Aachen, imperial seat of Charlemagne

There are many famed European monarchs of yesteryear: England has Henry VIII and his Armada defeating daughter, Elizabeth I; in France there is the Sun King, Louis XIV, or even Emperor Napoleon; Germany has Frederick the Great and Frederick Barbarossa; Spain has the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the monarchs of the Reconquista, Isabella and Ferdinand; not to mention Russia’s Peter and Catherine the Great.

Buried in Aachen though is perhaps the most illustrious of all European monarchs, a man whose legendary deeds resound through thousands of years of history to this day: Charlemagne. Charles I, as he was known, was a tireless military campaigner who by the time of his death in 814 ruled over all of modern day France and Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as half of Italy and chunks of Spain and Central Europe.

Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Markt, Aachen, Germany
Vinzenzbrunnen, Aachen, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Kreislauf des Geldes (Cycle of Money), Aachen, Germany
Hof with Roman portico, Aachen, Germany

Aachen was Charlemagne’s favourite royal residence, and there is reason to believe he was born here. What is undoubted is that he died here after succumbing to a fever shortly after bathing in Aachen’s famed hot springs. The legacy of Charlemagne is one filled with exaggeration, his most lasting achievement though is that he “provided the ideological foundation for a politically unified Europe”. There’s a reason he’s known as the ´Father of Europe’.

It was those same hot springs that had appealed to the Romans, who turned Aachen into a spa town known as Aquisgranum. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Aachen became something of a backwater, only rising to influence again with the arrival of Charlemagne, who made it the geo-political centre of his sprawling empire. For eight centuries, Aachen was the de facto capital of the German rulers of the Holy Roman Empire.

Aachen Cathedral, where a bronze chandelier given by Frederick Barbarossa hangs over Charlemagne’s tomb, held tremendous significance for the German speaking world. Over thirty German Kings and Emperors were crowned here. It’s an exquisite building inside and out, even when overrun by tourists (and it was). There is an awful lot of gold inlay in the interior, giving it the feel of an Eastern Orthodox church.

Ironically for Aachen, it’s status as the home of Charlemagne and the mystique it held as the capital of ancient Germany, imbued it with a near mythical status in the eyes of the Nazis. Hitler declared it a ‘fortress city’ never to be surrendered – dooming it to a terrible fate as its population was forcibly evacuated. Allied bombing raids had done fearsome damage to the town before it was besieged and fought over street by street.

The prize of Aachen, the most westerly of Germany’s major cities, was totemic for the Allies as well. The result was near total destruction by the time it was liberated on 21 October 1944. As if to justify Charlemagne’s legend, one of the very few buildings to come through the war largely unscathed, was the cathedral. Perhaps fitting then, that this would become Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

The rest of the ancient capital of German Kings and Emperors, was a smouldering ruin. There’s no denying that the reconstruction of Aachen has left a patchwork of architecture, good and bad. While the city still has many medieval buildings standing, and the ancient centre is a pleasant maze of pedestrianised cobbled streets, parts of the city are undeniably aesthetically challenged.

Markt, Aachen, Germany
Aachen, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

What it lacks in visual charm is compensated for by a lively and vibrant city life, especially in the summer when German tourists are joined by visitors from Belgium and the Netherlands. There was a buzz to the city when I was there, its outdoor cafes and beer gardens filled with people enjoying the delights of Charlemagne’s capital. It is again a truly international city, as was back then.

5 thoughts on “Aachen, imperial seat of Charlemagne

  1. Thanks for the reminder of how a Frank (Germanic) King Emperor then ruled over most of Europe… A united Europe?

    1. United if not in agreement, Brian, a bit like it has ever been and continues to be!

  2. How on earth did you manage such a clear shot inside the cathedral? I couldn’t manage it at all.

    1. Honestly, dumb luck. It was so crowded I didn’t even attempt to go to the treasury, but the Charlemagne museum was virtually empty.

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