"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.

Life after Charlemagne

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 and Cons
  • 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'
  • Last visit to Aachen: Mar 2011
  • Intro Updated Apr 11, 2011
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Reviews (29)

Comments (11)

  • breughel's Profile Photo
    Oct 10, 2013 at 2:45 AM

    Aachen, sounds better as Aix-la-Chapelle, was close to the town of Düren where I did part of my military service. Even if I staid there 8 months I never really visited Aachen; was always in a hurry to return home when I had some free time. Your pages are an opportunity for me to prepare a future visit; there is Thalys train from Brussels to Aachen.

    • CatherineReichardt's Profile Photo
      Oct 12, 2013 at 5:58 AM

      Thanks Eddy!
      I'm going to be in Frankfurt on 16 November, which also has good links to Brussels. We are organising a mini meet with Don, Brenda, Tim, Ingrid and Christine: any chance of you joining us?

  • balhannah's Profile Photo
    Aug 8, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    A lovely page Cathy! I didn't realize there was so much history here. I love the sculptures of the Horses and the sleeping Lion, he looks so happy and contented. Also the money fountain is great, a pity they were all covered up for protection!

  • HORSCHECK's Profile Photo
    Dec 25, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    Catherine, fabulous and comprehensive Aachen page. I especially like the stories in the "Warnings and Dangers" section. - Merry Christmas and a happy new year with many interesting travels. :-)

  • csordila's Profile Photo
    Dec 14, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    Charlemagne, ice cold kolsch, and so on - what else could you want?

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Nov 15, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    I must admit I didn’t concentrate much on Charlemagne when I was in Aachen, so I learned a lot from your intro page and tips. (Also from the Charlemagne tip on your Paris page.) Somehow I overlooked the Eurogress place, which indeed has a funny sounding name, at least funny sounding to us. I assume the –gress is from the German word Kongress, meaning convention or conference.

  • MacedonianUK's Profile Photo
    Oct 10, 2011 at 1:44 PM

    lovely little page on Aachen. Next time please let me know when you are around, will love to show you around and buy you ice cold Weizbeer...

  • aussirose's Profile Photo
    Jun 17, 2011 at 6:41 PM

    Hi Cathy. We will be passing through in August...but I don't think we will havee time to stop. That spa place certainly sounds great! :o) Hugs, Ann.

  • angiebabe's Profile Photo
    May 9, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    nice and ultra informative of course...geez now where are my photos of my lovely visit to Aachen to see Valentina and the christmas markets18 months ago...another pg in the long list yet to start on!

  • TheWanderingCamel's Profile Photo
    Apr 1, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    We passed through Aachen a few years ago - the reliquary and Palatine Chapel the main reason for our visit. How disappointing for you that they were both off view - but how nice to have a reason to go back. I'll be back to see your finished page - leyle

  • BillNJ's Profile Photo
    Mar 19, 2011 at 4:01 AM

    Cathy, I really enjoyed reading about your recent trip to Aachen. While I understand your point about respecting history ... part of me would have liked to sit on the throne ... but not with a Burger King crown! lol Cheers, Bill


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