Sunday 2 August
This morning we had an early start leaving Strasbourg in the Audi by 6.15am to reach Aachen, 400kms away only to get to Aachen and find that, contrary to all our advice from Europcar they had a 24hour service so we needn’t have got going quite so quickly. It was an excellent excuse nevertheless to put the foot down on some of the best engineered roads in Europe. The autobahn from Strasbourg to Paris passes through beautiful Moselle and Saar cropping countryside and far vistas with wonderful little villages, each with their proud church. Half way along this highway we turned off back to Germany and enjoyed the Saarbruck countryside and green fir forests and felt the land becoming increasingly urbanised as we approached Aachen.
The German engineering keeping the autobahn relatively flat through some very deep valleys is exceptional and it is certainly the most pleasurable driving experience I have had matching exactly the Cote d’Azure freeway from Provence to Genoa with gorgeous green fields and mountain vistas matching the blue Mediterranean. The Audi was a little slower with all our luggage on board but still sat comfortably on 150kms/hr which was standing still alongside the Maseratis and large Audis and Volvos that zipped past us.
Nevertheless driving at such pace with unfamiliar language and many freeway interchanges is tiring and we were grateful to our hotel Leonardo in Aachen for allowing us early access after we dropped off our car with the usual “trouble finding the depot” routine.
After a good rest we taxied to the old centre of Aachen, once again a university city (popn 400 000 and 50000 of them students! ) and once again a world heritage cathedral site. Aachen is the ancient Aix -en-Chapelle and the seat of power for C9th Warrior king Charlemagne who in a way can be said to have created the first “court” of Europe and together with the scholar Alcuin created centres of learning and culture which set a pattern for future European leaders. The throne on which he was crowned king/emperor still exists on the second floor of Aachen Cathedral and was the humble place in which Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned for six centuries.
The Cathedral itself is a place I have longed to vist for many years but never achieved until now. It confronts the viewer, already amazed by the impressive mediaeval rathaus, itself carved with a great number of religious statues on the exterior. The confrontation is about the sheer vertical height of the cathedral structure. Most Gothic cathedrals start wide at the base and eventually narrow towards the tower. The bulk of Aachen is vertically straight to a very significant height with complex sculptural decoration. From the side view there is the triangular V shaped section, the amazing octagonal ‘dome’ and the inevitable Gothic tower.
The interior is literally breathtaking… I felt immediately at first that I was back in San Vitale Ravenna with the octagonal shape; then I felt I was in a Russian church with all the colour and the quite dark mosaics; this is a quite unique worship space after the four “traditional” massive Gothic churches we have seen in recent days.
The interior is full of colour, mosaic ceilings, a huge circular bronze chandelier (c.1165..a gift of Emperor Frederick 1 Barbarossa), the unique octagonal core (the most original ‘Charlemagnic’ remnant c800) and then the late Gothic choir ..very high with vertical stained glass reminiscent of San Chapelle in Paris. The windows were bombed out during WW11 so the glass is gleaming, relatively new and sensational. I won’t comment on the presence of vast gold reliquaries front and centre between the two sections…except to say again it is a part of mediaeval church life I least understand. The Cathedral treasury contains many significant and spectacular artworks but we left them for another day? and simply wandered around the old town enjoying the relaxed student atmosphere, many musical entertainers and just a very laid back and pleasant place to be on lazy Summer Sunday afternoon.
We had a wonderful dinner in the square and went home for an early night to get ready for the Belgian chocolatefest tomorrow!