecture has been welcomed around town and a large building by Friedensreich Hundertwasser has become a major landmark, offsetting the angular bleakness elsewhere.
All this modernity aside, Magdeburg is not without reminders of its lengthy history. Established as a trading post by Charlemagne in the tenth century, it became great under Emperor Otto I who chose it as his main residence, making it a significant political and cultural centre in medieval times and giving it Germany’s oldest cathedral. It was badly hammered by siege and fires in the Thirty Years’ War when two-thirds of the population – around 20,000 people – lost their lives; some heavyweight city defences still stem from this time. In the seventeenth century Magdeburg slowly resurfaced thanks in part to the work of Otto von Guericke, who was famous for his physics experiments, and though it lost most of its political importance with the abolition of the city’s bishopric in 1680, it continued to be a major port on the Elbe.