On an ordinary day, the small town of Aachen in northwest Germany is a typical German town of cobbled streets, narrow buildings with whimsical facades, and a historic town centre. But this was not an ordinary day.
At the new exhibition in Aachen’s Centre Charlemagne, art lovers from all over Europe were crowding around fabulous 9th century objects that included lavish illuminations on manuscripts of purple parchment, exotically carved ivories in delicate gilded frames, and a gold broach crusted with rare jewels.
Down the street, the Dom, Aachen’s ancient cathedral, was open to visitors on a pilgrimage that takes place every seven years. Pilgrims wearing green scarves and medieval Christian tokens around their necks had travelled from all over to pray before articles of clothing that, it was claimed, had once belonged to Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
While art lovers and pilgrims mixed and mingled in the narrow streets, I sat under a Roman arch in a sunny public square drinking coffee. On an open stage, a troop of sinuous dancers from India were performing a celebration of the life of Krishna to Bollywood music. Between the tables all around me, a dozen languages chattered. For the moment Aachen had become what it had been over a millennium ago, a crossroads of the world.
Aachen: In the footsteps of Charlemagne
Founded by the Romans as a spa town, Aachen’s claim to fame came in the year 800 when Charles the Great, King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans and entered history as Charlemagne. The year 2014 marks the 1,200th anniversary of his death, and Germany is celebrating his life and achievements with numerous special exhibitions, most notably in Aachen where he is buried.
A man of many talents, Charlemagne battled and conquered adjacent kingdoms and became the first man since the fall of Rome to control most of Europe. Taking the title Holy Roman Emperor, he reformed the economy, standardized the monetary system, and laid the foundations of a cultural and literary renaissance named after him.
Charlemagne was a builder, a drinker, and an admirer of beautiful women. He was also a great admirer of the Emperor Constantine, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire 500 years earlier. The father of 18 children with eight different women, Charlemagne is more than a local legend.
In Aachen, his western capital, Charlemagne is everywhere. Statues of him stand in bakery display cases. His silhouette in red is stenciled on windows and walls all over town. But Charlemagne saw himself as emperor of the east as well.
The inside of the Dom that he built, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a striking miniature of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia cathedral. The emperor’s marble throne still sits in splendour inside a Carolingian Octagon so embellished with gold, stained glass, and inlaid mosaics that it’s like walking into a giant jewel chest. As I followed a long line of pilgrims inside, the space was filled to overflowing.
“We come from Korea,” one man told me shepherding his family around the pilgrims’ path in the basilica. Church officials in green tailcoats and white gloves took objects from visitors to have them blessed, while hundreds of cell phones recorded the splendour.
But not all of Aachen is solemn. The town, like Rome, is a city of pools and fountains. Water is the reason Aachen exists. Built above a network of natural hot springs, the Romans were the first to organize the baths that made the area popular.
During his lifetime, it has been estimated that Charlemagne put enough mileage on his horse to have travelled three times around the world. By the time he was crowned emperor, his bones were weary and he embraced the wellness culture in Aachen, hosting pool parties of several hundred who would soak together over their golden cups of local wine.
Having had coffee with Krishna, a walk around the Dom with the pilgrims, and a squint at the Carolingian treasures with the art lovers, I settled in for a relaxing soak in the warm mineral water that filled the pools of Carolus Thermen, a luxury spa complex on the outskirts of the city. Like Charlemagne, I was not alone at the party.
Trier: The Legacy of Constantine
Having sampled the emperor’s world, I was curious about the one he modelled it on: the Roman world of Constantine the Great. A few hours north of Aachen by rail lies the city of Trier, believed to be Germany’s oldest city. There is little doubt that Trier is a Roman town. Local tour guides dress like centurions and garland-wearing Roman matrons.
Teen-aged boys still wrestle in the sand near the lion pens in the gigantic amphitheatre where 20,000 people once gathered to watch gladiators duel to the death. The Aula Palatina, Constantine’s Palace, is a huge rectangular brick building meant to awe the local citizens. The hall still dwarfs the crowds of tourists trying to fit it into their camera lens. The walls are about 2.7m (9 ft) thick and over 30m (100 ft) high, and I could hardly see the ceiling. According to a local guide, “The more important you are, the more air you need above your head.”
Trier’s cathedral, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was constructed on Roman foundations and stands like a cultural jigsaw puzzle spanning the ages. Inside the Gothic arches are supporting pillars with marble capitals carved in the shape of Roman heads. Recycled Roman architecture pops from the walls and enhances the funeral monuments of medieval worthies. Like much of the treasure trove in Aachen, pieces that were obviously dedicated to Zeus or some other Roman god, were used to embellish Christian shrines in a strange stew of cultures and religions.
Down the road at Trier’s Porta Nigra, Rome’s “go big or go home” version of a city gate, things are defiantly Roman. Two guides, in the outfits of a centurion and a spearman respectively, were moving a group of high schoolers through what is the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. “Jupiter nobiscum” (“Jupiter be with us”)—the cry of the Roman legions—was being yelled by 30 enthusiastic students under the guidance of their centurion.
I trailed the new recruits to Trier’s third great Roman installation, the Imperial Baths. Not only did the Romans take their guard duties seriously, but the baths were equally well organized. A city of hyperbole, Trier not only boasts two other Roman bath complexes but claims this as the largest one north of the Alps. It was easy to get lost. A sprawling ruin today, it still preserves a mile of underground corridors beneath its huge walls. Here slaves worked in darkness to clear sewer channels and keep the water flowing. Up in the light, I could still hear chants to Jupiter.
Cologne: Looking for the Magi
If Trier was the model that Charlemagne used to build his capital at Aachen, then Cologne was the city where his vision of stupendous Romanesque architecture and Christian solemnity came together. Under Charlemagne, the city was used to convert the local countryside.
As in Aachen, it was pilgrimage time. Cologne Cathedral is home to an elaborate golden shrine said to contain the bones of the Three Kings or the Three Magi. Exactly which star led them to Cologne is unclear but their bones were brought to the cathedral in 1164 from Milan where they had rested for nearly 1,000 years.
While pilgrims trooped through the cathedral door, a group of postulant nuns in grey fluttered like doves near its great façade. They had come from India, China, Korea, and Africa. I watched them contemplate the statues of kings and saints carved high above them. It seemed fitting somehow that 1,200 years after his death, the age of Charlemagne echoing in both stone and culture continues to reach out to the world.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.