In the heart of where modern Europe was born, we breathe in history while quaffing bagels
It is not every day that you come face to face with, or let’s say in close proximity to, the first emperor of Europe. It is not commonplace to stand right at the centre of an empire that lent its antecedents to the monarchs of both France and Germany.
Aachen, a small town in the western border of Germany, almost kissing Belgium and The Netherlands, was once the seat of power of Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, who was the emperor who created a kingdom with a distinct European identity for the first time in three centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. No wonder Charlemagne is often called the Father of Europe.
I am standing by the golden shrine that contains the remains of the great ruler, under the imposing cupola of the Cathedral which he built and which still remains the nerve centre of Aachen. The Dom, as the Cathedral is locally known, is a unique combination of Neo-Gothic and Baroque sculptural and architectural forms. The imposing structure contains several valuable relics, including the throne of Charlemagne, and was the venue of coronation for all Carolingian rulers (Charlemagne’s line that founded France and Germany) for 600 years.
Around the Dom are delightful cafes and bakeries and lifestyle boutiques. It’s late afternoon and the space between the Cathedral and the Gothic Rathouse —Town Hall — is abuzz with a wine festival. The old and the young are waxing eloquent about Sekt, a popular wine grown around the Rhine valley.
A pony-tailed sax player is moving around the swinging crowd, playing tunes, occasionally selectively stopping by vivacious young ladies to serenade them. The men do not seem to mind the little indiscretion.
The next day, I choose to indulge in a 2000-year-old tradition of Aachen. And indulgence it is indeed, since the time the Celtic people found out that the hot springs here ooze out warm mineral-rich water with medicinal value. The Romans, and later Charlemagne and his descendants, perfected the art of revelling in the hot springs. Bad Aachen (the German ‘bad’ means ‘bath’) became the playground of the ruling elites of Europe, with its natural spas, some 30 of them. (With temperatures of 74ºC and a high percentage of Hydrogen Carbonate or HCO3, as Frau Scheeler of Carolus Thermen Bad reminds me —these Germans and their fetish for precision!)
The bads or spas of Aachen used to be rallying points not just for health and rejuvenation, but for politics and pleasure as well. I step into the indoor terrace pool of Carolus Thermen Bad. The water is comfortably warm but not hot. Loosely squatting in the warm water that rises up to my chin, with a soft floral aroma unhurriedly dousing my senses, I find my mental resistance to the proposal of an ‘Energetic Massage’, something I can ill-afford at 99 Euros, slowly dissolving.
Rejuvenated, and with a hole in my pocket, I alight from the bus the next day across the main street south-east of the Dom complex and into Elisenbrunnen, to be immediately wrapped into another world.
Mega stores and designer labels on both sides of this pedestrian-only zone rub shoulders with ice-cream parlours and eateries. People stroll, shop, eat, and laze on the benches thoughtfully placed at intervals. Two musicians — she on the violin and he strumming a guitar — play on while onlookers and passersby drop coins and occasional Euro bills into the open violin case. I too drop in a token of my appreciation. It’s time for lunch.
To hunt for an eatery, I amble down Pontstrasse, favoured by the town’s large student community. My own favourite is a sea-food chain but I choose a bakery instead. Aachen is well-known, even among other parts of Germany, for its bakeries. And the challenge is to pick from the assortment of cheesy, buttery croissants, breads of a hundred kinds, wursts, rolls, bagels and sandwiches, scones, quiches and Danish. And, of course, cakes and gateaux filled with dark sinful chocolate and blushing strawberries.
I wash down the last bit of strudel with rich coffee. Now I will go up the winding road to the little Turkish shop around the corner and haggle over antiques.
Getting there: Aachen is easily reached by train from Cologne (45 min), Frankfurt (2.30 hrs) Brussels (1.15 hrs) and even Paris (3 hrs). The preferred airport is Dusseldorf (1.40 min by train).
Getting around: Taxis are available on call. Buses are very convenient with tourist-friendly drivers. Most of the tourist attractions can be seen on foot.
Things to see and do: The Dom, the Town Hall, shops around the Dom and Elisenbrunnen. Walk around the 140-year-old RWTH Aachen University. Hop on a bus and unknowingly land up in a Dutch village. Munch on cakes and breads. For a filling and inexpensive meal, bite into Doner Kebabs in a Turkish eatery. Bars and pubs lining Pontstasse come alive as the night gets deeper. Indulge in one of the several spas with natural hot springs.