Aachen and Cologne, Germany

After two days in Amsterdam, I was crossing the border and heading into Germany next, with the goal of stopping to see the sites in Cologne. Due to its nearby location about an hour away, I also planned to stop in the smaller city of Aachen, visiting both sites in one day. The highlight of both cities would be their magnificent cathedrals, each of which have long and distinguished histories in their own right. This would be a short trip through some of the famous sites of the Rhineland, this disputed region that so often had been a source of conflict in earlier eras.

The early morning travel along the rails was the longest that I had experienced thus far, needing to traverse about 165 miles (270 kilometers) across the border. This meant a little over three hours spent on the train, which was very comfortable indeed. My Eurorail pass allowed me to sit in first class - I would have bought a second class ticket but that hadn't been available as an option for anyone over age 25 - and I was enjoying the comfortable padded seats with extra legroom. There was also wireless Internet available on this train, and I was able to log into the Multiplayer Civ4 game that I was engaged in at the time (Pitboss #33 for those who remember that one). After checking on that game, I was able to stream some videos on YouTube and have a relaxing breakfast. What a pleasant way to travel! I wish the United States had a better rail system like this one.

My international train took me from Amsterdam to the big station in Cologne. I spent a couple hours in Cologne first, then caught a local train to Aachen, then returned back to Cologne again in the afternoon. For purposes of continuity, I'm going to run through my experience in Aachen first, then cover Cologne afterwards rather than breaking things into multiple confusing parts.

There's a good chance that a lot of the people reading this travel blog have never heard of Aachen before; it's sometimes better known in English by its French name of Aix-la-Chapelle. There's good reason for the city's lack of name recognition, as Aachen's importance lies in the historical past, and not in anything that's happened in the city in recent years, or even recent centuries. Aachen's claim to fame is that it was the city Charlemagne chose as his capital; although it's currently located very close to the Western border of Germany, almost within walking distance of the Dutch and Belgian borders, Aachen was centrally located in Charlemagne's sprawling territories and a good choice for a potential imperial city. There are also hot springs in the region, which the emperor was known to favor. The potential metropolis never emerged though, largely because Charlemagne's empire collapsed after his death.

The cathedral initially built under Charlemagne remained, however, and this structure is the main reason to visit Aachen today. Even though it was not an economically significant city, the medieval Holy Roman Emperors continued to be crowned here for centuries on end, not ceasing until the early 16th century when the Habsburgs assumed control. As for the structure itself, Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) has a very unique design to it, a mixture of two contrasting architectural styles layered one atop the other. When approaching it on foot from a distance, the cathedral towered over the smaller buildings in the surrounding square. These buildings run surprisingly close to the cathedral, a holdover from the distant past, and there were several small cafes with outdoor seating right next to the entrance. Despite being the peak of the summer tourist season, there were relatively few people here to visit the building. Aachen is a little bit off the beaten path, and non-historians likely wouldn't think to come here. This would be an easy destination to miss out on.

Aachen Cathedral is really two cathedrals in one, built at different points in time and awkwardly combined together into a single building. The entryway leads into the oldest part of the cathedral, the octagonal part pictured above. This was the section of the cathedral built in Charlemagne's time right around the year 800, and making use of a series of marble archways and a raised central dome. The religious figures depicted on the ceiling look somewhat odd to a modern audience, and perhaps were inspired by the religious artwork of the Byzantine Empire prevalent in Eastern Europe at the time of the building's creation. This structure was created in the Romanesque style of architecture, and Aachen Cathedral was specifically modeled after San Vitale in Ravenna and the Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul, both Byzantine possessions at the time. This Eastern influence makes the oldest part of the cathedral resemble an Orthodox church or even an Islamic mosque in some ways; that second picture above wouldn't look out of place in Athens or Cairo. This particular style gives the oldest part of the cathedral a distinct look, and one very different from the second half of the building.

In the late 14th century, the mayor of the city decided to add a choir to the back part of the church, likely to replace a wooden structure that had previously stood there. The builders decided to construct this addition in the prevalent architectural style at the time, which was Gothic. Needless to say, this addition grafted onto Aachen Cathedral five centuries after the initial core was erected looks nothing at all like the Romanesque part. It's nearly as glaring as the glass pyramid at the Louvre once you know what to look for. Instead of the squat octagonal design with the single circular dome, the Gothic choir has a high ceiling filled to the brim with colorful stained glass windows. The space that the building creates feels much more open to the air, delicate even. All that glass also lets in much more light than the Romanesque core, which I imagine must have been very dark in the days before electrical lighting. Both structures are beautiful in their own ways, but they reflect different societies with different priorities. Charlemagne's cathedral represented a people who felt the need to build a tough structure of stone, and co-opt the ideas of other cultures that were more advanced. The Gothic addition came from a society that was no longer living in constant danger of violence and starvation (at least among the upper classes), and could afford the resources to create something with purely aesthetic value.

