A QUICK LOW-DOWN – this month I’ve been in Aachen, Germany, having been awarded a scholarship by the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD) for a month-long intensive German language course. Away from the classroom, naturally I was desperate to go out and explore this corner of north-west Germany, and so I’ve put together this post (a little slapdash, I admit) which documents in part my sporadic jaunts across the region.
Since this western German city has become my temporary home, I might be biased, but if you ever pass through Nordrhein Westfalen (North-Rhine Westphalia to English ears), Aachen is worthy of a stop. Perfectly situated on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, it is reached easily from various nearby cities and airports – Cologne, Brussels, Paris, etc. It is not too small a city, I can assure you – joining the ever-so-slightly-jubilant Fußball fans after Germany’s World Cup win is proof that this place isn’t empty come six o’clock. Even at 3am, face-painted fans bedecked in black, red and gold were still driving around Aachen honking their horns and hanging out of the sunroof, singing the usual footy chants and Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. It was bizarrely beautiful. I wasn’t alive for the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I was for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – and I like to imagine that die Nationalmannschaft’s victory was a harmonious mix of the two.
I digress – Aachen is not too big, either, though – its compact centre can be covered well within an afternoon. Its Altstadt (old town) is dripping in history, most of which is woven around the emperor Charlemagne, who died 1200 years ago this year. I only know this because you are often reminded that the Frankish king chose this corner of the Rhineland as the helm of his empire. I don’t know how the residents of Aachen feel, but I quickly grew a bit fed up with seeing gold, garden gnome-like replicas of the man in every Bäckerei window.
Nonetheless, the many bakeries of Aachen – all of which sell Aachen’s famous gingerbread, Printen – redeem themselves with the gentle smells of caraway and ginger which make walking through the chocolate-box old town a delight. Even more so do the numerous wrought iron fountains and the city’s students relaying Beethoven on street corners. If you’re tired of the quaint little Brötchen from the bakeries, by the way, one of the city’s many Eiscafés will welcome you with a rainbow of ice cream flavours and they’re a steal, too – you can walk away with a good ice cream for less than a euro. You’re never far from one which, in 34°C is a blessing, but I recommend the Elisenbrunnen Eiscafé – here it feels like a small institution with staff in uniforms, and table service if you fancy sitting down for a generously-portioned sundae. If you’d rather a pizza – or more authentically, Bratwurst – then fear not; little squares and lanes all bordered with flowers await, most of which have outdoor seating. Many of them fringe the Marktplatz, whose grand Rathaus contends with the cathedral for the skyline’s most dominant feature.
Unlucky for the Rathaus, the cathedral is the main deal. It was Germany’s first World Heritage Site in 1978, was the site of over 40 German monarchs’ coronations, and is good old Charlemagne’s resting place. From an architectural perspective, it’s astounding – a myriad of styles, most notably Gothic on the outside, but inspired by the churches of south-eastern Europe from within. Unfortunately, such is its unusual shape and the layout of the town beneath it, that there aren’t many angles on the ground you can get a good photograph, but its sheer size, grandeur and timelessness more than make up for it.
A few miles south lies Monschau, a medieval village on the banks of the Rur, and is a lesson in how to maintain a town’s heritage. Half-timbered houses, for which any exterior DIY is strictly regulated, still retain much the same appearance along the uneven cobbled streets as they did 200 years ago, even if the town’s cloth industry has since disappeared. Now the town is popular with tourists, but not overly so – even on a sultry day in July I didn’t queue for twenty minutes to buy an overprized postcard in an undersized shop. Instead, I sat with friends and cake listening to the peal of church bells.
Bonn, once West Germany’s interim capital, is a nice place to spend the afternoon, and I like to think it’s no coincidence that the name is so similar to the French word for ‘good’. Some of the buildings, notably the Münster and the university’s main building, the Poppelsdorf Palace, are particularly impressive. Out of the centre is the Haus der Geschichte, whose exhibition of Germany post-1945 is an interesting look at how a country can – almost literally – tear itself apart and then put itself back together. The city – Beethoven’s birthplace by the way – is thriving: markets, violinists and street entertainers pepper the city’s largely pedestrianised centre, making it quite the quaint way to whittle away the hours.
Dortmund, by the way, is probably a lot better on any other day of the week but Sunday, and not when it is waking up in the drizzle as it prepares to host the final – and most important – Public Viewing of the World Cup (for some reason the Germans used our language to describe this, the phenomenon of gathering in public squares to watch things like World Cup matches and the Eurovision Song Contest).
Düsseldorf on the other hand feels different. When you leave its swish, almost airport-like train station, the streets around you could pass for those of any other central European city. They stretch out for what seem like miles, interrupted by traffic lights and roadworks. If you wander away from them, however, and step into the centre, Germany’s seventh-largest city comes out of its shell. Königsallee echoes the grandeur of Vienna or the watery quaintness Amsterdam. The nearby streets are lined with grand buildings, now home to high-end macaron cafés or hotels flanked by doormen, not to mention the likes of Rolex, Hugo Boss and Tiffany. They give way to the Altstadt, a pleasant network of pedestrianised streets, festooned with the typical Germanic charm tourists are after, most notably in the grand, cobbled Marktplatz. Just around the corner is the spacious Burgplatz with its fairytale Schlossturm, giving generously onto the Rhine. From there you can see Düsseldorf in most of its cosmopolitan glory: old and bearded Germans sit drinking local beer and smoking pipes in pokey riverside bars, all overlooked by the mighty Rheinturm and its high-rise cousins. Old and new buildings jostle (at times quite uncomfortably) with each other in this city, reminding you again that Germany is truly a land of contrasts. And beer. Lots of beer.