Walking the Route of Charlemagne: Aachen
Part two: Aachen
Following on from part one. April 2023. [Photos all my own]
As I said in my last post, I’ve been seeing signs telling me to research Emperor Charlemagne especially since Snoopy died as a way of trying to discover who I am, where I am going, and what my future is. When I discovered Charlemagne’s remains are buried in Aachen I knew it was a place I had to visit before I left Germany.
After all, I am named after him. And I knew that I would soon be leaving Germany so I needed to get this crossed off my list especially as I was so close to Aachen. I probably wouldn’t get another chance again.
Unsure of how I was to afford a trip to Aachen I decided to save holiday allowance and use the Easter bank holiday weekend when we were closed at work and compiled a 2-day itinerary where I could do everything on a strict budget.
To my delight, I found some old credit on my Check24 account (German comparison portal for anything and everything) which meant I could use it against a hotel room so I booked it for a lot cheaper than the usual price and it was very central and 3-star. Mecure Hotel Aachen am Dom. Another sign from the universe! This was the first time I was staying in a hotel or sleeping a night away from my flat since 2016.
It was a strange unsettling feeling.
But the hotel was clean, the room had a kettle and cups, basic sachets of coffee and tea, the beds were comfy and had nice pressed white sheets and the bathroom had a hairdryer. There were soaps, shower gels and a shampoo in the shower and fresh towels. The staff were really nice and friendly and speak English and if, like me, it’s been a while since you stayed in a hotel, to work the lights and electricity in the room you need to pop your keycard to the room into the holder by the door. This activates the electricity. I had to go to reception and ask!
Having intolerances and health issues meant I had to do some planning regarding food but there were many options for gluten and dairy-free dining and if you’re okay with a school-packed-lunch style on the go then that is a pretty good and failsafe plan. I just got breakfast and dinner out and made up lunches and snacks.
Here are some recommendations for the coeliacs out there that I frequented:
There may be others so check TripAdvisor for current gastronomy options and phone up ahead and book a table, especially at Café Isabella (it is tiny but always busy with people queuing for tables!)
- Ancient Celtic and Roman ruins in the Elisenbrunnen Garden
- Elisenbrunnen natural thermal springs
- Toured the whole of Aachen city –old and new parts on foot
- Checked out the Theater and Cinema complexes—lovely buildings
- Town hall from the outside
- The Center Charlemagne Museum
- Visited the Dom (Cathedral) where I totally missed Charlemagne’s remains
- Breakfast at the gluten-free cafe Isabella looking out onto the Dom
- Domschatzkammer Museum (where the skull and arm fragments of Charlemagne are held)
- Back to the Dom (Cathedral) this time to see Charlemagne’s tomb from afar after asking where the heck it is
- Townhall tour inside
- Couven Museum (bourgeoise house typical of the 1700s in its original state)
- International media/newspaper Museum
- Super C (university building which won an architecture prize)
- More walking and picture-taking of fountains, statues, and quirky things
There were only 2 museums left I could have visited but they didn’t fit into my schedule, one was closed and the other was too far out of town.
I wasn’t sure what I was to expect, how I would feel, and what this all meant for my future but it was a very cool, intense 2 days of immersing myself in history, walking about 25,000 steps (knee, hips, and lower back totally killing me) and complete overstimulation of the brain and eyes. I just went with the flow and allowed myself to be open-minded and open to anything I might think or feel. I wanted to observe how I felt, and what I thought about and see if anything would come to me.
I needed time to digest and process it all afterwards and decide how to write it up into blog posts and what with moving back to the UK I hadn’t managed to get around to writing in a while hence why this is a very late post.
Before I talk about how phenomenal the trip was, let me first point out some of the less nice things to get those out the way.
Like anywhere in Germany, public transport will let you down. It should have taken me 3 hours with one change to get to Aachen from Mainz. The journey there took 4 hours with a massive delay in Cologne and the trip back took me 6 hours with a complete fuck up on the route where no information on the boards were correct, they scrapped Mainz off the plan and I ended up at Frankfurt (Stabber Alley Station) at 11pm on a Saturday Night which added another 2 hours to my trip and a load of stress. If you can, take your car and don’t bother with public transport. Screw your precious environmental plans, Greta. Public transport sucks.
Then, like most affluent cities, where there are the rich, you’ll also see the other end of the spectrum with beggars and junkies loitering everywhere. Within 45 mins of arriving in Aachen I was approached by 3 people and then continued to be approached the entire time I was there by people begging me for money and looking like they were having serious drug withdrawals. One guy told me he just got out of prison and needed money. I was glad to be in my hotel room by 8:30pm. So do be careful, keep your wits about you and because Germany are saving energy due to the post-pandemic economic situation (are we calling it a recession yet or depression? Who knows?) the city isn’t illuminated at night and there are no street lights on (at the time of my visit in April 2023). I was disappointed the Dom wasn’t illuminated for this reason.
