The German city of Aachen sits on the border of Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. The city was founded around thermal springs being a place of settlement long before the Romans came. After the fall of the Roman Empire the city was ruled by the Franks (the northern kings who ruled most of western and central Europe). The one king who had the most major impact on Aachen and reflected in the history of Aachen today was Charles the Great or Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768 AD. He was also called the “Father of Europe” uniting most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. Aachen was the focus of his court and the political centre of his empire.
From the campground we walked the 2.5km into the centre through areas of utilitarian buildings inter-dispersed with gardens (Aachen was badly bombed during the war). The main historic area was around the Cathedral and the Rathaus which had narrow cobbled stone streets and a nice feel about it. Our trusty guide book had advised us to check out the tour times at the cathedral as without a tour you would only see a small portion of the building. We did just that and discovered there was an English tour at 1.45pm.
After exploring the old streets while Tony had a coffee at Starbucks, Heather visited the Rathaus or Town Hall. The original town hall was completed around 1350 on the foundations of Charlemagne’s palace incorporating the Granus Tower which still survived from Charlemagne’s time. However in 1656 a fire devastated the roof and spires of the towers. A decision was made to build new and much higher Baroque towers and change the facade of the town hall. A fire once again destroyed the towers in 1883 and these were replaced with a neo-Gothic style. The town hall was again damaged during World War II but was restored to original splendour.
The town hall had a number of rooms reflecting the Baroque period and had the best view of the cathedral. It is also the site where the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen is awarded. In 1949 the citizens of Aachen created an award to honour persons for outstanding contributions to the unification of Europe. Looking at the list there was some familiar names such as Winston Churchill, Ted Heath, Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton.
After lunch we headed back to Cathedral for the tour. As you entered the Cathedral the beauty of the ornate interior strikes you. We learnt that the original octagonal chapel had been built for Charlemagne in eight years inspired by the churches of San Vitale in Ravenna and Little Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was the first domed church north of the Alps and is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. When originally built the walls were plain stone and over the year’s extensions and decoration were added to give the cathedral seen today. Our guide told us that the cathedral received very little damage during WWII as pilots used the spire as a navigational guide.
Being on the tour we saw the Shrine of the Virgin Mary which is believed to contain four items- St. Mary's cloak, Christ's swaddling clothes, St. John the Baptist's beheading cloth and Christ's loincloth. Our guide told us that recent scientific tests do put these items in the correct time period but whether they are what they really are is anybody’s guess. Following a custom begun in 1349, every seven years the relics are taken out of the shrine and put on display during the Great Aachen Pilgrimage. The next pilgrimage is in 2014.
After touring the lower areas of the cathedral our guide took us to the upper gallery where we were shown the Throne of Charlemagne. Again the story goes that the throne was made from the floor stones of the temple in Jerusalem. Scientific testing again confirmed their age. The throne had also been used for coronations for six centuries from Otto1 in 936Ad to Ferdinand I in 1531AD a total of 30 German Kings.
The tour of the cathedral had been fascinating and the beauty of the interior was just breathtaking. We could understand why it was a UNESCO World Heritage site.
From the cathedral we walked the long way back to the campground passing some of the old spa buildings now the Aachen Casino but didn’t stop for a flutter.