Discover Aachen, Charlemagne's capital city

Over the course of history, Aachen has gained a reputation by transforming itself from an ancient city of power into a modern hub of education. DW's Eesha Kheny checked it out for us.

Located in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Aachen is Germany's westernmost city. Well-known for its architecture, markets and spas, it had been on my to-do-list for a long time. Finally, as the train drew closer, my curiosity was piqued and I was certain that there were some surprises in store.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

A royal residence

More than 1200 years ago Charlemagne selected Aachen as the center of his vast empire. Between 790 and 800 he had his residence built on the ruins of a Roman thermal spa, with the Palatine chapel at its center. Today, Aachen Cathedral is considered one of the best preserved monuments of the Carolingian age and is a magnet for visitors attracting more than 1.2 million people every year.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

In the center of power

The Palatine Chapel in the form of an octagon is the center of the cathedral. For over 200 years, Aachen Cathedral's construction was unsurpassed in height and vault width. The building looks almost oriental. No wonder, it is based on the model of Byzantine palace churches. The eye-catcher is the vaulted ceiling with its magnificent neo-Byzantine mosaic.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Coronation place of German kings

Raised, on the gallery of the Palatine Chapel, stands this simple throne. For 600 years - until 1531 - the coronations of German kings took place here. From today's perspective, the throne is a perfect example of "upcycling". Charlemagne had it made from used marble slabs. The throne can be admired at close range during the UNESCO festival week in September.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

A mix of architectural styles

Over the centuries, Aachen Cathedral has grown into a fascinating cathedral that combines different eras into a harmonious whole. Here the choir hall with its Gothic ribbed vault. It was built between 1355 and 1414. Since then, sacred relics and the remains of Charlemagne have been kept in the choir hall. 1,000 square meters of windows make it a kind of glass shrine.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Important pilgrimage site

Believers already made pilgrimages to Aachen during Charlemagne's reign. The shrine of St. Mary contains important relics of Christianity, including Mary's dress and Christ's loincloth. The Aachen Shrine Tour dates back to 1349. Every seven years, faithful believers turn the cathedral into a place of pilgrimage. Only then are the relics shown publicly. The next pilgrimage will take place in 2021.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Charlemagne's final resting place

Charlemagne's remains lie in the preciously decorated Charlemagne shrine in the choir hall. In 2014, researchers examined the bones and confirmed: Here lies Charlemagne! The ruler was a tall, slender man who towered over most men of his time. The shrine weighs 150 kilograms and is decorated with 1001 precious individual parts.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Only the best for the cathedral

It is always worth looking up as Charlemagne knew how to impress. He engaged the best builders of his time. From today's perspective, one might say these men built for eternity. They created spaces of fairy-tale beauty. Only after 1,200 years (!) were major renovations due at the cathedral.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

A face lift after 1200 years

Aachen Cathedral was completely overhauled for 30 years - from 1986 to 2016. Statics, masonry, roof trusses, windows, mosaics - everything was put to the test. A total of 37 million euro was invested in the renovation work. For the masonry work alone, half a million mosaic tiles, only millimeter in size, had to be removed and reattached later.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

An unobstructed view of the cathedral

The cathedral's exterior is also protected. To prevent the silhouette of the cathedral and the sight lines from being obstructed, it was given an official "buffer zone" in 2010. This was in response to UNESCO's demand to safeguard the city center in its entirety as a historical heritage. Violations of this rule could result in a place on the "red list" of endangered UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Not just the cathedral

On 8 September 1978, UNESCO declared the centre of the old imperial city of Aachen a World Heritage Site. This also includes the Gothic town hall (top left in the picture), which was built on the foundations of the Carolingian imperial palace. And the Katschhof, the square between the cathedral and the town hall. Aachen's Christmas Market takes place here every year.

Aachen Cathedral - UNESCO World Heritage

Aachen, the cradle of Europe

The international Charlemagne Prize has been awarded in Aachen since 1988. It pays tribute to individuals who have rendered outstanding services to Europe and European unification. Charlemagne is considered the "father of Europe", because at the height of his power his empire extended from the North Sea to central Italy, from the Pyrenees to present-day Hungary.

Imperial Aachen Cathedral

This year Aachen Cathedral is celebrating 40 years since it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the first in Germany, back in 1978. It is most famous for having been built on the orders of Emperor Charlemagne – also known as King Charles the Great – during his lifetime, and it has also served as his resting place since his death in 814. Expecting to see a grand, yet fairly standard, cathedral, I was pleasantly surprised by the real deal. The mix of Gothic, Ottonian and Carolingian architecture gave the cathedral a captivating look inside and out.

