Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Afternoon in Aachen

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Bound and determined to make a trip to Aachen today, I woke at 7:00 and finished packing.  

Using the regional transportation company´s website, I had been able to quickly build my entire transit schedule for the day from my neighborhood tram stop all the way to Aachen!   After a flat-out sprint, I arrived at the Rheintörchenstraße stop where the tram was uncharacteristically late. At 8:03 I was the lone passenger, though more boarded as the tram passed through the Turkish district and then the transit point at the Pauluskirche.  After the 14 minute ride, I disembarked at Duisburg Hbf, by now a familiar stop. While the university-provided tram passes are good for all public transportation within Duisburg, I needed to purchase my own ticket for the regional trains.  Upstairs near the regional trains I found a ticket machine and purchased a Schöner Tag Ticket (a 26€ regional day pass good for all trains, trams, and buses in North Rhine-Westphalia). Group tickets are also available for around 35€ with one being usable by up to five people.

SchönerTag Ticket and coffee!

Coffee in hand, I boarded the 9:00 RE Train to Mönchengladbach, a 40-minute commute.  Again, this early on a Sunday morning I was one of only a handful on board.  The train crossed the Rhine only a mile or so downstream from the Kanu-Club and I pretended that I could see it through the trees on the far eastern bank.  The heavy industry along the river soon gave way to farmland, and after changing trains in Mönchengladbach, I arrived at Aachen Hbf around 10:30.  My only scheduled event for the day was a tour of the cathedral at 2:00, so I decided to talk a walk, try some of the local food, and take in the sights.   

Whenever I find myself in a new city, I´ve found that the best time for exploring is Sunday morning.  Traffic is lighter and the crowds arrive later in the day.  This Sunday morning in Aachen was no exception.  Sure, most of the shops were closed, but they weren´t why I had come. 

For the history buffs out there, Aachen is a historically important city nestled on the Germany-Belgian-Dutch border.   It was at one point a Roman town which later regained prominence during the reign the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (in German, Karl der Größe) who rebuilt the city as an imperial retreat and constructed an impressive chapel where many later Germany´s kings would hold their coronations.

model of Aachen Cathedral

With time to spare before the tour, I opted to pass by the Old City and headed for the nearby border. Kylace had made the trek when she visited Aachen, and with her experience to guide me, I thought I would have an easier time of finding it than she had.  I'd hoped to speak kein Englisch heute; however, seeing as the guide at the tourist information center spoke fluent English, attempting German there seemed rather pointless.   I picked up a map and headed east.  The next thirty minutes were spent wandering residential neighborhoods looking for a seemingly-imaginary train station which the map clearly depicted.  Finally deciding there were better things to do than travel out to a hill and look at trees, I turned around and walked back into the Old City.  All was not lost though, I happened upon the city´s well known RWTH Aachen University ( and a few minutes later found myself in front of the gothic-style Rathaus, or city hall (

Aachen Rathaus

I love student discounts!  For only 4.50€ I was able to tour the city hall with a really well-designed interactive audiotour.  A receiver which I wore around my neck tracked my location in the building while a touchscreen on the front allowed me to select relevant audio clips and watch short videos explaining the construction and layout of the building which dates to the 14th-century with several additions over the centuries.  The highlight of the tour is the beautiful Coronation Hall on the second level where various HR emperors held coronation dinners. Replicas of the early imperial regalia are on display there and the room has also been used since the WWII for the presentation of the annual Charlemagne Award to individuals who “render outstanding services towards the unification of Europe”.

Coronation Hall of Aachen Rathaus

The time was now 1:00 and I decided that it was time to find a bite to eat.  I had read that the local delicacy was hard biscuit/cookie referred to as an Aachener Printen.  I found a nice café called Nobis (est. 1858) on the cathedral´s southeast corner and sat down with a ham focaccia sandwich, a bag of Printen, and a strong cappuccino.  An amateur brass band was playing in the square.  Even indoors I could hear the low “oomph” of the tuba.  The Aachener Printen come in many flavors, but I had selected the spiced ones: Kräuter Printen.  They seemed at first like gingerbread but soon revealed an overpoweringly bitter aftertaste.  While other varieties like chocolate or almond are undoubtedly good, these were a rare miss.  The band finished their show, and I hurried to a nearby Eishall for a lemon cone to wash away the bitterness of the Printen.

Nobis Printen. A nice, old cafe on the square next to the cathedral. (Showing a cathedral ticket gets you a discount!)

Lunch at Nobis.

A brass band performs in the square.

At 2:00 I toured the cathedral.  I was afraid that I had joined the German tour until the English-language guide Alex Stoll arrived and split the group. As the English tour entered the cathedral, the sound of a visiting youth choir singing in Latin greeted us from the second floor.

