Saturday, 28th/Sunday, 29th September 2019 – Vaals, Aachen, Ghent, Rotterdam, Home
I started Saturday with a run that took in two countries, literally exercising my right to freedom of movement while I still had it. I ran the half mile to the Dutch/German border and then went about a mile into Germany before turning round and running back to the Netherlands. A shower, and a very good breakfast in the Hotel Kasteel Bloemendal, and then we set off to do some more sightseeing, this time by heading into Aachen, which we had visited before but so long ago (1983) that we’d forgotten most of it, and anyway it had only been a fleeting visit. We weren’t due at the ferry, about fours hours away, until 15:00 at the earliest and 19:00 at the latest so we could take a few hours out before needing to head off to the north west.
Aachen (or Bad Aachen) or even Aix-la-Chapelle started out as a Roman settlement and spa, and has, as with most cities we visited in what can best be described as the borderlands, had an interesting history, belonging to different countries at different times, while remaining inherently itself. It’s Germany’s westernmost city, in a former coal-mining area, and now specialises in technology, with the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH), and an industrial base that covers science, engineering and information technology, as well as the Klinikum Aachen hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in Europe. Humans have been there since the Neolithic era, about 5,000 years ago, probably because of the warm mineral springs that gave it its Latin name, Aquae Granni (waters of Grannus). The second element, that made it Aix-la-Chapelle, was added after Charlemagne built a chapel built there and then made the city his capital.
Before that, though, there was the 25-hectare Roman spa town of Aquae Granni, which developed after the Roman 6th Legion first channelled the hot spring waters into two spa complexes. There was also an extensive residential area, part of it inhabited by a flourishing Jewish community. Bathhouses sprang up, and the town prospered until the end of the 4th Century when the Romans went home. By 470 the town was ruled by the Ripuarian Franks. Later, Pepin the Short had a castle built in the town, partly for strategic reasons, partly due to the proximity of the hot springs and spent the Easter and Christmas seasons of 765–6 in the town. Its importance grew further when Charlemagne came to spend Christmas at Aachen for the first time in 768. He spent most winters in Aachen between 792 and his death in 814, making it the focus of his court and the political centre of his empire and cementing its reputation. For the next 500 years, after its walls were fortified under Emperor Frederick Barbarossa between 1172 and 1176, 31 kings of Germany chosen to rule over the Holy Roman Empire were crowned in Aachen. The last king to be crowned here was Ferdinand I in 1531.
The city was also of considerable mercantile importance because it was close to Flanders, which enabled it to take a share of the wool trade. As an imperial city, Aachen held certain political privileges that allowed it to sidestep a lot of the trouble in Europe for many years, with it being a direct vassal of the Holy Roman Empire throughout most of the Middle Ages. In addition it was also the site of many church councils, which made it an important source of historical manuscripts. It went into something of a decline after 1598, when Frankfurt replaced it as the site for the Imperial coronations, and was further damaged by both war and the great fire of 1656.
In 1801, Aachen and the entire “left bank” of the Rhine were handed over to France, only to be given to Prussia by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Naopleon. In 1838, the railway from Cologne to Belgium passed through the city, and in 1875 the medieval fortifications were demolished as part of an effort to build new, better housing in the east of the city, where drainage was easiest. In December 1880 a tram network was opened, and in 1895 it was electrified, thus making the transport of both people and goods far easier. Prosperity followed, but history wasn’t done with the city by a long way. It was occupied for a decade after the First World War, and pretty much destroyed during World War II when it was the first German city to be captured by the Allies. Just as in Freiburg the cathedral escaped pretty much undamaged though a great deal else was gone, and by the end there were only around 4000 people left in the place, the rest having evacuated the city long since. After the war, reconstruction meant that a lot of what you now see is not original, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it.
We found a parking garage close to the city centre, parked up, and headed towards the cathedral, stopping off at the Tourist Information office for a map and to get our bearings. From there we went straight to the Centre Charlemagne, where the Neues Stadtmuseum Aachen (the New City Museum) gives an excellent overview of the city’s history and is the starting point of the “Route Charlemagne” which will take you round all the key sites including the cathedral and town hall, the Grashaus (the former town hall) and the Elisenbrunnen hot springs, if you have time. We didn’t on this occasion, but may well go back as there is much more to see. A quick detour into the cafe for a coffee while we planned what we would see, based on advice from the people behind the desk in the museum was time well spent as we knew where we wanted to go by the end of it.
It has some key pieces from the Carolingian era, including Charlemagne’s throne which used to be housed in the cathedral.
There is also a painting of Napoleon styling himself as the successor of Charlemagne in front of the throne at St Mary’s Church, but I couldn’t get far enough back to take a photo of it. It illustrates how, even after his death in 814, Charlemagne continued to influence the history of the city. Legends around the emperor’s grave and the marble throne made the city the venue of choice for coronations throughout the Middle Ages, and the canonisation of Charlemagne on 29th December 1165 only reinforced the “Legend of Charlemagne”, which was often exploited for political purposes. Both Napoleon and Wilhelm II deliberately styled themselves as successors of the Carolingian emperor, Napoleon going so far as the claim “Je suis Charlemagne”. In more recent times, and in the same spirit that regards Charlemagne as the mythical forefather of Europe and the founding father of two nations there is the Aachen Peace Prize, founded in 1988.
