GA summer series Charlemagne’s beloved palace
Rhineland · Swim like the people of Aachen in the Carolus-Therme or at the Schwertbad. Sip sulphurous water at the Elisenbrunnen fountain and can eat the traditional Printen cakes to help take away the taste of rotten eggs. Visit the cathedral for a taste of the arts.
Aachen is known to most people from history books or the news. The image of the most western German city with almost 250,000 inhabitants is shaped by the cathedral, the Karlspreis (Charle-magne Prize), a famous carnival order, the equestrian tournament, the RWTH university and the former Bundesliga club Alemannia. Emperor Charlemagne can still be seen at every turn. Stop and look at a brass plate with his signum (K-R-L-S) which is embedded in the pavement in the Altstadt (old town), referring to the heritage of the mighty emperor. Aachen was his favourite palace because he liked to hunt in the Ardennes and Eifel forests. Certainly also because of the hot springs, which are unique in Central Europe. After a bloody battle, Charlemagne took off his heavy armour, bathed in the Aachen water and shaped his policies.
The best thing to do is visit the “Städtchen” (little town) with a native. This is what the people of Aachen or the “Oecher” call the most beautiful metropolis in the heart of Europe. The Oecher like to make things smaller and in local dialect they “mullt drauf los” (mouth off). "Mens agitat molem" was once written down by Vergil as a bon mot. This "the mind moves the matter" is translated by the Aachener as “der Mensch agiert met de Mull” (man acts with his mouth).
Our tour guide, who knows this, is one of the educated; particularly attached to the cathedral and committed to maintaining the local dialect. Manfred Birmans had something in common with Char-lemagne: as a child he bathed in the thermal water because during the poverty of the post-war peri-od, the people of Aachen had nothing else. Bathing like Emperor Charlemagne is a must in Bad Aachen. Even if there are only two places left: the Carolus Thermen (http://www.carolus-thermen.de) and the Burtscheider Schwertbad (http://www.salvea.de). The Carolus Thermen (three pools, two of which are open air) are usually overcrowded, so you must try and be among the first to arrive at 9 o'clock. It is possible to taste the water that smells of rotten eggs - although it is no longer classified as drinking water - in the rotunda of the Elisenbrunnen fountain and at the Burtscheider Markt.
A day in Aachen should begin at Charlemagne’s Marienkirche, located on the small Münsterplatz. The stone patterns around the octagon in the centre show that the coronation church was extended in different epochs. The cathedral is flanked by an alley, Spitzgässchen, also known as Zuckergäss-chen (sugar alley). Such alleys are typical of the city centre. Birmans explains that they are a replica of the Middle Ages, where everything was laid out crooked. Only the Katschhof stretches in a rec-tangular shape between the cathedral and the town hall. In the Spitzgässchen, children have been buying their “Klüpchen” (sweets) since 1896. On this square you can see Aachen's narrowest fa-cade, house no. 20, called "Blijstef" (pencil). These buildings with a view of the cathedral have generous balconies. The residents of the 800-year-old pilgrimage site even used to put a roof over the balconies in order to house more pilgrims.
At the famous church Birmans points to something which is little-known: on the Münsterplatz side, a Gothic sundial hangs high above. To the left of it is a tomb slab, but Emperor Charlemagne's tomb has never been found. The inner courtyard of the cathedral is called paradise. This term could be derived from many things - from the architectural atrium to the ideal canopy. In any case, paradise is an area of peace and offers asylum to everyone. Around the corner, at the fish market, stands the Fischpüddelchen statue. The naked boy's face was modelled on an elderly politician, who some-times comes to Aachen to see it for himself. That's what my guide says, but he can't remember the name. At the gateway to paradise, grooves can be seen in the masonry: the fishmongers are said to have sharpened their knives here. Truth collides with poetry at the entry portal of the cathedral. The devil made a pact with the people of Aachen to finance the construction costs and in the end, he lost. The legend of the cathedral building embellishes this. A trapped devil's thumb can be found on the right doorknob, and at the bottom of the door you can see the crack that Lucifer caused by furi-ously slamming the portal (Themed tours are offered by the cathedral chapter). The greatest experi-ence is to attend High Mass and see the church in its full force, flooding the senses.
Anyone who now needs refreshment is drawn to the next attraction, which has not yet been awarded world heritage status, the Aachener Printe. It is almost 200 years old, a flat shaped gingerbread, hard or soft, with nuts, chocolate or plain. The Aachener have a special way of enjoying the Printe. According to Birmans, this is how it works: place a piece of broken Printe with dark chocolate and hazelnuts on your tongue, add a sip of espresso and keep the mixture in your mouth for a moment. This combination triggers a feeling of happiness that Birmans likes to share with the baker on Münsterplatz. Michael Nobis says that the quality of the Printe depends on the quality of the ingredients. He enjoys eating herb-flavoured Printe and bakes the Poschweck (sweet bread), which has been registered since the 15th century, and two kinds of Reisfladen (pastries with creamed rice) - the original and the Belgian variety.
At every corner of the student city, pretty pubs tempt you to take a break. You have to be careful not to end up in the “Strässchen” (little street) that begins behind the Bahkauv (Bachkalb sculpture) at the foot of the Büchel. The Pontstraße leads from the market to the Ponttor, the remaining gates of the medieval wall. The International Newspaper Museum is located on this busy throughway - and definitely worth a visit (www.izm.de). You will find one pub after another, crossing over only a small trickle of water, as Aachen has banished the proper streams underground. Only the fountain culture lives on. The tourists think it's beautiful. Those who want to trace the water more intensively should make a trip to the little town of Seffent, only five kilometres from the centre of Aachen, near the Dreiländereck, the triangle where the borders of the three countries meet.
The architecturally coolest university hospital in Germany (Pauwelsstraße) is a real landmark. For some years now, the gigantic Melaten campus has been growing up alongside the Karlsgarten (Gut Melaten), with which Aachen has made its name as a region for technology and science. (Discovery tours at www.rwth.de). Anyone who walks or rides a bike in this hilly terrain will quickly find themselves in Holland and not long afterwards in Belgium. Here you will find unadulterated coun-tryside with far-reaching views. A popular place called Sieben Quelle (seven springs) is hidden here (at Schurzelter Straße 213) and bubbles behind the restaurant of the same name. A happy place to be. It is so quiet, all you can hear is the birdsong. And the water is so clear that watercress thrives. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Seffent is an area which combines everything that makes Aachen what it is: history with science and nature. Past with future. An embrace in rich green.
(Original text: Annette Bosetti, Translation: Caroline Payne)