I thought that the municipal sculpture was one of the highlights of my time in lovely Aachen: I love the accessibility of this artform, and the fact that it is part of people's day-to-day lives.
Of all the sculptures, this was perhaps the one that I liked most: a sleeping lion located in Kaiserplatz. There was no notice to explain its significance, but I loved its peacefulness and lifelike proportions - a far cry from the usual mane-bristling, rampaging lions of heraldry. In fact, it put me in mind of C.S. Lewis' 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (my all time favourite children's book, which inspired the Narnia movies), where the White Witch turned animals opposing her rule to stone. I, for one, wouldn't be at all surprised if you could bring this lion back to life with the flick of a wand!
This statue of the Great Man stands outside the Rathaus, and directly across from the offices of the Route Charlemagne.
It's actually a trifle underwhelming, as it appears to be about life size (Charlemagne wasn't called 'Charles the Great' just for his achievements, since his skeleton proves that he was a big bloke even by our standards, and a veritable giant for his time), but is elevated so high off the ground that you can't really get a good look at it. Also it was hard to photograph as the sky was overcast and the contrast between the colour of the Rathaus and the statue wasn't good.
Given that Charlemagne is the main show in town, this statue is a frankly a bit disappointing, and nowhere near as impressive as the stunning golden reliquary head of Charlemagne that is on display in the Treasury (the classic image that is plastered over all the tourist literature, but of which, bizarrely, there wasn't a single postcard available when I visited!).
Maybe someone's going to give this statue a clean and/or a regild before the complete Route Charlemagne is launched in 2012, which would go a good way towards enhancing its appeal?
Warm water is one of life’s great pleasures, and when feeling sick, sad or generally out of sorts, I can be counted on to retreat to a hot bath. So I am greatly endebted to BillNJ for his excellent Aachen page which first brought the Carolus Therme spa to my attention.
Travelling to Aachen in chilly early March whilst recuperating from bronchitis, (and despite multiple layers of clothing superimposed on skiing thermal underwear) I felt permanently cold, and was disappointed that my (budget) hotel did not offer a bath into which I could retire for a therapeutic wallow. This temporarily privation made me realize how the rank and file of Europeans over the centuries must have felt, as easy access to hot water would not have been a fixture of life in the Dark or Middle Ages even for the nobility, so it is not hard to appreciate the allure of Aachen's thermal springs.
The Carolus Therme is a spa complex established around the thermal springs first developed by the Bronze Age Celts (and possibly even before) and which provided the focus for the Roman settlement of Aquae Granni. Today the springs have been developed into a luxurious –yet affordable – spa complex which presents locals and visitors with the ideal opportunity to pamper yourself and sooth aching muscles in all weathers.
The complex is separated into two: a series of indoor and outdoor pools, and an upstairs complex of saunas and treatment rooms. The pools are of varying temperatures and serve different functions: my personal favourite was a ‘blue grotto’ with very warm water and two water cascades under which you can stand to massage your neck and back (as well as cunning little water jets on the base of the pool to massage your feet).
Elsewhere there are pools and jacuzzis of differing temperature and intensity, and participation in a number of activities are included in the price: when I visited, there was an aqua aerobics class (attended by a motley selection of people, ranging from teenagers to pensioners) and a meditation class. And, in contemplating the holistic definition of 'wellness', of course you should never underestimate the opportunity that such spas offer for an unexpected ego boost, as there are always people older and fatter than yourself in these complexes!
For my money, the best fun is one of the outdoor pools – warm enough to be pleasant even when the outside temperature was 3˚C – which is equipped with a 'current' (water, not electrical!) that is activated on every few minutes. This current allows you to part swim, part body surf around the perimeter of the pool and is enormous fun.
The sauna complex (in which nudity is 'compulsory' - I just love that Teutonic directness when it comes to rules!) has a number of themes, which seem to range from Baltic log cabins to scented desert experiences: I had meant to try these out, but as it turned out, couldn’t summon up the energy and enthusiasm to tear myself away from the pool complex!
