Travels & Traditions: Aachen, Germany - #705

BURT WOLF: The city of Aachen lies in the most western part of Germany and borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. Ancient Celtic families liked the neighborhood and so did the Romans. But what really put Aachen on the map were the kings of the Franks. The Franks were German-speaking people who invaded Western Europe. And the superstar of the Franks was a guy named Charlemagne who came to power at the end of the 700s.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Charlemagne was more than just a warrior king. In his court in Aachen he collected some of the great intellectuals of his time. And he was interested in bettering the welfare of his people: the rule of law, promoting education and religious reform.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Charlemagne had created a super-state by bringing together all of the Christian communities in Western Europe, it stretched from Denmark to Hungary. But his favorite city and the seat of his royal household was Aachen.

BURT WOLF: And the Cathedral that he built for his court is still standing.

DR. HEIKE NELSEN-MINKENBERG ON CAMERA: When this church was built, in the 8th century, it was for 200 years the highest building north of the Alps, because only in Italy, in the ancient Roman Empire, people were able to build architecture of this height and of this kind. So we think Charlemagne took the man who constructed this church from Italy to Aachen to build this church.

We’ve got an octagonal room in the middle, and its character reminds us to Eastern churches, because Charlemagne looked to the mighty emperor of Bisons, to the churches he built when he chose the design for his church here in Aachen.

I want to show you the so-called Barbarossa chandelier. A chandelier which looks like a crown. It’s a donation of Fredrick Barbarossa the Emperor and his wife, Beatrice. And it was given to the cathedral for the scarification of Charlemagne in 1165. In medieval Europe, we have to imagine many of these chandeliers in every big church, in every important basilica or cathedral, was a chandelier like that. But in our days, only three of them are left. And this one is the one which is best preserved, and so it’s the most important chandelier of the Middle Ages still existing.

Most visitors are very astonished when they see Charlemagne’s throne, because in comparison to the precious things we’ve seen beneath, it’s very archaic, it’s very simple.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Modest, to say the least. Just stones.

DR. HEIKE NELSEN-MINKENBERG ON CAMERA: Yes. But very special stones. The throne was built from stone which came from Jerusalem as a present to him from the grave of Jesus. So the throne was built from these holy items and didn’t need any more decoration.

DR. HEIKE NELSEN-MINKENBERG ON CAMERA: That’s the pulpit of the cathedral. And it’s 1,000 years old. And it’s so precious because during the mass of his coronation, the king had to read from the Bible. And he read from the Bible at the pulpit. And so, king and emperor, Henry II, gave this very precious pulpit to the cathedral so that the other kings who were crowned after him had such a precious place to read.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So, the kings actually stood up there and read from the Bible.


BURT WOLF: Charlemagne made Aachen the capital of what we now call Europe and for hundreds of years it was the city in which rulers of Germany were crowned.

Precious relics were brought to Aachen by Charlemagne and placed in his imperial chapel. After his death hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came to Aachen to see them.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: In the Christian tradition there are two types of relics. One, the remains from a saint's body, such as bone. The other is an object that has been touched to a saint’s body such as a piece of cloth.

DR. HEIKE NELSEN-MINKENBERG ON CAMERA: The church of Aachen is an important place for pilgrims, because of the four holy relics which are in the shrine of Mary. The four holy items and the clothes in which the body of John the Baptist was wrapped, a dress of Mary, the cloth which Jesus wore when he was crucified, and the pampers of Jesus.

BURT WOLF: The great pilgrimages to Aachen and other sacred sites in Europe started during the 1300s and were known as Shrine Pilgrimages. To a considerable extent these journeys were the forerunners of today’s holiday travel. You took a break from your normal day-to-day life and headed off to see something new. During the past few years sacred travel has become one of the fastest growing parts of the tourist business and you don’t have to look far to understand why.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Every once in a while I wonder what life is all about. At which point I know it’s time for me to reestablish a more spiritual relationship with the world around me. And one of the best ways I know for doing that is to take a trip to a sacred place. Kind of a mini pilgrimage. It always resets my clock.


BURT WOLF: The center of Aachen is the town square and it tells the story of Aachen’s history for the past 650 years. Originally, it was part of an important road that connected Rome to the Netherlands and was used as a stopping point and a market place. It’s still a market place where local farmers from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands come to sell their goods.

In the middle of the market is Aachen’s oldest fountain. It was cast in 1620 and presents Charlemagne holding the symbols of his office.

The buildings around the square were once the homes of Aachen's richest families.

The Lowenstein House is the show-piece of the square. It’s named after Anna Lowenstein who built it in 1344.

The building that houses the Goldener Einhorn Restaurant dates back to the middle Ages and was a hotel for pilgrims visiting the shrine at Aachen.

Across the square is the Postwagen building which is one of the few remaining structures made of wood and probably the oldest. Today it contains a restaurant serving the local specialties of the area.

