Smelly Waters and the Spirit of European Unity in Aachen

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The day when the Easy Hikers helped European history come full circle

When the weather is cold and wet, as it was for the Christmas season in Germany, only the most intrepid dare to defy the elements out on the trails in the countryside. Easy Hikers, meanwhile, retreat to the smallest of outdoors: the city walk, especially in Germany where cities have a charm all of their own at that time of the year, even in the absence of snow.

"Spirit of European Unity in Aachen on a Christmas Market"

For us, the festive season provided an opportunity to explore a city which had long been on our list: Aachen, the old capital of Charlemagne, not least because it held out the hope for a welcome contrast with most other historical German cities, which are essentially of (late) medieval origin. (Although, truth be told, most of these German towns were razed to the ground several times since their 15th or 16th century heyday and, in today’s reincarnation, largely bear the imprint of the 19th century when they were refashioned in that age’s idealized view of the Middle Ages.)

Most of Aachen’s early history, however, has disappeared or “gone underground” these days and can be inspected in the municipal museum and on archaeological sites, while much of the actual cityscape is dominated by buildings of a far more recent vintage: in the 18th and 19th centuries, Aachen developed into a prosperous spa town, due to its allegedly medicinal springs, and much of the town’s architecture reflects this chapter in the town’s history, above all the Elisenbrunnen, …

"Elisenbrunnen - Spirit of European Unity in Aachen"

… the old “watering hole” where the patients – including Peter the Great, Casanova and the composer G.F. Handel – were made to drink their daily cuppas.

"Medicinal water fountain in Aachen"

The warm waters from the springs are highly sulphurous – which is why it smells in the Elisenbrunnen as though some pranksters had just detonated a stink bomb. (The springs are, of course, much older than the spa town buildings: Aachen’s name, in fact, derives from the old Germanic word for water, akha, which is etymologically related to the Latin aqua.)

Just behind the Elisenbrunnen, on the other side of a small public garden, you can find the compact and well-preserved Old Town. From the late 8th century onwards, a huge kingdom – comprising the modern countries of France, Germany and the Benelux countries – was governed from here, first by King Pippin and later by his son, Charlemagne. The one building still left from this era is the palace chapel …

"Palace Chapel -Spirit of European Unity in Aachen"

… which is the octagonal tower in the middle of this ensemble (steeple and nave were added later). Inside, the tower – now part of Aachen Cathedral – reminds you that the time of Charlemagne was more late antiquity than medieval …

"Inside the Palace Chapel in Aachen"

… while overall, it is in pretty good knick.

It had to be he heavily restored to provide this impression, of course, but as a visitor, you get the feeling that Charlemagne would still recognize this church as his own. (You cannot expect much more from a restoration job.)

"Part of ceiling of the Palace Chapel in Aachen"

Aachen’s City Hall, immediately to the north of the Cathedral (on the town’s historic market square), was built in the late Middle Ages and covers the ground where Charlemagne’s old palace once stood. Still, one of its two towers, the Granus Tower, here on the right, …

"Granustower in Aachen Germanu"

… is authentically Carolingian and a part of the old Kaiserpfalz.

Other than this short route to meet witnesses from Aachen’s recent and distant history, there are many opportunities to stray a little further afield: the Kurpark in the east of the Old Town (where the patients recovered on long strolls from the effects of imbibing the sulphurous spring water), the green spaces around the Lousberg right next door, which were landscaped in 1807 on a commission from the town’s citizens rather than through the edict of any prince or king and therefore constitute the oldest purely “civic” park in Europe, and, most interestingly perhaps, the border triangle (between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany) of Vaals, 5.5 km to the west of Aachen, which was, from 1839 until 1919 (when the now extinct condominium of Neutral Moresnet existed), that rarest of things, a genuine quadripoint, similar to the “four corners” intersection of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

All of these, I am sure, are lovely to visit on a sunny spring day. On the day we came, however, it was raw and cold, barely above freezing, so we opted to explore something closer at hand: the Christmas market in the shadow of the Cathedral. (And all those who are without sin among you, let them cast the first cup of mulled wine over our  heads.)

"Aachen Germany Christmas market 2014"

To be honest, we felt a little bad about being so lazy, but not for long. Not least because we were confident that, around the stands for flammkuchen, Dutch pancakes and German sausages, we were only helping to complete the full historical circle: where every other word you heard was French or Dutch, where the descendants of his subjects so freely, peacefully and gaily intermingled, Charlemagne himself was surely there in spirit. The man himself, we thought, would have approved.

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