Aachen, © Anja Luckas

Crowned Heads

Dis­cov­er­ies in Aachen

My last visit to Aachen was a while ago, and at the time I was just passing through. I remember that I was always looking for the tower of the world-famous Aachen Cathedral. Then, suddenly I was standing right in front of it, right at the city centre. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to do more than quickly hop inside then. I’ve brought more time today, and I want to learn the entire story, all the way back to the Romans. I want to learn about Bad Aachen, the great city fire of 1656, and, of course, about Charlemagne, greeting me right away at the centrally located Aquis Grana Cityhotel. A crowned head all in red, he’s even wearing a face mask now. Safety comes first.

The emperor will accompany me on every step I take in the next 72 hours, and literally so. I am not going to need my car at all for my cultural trip to the far west of North Rhine-Westphalia. I’ll just be walking. The only thing I need is comfortable footwear. Anything else will happen all on its own in Aachen’s old town.

Chicken market in Aachen, © Anja Luckas

We meet at the Elisenbrunnen, quickly drop off our luggage in our rooms, and off we go again. Just a few steps away from the hotel, people are sitting in the park outside the historical baths building to enjoy the warm sunshine. The street cafés are full and choral singing is reverberating through the pedestrian zone. It’s another glorious September Sunday.

Joseph Vandenberg is already waiting for me here. My passionate tour guide and is an “Öcher” with a sense of subtle humour. Öcher, pronounced with a “sh” sound, is what the people of Aachen call themselves in their Rhenish singsong. Before we start our city tour, however, he gives me a taste of Aachen’s unpleasant side by offering me a sip of the warm mineral thermal water bubbling from the mouth of a lion in the Imperial Baths. Originally discovered by the Romans, this spring water from the Eifel is said to be “good for anything”. It can’t hurt – or can it? The sulphurous smell and in particular the taste of it suggested otherwise. We finally agree on calling it “culinary egg water.”

Now we are following the seal of Charlemagne, marking the most important stations of the emperor on the old-town cobblestones. His palace chapel that he started building in Aachen around 798 has become our present-day cathedral. The impressive building, also known as the “Aachen Glass House” for its 23-metre-tall stained-glass windows, was the first German building to be put on the UNESCO World Heritage List back in 1978. “Even before the Cologne Cathedral,” Joseph Vandenberg makes sure to point out as we pass the archaeological showcase with finds from Roman times, the “Cycle of Money” fountain and the Couven Museum to continue on towards the city hall.

The historical council hall, built on the foundation walls of the former “aula regia” is where the Aachen city council is still meeting under the eyes of Emperor Napoleon I and his wife Joséphine today. The French emperor was an ardent admirer of Charlemagne’s, who must indeed have been a “dazzling figure” of stately build. There are several occasions during my visit to Aachen where I am informed that the man whose likeness we still do not have was a good 1.85 metres tall. In other words, he towered above his people by about ahead. He was determined to teach them to read and write and gave them the Karlspfund, the first European currency.

There is a lot more to learn about the emperor that Aachen is so proud of. All of a sudden, I remember my expert city guide’s early words in our little city tour: “If we hadn’t had the Romans and Charlemagne, Aachen would probably be an insignificant district centre today. A bit like Cologne ...” I’ll leave it at that.

In fact, however, the Aachen citizens do have something that those from Cologne would not have even so: The Printe. That’s a pretty hard piece of pastry, baked without any fat at all. It contains plenty of sugar, though. Before I am allowed to have a glimpse into the traditional Printen bakery Klein the next day, I have already been served them in the restaurant Elisenbrunnen in the evening. Yeah, is it Christmas already? In Aachen, it really always is. A thing that I, hailing from the Sauerland, associate strictly with the pre-Christmas season, is firmly established as a part of daily life in the imperial city. Printen are served with coffee. Printen are served with tea. Printen are served with sauerbraten and with Öcher Tiramisu. “Better than the original”, the restaurant’s menu promises. The place itself has been entirely revamped in summer, with a stylish wine wall and cosy reading lounge. I pick a seat on the large terrace that affords a view of the park and try to uncover the secret behind the herbal Printe. Tomorrow at the latest, I hope that I will be getting there.

