The town of Aachen is in Germany, but as you drive along the streets you may suddenly find yourself in the Netherlands (an area called Vaals that grew up outside the city walls for religious and practical reasons). Belgium is only a few kilometres away, and the bus tour of the City takes you to to a point where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet. Fortunately nowadays there are no passport controls and the three countries have a common currency.
Not all are aware that Aachen, Aken, Aix-La Chapelle and Aquisgrana are one and the same place, Aachen in German, Aken in Dutch, Aix-La-Chapelle for the French, Walloon Belgians and most British, and Aquisgrana for the Italians who consider this city part of their heritage, as a former home of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Aachen owes its international fame to Charlemagne, who ruled over a vast empire including much of continental Europe and who built here his Aquispalatium, his water palace, where he could ease his aches and pains in the hot springs which reach 70°C, and are the hottest natural springs in Northern Europe aside from Iceland. These hot, sulphur-rich springs were appreciated from Roman times: a great benefit during the cold, damp North European winters.
I visited Aachen in 2012, attracted by the Cathedral, the first German monument to be nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1978. I reflected that this seems the kind of city I would have enjoyed living in – at around 260,000 inhabitants it’s not too large, not too small, lively and international but not too crowded.
By the end of my visit I concluded that summer 2014 will be the right time to take in this city.
What happens in Aachen in 2014?
2014 will mark the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. On June 19th, the German President will open three special exhibitions lasting through the summer, dedicated to Charlemagne and his heritage of administrative measures, art and culture. Charlemagne was a strong ruler, ruthless towards his enemies, but not a war-monger. In fact he gave north-western Europe stability unknown since Roman times, and introduced unifying elements such as common worship, common currency, improved education and culture.
The special exhibitions will be entitled:
- ORTE DER MACHT (The Places of Power) to be held in the crowning room in the Town Hall
- KARLS KUNST (Charlemagne’s Art) which will be in the new Charlemagne Centre, to be opened in 2013)
- VERLORENE SCHAETZE (Lost Treasures) held in the Cathedral Treasure Chamber
2014 is also by chance a Pilgrimage Year in Aachen. Only once every seven years are the Cathedral’s most precious relics brought out.
These relics are contained in a golden shrine in the Cathedral, not far from the shrine containing Charlemagne’s spoils. The two caskets can be seen any time during the visit to the Cathedral. But Mary’s casket is opened every seven years. It contains what traditionally are said to be the relics of the Baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes, the cloth that covered his loins during the crucifixion, a robe of the Virgin Mary and the cloth in which John the Baptist’s head was placed after his decapitation.
These relics were brought from Jerusalem during Charlemagne’s time, to add lustre to the Cathedral he had built in his desire to create a northern Rome, octagonal like the Basilica of S. Vitale in the formerly Byzantine city
of Ravenna. Aachen became a destination for pilgrimage on a par with Rome and Santiago de Compostela. This brought an influx of visitors and customers for the town tradesmen as well as a widening culture.
July 2014 is the moment foreseen for showing the relics, and today’s pilgrims will join the tourists flocking to the event. They will enjoy the pilgrim’s bread, the so called Printen, a sort of rich cinnamon tea-bread, which in former times was made into really hard (printed) blocks easy for pilgrims to carry for nourishment as they plodded back to their homes or on to Spain to Santiago de Compostela.