Marvel at the spellbinding Dom
Aachen’s Dom is a surprisingly small but exquisite gem of Gothic architectural perfection and was one of the twelve original sites worldwide - and Germany's first - to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status back in 1978.
The oldest part of the Dom is the Palatine Chapel (under renovation when I visited in March 2011, so although entry was possible, the roof wasn't visible), which was commissioned by Charlemagne and began construction in 792 - a staggering early date when you think about it. The octagonal design was inspired by Byzantine churches - particularly San Vitale in Ravenna - and the cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 805 by Pope Leo III.
In common with the vast majority of European cathedrals, the Dom is a venerable mongrel which it has been subsequently added on to in several phases. the most notable of these additions is the soaring Gothic choir built to accommodate the tourist hoards of the day - pilgrims flocking to what was the most significant pilgrimage location north of the Alps at the time (and a major staging post en route for Santiago di Compostela). The choir was consecrated on the 600th anniversary of Charlemagne's death in 1414 and several smaller chapels have been added since then.
Unlike other Gothic cathedrals (such as the Dom in Koeln and Notre Dame de Paris) Aachen’s Dom lacks flying buttresses, and is instead supported by several metal ‘girdles’ which support the structure. The lack of external buttresses means that there is no visual interruption to the vertical external walls of the choir and make it seem deceptively tall. The windows it houses are the tallest north of the Alps and are on their third set (having succumbed to a fire in the Middle Ages and a thorough battering by artilliary fire during the battle of Aachen in WWII).
Because of renovations, I couldn't view the mosaics of the Twelve Apostles on the dome of the Palatine Chapel, but the nature-themed mosaics that adorn the interior of the Palatine Chapel are lovely - and appear very much in keeping with the Byzantine theme, they are actually a much later addition and only completed in 1902. Ironically, this lavish adornment of a Catholic church was paid for by Protestant Kaiser Wilhelm II - one would like to think that this was evidence of ecumenical cooperation at its best, but more likely reflect nationalistic pride in the church Charlemagne built! Look for the mouse close to Charlemagne's throne.
The Dom has seen the crowning of 30 kings and a dozen queens, but relatively few of these were subsequently buried there. It seems that monarchs of the age were keen to be crowned on the throne of Charlemagne, but preferred their bodies to be interred in St Denis in Paris: an unfamiliar concept today, but reasonable enough at a time when both lay within the same Empire. (For more detail in this, have a look at my St Denis tips on my Paris travel page).
Photography is allowed - you will pay 1 Euro for the privilege, but this is free for people on guided tours (which I would highly recommend). An English language tour takes place at 14:00 each afternooon.
I suggest that you have a look at this bronze model of the Dom before you tour around, as this allows you to appreciate the structure in its entirety and understand how the different sections fit together (like most medieval towns, later buildings have since clustered around the church, and it's not possible to get an uninterrupted view). This is also an innovative way to allow people with partial/no sight to appreciate this architectural masterpiece.
The Schatzkammer is the Treasury of Aachen Cathedral. On display are such items as the Bust of Charlemagne, the Cross of Lothair, the Altar of St Wenceslas, The Prosperina Sarcophagus,and, one of the most important exhibits, the Coronation Cape (assumed to be worn by Pope Leo III in 1520 and worn by Charles IV for his coronation). There are many many other religious icons and artefacts here, in a reverential and beautifully illuminated setting. Well worth a visit.
daily 10am - 6pm
Mondays only til 1pm
Thursdays til 9pm
Groups (from 10 people) 2.5E
Have a therapeutic wallow in the Carolus Therme!
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.
Das Rathaus - The Town Hall
Aachen Town Hall was built in the 14th century on the foundations of Charlemagne's palace. The Gothic facade is decorated with more than 50 German rulers throughout history.