Next to the cathedral is a museum of its historic collections, officially known in German as the Domschatzkammer, or cathedral treasury. If anyone has an interest in Charlemagne, this is the place to go, as the museum is packed full of Charlemagne artifacts on display and memorabilia in the gift shop. They have Charlemagne's supposed hunting knife, which may or may not have been used by the man, a bust that's supposed to be an accurate reproduction of his face, and a series of golden artifacts that were used by the Carolingian court, even if not by Charlemagne himself. My favorite items in the collection were the handful of books on display, which were amazingly well preserved for their age. The Gospel book pictured above came from the early 9th century - that book is roughly 1200 years old. Dating back to an era when literacy was virtually unknown, these are priceless treasures more valuable than any of the jewels in the crosses and crowns on display. Every word on those pages, every illustration, had to be copied out by hand. The nameless monks who put these together helped to save civilization during Europe's Dark Ages, and it was nothing short of incredible for me to see an example of these works in person.

The other major attraction in Aachen was the town hall, which dates back to the medieval era as well and was first constructed during the 14th century. Yes, the name for this in German was the Aachen Rathaus, and that's the name of the Holy Roman Empire's unique building in Civilization 4. I don't know if this structure was uniquely designed to fight off corruption, but it was located in the central market square of the town. There were more people out and about here, stopping to eat lunch in the restaurants that faced the town hall, or simply passing through on their way to some of the shops that were located in and around this public square. The building itself was a large stone structure that looked like it had seen a good bit of wear and tear over the years. The town hall has survived several major fires, a storming by German separatists following World War I, and then heavy bombing in World War II. The religious statues on the outside are somewhat worn down, but like the building itself, continue to weather the passage of time. The inside looked to be in much better shape, and the city council meeting room was one of the nicest I've ever seen. Municipal meetings in my hometown do not take place in the same building where imperial coronation feasts used to be held! While I did not take a tour of the town hall due to time constraints, it was worth stopping by briefly to have a look at the place.

That was the last location that I visited in Aachen. The train ride back to Cologne took about an hour, and I arrived again in the Cologne Hauptbahnhof, or central train station. This huge building was a somewhat older structure than some of the others I had seen thus far, conveniently located right next to the Rhine River in the center of the city. The station had shops and food vendors of all sorts inside, and I noted with amusement that one of them was selling bratwursts, stuck right next to a pretzel store. Yep, I was in Germany all right.

The top tourist attraction in Cologne is its cathedral (the Kölner Dom), one of the most famous Gothic structures in all of Europe. It's located right next to the train station, and it's the first thing that visitors see upon entering the city by rails. The sight is awe-inspiring, to say the least. The cathedral already sits on top of a small hill relative to the train station, and its towers rise up over 500 feet from the base of the structure. Cologne cathedral was the biggest church that I had ever seen in my life, and I've visited a good number of them. There's a reason for the size: construction on the building started around 1250, and it was suspended with the work left unfinished in the late 15th century. The cathedral wasn't finished until 1880, well over six centuries after its initial foundation. In other words, this building kind of "cheats" in the sense that it wasn't a true medieval structure, and required the use of modern construction techniques with steel girders in order to achieve its finished size. It simply would not be possible for a true medieval building to achieve this size; the whole thing would have collapsed under its own weight. Nevertheless, the immense bulk of the cathedral makes it a huge tourist draw, and this is one of the most visited locations in all of Germany.

Here are some better views from the front of the cathedral. The square outside the main entrance is a natural gathering place for tour groups, and there were several hundred people milling about when I arrived. Everyone was reduced to the size of ants against the massive edifice of stone that loomed over the open space. It was difficult for me to get over the sheer size of the thing, which made the average Gothic cathedral look like an oversized dollhouse. I particularly like the view looking straight up in the air from the entrance to the cathedral, a perspective from which the building appeared to be about to crush the viewer. In addition to its huge dimensions, Cologne Cathedral also had statues and carvings adorning what felt like every inch of the building. Saints, crosses, and religious icons of all types crowded the exterior of the structure. The amount of time and effort that must have gone into crafting all of them had to be staggering. Even though it wasn't finished until the modern era, this was still a project that had required the labor of thousands of people stretching across centuries of time.

