Whatever I learned about ancient history and the Middle Ages in Western Civ class in college faded long ago into the mists of time.
I remember learning about the Greeks and Romans, European kings and emperors, famous battles and victorious generals, treaties, despots, revolutions, the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and something about the treaty of Ghent. And the Treaty of Versailles. There were a couple, I think. But don’t ask me details.
There was a chapter about Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but the details are very fuzzy.
So when we were planning our Germany trip, Aachen was one of the cities we looked into because it was in North-Rhine Westphalia where we were going. As soon as I saw a reference to Charlemagne, I remembered that he was crowned on Christmas Day, 800, because it was a round number, not some date that no one could remember like 1174 or 1340. What happened on those dates? Not a clue. But if the question was asked on a pop quiz today, who was crowned Emperor in 800, I’d write down ‘Charlemagne’.
So we had to visit Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle in French, which was very convenient, just a thirty minute train ride from Cologne on our way to Brugge, Belgium. Aachen is easily reached by high-speed trains from Cologne, Maastricht (the Netherlands), Brussels (Belgium) and Liege (France).
Aachen is Germany’s western-most town on the border with Belgium and Netherlands. The city, which dates from Roman times, became famous for it’s spas, and in the 18th century, as a fleshpot with high-class prostitutes and hospitals full of patients with venereal disease according to historical documents.
Charlemagne Prize (Karlspries)
The day after we arrived, June 2, was Marilyn’s birthday. The streets were quiet and congestion free with police cars and barricades leading into the city center. Stores were closed for a holiday to celebrate the awarding of the Charlemagne Prize (Karlspries) that day.
The Karlspries is awarded annually in Aachen to a person who has made a major contribution for European unity. The last 10 years, the Karlspries has been awarded to Bill Clinton, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, Angela Merkel, and Pope John Paul II. Posters plastered around town announced that it was being awarded to Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank.
We walked to the square in front of the old Rathaus (City Hall) where a large screen TV was broadcasting the ceremony inside. A few minutes after we arrived, Trichet was awarded the prize and gave his speech which was on the front page of the European Wall Street Journal the next day.
We stood at the barricade with a cordon of German police across from us scanning the crowd. We were sandwiched between a fleet of TV cameras in front of us and protesters behind us blowing whistles, waving banners, and shouting while Trichet spoke and later appeared on the Rathaus steps to wave at the crowd.
It was a bit of a media circus, with most observers shaking their heads and muttering at the rowdy protesters. But it was entertaining, being close to the center of an unfolding international news story.
After the ceremony, a fleet of black limousines, SUV’s, and German police vans drove out of the plaza to a luncheon for the dignitaries. We walked around the Rathaus to a bistro for an outdoor lunch of potato leek soup, fresh bread, and salad, and to toast Marilyn’s birthday with a rich, dark Belgian Leffe beer.
All of Aachen was celebrating that day with choruses, rock groups, modern and folk dancers performing on a temporary stage behind the Rathaus. The plaza was crowded with crafts exhibitions, fresh fruit and vegetable stands, beer vendors, strolling singers, and even a couple mime’s. We joined the festivities and enjoyed a beer or two while chatting with vacationing students from Maastricht.
It was a holiday, everyone was having a good time. We soaked up the experience of being a small part of a contemporary political event in an ancient city.
Charlemagne put Aachen on the world map by making it his home and using it as his power base. He was the son of Pepin the Short, crowned King of the Franks in 768, and Emperor of Holy Roman Empire in 800 by Pope Leo III.
Charlemagne helped the Catholic church spread it’s influence as well as it’s art and culture throughout western and central Europe. He is considered the creator of Europe in the Middle Ages. Future monarchs of Germany and France trace their origins to Charlemagne.
Charlemagne died in 814 and was buried in a vault below the cathedral wearing a crown, holding a scepter, and dressed as an emperor. His tomb was opened in 1000, and the event was described in a historical document:
“So we went in to Charles. He did not lie, as the dead otherwise do, but sat as if he were living. He was crowned with a golden crown and held in his gloved hands a sceptre; the fingernails had penetrated through the gloves and stuck out. Above him was a canopy of limestone and marble. Entering, we broke through this. Upon our entrance, a strong smell struck us. Kneeling, we gave Emperor Charles our homage, and put in order the damage that had been done. Emperor Charles had not lost any of his members to decay, except only the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles’s mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber, and withdrew again.”
Charlemagne’s remains were later removed and reinterred in a golden casket behind the altar in the Aachen Cathedral.
Aachen remained an important political centre after Charlemagne died. From 936 to 1531, thirty German kings and twelve German queens were crowned at the Aachen Cathedral.
We visited the cathedral daily and found it relatively compact for a church with such stature in the history of Europe and the Catholic church. The interior is dimly lighted, a bit cramped, with limited room for parishioners. It has touches of Byzantium with square marble pillars, tiny stained-glass windows, small side chapels, and limited art. A distinguishing feature is the Barbarossa eight-sided golden chandelier hovering over the Carolingian octagon narthex.
Aachen in the 20th century
We enjoyed the blending of modern and ancient Aachen. Every morning we walked into town from our hotel near the Hauptbahnhof through the 13th century Marschiertor, one of Aachen’s two remaining tower gates. One could imagine that several centuries ago, cannons poked out of the turrets and sentries scanned the country side for signs of invaders.
Aachen was the first German city liberated by the U.S. Army in March, 1945. Much of the city, except for the Cathedral, was demolished by Allied artillery and Waffen-SS troops defending the city.
Today Aachen is known as a center for education, technology, and science. It has also become a popular tourist destination because of it’s old world charm and as the home and final resting place of Charlemagne, a major figure in modern European history.
The city is constructing a new high-tech Charlemagne Centre with digital displays and artifacts commemorating the rich history of the old city. Billboards and posters around the city promoting the center say it will open in 2012.
Next destination: Brugge
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
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