Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle, or Aken, as its neighbours call it), Germany’s main western gateway, lying directly on its frontiers with Belgium and Holland, about 65 km (40 miles) west of Cologne, is a traditional meeting place for the people of three nations. Aacheners are a cosmopolitan, friendly lot who are used to foreign visitors, and their city enjoys a pan-European identity.
Aachen has a pleasant, small-town feel about it and at the same time offers much to visitors of widely differing interests. Of major historical interest in this former imperial capital is Charlemagne’s magnificent ninth-century chapel/cathedral as well as a 14th-century town hall. Charlemagne’s palace court here—the palace itself is no longer extant—was the wellspring of Western Europe’s first great cultural renaissance at the end of the “Dark Ages.”
Charlemagne, devoted to learning and the establishment of civil order, brought the scholar Alcuin from York to Aachen in 782 to educate him and his circle in grammar and other subjects. The short-term result—chronicled in Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne was a dramatic increase in learning throughout northern Europe. The longterm results are incalculable; Aachen is one of the great sites of Western civilization.
Aachen was severely damaged by air raids and ground fighting in World War II. Three-fifths of its dwellings were partially or entirely destroyed. But by 1966 the city had largely completed its reconstruction. Coal mining was once an important industry for the city; now textiles have taken its place, and Aachen produces 20 per cent of Germany’s woollen products. The city is also noted for its marzipan, chocolate, and gingerbread. And for the visitor, there is much more: culture, museums, fountains, international riding events, a famous spa and health resort, good hotels, conventions, and dining and shopping.
Aachen’s Innenstadt (city centre) is surrounded by a ring road that traces the circle of its first Stadtmauer (city wall), which was built from 1171 to 1175. An outer ring road follows the course of the city’s second wall, built from 1257 to 1357. Both ring roads change names in the course of their sweep around the city.
Two-thousand-year-old Aachen was settled by the Celts and Romans. Much of the city’s history took place in the Innenstadt area, and many of its historic monuments can be found here.