Mon - Sun 10.00 - 13.00 h
14.00 - 17.00 h
adults Euro 2,00
students + pupils Euro 1,00
groups from 10 people up Euro 1,20
Feel Inside Lion's Mouth on Cathedral Door
In 800 A.D., the heavy bronze doors of the Cathedral were cast in one piece in Aachen. There is a legend concerning the construction of the Cathedral that relates to the lion's head on the right-hand door. According to legend, the city fathers of Aachen asked the devil for help when they ran into financial difficulties with the Cathedral's construction. The devil agreed, but required the soul of the first person to enter the Cathedral as his compensation. The devil specifically had the bishop in mind who would be the first to step inside the building during the inauguration ceremony. The Aachen citizens devised a plan to trick the devil, and instead chased a wolf through the portal instead of a person. When the wolf entered, the devil tore its soul out. Then, after realizing the trick, the devil ran off in a rage and slammed the doors shut with such force that not only did he crack the right-hand door but he also caught his thumb in it. According to the story, one can still feel the devil's thumb inside the lion's mouth. If you stand outside of the Cathedral doors, you will see many visitors feel inside the lion's mouth to see if the legend is true.
Named after the most famous Aachen architect Johann Josef Couven, this beautiful 18th century house has exquisite examples, on four floors, of interior design and decoration from that period. There are beautiful handmade tiles in display cabinets in almost every room and paintings of the original occupants hang on the walls plus furniture, plumbing, and various domestic effects. Well worth visiting... oh and don't forget to look at the Apothek on the ground floor level, it is particularly important as it was here that the first chocolate was made in Germany - for medicinal purposes only you understand ;-)
Rucksacks must be left at the ticket office as they can easily damage or knock something as you browse.
Entry is 1.5E
Aachener Dom (Cathedral)
Aachen's major attraction is its magnificent Dom (Cathedral). Construction began in 792 A.D., during Charlemagne's reign, and the Cathedral was consecrated in 805 A.D. by Pope Leo III in honor of the Virgin Mary. It is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe and was known as the "Royal Church of St. Mary at Aachen" during the Middle Ages. The Cathedral is the final resting place for Charlemagne who died in 814 A.D. Also, for hundreds of years, it was the site of coronations of many kings and queens during the Carolingian dynasty and the Kingdom of Germany.
Granusturm (Tower of Granus)
Built in 788, this tower is 21 meters tall and is the oldest remaining building in the city. It was once part of Charlemagne's palace and used as a watch tower and living quarters. The middle section even had heating! On the ground floor there was a water closet and anteroom - probably a royal loo! Nowadays the ground floor is home to the Registrar's office.
Aachen Cathedral is a "must see" for any tourist - situated smack bang in the centre of the Aachen, you can't miss it's towering Gothic spires from anywhere in the vicinity!
Dating back to 800 AD, the Cathedral of Charlemagne was the location for the coronation of German kings. The interior is beautiful (but very crowded!!).
Entry is free. Check the website for opening times.
Admire Aachen's marauding herd of horses
If I needed any persuading that I was going to enjoy my time in Aachen, stepping out of the railway station and being welcomed by this small herd of galloping horses was all the incentive I needed!
Aachen has a long association with horses and hosts a world famous Equestrian Festival (that's a 'horse show' to you and I) in July every year . One legend even suggest that Charlemagne decided to build a palace here because his horse pawed the ground and discovered hot water emanating from the thermal springs, but unfortunately this is charming but spurious piffle, as the springs were already used by Bronze Age Celts and the Romans established their Aquae Granni (the 'Waters of Grannus', named after a Celtic God) settlement around the springs hundreds of years before Charlemagne (or his horse) were born.
The figures which comprise this beautiful bronze sculpture is surprisingly small - more ponies than horses - but wonderfully captures the energy of the herd in motion and the personalities of the different animals. It is much beloved by small children who clamber on the horses' backs, and nobody seems to mind - living in a country where municipal art is sadly undervalued, it's heartwarming to see a statue being so appreciated
Take a steep stroll up to the Salvatorkirche
I like cities, but I don't much enjoy prolonged exposure to hoards of people, so after a couple of hours in Aachen's old town during Karnival (a coincidence rather than something I'd planned), I felt the need to escape the madding crowds of pleasantly half-enebriated people in bizarre garb.
Fortunately Aachen's old town is small and surrounded by a 'belt' of parks and gardens. I followed my nose to the Salvatorburg, just north of the spa complex, which is a steep walk through a park which gives way to some lovely woodland. Even though the town is only a few hundred metres away, it feels as though you have escaped the city and the walk up the hill is exhilarating.
