"Karnival and Charlemagnia" Top 5 Page for this destination Aachen by CatherineReichardt
Aachen Travel Guide: 611 reviews and 1,886 photos
(work in progress)
How many celebrities can you name from the 8th and 9th centuries? Chances are that if you can name any at all, it is probably the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne – aka Karl der Grosse, Carolus Magnus or Charles the Great - and, if you can name more than that, then you are most probably an appalling swot or professional historian, and thus shouldn’t be playing this game …
Charlemagne is a fascinating figure who looms out of the otherwise anonymous mists of the Dark Ages and is understandably the focus of quite a personality cult. I have long been intrigued by this towering personality, and so when the chance arose to tag a couple of days onto a business trip to walk in the footsteps of this great man, I didn't hesitate for a moment, and immediately set about negotiating with my husband for time off for good behaviour!
Charlemagne’s era reflects a completely different vision of Europe which predates the modern concept of nations (albeit with shifting borders) that was bedded down in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne’s vast empire covered most of Western Europe, encompassing present day France, Switzerland, the Low Countries and swathes of Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy - not bad going for a man who was barely literate and never learned to write.
Indeed there seems to have been little that Charlemagne could not do: in fact, he was even elevated to saintdom, but – unfortunately for him – was canonised by an anti Pope during the Papal Schism in the Middle Ages, so his ‘saintly status’ is not recognised by the Church today. One cannot help thinking that this unfortunate blunder would have irked such a ‘can do’ sort of individual, but since this happened several hundred years after his death, this was one of the very few outcomes that he could not influence in his own favour. In all fairness, it seems likely that the qualities that allowed him to establish and maintain the most celebrated Empire of the Dark Ages (lots of militaristic marauding, self-interested diplomacy and general meting out of harsh discipline) are unlikely to tally with the contemporary qualifications for sainthood!
Although Charlemagne is probably most often considered a German monarch, he was in fact King of the Franks and so is equally enthusiastically claimed by the French and is commemorated by a splendid statue depicting Charlemagne as a warrior king on horseback that stands in pride of place on the bank of the Seine in front of Notre Dame de Paris. As a result, he has been eagerly embraced by Eurocrats as a symbol of European unity (with little said about the less than democratic manner in which this unity was achieved) – and all this symbolism ergonomically located within a hop, skip and a jump of Brussels: enough to set a Eurocratic heart aflutter!
A royal palace was built in Aachen by Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short on the site of the Roman settlement of Aquae Granni, which owed its origins to a hot spring complex. In the second half of his life, Charlemagne abandoned the traditional concept of an itinerant court and established his centre of power in Aachen
Although Aachen's significance waned slightly over the centuries since Charlemagne's death in 814, it was still considered important enough for 30 German kings and 12 queens to be crowned in its Dom between 936 to 1531. Its nationality has wavered too, being located in the shifting borderland between Germany, Belgium and France (hence its alternative name of Aix-la-Chapelle).
Charlemagne's shadow still looms large over Aachen, and in 1978, its Dom was one of the original 12 sites worldwide - and Germany's first - to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
It is slightly surprising to realise that friendly, unpretentious little Aachen is actually a major centre of science and technology, with a world famous techical university. It is a bustling, industrious but laid back town, and like so many of Germany's smaller cities, gives the impression of being a very 'liveable' place.
Quite by coincidence, my visit coincided with Karnival, the Rhineland festival which takes place just before the start of Lent as a last blast of jollity before the season for fasting, abstinence and repentance. My kids' school celebrates Fasching on what the Brits would call Shrove Tuesday, so I had not realised that the Karnival celebrations begin on the Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday, and would be celebrated as a public holiday in Aachen. The crowds in the costume shops just before closing on the previous evening (when I was looking for my son's Fasching costume) should have been a bit of a giveaway, but it wasn't until I left my hotel the next morning and noticed that the shops were closed and that the few (otherwise sensible looking) grown ups wandering around were wearing fancy dress that the penny dropped!
What is most noticeable about Karnival is that people of all ages enter into the festive spirit by donning costumes - many of them impressively elaborate - and that although there is lots of drinking and merriment from pretty early in the day, it's all very amiable. As a precaution, several of the fountains were closed off to protect them from potential damage as a result of overenthusiastic revelment and there was a visible police presence, but otherwise there was a pervasive sense of good humour. Indeed, my only Karnival quibble is that some of the museums were closed, which meant that I unfortunately missed one exhibit that I'd really been looking forward to seeing: this is worth mentioning as in most of the English-speaking world, museums tend to be at their busiest on public holidays and are usually only closed on Christmas Day.
It not often that I will say this about somewhere I have really enjoyed, but if you can delay your trip to Aachen for a couple of years, then I’d strongly suggest doing so. The city has embarked on a major upgrade of its tourist infrastructure to establish ‘Route Charlemagne’, which should be complete in 2012, and until then, certain infrastructure is under construction and/or being renovated (for example, the Octagonal chapel was under repair at the time of my visit in March 2011). That’s not to say that it isn’t worth visiting in the interim, because it’s still wonderful, but rather to stress that it will be EVEN better when it’s all complete!
P.S. For the public spirited and/or impecunious, I found intriguing reference to the fact that if you donate blood at the University Hospital, they will give you a free entry voucher for the Carolus Therme spa. I didn't find this out until after my return, and I'd be idly curious to know whether this is still the case ... :)
- Pros:Small, amazingly historic, affordable and not as heavily touristed as it probably deserves
- Cons:Will be even more rewarding when the Route Charlemagne is complete in 2012
- In a nutshell:An ideal destination for a short 'city break'
Printen is the Öcher (Aachen) variation on a gingerbread theme, and in the city centre, you'll come across many shops... more travel advice
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