Over a year ago, I moved from Edinburgh to the City of Aachen located in the “Euregio” on the border of Germany, Holland and Belgium. Living in Germany’s most Westerly City has given me a great opportunity to learn about the history, diversity and culture of this ancient capital and how European integration is starting to erode the significance of national boundaries in a remarkable corner of Europe.
Visitors to Aachen are often pleasantly surprised by this diverse and welcoming University City with a fascinating history which stretches back to the Roman times and beyond.
A bit of history:
Aachen was first favoured by the Romans for its hot mineral springs which offered welcome relief from the more turbulent lands East of the Rhine which were a source of bitter conflict with Germanic tribes. The City is best known, however, as being the favoured haunt of Charlemagne, the Dark Age King who, in 748AD became the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a vast area of territory which covered much of Western Europe including much of modern-day France and German. Like the Romans, Charlemagne, also enjoyed lounging around in hot baths and decided to establish Aachen as the capital of his Dark Age Carolingian Empire.
Charlemagne is seen as the person who first set in place the foundations for modern-day Europe, although at the time his expansionist policies and uncompromising approach gave him somewhat controversal reputation. Amongst Charlemagne’s greatest achievements were the establishment of his palace complex in Aachen, which includes the fabulous and unique Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) established between 793AD and 813AD. The site of the present day Town Hall (or Rathaus) was also part of the palace complex and formed Charlemagne’s residence and seat of power.
Remarkably the Cathedral’s central octagonal dome built by Charlemagne (at one time the highest construction North of the Alps) has survived completely in tact since the Dark Ages. Over the centuries it has been added to considerably with additional chapels and new wings added. In 814AD the Aachen Dom became the burial-place of Charlemagne and then later the coronation place of German Kings. It also retains some remarkable and unique religious relics and is a centre of pilgrimage.
The Old Town of Aachen:
Although much of Aachen was destroyed, first by a great fire in 1656 and then during WWII, the City has managed to preserve much of the history and atmosphere of its historic centre (or “Altstadt”) with winding closes, squares and alleyways packed with history and charm. In this respect visiting Aachen is a real pleasure with many unique and intimate spaces to explore.
The winding streets of the Altstadt are made substantially more colourful by a multiplicity of street cafes, open air markets and street entertainers. In short there is always something interesting to look out for around every street corner.
Street Markets and independent shops:
Aachen’s street markets are diverse and colourful affairs and serve a much more important role than merely providing a point of interest to tourists. The markets supply a range of fresh, seasonal and often locally produced products ranging from fruit and vegetables through to speciality cheeses and meat. Whilst not always the cheapest, prices in the market do compare favourably with supermarket prices and with the obvious advantage of better quality.
This contrasts markedly from the more bland retail experience that I am used to back in Scotland where it seems 99% of food shopping is conducted in supermarkets. Unlike farmer’s markets in Britain, Aachen street markets form an important part of the everyday shopping experience. Close to where we live, 3 or 4 markets are held regularly on a weekly basis. Of course, Germans (as the inventors of Aldi and Lidl) obviously make use of cheap supermarkets for basic shopping requirements. However they also tend to stock up on fresher produce from local markets. In general, diets are healthier and there is much less culture of “ready meals” than in the UK.
One of the pleasures of exploring Aachen is that there is generally a greater range of smaller independent shops of a kind which are rapidly becoming a memory in more corporately minded Britain. This includes specialist stores such as bookshops, delis, fashion and craft shops. The survival of these small businesses in Aachen perhaps results from more conservative German shopping habits and also from less aggressive policies favouring out-of-town development which have been pursued with vigour in the UK.
Aachen, however, is not immune from problems. Recently, moves to create a large shopping mall at the Kaiserplatz (in a slightly run down part of the City) resulted in the appearance of a large gap site which has now existed for a couple of years; apparently the developer ran out of finance for the project. From what I understand, another developer is now taking things forward and construction will go ahead.
In the meantime all sorts of interesting ideas had been suggested for the site including urban gardens and community food growing projects (as found on gap sites in Berlin). There is a need for planners to be careful in Aachen not to make the same mistakes as in the UK where city centres, over the last 2 decades, have been becoming increasingly homogenized with a predictable array of uninspiring chain stores.