There was also information about the Charlemagne Prize. Referring explicitly to Charlemagne as the “Founder of Western Culture”, under whose reign the city of Aachen was once the spiritual and political centre of the whole of what is now Western Europe, it was intended from its foundation in 1950 to promote interest in and support for the process of integration not only among Germans, but also among their European neighbours. The first Charlemagne Prize was awarded to Richard Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the Pan-European Movement. Since then, the International Charlemagne Prize has been awarded to the founding fathers of a United Europe such as Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Winston Churchill and Konrad Adenauer, and to those who have embodied hope for integration such as Edward Heath, Konstantin Karamanlis, and His Majesty Juan Carlos I. As its founder Kurt Pfeiffer put it, “the Charlemagne Prize reaches into the future, and at the same time it embodies an obligation – an obligation of the highest ethical value. It is directed at a voluntary union of the European peoples without constraint, so that in their new found strength they may defend the highest earthly goods – freedom, humanity and peace – and safeguard the future of their children and children’s children”. Given the state of politics in the UK right now, I cannot begin to explain how depressed this made me feel about where we may be headed. On that note we took ourselves outside with the intention of visiting the cathedral, only to find it was closed until later in the day.
We went round the corner and into the sunshine for a few moments before diving into the Cathedral Treasury. This establishment is home to one of the largest – and outside the frankly barking Vienna Treasury Museum – most stunning collections of valuable church objects north of the Alps. Because the cathedral, otherwise known as the Marienkirche (“Church of St. Mary”), was a coronation church for so long, it has in its possession an incredibly rich and varied collection of valuable artworks, including numerous sacred gold and silver items such as chalices, reliquaries and altarpieces. It’s all very shiny and very impressive in there, though of the original treasures of the cathedral only six have survived, and three of them have been moved elsewhere including to Vienna.
In total the collection contains 210 documented pieces form a variety of sources, including Otto III, who donated the Lothar Cross, the Gospels of Otto III and multiple additional Byzantine silks, while Henry II gave gold that was used to make part of the Pala d’Oro and a covering for the Aachen Gospels, and Frederick Barbarossa donated the candelabrum that adorns the dome of the cathedral.
My favourite piece though, as a staunch Ricardian, was the crown of Margaret of York, handed over by Louis XI.
Objects have been donated across the centuries with the most recent work being a chalice from 1960 made by Ewald Mataré. There was also an interesting exhibition of liturgical clothing which would have been even more interesting if anything had been explained in any language at all.
By the time we’d finished and taken a look at the cloisters as well, the cathedral was open to visitors. We battled our way in along with everyone else, and tried to get a good look at as much as possible. There are a lot of guided tours going round because that is seemingly the only way you can get to some parts of the building, and despite the notices requesting silence it seemed the message hadn’t got through. The other message that hadn’t got through was that if you wanted to take photographs you needed to purchase a permit. I did, because I reckoned that bought me the right to ease in front of people who hadn’t bothered to hand over their €2.
The cathedral itself was begun in 796 and by the time the original building was completed it was the largest cathedral north of the Alps. The model for the structure was the Basilica of San Vitale, in Ravenna, though it was also intended to compete with the Lateran Palace in quality and authority. Built in the Carolingian style, with marble covered walls, and mosaic inlays. Charlemagne’s was buried there, although there is some dispute about where exactly he is. It doesn’t matter, because what is there and can be seen in breathtaking.
Needless to say, bits and pieces have been added on, with gables added in the 13th Century, a choir was added in the 15th Century and the dome was rebuilt after the fire of 1656. The church is still the main attraction in the city and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, one of the first 12 items to be so listed.
During World War II, the cathedral’s basic structure survived as did many of the artistic objects, some of which had been removed to secure storage, and some which had been protected within the church itself. The 14th-century choir hall glass, the Neo-Gothic altar, a large part of the cloister, and the Heiligtumskapelle were lost. Reconstruction and restoration took place over more than 30 years, and cost an estimated €40 million.
Most of the marble and columns used in the construction of the cathedral were brought from Rome and Ravenna, including the sarcophagus in which Charlemagne was eventually laid to rest. A bronze bear from Gaul was placed inside, along with an equestrian statue from Ravenna, believed to be of Theodric, and bronze pieces such as the doors and railings were cast in a local foundry.
And then we had to head for the car and set off for Rotterdam! We stopped off in Ghent on the way to go to a Belgian supermarket (Delhaize of course) and then, having stocked up on their white port, we pointed the car towards Rotterdam, arriving there by 17:00 to board the ferry and settle in to our suite. Showered and tidied up we had an earlyish dinner in the Brasserie, watching the lights go by as the Pride of Hull edged out towards the North Sea for the overnight crossing.
We went for the fish sharing platter this time with mackerel pate, cockles, smoked salmon, smoked haddock, ro
llmop herrings and prawns in abundance…
Salmon and sea bream were the order of the day for mains, and we drank a perfectly decent though not thrilling bottle of wine with it.
We finished once more with cheese, had an early night and a decent breakfast (interestingly the limited and disappointing menu from the journey out was not in evidence so eggs Benedict was back and made a good start to the day). We had a quiet run home and were in the door well before midday, before unpacking the car and trying to work out what on earth we were going to do with all the bottles in terms of storing them at the right temperature. 144 bottles need to be put somewhere while we get round to drinking them.
It has definitely been a successful trip, with Alsace proving to be more than worth a visit, and Baden calling out for a re-run where we spend more time there.