The Aachen Cathedral – Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage site

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On Christmas Day in the year 800 AD, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Two weeks ago we went to see his main residence and cathedral in Aachen / Germany.

Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was among the most successful politicians and military rulers of his time. The coronation as Roman emperor was unexpected nonetheless – the last emperor in West Rome, Romulus Augustulus, had ruled in the 5th century.

Always on the move

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Like all Frankish kings, Charlemagne was used to travelling constantly in his kingdom and holding court in different places. But as he got older – and his gout became more painful – he preferred a more permanent residence. Aachen, which may also have been his hometown, was a convenient place – rather centrally located in his empire and with sufficient royal estates around to feed the courtiers. Aachen was also a spa town. The Romans had founded a town by the name of Aquae Granni (Waters of Grannus) when Grannus, a military commander, discovered hot sulphur springs there. And Charlemagne found the sulphurous water comforting and healing.

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Some of the Roman ruins were re-used by the Franks, and Charlemagne built a splendid residence and an impressive chapel, today’s Aachen Cathedral. Inspired by Roman and Byzantine models, the church was centred on an octagon and featured original Roman porphyry columns (in imperial red!) and golden mosaics. Later, the chapel was much enlarged to become a Gothic Cathedral, and in 1980 Germany first UNESCO World Heritage site. The building combines Gothic architecture with Byzantine mosaics (actually remade by the Prussians in the 19th century) and we found it very impressive in spite of the dozens (or hundreds?) of people filling the small room.

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We also visited the treasure chamber, the town’s new history museum and the so-called coronation hall in the city hall. And after so much sightseeing it was time for Aachen’s culinary speciality, a chewy type of gingerbread called Printen, sold by the kilo in nearly every shop in Aachen’s pedestrian zone. Mmmh.

Is the Aachen cathedral worth a visit?

Personally, we think that the Printen alone are reason enough to visit Aachen.

The proper cultural and education motive is of course Aachen cathedral, a beautiful and very unusual church with a lavish golden interior you wouldn’t expect in Western Europe

How to get to the Aachen cathedral

Aachen, near the Dutch border, is serviced by fast and slow trains. Being a small town, the inner city is quite walkable. From the train station to the Aachen cathedral it takes 15 minutes on foot. 

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