  • Aachen Cathedral, © Leo Thomas
    Figure of Mary in Aachen Cathedral, © Anja Luckas
    Mineral thermal water gushes out of the mouth of a lion in the Kaiserthermen, © Anja Luckas
  • Ludwig Forum interior view, © Anja Luckas
    Anja Luckas look at the bronze model of Aachen Cathedral, © Anja Luckas
    Katschof with a view of the Aachen Cathedral, © Anja Luckas
View of Aachen from the Lousberg, © Anja Luckas

I may be many things, but I am not an early riser. This morning, however, I roll out of bed early. Autumn already brings a fresh air, but the morning sun is shining as I walk to the city’s highest point. I climb the Lousberg, a small green oasis in the middle of the city, where I am all alone this morning and can enjoy the view of the city and its most famous district, the Soers. The international equestrian elite will be meeting here at the CHIO just a few days from now.

Stands will also be set up on the Katschhof, the large square between the city hall and the rear of the cathedral, this morning. Every September, the pole vaulters finish their season in front of this impressive backdrop. Unfortunately, I am unable to stay for that long. However, some more “big events” are in store for me. First and foremost, of course, I am getting a look at the cathedral interior with its gleaming reliquaries and the imperial throne. 32 kings – and probably some queens – were crowned on it until the 16th century. Disappointment spreads in our group as we see that it is nothing but a plain “chair” welded together from floor plates. That’s it. At least, our young cathedral guide tells us, the stone slabs of the side walls supposedly were brought from Jerusalem. Maybe that’s some small consolation.

The view into the Gothic choir hall, added to the octagon built by Charlemagne in the 15th century, is all the more spectacular for it. Each of us takes a picture of the huge glass windows with light falling through in all colours of the rainbow. What splendour will be waiting in the cathedral treasury that, after all, guards the greatest church treasure north of the Alps?

I want to sweeten up my city trip a little before I go looking at the treasure. A short distance from the city centre, I meet with Andreas Klein, a trained master baker running his family’s Printen bakery in the fourth generation. The traditional pastry is produced year-round here. I feel that it smells like Christmas when we enter the bakery, and the boss finally reveals his secret. The original Printen contain wheat flour, anise, coriander, cinnamon, icing sugar, cloves, and rock candy. No egg, no butter, and no milk. The only liquid added is sugar syrup. That’s all the basic recipe takes. It can be refined with chocolate, with nuts or almonds, and eventually “glazed”. Of course, they let me taste it and I actually do acquire a bit of a taste for it, even if it’s not quite Christmas yet.

After so much sugar, however, I need something savoury in the evening. That has me strolling through the old town alleys again, where I am truly spoiled for choice. The beer gardens around the market are well filled. The idyllic Hof-quarter is a popular after-work meeting place. Although the Ratskeller doors are open as well, I keep on walking to Pontstraße, the lively student quarter with bars and pubs, where the action continues until late at night. After all, almost one in five of the 275,000 residents here are enrolled at the RWTH or the Aachen University of Applied Sciences. I enjoy a Lebanese “shawarma” as I reminisce about my own long-ago university days.

  • Old Printenform Bakery Klein, © Anja Luckas
    Ingredients Aachener Printen, © Anja Luckas
    Master baker Andreas Klein, © Anja Luckas
  • Aachener Printen, © aachen tourist service e.v., Tom Tietz
Ludwig Forum interior view, © Anja Luckas

Day 3, my last museum day in Aachen, starts out with another journey through time into my own history. The International Newspaper Museum, also a little hidden in Pontstraße, has many things that seem familiar to me. I remember the time when press photography was still analogue and news still came from the “ticker”. Though closely familiar with that, I keep finding many exciting and new insights into the history of newspapers and the press anyway. It’s a nice change from the concentrated city history of the last two days. As a consequence, I pick the Ludwig Forum for International Art for my last museum visit before heading home. It is worth visiting for the premises alone. The museum for modern art, where big names such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Joseph Beuys are waiting for me, is located in what used to be Europe’s largest umbrella factory. The Bauhaus-style factory building offers plenty of space and light for the at times expansive works and time-critical installations. To me, it makes the perfect ending of a cultural trip to a city with so many facets. I’ll let Charlemagne may take over again now.

Author: Anja Luckas – Running her own media office, Anja Luckas has been on the road a lot in DeinNRW. The journalist prefers to report on subjects that combine travel and culture.