Charlemagne and the Route Charlemagne in Aachen
Discover a unique NRW celebrity in Aachen: the Route Charlemagne takes you on the trail of Charlemagne. .
The Romans may have left their mark, and Napoleon and Peter the Great may have stayed in the city several times, but no name is more closely tied with Aachen today than Charlemagne. 2014 marked the 1200th anniversary of the death of the influential ruler and all of Aachen raged with Charlemagne fever. Even now that the anniversary year has passed, history buffs can still journey into the past and walk in the footsteps of Charlemagne in Aachen.
Aachen as the most important centre of power in the Western world
It is said that it was the thermal springs that brought Charlemagne to Aachen. For a long time he had led his enormous empire, which included large parts of the European continent, in his usual manner as a king on tour; he had therefore no fixed seat of power, instead opting to travel with his court from palatinate to palatinate. But even then he repeatedly journeyed to Aachen, especially in the winter, where he found warmth and relaxation in the thermal springs heated by the Eifel volcanoes. From the late 780s AD, he had his favourite palace expanded to become a de facto residence. From 794 until his death 20 years later, Charlemagne ultimately spent nearly all of his time exclusively in Aachen and made the city the centre of his European empire.
Due to Charlemagne’s affection for the city, Aachen rose to prominence not only by becoming the most important power centre of the western world, but also by experiencing a cultural prime with testaments to this still visible today. For instance, the eight and sixteen-sided central building of the former St. Mary's Church, which the Christian king had built at his palace, is now part of the world-famous Aachen Cathedral. In 1978, the imposing structure, one of the best preserved monuments of the Carolingian period, together with its magnificent Cathedral, became the first German monument to be included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Three other World Heritage Sites have since joined the list of those located in NRW: Cologne Cathedral, Augustusburg Palace and the adjacent Falkenlust hunting lodge in Brühl, and the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen.
Aachen Cathedral as the burial place of Charlemagne
However, in comparison with the other UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in North Rhine-Westphalia, Aachen Cathedral stands out in terms of its historical significance. Charlemagne laid the foundations for more than just the later Cathedral when he built his Palatine Chapel. For centuries, German rulers were crowned within its walls. After his death on 28 January 814, the Palatine Chapel became Charlemagne’s final resting place. When he was canonised in 1165 at the request of Frederick Barbarossa, his body was laid in a temporary shrine before being transferred to the Shrine of Charlemagne in 1215, which is still there today. The sarcophagus that is said to have once housed Charlemagne’s body is still part of the cathedral’s treasury today.
Route and Centre Charlemagne
Since the anniversary year in 2014, the Route Charlemagne has been open to visitors to the city. The Route Charlemagne takes visitors on a journey through the unique cultural heritage of the city. With a variety of stops relating to topics such as “History”, “Science”, “Power” and “Religion”, the Route Charlemagne tells the story of Aachen’s development as a European city, looks at possibilities for its future and takes visitors to the city’s most significant historical locations.
The starting point of the route is the Centre Charlemagne at the Katschhof, where the story of Charlemagne and the history of Aachen are brought to life. It is located between the two most important buildings in the city: the cathedral and the town hall. The Centre Charlemagne’s four exhibition areas offer visitors a tour through the four most important epochs of the city’s history, from the time of Charlemagne to the present, making clear just how much the city has been shaped by the then-ruler Charlemagne and his choice to set up his residence in Aachen. Historical and artistic exhibits are coupled with multimedia productions to ensure visitors are able to dive into the rich world surrounding the history of Charlemagne and his city. The Route Charlemagne then leads visitors along to other historic places such as the cathedral, the town hall and Haus Löwenstein. One of the stations along the Route Charlemagne is the Elisenbrunnen, representing the long spa tradition in Aachen: There are more than 30 thermal springs in the Aachen basin and archaeological discoveries have shown that the hot springs were already well-known in the Neolithic Age and were a reason for people to settle here. Even today, many visitors come to bathe in the healthy waters, for example in the Carolus Spa, completed in 2001, whose name is derived from Charlemagne’s.
Shrines to Charlemagne
The faithful have been embarking on great pilgrimages to the cathedral city since 1349 to worship at four reliquaries, which have been kept in the treasury at Aachen Cathedral since the time of Charlemagne and are only displayed once every seven years. According to history, the ruler received the relics around the year 800 as a gift from Jerusalem. The relics supposedly include the cloak Mary wore the night Jesus was born, as well as Jesus’ swaddling clothes Mary used protect the child. The cloth in which the head of John the Baptist was retrieved after his decapitation and the loincloth Jesus is said to have worn on the Cross are removed from the golden Shrine of St. Mary (Marienschrein) and displayed in the cathedral for ten days during the Great Aachen Pilgrimage. The last pilgrimage took place in 2014.
Along with Shrine of Charlemagne (Karlsschrein), the Shrine of St. Mary is also located in the choir, which was built to provide a space for coronations and the growing number of pilgrims. The choir also celebrated an anniversary in 2014 in commemoration of its dedication on the anniversary of the death of Charlemagne in 1414, thus marking its 600th year. Thanks to its large windows it is also referred to as the “Glashaus Aachens” (“Glass House of Aachen”). Measuring 25.5 metres tall, the windows in the choir are the highest Gothic windows in Europe. In addition to the Gothic windows, the Throne of Charlemagne, commissioned by its eponymous ruler, has seen the coronations of more than 30 German rulers, and is also on display. Along with the Shrine of Charlemagne and the imposing ceiling mosaic, it is one of the most spectacular objects in the cathedral available for visitors to see.
Tuesday to Sunday: 10:00 to 18:00