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In Aachen, the legacy of Charlemagne

The former capital of Europe offers visitors a pass to the past. The city's thermal springs and cathedral are still major attractions.

August 03, 2003|Eva G. Fremont | Special to The Times

Aachen, Germany — The driving rain didn't deter us or change our plans as we headed into town with our German friends Lutz and Marga. We settled into a small hotel in the heart of the old town, then, umbrellas aloft, went in search of Charlemagne's trail.

It didn't take long. We found the emperor -- tall, bearded, in Renaissance armor with an octagonal crown on his head -- sitting atop a monumental pea green fountain in the center of the city's old town. It was only fitting that he be accorded such an honor: Thanks to Charlemagne, Aachen once was the capital of Europe.

Until you first hear it (AH-kin), figuring out how to pronounce the name of this city of 260,000 may seem difficult. Could that be why European itineraries rarely mention it? It's much more common to see references to Munich and its Oktoberfest; to the Rhine and its riverboat rides and wine tasting; and to Berlin, Germany's new-old capital.

But Aachen -- on Germany's northwestern border with the Netherlands and Belgium -- has a lot going for it, my husband, Bill, and I discovered during our three-day visit last year in June. The town is Germany's western gateway and is filled with history, much of it evolving from its famous onetime resident, Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. Thermal springs, which drew him in the first place, are still a major tourist attraction, as is the magnificent cathedral that Charlemagne founded here in 802.

So we ignored the rain and tried to take advantage of our limited time. We looked around the spacious Market Square, pausing in front of the ornate neo-Gothic Rathaus, or Town Hall. It was built on the ruins of Charlemagne's imperial palace; we could see that its northern facade contained carvings of 54 German monarchs.

"The Rathaus has been rebuilt innumerable times in its 1,200-year history," a tour guide told us later as she ushered the four of us up the town hall's weathered stone stairway. The original Gothic structure "was converted to Baroque style after Aachen's great fire of 1656 and rebuilt again in neo-Gothic style in the 19th century, an ornate look it retains today." The Coronation Hall upstairs, with its rose-hued vaulted ceiling, 6-foot stone pillars and 9th century stone floor, generated visions of the great banquets held here from 1349 to 1531: Otto II, perhaps, amid his family, vassals and loyal subjects, presiding over tables sagging under meat pies on trenchers and other medieval goodies.

Clinging to the Rathaus' left wall is the tiny Postwagen restaurant, where we took shelter from the rain for lunch. Built in 1657, the richly carved, half-timbered structure was restored to its original Baroque splendor after it was damaged in World War II. We sat on a low wooden bench, sipped beer and tucked into hearty helpings of noodles and mushrooms. Through the pub's wavy leaded windows, we watched backpack-carrying students and elderly shoppers traversing the square.

Aachen's International Newspaper Museum, home to 170,000 newspapers from the late 1500s on, proved an engrossing respite from the nonstop downpour. Lutz and Bill, both history buffs, gravitated to the press coverage of the rise of the Third Reich, World War II, the Kennedy assassination and other milestones in German and world history. Marga and I were fascinated by the "Curiosities" on display, including Diario di Roma of Feb. 28, 1809, the world's smallest newspaper -- barely larger than a pack of cigarettes -- and L'autre Monde, unique because it was printed on black paper with gold lettering.

That evening, it was still raining when we walked to the Ratskeller, a popular eatery that impressed everyone: Lutz and Bill, who ordered sausage plates, and Marga and I, with herring platters. The restaurant's long vaulted ceiling was supported by thick white-washed columns strung with grapevines.

The rain finally stopped, and it was still fairly light as we walked back to the hotel. We passed the Charlemagne fountain, bathed in the moonlight.

Hot springs eternal

Aachen's famous sulfur springs have drawn inhabitants for thousands of years. Ancient burial mounds indicate that the region's early inhabitants lived in the hills around the bubbling springs during the Bronze and Iron ages.

The Celts arrived in 600 BC, followed in the 1st century by the Romans, who established a large military spa in Aachen. The thermal baths could accommodate 6,000 Roman soldiers simultaneously.

Eventually the Romans were rout- ed by the Franks. The first written mention of Aachen during the Middle Ages relates that Pippin the Short, the Frankish king, celebrated Christmas "in his manor house in 765/766." Charlemagne, Pippin's eldest son, inherited the manor 30 years later and became Europe's greatest medieval king, called the Father of Europe during his lifetime.

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