Getting around in Aachen:
The pedestrianized streets of the Altstadt are a pleasure to walk around. Despite this Aachen is not without its traffic issues, symptomatic of the fact that the average German is quite simply addicted to their car. Inner and outer ring roads around Aachen are frequently clogged up and drivers can, on occasion, become somewhat impatient (compared with their generally more mellow Scottish counterparts). Germany does however cater for alternative forms of transport better than in the UK with excellent bus services and a generally high provision of paths for walking and cycling.
Although Aachen still has a long way to catch up with well known”green” cities such as Munster and Freiburg in terms of offering sustainable transport opportunities, many more trips are made by bike than would be the case in a comparable UK city. Cycle lanes are generally safer and are often off-road. As a consequence children start using bikes at an earlier age to get to kindergarten and primary school. You can also see a far greater number of parents transporting children with bike seats and tow along trailers which are still a rarity in Scottish towns.
City of Doctors and Engineers:
German towns have a tendency to specialise and Aachen is no exception to this rule. Consequently, just about everybody you will meet in Aachen is invariably either an engineer or a doctor. Most of the latter work at the University Klinikum, one of Europe’s largest hospitals and the sort of place that Prince Charles would delight in describing as a “monstrous carbuncle”.
Inspiration for the building was apparently drawn from the creators of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Whatever the case, the building resembles (rather frighteningly) an industrial plant or petrochemical complex reminiscent of the sci-fi movie “Brazil”. Inside, the Orwellian theme continues with (now slightly faded) day-glow green and bright orange decor throughout.
Best to keep healthy is my advice ! Having said this the standard of health care in Germany is without doubt exceptionally high (as are the sheer number of doctors) and puts the level of investment into the NHS to shame. In Germany, unlike Britain, the problem is not that they want to get you out of hospital quickly but rather that they want to keep you there until every conceivable test has been completed and every possible diagnoses considered.
But it is really in engineering and science that Aachen has built its reputation. Whilst less of a manufacturing base than it used to be, the City proudly hosts the RWTH University of Aachen, a renowned University specialising in all matters technical. The streets and bars around the University buzz with student chatter. Fine arts, philosophy or sociology students (or indeed environmentalists like myself) may feel distinctly left out here however as the conversation usually reverberates around the latest “techy” topics such as the solid state hard drive technology or innovation in the world of semi conductors .
At certain times of the year science takes to the streets with a fascinating festival held in the City’s main square. Here Aachen’s budding young engineers and scientists showcase their latest technical wizardry to an unsuspecting public complete with flashes, bangs, smoke and pops (Aacheners love a “bang” as anyone who’s been here at New Year and narrowly escaped with their lives will testify). The Science Fair is a great day out for kids. Parents, however, must have the stamina to cope with a non-stop, ear-splitting assault from student grunge bands who provide the musical backdrop to the event (I must be getting old !).
Escape to the Woods:
If it all gets too much then the Aachener Wald (Aachen Forest), located to the South of the City, provides a superb place to escape to with kilometres of well maintained trails for cycling, walking and horse riding. The Aachen forest is intensively used by the City’s population for all manner of sporting and leisure activities. Even on the wettest winter evening in the forest you will come across large groups of folk determinedly participating in every imaginable pursuit from Tai Chi through to kickboxing.
Nordic Walking is extremely popular at the present time and tends to be practised, more often than not, by more sedate (often overweight and lycra clad) ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. Mountain bikers on the other hand tend to be “alpha male” type professionals who will automatically expect everyone obstructing their path (OAPs and children alike) to jump clear during each adrenalin fueled descent through the forest.
A good illustration of the more relaxed approach to health and safely in Germany is that you can rent your own pony to take your child on an unsupervised spin around the Aachener Wald with a minimum of fuss. We’ve done this a few times much to the satisfaction of my own kids with only one incident to date when the pony tripped over the reins; my fault for being a little too relaxed about things and not paying attention. As I’ve explored in another article, Germany is much better geared up for getting children out into nature than the UK at present.
Borders as Bridges:
Aachen’s situation on the border with Belgium and holland provides the city with a unique location within Europe which has been responsible for the rapidly developing significance of the “Euregio” region centred on the three cities of Aachen, Maastricht and Liege.