There are also no fewer than three restaurants, some of which you can access in your bathers/dressing gown.
Being of an inquisitive (alright, nosey) disposition, I enjoy the wonderful opportunities that spas present for 'people watching'. Over the course of the afternoon, I monitored the progress of a lovestruck German youth who was on what appeared to be his first date with a charmingly cosmopolitan Russian polylinguist - he was clearly besotted, and I was silently cheering him on for the entire afternoon. How do I know this? Well, I shamelessly eavesdropped every time we found ourselves sitting in the same jacuzzi!
The fee is payable on exit, depending on what services you have used (which means you don’t have to make up your mind in advance): in my case, 3.5 hours in the pool complex cost €12.50, and use of the saunas would have cost an additional €10. Swimming costumes are required for the pool complex, whilst towels and dressing gowns can be hired (or purchased), although it’s obviously cheaper to bring your own. I also found a USA Today travel article that mentioned that, "Carolus Thermal Baths offers a gift certificate for all those who donate blood at the clinical center at University Hospital Aachen. For the sake of safety, do not take your thermal bath on the same day you donate blood." I am not sure that this is still the case - and, if it is, I'm peeved that I didn't know beforehand, as I am a dedicated blood donor - but as I was recupering anyway, they probably would (and should) have turned me away!
Note that no children under 6 are allowed.
I was surprised to find that there is a strong link between Aachen and Hungary - apparently there was major medieval pilgrimage traffic between the two, and the Queen of Hungary visited on pilgrimage in 1337 with a staggering encourage of over 700!
Charlemagne built up a formidable collection of relics (including crowd pleasers such as fragments of Mary's robe, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Jesus, and the cloth used to wrap the severed head of John the Baptist). This made it one of the premier pilgrimage sites north of the Alps in its own right, as well as a popular staging point for pilgrims heading west to the better known Santiago di Compostela.
One of the chapels in the Dom is known as the Hungarian chapel, and outside the Dom, a contemporary statue of a rather mournful looking St Stephen has been erected.
Saint Stephen I was the first King of Hungary who is credited with bringing Christianity to the Carpathian Basin: morever, unlike the more famous Charlemagne, he at least seems to have managed to hold onto his sainthood (see my Aachen introduction for more on Charlemagne's 'de-sainting'!)
I think that this is a very attractive statue, and I particularly like the jewelled detail on his cloak. For maximum photogenic opportunity, visit when the adjacent magnolia tree is in bloom (sadly I'm not that organised, but other people's online photos look stunning)!
The entry to the Dom is a lovely spot, provided it's not crowded with tourists.
You enter from the west and pass through gates into what would be called a 'church close' in England, lined by houses that presumably once housed clergy and other associated with the Dom and would now constitute extremely desirable real estate. I didn't see it myself, but I would imagine that it's particularly picturesque just before dusk as the sun sets over the gate and bathes the Dom in gentle light.
The massive bronze 'Wolf Doors' are the main entrance to the Dom and date back to the 800s when the Palatine Chapel (the original part of the Dom structure) was built. There is a legend that a deal was done with the Devil when funding ran short to complete the Dom, and in return, he was promised the first soul that entered the church. The canny townsfolk reneaged on the deal by herding in a wolf rather than a person, which so enraged the Devil that he slammed the huge bronze door in fury, and caught his thumb, which was left behind in the door. Lesser mortals now use a rather less impressive person-sized side entrance adjacent to the Wolf Doors.
This event is commemorated by a bronze statue of a wolf with a hole in its chest which sits in the cathedral antechamber, presumably through which the Devil ripped out its soul.
As they say, the Devil's in the detail ... or in this case, "The Devil's the hell in with the detail"!
I love city walls - they give me a sense of security which is probably totally misleading given how often many of these have been breached throughout history!
