AACHEN, Germany—If you take a look around Aachen, you’ll see signs of Charlemagne everywhere. It may be a literal sign, his visage staring back at you, or some remnant of his influence in the very bones of the city.
Some say locals abuse the name or image of “Charlemagne,” a tour guide said cheekily, pointing out a red Charlemagne statue placed in a storefront to help sell leather goods.
Though if any figure deserves such wide and lasting recognition, it might just be him. After all, he was the emperor who helped Western Civilization climb out of the dark.
Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the first Holy Roman Emperor, and he didn’t take that responsibility lightly.
As important as it was for him to expand the Carolingian Empire and unite a fragmented and chaotic world (he fought a war practically every year, which was the norm for that era), he was committed to the lives of every person in his nation. He believed he was responsible for the salvation of these souls. And beyond this Medieval Age-concept of living in preparation for the afterlife, Charlemagne was concerned with the future of civilization as well, and advanced culture light years ahead of the dwindling status quo that had held for centuries.
He was determined they would be a just, learned, cultured people of God. So he set out to root out corruption in the Church, improve literacy across the empire, and establish the sort of example that rulers wanted to emulate for the next millennium.
Under the peace he brought against foreign invaders, culture was once again allowed room to breathe. We have him to thank for things such as lowercase letters, for nearly 90 percent of all surviving ancient texts, the trend of architectural grandness in cathedrals, and even for pipe organs being ubiquitous in churches.
And Aachen has such claim to Charlemagne—not because he was born or crowned there—but because he liked the baths.
Charlemagne was far from the first to discover the baths of Aachen; it had been the ancient Romans who turned the site of these thermal springs into a bath town.
Aachen, on the border of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, benefits from the nearby and active Volcanic Eifel, and is home to about 30 sulfurous hot springs that boast health and wellness benefits.
Today, you can still visit any of the multiple spas and bathhouses, such as the Carolus Thermen, to benefit from the mineral-rich hot water drawn from the springs.
Charlemagne loved to swim and spent much of his time in Aachen. It wasn’t technically the capital of the empire, but as Charlemagne grew older and spent less time touring the empire to hear cases, he spent more of his stationary time in Aachen.
As a result, Aachen became Charlemagne’s final resting place.
The Coronation Cathedral
The Aachen Cathedral is the most visible monument to Charlemagne. He laid the foundation stone to what would become the largest church of its time in 790. It would be modified many times during the next several centuries.
Upon the emperor’s death in 814, the cathedral was chosen as his final resting place. His legacy was so great that each emperor who followed him all wanted to tie their own legacy to his in some way.
For the next 600 years, every ruler came to Aachen Cathedral to sit on Charlemagne’s throne—which you can still see—for their coronation.
His influence has extended beyond the empire of his making: Napoleon Bonaparte admired and studied Charlemagne, and he, too, visited the Aachen upon his coronation to take in Charlemagne’s legacy.
Emperors are not the only ones who make the pilgrimage to Aachen; the cathedral is home to several relics, including garments belonging to the Virgin Mary and Christ. Every seven years, the next occasion being in June 2021, people of faith from around the world journey to the Aachen Cathedral to try to catch a glimpse of these relics, which are kept under a ceremonial lock and key.
The cathedral also houses a treasury of relics, religious art, and objects of historical significance that can be toured by the public.
Another eye-catching building is the Town Hall, directly opposite of the cathedral.
It’s a Gothic building from the 14th century, built from the foundations of Charlemagne’s palace complex after its demolition.
The Gothic style gave way to a more modern Baroque architecture with high towers a few centuries later, and then in the mid- to late 1800s, there were efforts to restore the palace to a Gothic style.
One surviving feature of the palace is the octagonal dome structure that is recognizable from the city center. It also retains some of its splendor from other eras.
The Council Hall welcomes you in with a Renaissance ceiling mural portraying Plato’s four cardinal virtues, figures symbolizing wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. On the back wall is a Baroque mural of ancient gods. Throughout the building, there are portraits of various emperors and famous figures, some even done in stucco on view in the White Hall.
It is a functional administrative building, but much of it is open to the public and many rooms contain informational videos about the history of what you are seeing.
Modern diplomats make pilgrimages to Aachen as well. An interesting museum just a minute away from the Town Hall allows viewers to glean the long history of Aachen, from ancient times up to today. There are moments captured in images from Baroque-era pilgrims trying to catch a glimpse of the relics inside the cathedral from the rooftop two buildings over, using a mirror, to photos of soldiers goofing off and taking a break during World War II.
In 1949, the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen was established and awarded to stewards of peace every year. The Aachen Treaty signed between Germany and France this year brings the story up to the very present.
Aachen lies right between three countries, and is an hour’s train ride from Cologne, Germany, or closer to an hour and a half from Brussels. The major sites of historical value can be taken in over a single day if you really try, but it’s worth longer than a day trip to try the baths.