Photos and story by Ernie Alderete
What a beautiful name for a remarkable city. I can think of no three words more romantic, or more evocative of sophisticated culture and fine living.
But you won’t find it on any contemporary map. Aix-La-Chappelle was the French name for what is now the German City of Aachen, tucked away in the westernmost corner of the German Reich, where Germany meets Belgium and Holland.
Despite the loss of a glorious name, Aachen remains a grand city, an imperial city, but nowadays a former capital city, without an empire to preside over.
This was the seat of power of Charlemagne who ruled over Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and northern Spain from here.
As I am sure you recall from your high school history class, Charlemagne was born in 742 A.D., and inherited the western part of his father, Pepin the Short’s, kingdom. During his long and successful 46-year reign, he added duchy after territory and principality, to his vastly expanding realm.
The cherry on his brightly frosted cake came on Christmas day of the year 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, a position that had remained vacant for three long centuries.
Of course, there was a reason that Charlemagne chose this particular spot to erect his capital, and to endow it with his magnificent palace, superlative cathedral and other imperial regalia.
It was the water, thermal waters to be precise. Since Roman times these warm waters were known to have curative and healing powers. There are dozens of elaborate and picturesque public fountains, and drinking fountains pouring forth waters that percolate up from the volcanic depths below Aachen.
But, to me the perfect introduction to not only the waters, but to a European- style spa is Carolus Baths. A wondrous cathedral of water with a dozen pools of varying dimensions, temperatures and other configurations.
For a modest cover charge you get a lock box and locker to stow your gear in, then you can explore the many pools. It is said that the combination of frigid and superheated pools induces sleepiness better than any sedative.
Perhaps, the best time of year to explore the baths is in winter, when soft white snow drifts pile up just outside the tall glass walls of the towering structure.
My favorite pool is outdoors, but you can access it only via an indoor passage. This pool runs on an eight-minute cycle, first giant aqueducts pour incredible volumes of water into the pool. You can stand under one of these fonts and feel the water cascade off your shoulders, or scalp, giving you a stronger massage than any pair of hands could ever deliver.
Next, the fonts cease flowing and the circulation of the pool itself begins. The water along the edge of the pool begins to move ever more swiftly in a counter clockwise direction, sweeping you along with it. Even if you can’t swim, like me, you will be carried along with the powerful artificial tide. A wonderful way to get a workout, or just splash around and have the time of your life.
Come here to enjoy the waters and become immersed in history. If you liked the historical aspects of Paris, London, or Madrid, you will find that Aachen is like the missing piece of the European puzzle.
Here you will marvel at the original throne that Charlemagne was crowned on. Reputedly made from rock slabs from Jesus’ crypt.
The alleged bones of Charlemagne and of Mary of Nazareth, the Virgin mother of Christ, are encased in incredible gilded boxes within the basilica. These are only the two most prominent relics among hundreds on display that attract pilgrims from across Europe.
Aachen makes an excellent side trip from Düsseldorf or Amsterdam. Many sports fans will be attending the 2006 World Soccer Cup in close by Gelsenkirchen.
If you have an adventurous soul and a strong stomach, sample a few local brews. I asked my bartender to recommend the most typical local beer, so I eagerly swallowed a large gulp of the cold brewsky. But I almost upchucked it. It was so bitter that at first I thought he was playing some kind of dirty rotten trick on me. But I soon realized he would not try to intentionally poison me.
Nevertheless, I complained that the beer was rancid, that it must have soured in the dark amber bottle. He assured me that was not the case. I asked him to try it himself, which he did. He pronounced it normal for that particular type of beer.
My father served in Germany after the Second World War, and he called Teutonic beer Panther Piss! Just don’t call the suds that within earshot of the locals. I made that mistake, and was gently but firmly chided. I was told that the best beer is consumed “raw,” at the brewery itself, rather than the stale, aged, bottled, or canned beer we are more likely to encounter.
And I must admit a visit to a brewery is an interesting experience. Part of the cultural heritage of Germany.
HOW TO GET THERE
The best way to get to Aachen is via nearby Düsseldorf. LTU Airlines is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and its hub is at Düsseldorf. The little known airline to the west coast of the U.S. provides excellent service on wide, new airbus aircraft. Departures are available from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Düsseldorf International is the only fully integrated Airport and Railroad Station in Europe, providing the best combined connections to points all over the continent and beyond.
Instead of taking an expensive taxi across town to catch your train, just board the free airport sky train, or hop into an elevator and, voila!, you are there.
Germany is part of the European Union, so it uses the Euro as its currency. 100 cents equals one Euro, and a Euro is worth about $1.20 at this time.
Your email comments are always welcome: ErnieAlderete@charter.net