Aachen has a couple of reassuringly solid city gates, and fragments of the medieval city walls still remain: if you look at a map of the city centre, you can see that what was most probably the location of the old city wall is now a ring of parkland around the Old Town.
I particularly like this gate - the Pottnor Gate, just north west of the town centre - because you can still see the remains of the moat. In my subsequent research, I was charmed to discover that this wonderful building is still in use - as the scout hall of the Holy Cross Scout Troop!
Aachen is blessed with many beautiful fountains - apparently over 60 in all - most of which were unfortunately cordoned off when I visited, less drunken Karnivallers should fall into them, doing damage to both themselves and the fountain!
The 'Circle of Money' fountain is the one that I liked most, and symbolises the circulation of money. It was sculpted by Karl-Henning Seemann and sponsored by Sparkasse Aachen, a local bank.
The figures arranged around the outside of the fountain are affectionate caricatures of people in all walks of life, and I particularly enjoyed the way that the water circulated in the fountain itself. Very symbolic in an unpretentious and accessible way (just my kind of art)!
There is a small park adjacent to the fountain which was just starting to show the first evidence of spring bulbs when I was there, and seems to be much favoured by families. The park also has a small area of 'amphitheatre style' seating which seems to be regularly used by school groups.
Having trodden the conference circuit at various points in my career, I tend to regard conference centres as a necessary evil. Although I accept that they are practical and major sources of revenue for towns, they are usually unlovely structures that are often inconveniently located and don't excite me much.
Unfortunately Aachen's Eurogress conference centre is somewhat unfortunately named, as it conjurs up images of 'regressing' (something that conference delegates are wont to do when they've had one too many free drinks) - I can't quite decide whether the trendy '€ Gress' abbreviation makes it better or worse.
However, Eurogress at least is excellently located, in a leafy location just on the eastern edge of the old town. It is within easy walking distance of many nice hotels (including the swanky Hotel Quellenhof next door) and the casino (yawn), as well as the lovely Carolus Therme spa complex.
In addition to conferences, the complex hosts concerts, plays and exhibitions.
In my excitable temperement, enthusiasm for beer and ability to extemporise (usually expressed in more scatological terms), I am a classic product of my dominantly Irish heritage. However, there are two cultural traits that I have managed to sidestep inheriting: smoking and gambling.
I cannot begin to explain how much gambling bores me. When (reluctantly) staying in hotels that have casinos attached, I have been known to haunt the lobby, trying to offload free casino vouchers that have come as part of the 'package' onto bewildered fellow guests, I can't see the point of having a flutter on the gee gees, and I fast forward all James Bond casino sequences (which didn't leave me with too much of Casino Royale).
Given all that, it was to be expected that I wouldn't have road tested the casino in Aachen. Suffice to say that there is one, it is housed in a very attractive building next to the Eurogress conference centre and the Hotel Quellenhof, and I'm sure that it's very nice if this sort of thing lights your candle. Me, I'll just get excited about talking rubbish over a few glasses of Kolsch ...
The Salvatorburg woods may only be a stone's throw away from Aachen's city centre, but they feel much more distant in the positive sense of the word!
The Salvatorburg is a lovely little pocket of woodland on a steep hill, topped by the lovely Salvatorkirche. After the pretty but manicured parkland around the casino, conference centre and spa, it is a pleasant change to find a more natural setting with lots of birdlife. The woods appear to be much used by local dog walkers and are surrounded by some extremely desirable real estate, all of which further add to its considerable charms.
The only minor criticism that I have of this lovely spot is that even in winter, the trees obscure the view of the old town, so if you're intending to undertake this hike in order to obtain panoramic views, you'll unfortunately be disappointed. Otherwise it is a charming spot to retreat for an hour or so (or maybe even a picnic?) when you need a breather.
There are several of these shrines around the perimeter of the church, but not enough for them to be stations of the cross (unless a considerable number of them are missing). I'd be interested if anyone can cast some light on their significance?