Throughout the year 2014, the City of Aachen is celebrating the 1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne (Charles the Great) the first Roman Emperor, who was its most famous citizen. He was a man with ambitious plans to unite all Germanic people spread over, West Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France. A fine military strategist, he was also the inspiration for men like Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, who harbored dreams of the unification of Europe. Aachen is the western most city of Germany, close to the borders of Netherlands and Belgium. It was a hot and sultry day. But the drive from Bonn to Aachen was pleasant and took just an hour. We decided to walk around the city with a brochure ‘Route Charlemagne’ as a guide. Through narrow streets, we arrived at the magnificent Town Hall with its Gothic spires rising into the skies. It was built on the site of the Charlemagne’s Carolingian palace which was demolished in the 13th century, and a new building constructed for coronation banquets and other ceremonial festivities. Parts of it have been destroyed several times but what still remains is a unique structure incorporating both Gothic and Baroque elements. An exhibition showing the culture and court life of Charlemagne is on show till September 2014. As one enters the exhibition hall, one comes face to face with the statue of the king astride a horse, wearing a crown and armour, holding an imperial orb in his left hand and a sword in his right hand. His history is catalogued through photos, paintings, implements of war, ivory carvings, intricate gold work and many other Carolingian treasures. There are thirty precious manuscripts as well. The Coronation Hall has a beautiful interior supported by sturdy columns and a vaulted roof decorated with colourful frescoes. Portraits of Charlemagne and Emperor Siegfried decorate the walls of the foyer. Charlemagne was responsible for the spread of Christianity in his kingdom and the regions he conquered. His other ambitions were to have a common currency and a standardized script. He was generous towards the popes, and was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III at St.Peter’s Church in Rome on Christmas day in 800 A.D. Years later, he was even granted sainthood for political reasons, by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. But the church does not recognize his sainthood any more. The Town Hall is now the venue for the International Charlemagne awards given annually since 1950, to honour persons who have made a contribution to the unification of Europe. The European Union is on its list of eminent laureates. In 2000, Bill Clinton received the award. The Town Hall is also the traditional office of the City Council and Lord Mayor since 1349. The Aachen Cathedral (St. Mary’s Church) has a gorgeous interior. Its walls and vaults are studded with sparkling stones and frescoes. It was the first German monument that was declared a Heritage site in 1978. A ring of lights suspended from the ceiling, looks like a giant chandelier, with the face of a saint smiling down from the centre. The Persephone Sarcophagus a casket of gold and silver, contains the bones of the king. Other treasures of the church are the Cross of Lothair and the bust of Charlemagne. There are several chapels built into the periphery of the church, where one can sit for quiet meditation. The Aachen Newspaper Museum is an important place to visit. Here one can learn how news originates and spreads, how it is turned into mass media, how it can be adapted or manipulated, how globalization of media happens and many other details. The Couven Museum used to be an old pharmacy. Today it depicts the lifestyles of people who lived in the 18th and 19th century. Elisenbrunnen is the area where there used to be a grand thermal bath complex. It was established in 1851. Aachen derives its name from these springs. The Roman name was Aqua Granni which in turn sprang from the name of the Celtic God Grannus. The Celts were the first to discover these sulphur springs, the temperature of which ranged from 45-75 degrees C. The Romans converted this place into a healing resort. Charlemagne loved these springs and this was one of the reasons why he made Aachen his home. Bathing was not just for healing. It was also for pleasure. Bathing Culture became the fashion of the rich and famous, a place to relax, enjoy one’s self and discuss various matters. A myth originated that Charlemagne’s horse pawed the ground with its hoof to expose the first hot spring. So he built his palace at the same location, with a spacious thermal facility. The sulphur content of the water had healing properties for joint pains, skin diseases, gastrointestinal infections and even strokes. Syphilitics were smeared with a paste containing mercury and drank ten litres of sulphur water daily for several days, to affect a cure. There is also another story that Josephine, Napoleon’s second wife who was infertile, came to Aachen Spa to be cured and bear him a son. However, after Charlemagne’s death, the bathing culture declined. As Christianity spread, the church fathers denounced spa bathing as a pleasure. The Elisenbrunnen is converted into a restaurant today. There are two wash basins in the corridor with golden taps, which spew hot water concentrated with sulphur. Outside the building is a row of small spouts of water. In the middle of the Elisenbrunnen Square is an archaeological showcase of Roman and Medieval foundations. Charlemagne was illiterate. But he could speak Latin, Greek and German. He could neither read nor write. So a monogram was made for him with four alphabets and he drew a golden line across it as his signature. In spite of his illiteracy he patronized the Arts, Science and Culture. He made education the principle of his Carolingian rule. The scattered works of authors were collected in one place. The Palatine School which he founded, attracted astronomers, theologians, scientists, architects and mathematicians to Aachen. Today the city had four universities and research centres. The RWT Aachen University is one of the world’s renowned research institutions. Students from all over the world come here to study. Along the route there are brass circles embossed with Charlemagne’s monogram, cemented into the cobbled roads. We follow the path to the Centre Charlemagne, the new city museum. It is located at the Katschoff, the former palace courtyard between the Town Hall and the Cathedral. Here one can browse through exhibits and details about Aachen and its past glory from medieval times, both as a fashionable Spa Resort and as an Art and Cultural Centre. Also documented, is the role of Aachen as a place of European reconciliation and progress. Charlemagne had a strong, impressive personality He enjoyed the pleasures of this world like hunting, horse riding and swimming. In spite of professing Christianity there was nothing very Christian about his behaviour. War, plunder, conquest were in his blood. Morally deficient too, he had ten wives and many concubines. He had 18 children and was very possessive of his daughters. He didn’t want them to be legally married, so that other families could not make claims on his wealth. But he allowed them to have extramarital affairs. The history of Aachen is closely tied to Charlemagne. But what makes this place a pleasure to visit is its old world charm, its narrow cobbled winding streets, its friendly restaurants and tables spreading on to the streets. Passersby think nothing of peeping into the plates of outside diners, to see which items are hot favourites. The jolly atmosphere of summer is everywhere, with most people minimally dressed, showing off their elaborate tattoos. One is exposed to fashions galore – pierced noses, ears, lips, eyebrows or umbilicus; hair coloured in pink, blue, white or grey, or held together in fungal bunches. Here and there in the pedestrian squares are fountains with all kinds of metal sculptures, each depicting different aspects of life down the ages. The one that attracts the most attention is a pond surrounded by a group of townspeople personifying greed. Young women sell roses to single men. A quaint trio of a dwarf in green dungarees with a guitar, a blind man with a trumpet, and a young boy with a violin bring lively music of the 70s and 80s to life, making pedestrians stop and tap their feet to the lively rhythm, before they finally wind their way home.


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