I arrived in Aachen with only a smidgen of knowledge about it. I left feeling like it was a place I could happily live. Tucked away in the most westerly region of Germany on the border with the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s one of those places that feels like it flies below the radar. It may be a little overshadowed by more illustrious neighbour, Cologne, but anyone who’s been here knows it’s a friendly town with layers of history and culture to explore.
It’s also a town with a double identity. As a student of modern European history many years ago, the name Aix-la-Chapelle was a significant one. There was a 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that recognised a new order in Europe, the Austrian Hapsburgs in decline and Prussia, the soon to be driving force behind German unification, a new European power. The 1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle brought temporary order to the post-Napoleonic world.
You won’t find Aix-la-Chapelle on any modern map though, because Aix-la-Chapelle is Aachen, and the town’s French name is only to be found in history books. Probably the last time it was officially known as Aix is when France annexed the town in 1801, returning to Prussia after Napoleon’s defeat. It does hint though at the role the city has played at the crossroads of Western Europe from the reign of Charlemagne onwards.
Despite the cataclysmic damage inflicted by Allied bombing and ferocious fighting as Aachen became the first German town to capitulate to the American army in the Second World War, the historic centre was quickly reconstructed. The town’s two most important buildings, the cathedral and Rathaus, continue to dominate the Old Town. The 16th century Rathaus was built on the foundations of Charlemagne’s palace.
Wandering around the area that was once enclosed by medieval defensive walls, there are plenty of reminders of the ancient city, even if they are interspersed with some less delightful buildings. The Marschiertor and Ponttor, massive medieval gateways into the city, give a hint of the importance of Aachen. This was, after all the place where Holy Roman Emperors came to be crowned.
Aachen is also home to quirky-going-on-weird sculptures. Dotted around town, it’s fun stumbling upon them, from the small cherub grasping a couple of fish in the old fish market, to the herd of stampeding horses at the railway station, and the peculiar Türelüre-Lißje. Based on a folk song, it recounts the tale of Liesje, a young girl who urgently needs the toilet but is held up by three bullinging boys dancing around her.
Aachen is a small place of around 250,000 people. Other cities of this size might feel a bit provincial but there is a cosmopolitan vibe about Aachen. The fact that it has a huge student population definitely helps. The mesh of streets in the old town are filled with bars, restaurants and interesting shops. The weekend I was there, the outdoor cafes and beer gardens were packed with people enjoying themselves.
Aachen has been a spa town since the Roman era, when soldiers came here for the alleged healing powers of the waters. Charlemagne was a fan, something on which the town trades as it promotes itself as a spa town again. The Elisenbrunnen, a Neoclassical pavilion dating from 1827 and reconstructed after the war, is the symbol of this revival. It has two fountains through which extremely sulphurous water flows – think rotten eggs.
As I headed back to the station for my train to Brussels in the early evening, I stopped at a pleasant looking bar with seats underneath a shady tree. It was busy with a happy weekend crowd, I reflected on the fact that that seemed to sum up the mood of the town itself. The bar was fittingly called Last Exit, but this won’t be the last time I visit Aachen.