Generally, if you want to go, like most places try to avoid weekends. Saturday was insane and double the number of tourists.
Just as a tip, if you do decide to visit Aachen, it is a Catholic city and over religious holidays the Dom often isn’t illuminated inside and you have to book a tour to see Charlemagne’s tomb up close. Tours aren’t available over religious holidays.
Whilst the Dom website says if you pay a one Euro fee you can take photos inside the Dom, this wasn’t offered to me and anyone caught taking photos was reprimanded by security so watch out.
Due to Aachen’s close proximity to the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium, this city sees a lot of action; many tourists so I heard lots of French, Flemish, Dutch, German and of course, lots of American. So quite international and Aachen prides itself on being a centre and representative of all things European. If you only speak English, you will be fine here.
So let me now walk you through some of the sights and give you some brief impressions accompanied by some candid-on-the-move-shoot-and-go-snaps.
First impressions of the infrastructure:
Narrow streets, up and down hills, cobbled Roman roads, port gates and interesting architecture. Accents of colour or little emblems and ornamental quirky designs on exterior buildings. Fountains and statues. Catholic crucifixes all over. A haven of inspiration for creatives. Be sure to look out for the bronze discs in the cobbles that display Charlemagne’s signature. Karl der Große. On the Route of Charlemagne, you’ll find them.
Centre Charlemagne. (Notice the British spelling of Centre…the correct English way 😛 no Yankee Doodle spellings here) A museum of Charlemagne’s life and the history of the city of Aachen. A mixture of history, art and multimedia. From gemstone encrusted bibles and books, original swords and mosaic relics, currency, 3D town plans according to Charlemage’s era, crowns, portraits and statues, and famous photos up to modern day history. Definitely worth visiting. This is a great starting point for a timeline of who Charlemagne is and all the way up through German history. Download the app on your phone and you can listen to the audio tour with your own headphones.
NB. All the museums have one fixed price of 6 euros. If you are visiting all of them it is worth getting the 6 for 6 ticket as you save money.
The Aachener Dom. The Cathedral in Aachen. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A few snaps of the inside before I got told off. On religious bank holidays it is not illuminated so it was very dark inside. Absolutely incredible stained glass windows. (The logos of the Sparkasse bank and other patrons at the bottom ruin it in my opinion but truly stunning colours and light. The copper and gold ceilings and marble work, the details in the art work–pictures don’t do it justice. This city is just dripping in gold literally. Catholic…whaddaya expect? 😃 Phenomenal, sparkly, and for light dispersion and colour loving Magpies like me…we love it!
This place is steeped in history and you can find articles online about it that will do it more justice than I could. Make sure to look at the lion head door handles outside and touch them—those are the originals and Charlemagne himself touched them. Also, if you can go upstairs (it is closed on religious holidays) take a look and photograph the old wooden throne of Charlemagne. The steps and marble are supposed to have come from a church in Jerusalem.
Aachener Domschatzkammer Museum.
If you think you’ve seen many gemstones and pieces of gold; just you wait. The Aachen treasury will blow your mind! I literally walked out like Abu (Aladdin’s monkey) with rubies sparkling in my eyes.
So much sparkle and shiny stuff. A goldsmith and gemmologist’s dream! A magnitude of wealth and no expense on luxury spared and I have never seen a collection like it! It was very dark inside, everything was behind thick glass so the reflection was a nightmare and the camera just couldn’t capture what the naked eye could see. Truly worth a visit. This trip was totally about the riches and gems! And of course, Charlemagne’s skull and forearm remains are entombed in the gold bust and armored sleeve alongside other artifacts and religious ceremonial chalices.
The Gothic town hall. (Rathaus in German. My translation being House of Rats but really a literal translation would be an advisory house) I am not a fan of Gothic. I don’t like dark, eerie, scary buildings. The spikes. The doom and gloom. The lack of colour and the dangerous jagged edges. Looming towers remind me of death and evil. Gargoyles and scenes of the devil stealing souls. But it fascinates me at the same time for the power it holds over us, our fascination with life and death, good vs evil, its sheer scale, the incredulous details, the fact that this was mostly done by casting and handwork and has lasted so many years. The absolute perfect macro and micro intricate work that has gone into it. You can’t help but appreciate the artists and artisans of their time who created it and look at the thousand stories and messages being displayed here in visual form. Every time you look at it you find something new. Romantic? Possibly. Majestic and totally astounding. Go inside and pay the admission, you will see the complete contrast. Behold large white, light and airy rooms, adorned with golds and reds and beautiful murals on ceiling and walls. Go up to the main roof and see more jewel-encrusted artifacts and impressive murals in the banquet hall. There are gorgeous portraits of Napoleon I and his first wife Joséphine Bonaparte in the main Ratssaal to the left of the entrance that shouldn’t be missed.