The cathedral (technically, only a cathedral since approximately 1930) was originally constructed by Charlemagne as a grand chapel attached to the city hall by a covered walkway.  Recent analysis during extensive renovation work has determined that the building was begun and completed between the years 793-813, very quickly for the period.  In its day the chapel was the tallest domed structure north of the Alps with a numerology-based architectural style borrowed from Byzantium by way of then-contemporary Roman palaces. This was also a first for the region.   

Throne of Charlemagne.  The marble came from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, likely from the floor since some pieces bear traces of a etched gameboard for Nine-Men´s Morris.

 Charlemagne was interred here upon his death, and a few short centuries later, his successor Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa attempted to have him canonized.  Barbarossa botched the job, having set up more than a few anti-popes to push his agenda to canonize the position of emperor, effectively making himself a living saint.  As a result, veneration of Charlemagne is tolerated by the Vatican in only a handful of churches, mostly in this region of Germany.  As for the remains of Charlemagne, recent research concludes that the reliquary likely contains the right man.  The lone holdout is a Bavarian researcher who is persona non grata in these parts.  (Again, Bavaria confirms it´s label as the “Texas of Germany”.) The church´s beautiful mosaics and stained-glass windows were worth the trip.  When the restoration is finished in six-weeks’ time, they will be magnificent.

View from the rear of the Choir Hall - Aachen Cathedral.

View from altar into the Choir Hall - Aachen Cathedral.
Side Chapel - Aachen Cathedral
Side Chapel - Aachen Cathedral

I left Aachen early.  I had not seen the border nor the famous hot springs, but I believe in always leaving something for the next visit.  I would not be going back to Duisburg directly.  Rather, I would go down to Frankfurt and spend the night since I had paperwork which I needed approved by the consulate there.  My day-pass for the train took me as far as Bonn where, to my everlasting regret, I purchased an extension ticket for an IC train to Frankfurt (but more on that later).  With a few minutes to spare, I walked around a nearby square past a statue of Beethoven.  At 6:14 I returned to the station and visited McDonalds for the second time in as many days.  A broken signal box on the line had backed up the schedule, and my IC train was 15 minutes late.  I was a bit worried at first, but it all worked out in the end.

 Bonn, Germany. (Note the statue of Beethoven in the center)

More of the mysterious blue sheep... (Bonn, Germany)

South of Bonn, the train entered the Rhine Valley and hugged the river, at times so close to the water that it seemed to be gliding across it.  The grey evening sky was reflected in the waters below; the two separated only by the steep, green hills spotted with vineyards.  At 7:30 we passed under the shadow of the Lorelei, a large cliff standing at the one of the narrowest points of the Rhine. A 19th century legend tells of a beautiful siren who lived near the cliff and drew river travelers to their deaths.  We passed quickly through the river towns and villages, trying to make up lost time, but were soon slowed further by a rainstorm.

The River Rhine south of Bonn. (taken on 11 July).

*A note on the trains of Germany.  In my time in this country, I have now ridden all three of the major rail networks:  regional (RE), Intercity (IC), and Intercity Express(ICE).  The REs are often extensions of the regional bus and tram networks and likewise make frequent stops. They are slow but offer relative comfort and a leisurely ride.  The ICEs offer luxury at 230+ km/hr with nice seats, restaurant cars, and other amenities. But what about that sort of traveler who is too cheap to travel quickly and in too much of a hurry to travel comfortably?  He condemns himself to that special traveler´s purgatory which is the IC with its cramped seating and non-air-conditioned cars. 

But as I soon learned, such a traveler does not know he does this and therefore directs his ire and discomfort towards his fellow passengers.  Packed in like cattle, I had settled for the only place available, a fold-down seat in the aisle next to an open window through which the driving rain splattered into the car.   I lost count of the number of times that I was required to stand to allow some inconvenienced traveler to pass.  “Surely there are decent seats in the next car away from THESE people,” his look would say.  The pattern would be repeated a few minutes later when the traveler passed back the way he had come, defeated.  Outside, the rain continued to pour.

Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof is a terminal station.  By that I mean the trains arrive and depart from the same direction.  Thus, the approach to the station involves the rail line branching into the twenty-four platforms and numerous cargo sidings of this major rail hub.  The constant lateral jostling of the train through the switches, left then right then left then right, felt like sidestepping through a slow waltz.

Upon arrival in Frankfurt am Main, the time was half past eight on a Sunday evening.  What had been to my advantage in Aachen was now a problem since all the tourist centers here were closed and I now had to find a hotel on my own.   Fortunately, my phone detected a singular free hotspot: Starbucks. Oh, Starbucks! In the past I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the chain, but today I was grateful.   I settled in with a White Mocha and my laptop.  Jörn would have been proud.  Meanwhile, an Indian woman at the next table was surprised by a wandering pigeon which landed beside her.  “Oh, look! That is good luck! It means a good journey!” she exclaimed to her companion.  I could have used the luck.

The laptop soon died, so I switched to my smartphone and found a nearby hotel.  I wandered the back streets near the station until I located it, bartered with the night clerk (from 45€ down to 39), found the room, and went to sleep…

No comments:

Post a Comment