Inside the Aachen Cathedral

My favorite was the Palatine Chapel ordered by Charlemagne himself. Marble stone pillars with gold and blue mosaics adorned every inch of the high octagonal room. Although there was a lot going on, the Carolingian harmony was indisputable. From every angle, the one thing I couldn't help but notice was the stunning four-meter-wide golden Barbarossa chandelier hanging from the roof of the Palatine Chapel. It was donated by Emperor Frederick I after canonizing Charlemagne in 1165.

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The importance of the cathedral is further magnified by it having been the coronation venue until 1531 for 31 German kings and 12 queens. I looked around, from the marble patterned floor to the deeply embellished ceiling, trying to imagine just how elaborate those coronations must have been. Even today, the marble coronation throne is housed here.

Bust of Charlemagne

What began simply as a vision of Charlemagne, Aachen Cathedral is now considered as an important pilgrimage church. Since 1349, every seven years faithful devotees from all over the world gather for the Aachen Pilgrimage known as "Heiligtumsfahrt," during which the holy relics – usually stored in St. Mary's shrine are displayed. These include what is thought to be the robe Mary wore the night Jesus was born as well as the loincloth worn by Jesus on the cross. With such a valuable past and remarkable architecture, the cathedral has rightfully earned its place as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany.

Aachen Old Town

The medieval Aachen quarter

The city is marked with a prominent old town, full of traditional bars, whimsical fountains and local shops selling the locally-produced Aachener Printen. I tasted these spicy flavored cookies which reminded me of gingerbread. Buying a few packets as gifts for friends and family, I continued on with my exploration. One of the highlights in the area is the 'Fountain of Puppets,' a bronze installation featuring movable characters, depicting the history of Aachen. Interestingly, this is only one of many fountains spread across the city.

Market Square in Aachen

Following the narrow alleys, I found my way to the main Market Square which is flanked on one side with Aachen Town Hall. Open to the public since 2009, the town hall stands on the very foundation of Charlemagne's King's Hall. The further I ascended the staircase, the more the imposing gothic exterior and street noise was left behind. On entering the Coronation Hall, I found it empty, because of the lateness of the hour, and in its deserted state appearing bigger than usual. While the replicas of imperial jewels are definite crowd-pleasers, the descriptive frescoes painted by artist Alfred Rethel give insight into the life of Charlemagne. From the glass windows, I gazed out at Aachen Cathedral, wondering if Charlemagne had done the same as he governed over his beloved capital city. In those times, this location was a seat of power which even today serves as the office of the mayor and the city council of Aachen.

Observation tower at the Three-Country-Point (Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands)

The fascinating Three-Country-Point 

With summer swiftly fading away and autumn creeping in, there was a slight chill in the air. Nevertheless, I joined lots of other people, mainly students, in the outdoor cafes and restaurants. Aachen University, founded in 1870, is the largest technical university in Germany and renowned worldwide. With thousands of students, it has put Aachen on the map as a student-friendly city.

On the recommendation of one such student I caught a bus to the 'Dreiländerpunkt,' or Three-Country-Point as it would be called in English. It is a meeting point of the German, Belgian and Dutch borders located on Vaalserberg, which at 322 meters (1057 ft.) is the highest mountain of the Netherlands.

Balduin-Tower

A short bus ride to Vaals, located 5.3 kilometers (3.2 miles) from Aachen, brought me to the border. From here, I hiked for approximately four kilometers to reach the 34 meter-high Balduin Observation Tower located on top of the Vaalserberg. The viewing terrace of the tower is accessible by a glass elevator for an entry fee of four euros ($4.65). On a clear day, the 360-degree panoramic view can stretch all the way to Maastricht in Holland, High Venn in Belgium and the Eifel in Germany. Unfortunately the cloudy sky was disrupting my view, but it could not affect my enthusiasm nor that of others.

This is where the borders of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands meet

This point is a popular attraction, usually crowded with tourists and families. While adults love the idea of standing in three countries at once, children enjoy the play area with its labyrinth and other fun activities. As for me, with three countries in sight and new travel plans in mind, I bade Aachen goodbye, hoping to return in the winter to explore its Christmas markets and thermal springs, which are what attracted the ancient Celts and Romans to Aachen long before it became Charlemagne's capital city.