The Couven Museum. A typical bourgeoise house and apothecary of the 1700s in Aachen. The one issue I had was with the stairs. The steps are so narrow that my massive clown feet (size 8 / 42) could hardly fit on them. I reckon they would have been very small in the 1700s and a size 3 shoe. I had to go almost sideways or on tiptoe. The doors were also small. I felt like a massive Scandinavian/Viking giant. I would have broken so many things if I lived the size I am today back in the 1700s. The floorboards creaked sooooo much I thought I might fall through them. This house was very cool to see though including the portraits, bedrooms, dolls and to learn how children were raised through play to perform future roles in society. They had mannequins dressed in the attire they would have worn back then. Incredibly detailed and intricate. There were all manner of household items and snuff boxes and tiles. I loved the kitchen! All the copper and brass pans and the old sink and fire stove. I also love the drawer of herbs in the pharmacy where the tour starts. Lovely organised and beautiful wooden furniture. This was an amazing house to understand and see life back in the 1700s and get a real appreciation of how far modern living has come. I really recommend it!
The Zeitungsmuseum/ Media Museum.
Looking at newspapers and communication throughout the years. From Gutenberg’s printing press days to modern-day social media.
This building had many cool features, some of it still intact with new parts built in and around it. It also has been used for many different things over the years including a prison! A very interesting place and fascinating to see the way media and news channels manipulate, lie and control what we think and feel. As a dictator, if you want to control the people, control the media. If you want to hurt someone, start rumours and use every newspaper and media, caricature and video there is to exploit and ruin them. It’s always been that way and still is today. If you want freedom of speech and to make up your own mind about things, switch off the news and go do your own research. As a writer this is a great place to understand the link between words and images and psychology, as a media or journalist student, graphic designer, typographer or psychologist, politician or press correspondent, this is a must. What is real and what is fake? You’ll leave with more questions than were answered. The art of spin doctoring or as I call it, bullshitting.
Breakfast at Isabella’s in Aachen.
Gluten-free bakery where everything is gluten-free–however many things have oats in them so if, like me, oats murder your intestines, double check and ask which products are good. They also have vegan options and lots of ready-made cookies and cereals to go. You can have continental breakfast there or smoothies and fruit bowls. It was all delicious. The macarons are to die for as are their mini cheesecakes and patisserie tortes and their sandwiches and selection of baked goods are really delightful. I can recommend the croissants and schoko-brötchen (like a sweet chocolate chip roll) and the Scuba Garden tea is amazing.
They use the same bone china in all their cafes, the same recipes and products and you can pay with cash and card (inc. credit card which is very rare in bakeries in Germany). I’ve been to Frankfurt and now Aachen tea rooms of Isabella’s and they are super delightful. A favourite with many Americans, too.
Book early and reserve a table though if you want to sit in as they are full quickly and generally get there early on opening to make sure to get what you want. They sell out fast and there is always a long queue! Sign of a great little establishment! If you know what you want you can phone ahead up to 2 weeks and place an order and just pay on collection. That’s a great way to ensure you get the products you want
One thing I could definitely take away is the abundance of jewellery, goldsmiths and REAL gemstones that were on sale here. So many riches and tonnes of emeralds, aquamarine and diamonds. No gold plated this and that but real 18k gold/platinum refinery. No lab-grown gems either. They had citrines and tanzanites, tourmalines and rubies. So many stones you just don’t see on the high streets in other German cities. This is an affluent city and themes of jewellery were evident everywhere and something Charlemagne and all through the centuries to modern-day Aachen people value and hold in high worth. Wear your bling is totally in here.
There are so many cultural and historical sights to see in Aachen and I do recommend taking your time to look at them at a slower leisurely pace but if, like me, you’re strapped for time you can fly through the majority in 2 days back to back. I did feel overwhelmed though with everything I saw and needed time afterwards to process and look back through the 200+ photos to really appreciate it. I think it is a beautiful romantic city and has so many wonderful shops and restaurants there. It is certainly a place I would say you need to visit if coming to Germany. Charlemagne is considered the father of Europe and Aachen is where German history really kicks off. To miss it, you’ll be regretting it later. If you’re a history buff, a gemmologist, jeweller or an artist or if you love international cultures then this city is a must-see.
I had a fantastic time away. It was inspiring, energizing, also tiring but it certainly revealed to me why the universe was telling me to go visit. Whilst I am not related to Charlemagne, learning about him and the history behind my name was so rewarding and being at his resting place was like me at my final destination before I left Germany. It showed me what I really love and am inspired by and where I think I need to go and I am so glad I followed the signs and did this trip. Just the quiet time by myself in the evenings and getting out of the house in a new place did me the world of good and boosted my courage to make the decision I was nervous about making.