The past has not always been so positive in terms of relations between the three countries; buried deep in encroaching woodland, behind a housing estate near to the Dutch border lie the remains of the “Westwall”, the old fortified frontier of WWII Germany, now rotting away and partially forgotten amidst the undergrowth.
Fortunately these darker days are now very much in the past. The emphasis is now on integration through co-operation for mutual economic benefit. You can now move effortlessly between the three countries without so much as the flash of an ID card or passport. Old border check points have now been creatively redeveloped as coffee shops, kiosks or as small art galleries. Indeed many people from Aachen take advantage of cheaper housing in Netherlands or Belgium and commute across the border every day.
It’s always interesting to note the cultural differences between the three countries which often, though not always, confirm to popular stereotypes. The Dutch appear relaxed and more outgoing than the Germans but are, quite surprisingly, tidier and more organised when it comes to designing their living spaces, shopping and transport infrastructure. In Holland everything is neat, well organised and usually somehow relates to opportunities for visiting coffee shops and eateries of various descriptions (which abound in even the smallest of villages).
The province of South Limbourg which adjoins Aachen is, for the Dutch, what the Alps are to the rest of us. Indeed the highest “mountain” in the Netherlands can be found at the Dreilandereck just outside Aachen (all of a few hundred metres above sea level). As a result of this, cycling and walking routes in South Limbourg throng with hordes of holiday makers and ramblers looking to get their Dutch “mountaineering” fix (or at least as close as you will come to it in Holland).
Just over the border in Belgium, the situation is very different; walk through almost identical countryside and you will meet almost no-one. Belgium, however, is more chaotic and with a Gallic flair and joie de vivre seldom encountered in Germany (except perhaps during carnival time). This is also expressed negatively however, with a chaotic cluster of day-glow signage found on most street corners directing you to the nearest furniture warehouse, DIY store or fast food outlet. Excessive roadside advertising is indeed the curse of Belgium and detracts from an otherwise often beautiful landscape.
On a positive side Belgium does offer some wonderful eccentricities of a sort seldom found in Germany. The other day for example, whilst out for a bike ride in Belgium, I came across the world’s smallest “carrot museum” which had been constructed from a disused tower in a sleepy rural village. A visit to the carrot museum would certainly not fill up an afternoon’s itinerary but is an interesting illustration of alternative Belgian thinking.
The three cities themselves of Aachen, Maastricht and Liege probably are as good an illustration as any of the cultural differences between the three countries. Geographically the three stand only a few tens of kilometres away from each other but culturally they could be worlds apart.
Round about Aachen – North and South:
North and south of Aachen can be found contrasting landscapes with former mining and industrial landscapes associated with brown coal deposits to the North and the forested upland plateau of the Eifel rising to the South.
Former industrial centres such as Herzogenrath and Alsdorf were once major centres for mining and are currently in the process of reinventing themselves as they start to cash in on the shared benefits of being in the Euregio which include improved transport links, economic development and shared recreation and leisure facilities.
Even here though, it takes time to change traditional habits of movement and sometimes people will travel further afield rather than use facilities located just over the border in a neighbouring country (the major exception being IKEA at Heerlen the Netherlands!). Projects and initiatives such as the Gruenmetropole and the Grenzrouten are helping to create a sense of greater unity through promoting shared aspects of cultural history such as industrial heritage though this will be a long and complex process.
The Eifel region, South of Aachen, provides a superb recreational resource for the people of the region and stretches for many Kilometres towards the Mosel Valley. This area is now easily accessible from Aachen by foot or by bike thanks to new recreational routes such the Vennbahn (a converted tramway) and the Eifelsteig, a long distance walking route linking Aachen with Trier.
In terms of visitor locations the picturesque village of Monshau, the Eifel National Park and the Hohe Venn (an extensive area of regenerating heathland) are some of the real jewels in the crown within the Eifel Region. All are popular with visitors to Aachen as places for day excursions.
In summary, Aachen’s unique location on the border between Belgium, Holland and Germany provides a great base for exploring this fascinating region across three countries with their contrasting languages and cultures. The City itself also provides us with insights into European history through its associations with Charlemagne and (the often turbulent) later events which helped to shape the development of modern Europe.
Aachen is certainly an interesting place to live and I’d definately recommend a visit !