These pictures were taken in the front part of the church; the back part didn't open until a half hour or so after my first arrival. The interior looked much like other Gothic cathdrals, only with even higher ceilings, a longer central aisle, and more stone pillars. Those pillars would have been necessary to hold up the weight of the roof when it was originally constructed, and they made a dense forest of columns running down each side of the main entrance. The stained glass windows were placed to catch the sunlight, and it was surprisingly bright inside the cathedral despite all those pillars. It was difficult to see many of the window designs, since they had been placed so high up in the air.

I wanted to single out this one stained glass window. Your eyes aren't deceiving you, it really does look like a scrambled screen saver or a video that failed to load properly. This window was installed in 2007, and it contains 11,000 tiny pieces of stained glass designed to resemble pixels. The various colors were arranged randomly by a computer, thus resulting in no pattern whatsoever. The new stained glass window was a replacement for the original design, which was destroyed as a result of Allied bombing during World War II. Cologne Cathedral was heavily damaged in the war, and there are some pictures on display of what this whole area looked like in the aftermath of the war's passage. Much of the structure had to be rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.

The rear of the cathedral contains a number of small chapels as well as the final resting place of some of Cologne's most famous residents. A number of the archbishops of Cologne are buried here in lovingly decorated shrines. This was also arguably the best place to view the stained glass windows in the cathedral; this was the eastern part of the cathedral, and the morning sunlight was catching the bright colors of these designs in brilliant fashion. The most famous item in the cathedral is the golden chest that sits behind a gate (and then behind a glass wall) in this eastern part of the building. According to tradition, this chest holds relics from the Three Kings or Three Magi associated with the birth of Christ. The entire cathedral was built to house these relics after they were brought back to Cologne following one of the Crusades. Regardless of the authenticity of that claim, these relics are the focal point of the cathedral's design.

Entry into the main part of the cathedral is free of charge. There are two other parts of the cathedral that can be visited for a small fee, and I would be exploring both of them. The first was the Domschatzkammer, or cathedral treasury, the same collection of artifacts that Aachen cathedral had also advertised. Many of these rich objects made from gold and precious gems had been donated to the cathedral over the centuries; the medieval church was incredibly wealthy, and confiscation of church property was often driven by greed during the Reformation. The collection on display here had many staves and crosses and chalices that had been used for liturgical ceremonies by the archbishops of Cologne. There were also a number of highly ornamental swords on display, which might have been somewhat out of place in a cathedral but found their way into the collection anyway. The location of the cathedral treasury was itself noteworthy, down in the basement of the cathedral in some of the oldest parts of the foundation. Cologne Cathedral was the third or fourth church to be built on this site, with the original dating back to Roman days. The deepest part of the treasury held the cathedral's collection of Roman artifacts, and included a small part of the Roman city wall from back when this had been the city of Colonia Claudia roughly two thousand years ago. That's where "Cologne" gets its name from - the type of perfume is named after the city, not the other way around. It was an impressive collection, and attested to the wealth that had been held by the archbishops of Cologne.

The other optional attraction at the cathedral was the tower climb, 533 steps ascending almost 400 feet in vertical height. I had read about this in the promotional tourist materials and was excited to give this a try. Climbing the stairs was tiring, but not too bad. If I had been alone ascending and then descending those vertical spirals, it would would been fine. The problem was all of the other people; with only a single staircase in use, climbing to the top meant dealing with all of the other tourists undertaking the tower climb. Everyone traveled at their own pace, which meant that most everyone was much slower than me. The quarters in the staircase were claustrophic and cramped, with little room to manuever or squeeze past the visitors who became tired halfway up and paused to rest. This was not the most fun I've ever had.

The views at the top were worth it though. Off to the east, the Rhine split the city in half, a slowly moving mass of water churning along towards its eventual destination in the sea. The view straight down gave a sense of just how high up this was. The people gathered outside the front of the cathedral looked like tiny insects from this far up, and anyone with an uneasy stomach probably shouldn't look down from there. The top of the tower climb was protected by an iron grill fence that wrapped around on all sides, and these pictures were all taken through the little gaps between the metal. It kept anyone from doing something stupid, but didn't prevent the wind from swirling about in strong gusts. This far up there was a steady breeze, and my biggest fear was dropping my camera somehow and losing it forever. The view from above also revealed more about the cathedral's structure, with the same kind of lavish attention to detail continuing here where no one from the ground could even see it. I did notice a good bit of scaffolding too, as constant repairs are needed to keep the whole building in structurally sound condition. I wouldn't want to work this far up, and I tend to have a good head for heights.