At the top of the hill is the exquisite Salvatorkirche, a gorgeous little church all but hidden from the town below by the surrounding trees. Coincidentally it was the second Salvatorkirche that I had stumbled across in as many days, and it seemed as if the atmospheric intimacy of Aachen and the imposing bulk of Duisburg's towering namesake were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
As befits the setting, the interior of the church is simple but very beautiful, and very much in keeping with the architecture. One of the rather whimsical yardsticks that I use to 'rate' churches is whether I'd like to be have been married there, and I had no problem whatsoever imagining the pews filled with family and friends.
A lovely spot to catch up on yourself and just 'be', and perhaps a good spot to offer a prayer for your loved ones.
Aachener Rathaus (Town Hall)
The Aachener Rathaus (Town Hall) was erected in the 14th Century by the citizens of the Free Imperial City of Aachen. It was built on the foundations of the formal Carolingian Royal Hall. The elaborate design of the facade is in the Gothic style.
Inside the interior of the Rathaus, there is the Coronation Hall which contains exact replicas of the imperial insignia (the original items are kept in Vienna). The Aachen imperial insignia consists of the Imperial Orb, Imperial Scepter, Imperial Cross, Ceremonial Sword, Holy Lance, Imperial Gospel, Purse of St. Stephen, and the Sabre of Charlemagne.
Sometimes, the interior of the Rathaus is closed to the public on account of special events. Unfortunately, that was the case when I was visiting Aachen.
On Wings of Song
1. Stage with table and piano for the reading and recital
2. Members of the audience
3. Old Kurhaus from the outside
4. Inscription in the ballroom
5. Poster announcing the reading and recital
The building now known as the Old Kurhaus was built in 1782 as a casino, since Aachen was a very fashionable spa at that time and gambling was a major pastime for the rich but bored people who came here to take the waters.
The inscription in the historic ballroom (fourth photo) reads: "Built by Jakob Couven 1782, destroyed 1943, rebuilt 1967."
The ballroom is now often used for recitals and readings. When I arrived in Aachen in the pouring rain I bought one of the two local newspapers (yes, they still have two papers!) and found an announcement of a recital and reading that was being held that same evening.
Under the title "On Wings of Song", actress Daniela Ziegler read texts by or about the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (1820-1887) and particularly about her deep emotional relationship with the German composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847). Between sections of the reading, pianist Sebastian Knauer played some of Mendelssohn's compositions for the piano.
Jenny Lind and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy certainly had a close professional and personal relationship, but it seems to have been purely platonic. The composer was already married to someone else, which whom he had five children, and according to the program notes he did not do anything with Jenny Lind that might have jeopardized his marriage. Not that there is really any evidence one way or another.
The last public concert that Lind and Mendelssohn gave together -- with Mendelssohn at the piano -- was here in Aachen at a music festival in 1846.
Like some of the other most famous female opera singers of the nineteenth century, such as Maria Malibran (1808-1836) and Verdi's second wife Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897), Jenny Lind had a huge and very lucrative international singing career when she was in her twenties, but quickly wrecked her voice by singing too much too often -- like some singers today who have trouble saying no to enticing offers. (Though a lot of singers today are more careful and can go on singing professionally for many years.)
There are or course no recordings of Jenny Lind, since she stopped singing before the first recording apparatus was invented. (And the same goes for Malibran and Strepponi.)
- Arts and Culture
Hof, the street from which Körbergasse branches off , is one of the most historical sites in the center. Excavation finds indicate that it was once a district of Roman baths. The archway of a Roman foyer dating from the 2nd century A.D., whose parts were excavated on Hof and reconstructed after the Second World War.
- Arts and Culture
Buy "Charlemagne Guides You Through Aachen"
I visited Aachen on a Thursday and a Friday. Unfortunately, guided city tours in English were only offered on Saturday at the time of my visit.
Since a guided tour was not available, I purchased a small guidebook in English called "Charlemagne Guides You Through Aachen" at the tourist information center. This guidebook is excellent! My sightseeing in Aachen was greatly enriched by following the suggested walking tour. For each site on the walking tour, the guidebook provides a short write-up.
The price of the guidebook was 3 EU. I highly recommend it if you want to make the most of your sightseeing time in Aachen!
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