When I was studying to become a tour guide, I got a little obsessed with a few historical figures. I decided that Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella were a little like a fifteenth century Brangelina (Isabella definitely wore the pants back then). Pepin the Short featured in many spiels just because I liked his name. Tycho Brache may have discovered that the planets revolve around the sun, but for me he will always be the dude who died because he drank too much wine and his bladder burst.
The head honcho for me, however, was Charlemagne.
I mean, this guy is the father of modern Europe! He was the last one to control both France and Germany without having one invade the other! AND he just so happens to live in my favourite church in the world.
We’re talking about Aachen Cathedral, in the gorgeous little city of Aachen. I’ve written of my love of Aachen before, and I’ll do it again as I hardly hear of this place anywhere. I’m not sure why, because it’s got everything you expect of a prosperous German city; a lovely town square, stately architecture, good shopping and plenty of pubs. Am I missing something? Did something happen in Aachen that scared everyone away? If so, I’m glad nobody has told me.
Even if Aachen had none of these things, I would talk the place up solely for its cathedral.
It looks small on the outside, and indeed it is the same on the inside. But even outside, you can get an idea of how important this place is; most of Europe’s main architectural styles can be found here. There’s baroque, gothic and Romanesque, plus a whole lot I have no idea about and can’t even begin to identify. But it’s impressive nonetheless.
It’s a little thing, the cathedral, but it’s chocker-block full of the most beautiful mosaics, glittering design and shimmering stained glass. It knocks you for six as soon as you walk in. Seen the murals in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul? They’re better than those. What about the mosaics in St Mark’s in Venice? Yep, topped those too. The stained glass in Ste Chapelle in Paris? Oooh, tough one, but I reckon they’d come close.
I mean, this is what you see as you walk inside (for free, I might add).
As you can see, here all these beautiful elements come together in one little church. You could perhaps call it a chapel, even, due to its size. But the detail is just outstanding and as plenty of it was given a lick of paint in the nineteenth century, it looks perfect.
It does not, however, look German.
Despite the renovation, the cathedral is not new; far from it. Construction began in the year 792. No, I didn’t forget a ‘1’ at the beginning. We’re actually taking 1,220 years ago. Ridiculous stuff.
Charlemagne, who was technically Emperor of the Carolingian Empire, is better known as the first Holy Roman Emperor (which wasn’t holy, nor Roman, or even an empire for those playing at home). This ridiculously large empire encompassed roughly modern-day Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Switzerland and northern Italy, as well as France. Not too shabby, hey? The French forgot about Aachen after Charlemagne’s successor died and the empire was divided, but the Germans quite liked the place and decided to set up shop.
For six centuries, Holy Roman Emperors were crowned here. These guys ranged from being immensely powerful such as my buddy Charles IV (the one who has everything named after him in Prague) to some real deadheads like Frederick I. He’s best known for drowning after forgetting to take his armour off when taking a dip.
Anyway, they were all crowned here. That’s pretty damn cool, particularly in my nerdy book. Are you looking for solid evidence of all this history? Well, check out the pulpit. It’s 998 years old.
Not convinced? OK, stained glass windows. 598 years old (in a city that survived two world wars).
I thought that was impressive enough, until I read about the 774-year old Shrine of the Virgin Mary. That’s this little gold box up on the altar (the one that looks like a little house).
Nice, yeah? Well, inside are four pretty important things to the Catholic Church, namely:
- The Virgin Mary’s cloak;
- Christ’s swaddling clothes;
- John the Baptist’s beheading cloth; and
- Christ’s loincloth.
It’s got all four of them! They’re not at the Vatican, they’re in tiny little Aachen! Why did I not know this? I was too busy trying to snap Charlemagne’s tomb that I just snapped a picture of this absent-mindedly. I had no idea what it contained inside.
As I said before, entry to the cathedral is free. If you want to take pictures you have to pay a euro, which I reckon is fine and dandy. It allowed me to come away with these.
Aachen is one of those places where I find I’m caught. I want people to see such a lovely place and appreciate an important part of European history. But at the same time, I don’t want people there. The church is too small, for one. I don’t want it to be like the Sistine Chapel where the acoustics resemble a football match. I want it to remain special, like I share a bond with others who too have visited this lovely, exclusive place.
So come to Aachen. Or not. I can’t decide.