Right next to the cathedral is the Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum), a building that houses a much larger collection of Roman artifacts that archaeologists have dug up in Cologne over the years. While this might feel like an odd place to find a bunch of Roman antiquities, as mentioned before, Cologne was initially built by the Romans and served as the provincial capital for this part of the empire. A series of maps in the museum detailed where the Roman roads ran connecting Cologne to other settlements in the modern Rhineland, and showed the location of the Roman city in comparison to the modern one. (The northern city wall did indeed run through the current location of Cologne Cathedral.) A painting depicts what this city might have looked like, complete with a forum, barracks for the legions, and surrounding farms to feed the city. Then there are the artifacts held in the museum's collections, hundreds of statues and coins and bits of pottery recovered from the earth where they had been buried. There was one particularly largely memorial statue near the museum's entrance that stands about 20 feet tall, and two different mosaic floors that have been restored in close to perfect condition. I love this period of history, and I probably spent more time here than was strictly justified. For anyone interested in Roman stuff, this is a must-see destination.

After finishing up with the museum, I walked to the south where the historic town hall and market were located in Cologne. Unfortunately the town hall was under heavy construction at the time, but I did manage to see the marketplace. Today it's an open pedestrian square with lots of restaurants and shops ringing the sides. A pleasant place to stop and get a meal on a nice day. I also passed by another historic church in the form of Great Saint Martin Church (Groß Sankt Martin Kirche), a building that would have loomed large in any company other than the main cathedral of Cologne. The church was initially constructed as part of a Benedictine abbey, and the core of the building is older than the cathedral, dating back to the mid 13th century. Great Saint Martin Church was built almost entirely out of large stone blocks, and there was little in the way of ornamentation inside. Aside from a few stained glass windows in the front and rear of the building, everything was white or gray in color. This lent the church a bit of an oppressive feeling, and it was easy to believe that this had started out as part of a monastery before being converted in modern times to a parish church.

I wandered down to the waterfront next, where there was a broad walking path that paralleled the river. It was a beautiful weekday afternoon, and there were lots of people relaxing on the grass and enjoying the outdoors. Several nearby bridges crossed the Rhine and granted pedestrian access to the eastern half of the city. The waterside also granted another new perspective on the great cathedral, which could be seen rising above the trees like some medieval form of alien spacecraft. It was all so peaceful and calm. I knew that these bridges had all been bombed out during World War II, and getting across the Rhine had required months of effort. There was one small informational plaque with pictures showing the tangled wreckage of what this had looked like at the time. Fortunately, that had receded into a distant nightmare by the time of my visit many decades later, and this tranquil series of public parks and boat tours were the sights that now greeted visitors.

There was one final location I wanted to see before stopping for the day. This was another historic church, the Basilica of St. Kunibert, and the oldest church in the city. Built between roughly 1200 and 1250, this church was finished before work even began on the main cathedral. St. Kunibert retains a number of elements of the Romanesque style of architecture with its many rounded archways, but it also has elements of the Gothic style as well, particularly in the vaulted ceiling and the colorful stained glass behind the altar. This church was constructed just as one design style was giving way to the other, and it's an interesting blend that contains some elements of both. On this particular day the building was completely deserted, and I was able to wander around the brightly lit interior in peace. The stone foundation of the building had the feeling of great age, which the walls and roof lacked. St. Kunibert was almost completely destroyed during the war, and reconstruction wasn't entirely finished until the 1980s. It was an appropriate place to end the day's sightseeing, at yet another church on a day that had been full of them.

I spent the night at another hostel located a few blocks from the train station. This one was almost comically cheap at roughly 15 euros, but it came with a huge drawback: the wireless Internet wasn't working! I had to send a few emails that night while using the public computer, and typing on a German keyboard was an interesting experience. Although the desk claimed that the Internet outage was a temporary issue, I'm not sure that I believed them. It could have just as easily been a cost-cutting measure that they didn't want to advertise. Otherwise, this place was much the same as the others I had visited thus far, group sleeping arrangements with a shared bathroom down the hall.

When I left early the next morning, I caught the cathedral as the morning light was just cresting over the horizon. The public square below the cathedral was empty aside from a handful of sanitation workers and other early travelers, and these first rays of sunshine cast a rosy glow on the side of the building. I was fortunate once again to have this private vantage point of the structure, away from the crowds of tourists that would pack the cathedral a few hours later. This was the best part of my early morning travel schedule, having the opportunity to capture moments like this. Next up was a trip to Luxembourg City, an often-overlooked desination that promised to have its own small treasures.