Aachen – Aix-la-Chapelle – prides itself on being the quintessential European town, but not simply because it is situated right in the middle of the continent, in Germany, a stone’s throw from the borders to the Netherlands and Belgium. Back in their days the Romans were drawn to Aachen because of its thermal springs and spas. But it is the King of the Franks, Charlemagne, or Charles the Great (c.742-814), his legacy and the legends surrounding him, which put Aachen at the centre of European history.
Aix-la-Chapelle, as the town is called in French, was the royal estate and home base of the vast Carolingian empire and its great ruler. Uniting most of western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire, Charlemagne is also called “pater Europea“, Father of Europe. Crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire in 800 AD and with close ties to the pope, his dream was to create a “new Rome” north of the Alps. The construction of a chapel, now the octagonal inner part of Aachen Cathedral, began in the late 8th century. From the mid 10th well into the 17th century, the cathedral was the Coronation Church for a succession of 30 German kings.
Centre & Route Charlemagne
Located on the former Palace Courtyard between the Cathedral and the Town Hall, is the Centre Charlemagne – the New City Museum of Aachen – a modern venue and the hub of series of stops on the Route Charlemagne in Aachen. The central figure of the Centre is obviously the Carolingian ruler himself. At the centre visitors can also learn about the settlement at the hot springs in Aachen in Roman times, the building of Charlemagne’s St. Mary’s Church and his Palace, Aachen as the City of Coronation, its Baroque spa resort period as well as Aachen’s more recent history and transformation into a modern town.
The following places, each with its own theme, are included on Route Charlemagne:
- Centre Charlemagne
- Town Hall
- Aachen Cathedral and the Cathedral Treasury
- International Newspaper Museum (media)
- Grashaus (Europe)
- Super C (science, Aachen University bldg)
- Couven-Museum (economy)
- Elisenbrunnen (starting point of Aachen’s history, its hot springs)
Aachen Cathedral – first German World Heritage site
Charlemagne commissioned the building of a new church inspired by the Byzantine part of the Holy Roman Empire around 790 AD. The original two-storey structure is a rotunda with eight sides (octagon) encircled by a sixteen-sided outer structure. The floor plan and design of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (6th century AD) is said to be one of its main inspirations.
Since his time, the original Palatine Chapel dedicated to St. Mary has been extended by a Gothic Choir and Sanctuary, a Neo-Gothic tower and a cluster of smaller extensions.
Aachen Cathedral was one of the first twelve sites in the world – the very first in Germany – to be inscribed on the World Heritage list in its initial year 1978. Aachen Cathedral is enlisted because of its outstanding historical, artistic and architectural importance.
The elegant stained glass windows of the choir are a record 25.6 metres high. The glass art works were made between 1949 and 1951. The mosaic art work on the vault of the octagon dates from the 1880s, while the marble and mosaics on the surfaces in the rest of the octagon and the 16-sided ambulatory were made between 1901 and 1913.
Only a few remnants of the original coloured marble floor and column decorations have survived to this day.
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, IN Editions
This is a revised version of the article, first published 14 June 2016.