On one side of the square is Aachen’s ancient Town Hall. It was originally built in the 1300s and its foundation and dimensions are identical with Charlemagne’s old Royal Hall.

Inside are a set of frescos that tell the story of Charlemagne’s life. Even during his lifetime, Charlemagne was called the father of Europe, particularly of France and Germany.

The hall also contains the crown jewels, well; actually they are copies of the crown jewels. Just before Napoleon invaded Aachen in 1794, the Crown Jewels were sent to the Emperor of Austria with a note that said keep these jewels safe. But the Emperor misread the note, he thought it read "keep these jewels in your safe" and today they are still there. It’s all about penmanship.


BURT WOLF: The name of Aachen refers back to the ancient Celtic god of healing and the god of hot spring waters. Roman soldiers were particularly attracted to hot springs and often built settlements nearby. The salts in the hot water increased the buoyancy of their bodies and helped relieve their pain and exhaustion. The troops felt that they were floating back to health.

BURT WALKING ON CAMERA: It was the hot springs that originally attracted Charlemagne to the area. But he was not the only big name to come to Aachen. Casanova came here on three separate occasions, but he was always cleverly disguised during his visit. Didn’t want anybody to know that his sexual powers were being medically enhanced. And the Empress Josephine came here because she was having problems conceiving a child with the Emperor Napoleon. Fortunately however Josephine and Casanova were never here at the same time.

BURT WOLF: For centuries mineral springs were thought to have magical powers that could heal the sick. Sometimes the magic was attributed to the water and sometimes to powerful spirits who were thought to live in the water. It really didn’t make any difference to the people who came for relief as long as they got better.

The original springs in Aachen contain hydrogen sulfate with an odor you will recognize because it smells like rotten eggs. People drink it and bath in it and give it credit for an assortment of cures.

WERNER SCHLÖSSER ON CAMERA: Our water contains a lot of sulfur and if you had an operation for example at the knee or at the hip, then you can train in the water or you do special exercises and that will help you on walking again.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1800s the hot spring became a preferred hangout of the rich and famous. They felt that a couple of weeks at a spa would rejuvenate their health. The problem was the environment in a spa was very relaxed and open. And theses guests, totally on their own, and away from their families, were getting into hot water.


BURT WOLF: For thousands of years, people have believed that any place where water came up from the earth was sacred and those spots were often surrounded by fountains or temples. Sabine Mathieu took me on a tour of Aachen’s fountains.

SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Okay. Here we meet the hot spring water coming directly from the source. This spring is coming from 1500 meters and it is sent the earth with a temperature of 52.8 degrees. And it arrives here with a temperature nearly 50 degrees. It loses a little bit in the pipeline, but it is really hot.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s centigrade. Fahrenheit it’s about 85 degrees.

SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Yes. But it is you smell it? A little stinky. And taste it. It’s a very...

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh it’s a lot stinky yes.

SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Yes, it’s sulfured water and it is a very salty water. But it is very good against illnesses of the skin yes. And it doesn’t smell anymore. It’s not true; yes it’s like old eggs I know.


SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Here we have one of the nicest fountains of Aachen. The Puppet Fountain. An invitation for the big and the little children to play with the figures.

This young lady is representing fashion industry and the drape industry. We have for since a thousand years in Aachen.

And she’s representing the needle industry. And here we have the Bishop representing the cathedral and the Catholic Church.

And then we have a very nice wife over there. She is a very sympathetic wife. Oh no, she’s not representing the dentists of Aachen. Oh no, she’s representing the clever wives of Aachen. Because she is a market wife, and she’s representing commerce. Commercial times began in 1166 when Frederick Red Beard gave us the town right and the right to have a market here in Aachen. And you see she’s clutching the money.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Clutching the money.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Clutching the money.

SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Yea. The clever Aachen woman.

And let's go onto the most important man of Aachen. The scientific man, the teacher of the University. A professor who is representing our main polytechnical university with 29,000 students and our academy’s also have 8,000 students from all countries in the world. Do you know that every car engine of Germany has been constructed in Aachen?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: No. And there’s the teacher who taught them how to do it.

SABINE MATHIEU ON CAMERA: Yea, that’s the reason why we are so. Yea there’s the teacher of university.


BURT WOLF: One of Charlemagne’s objectives was to make Aachen a cultural and educational center. Accordingly, he brought some of Europe’s most talented scholars to the city. His vision is still in operation at the Rhineland-Westphalia Technical University. It has transformed the region into a focal point for researchers working on automobile technology, laser development, and medicine, as well as the design and manufacturing of microchips. INTERNATIONAL NEWSPAPER MUSEUM

BURT WOLF: Aachen’s intellectual environment is also reflected in the city’s International Newspaper Museum which is based in the house where in 1850 Israel Reuter established the Reuters News Service.

The building contains over 170,000 newspapers with the earliest examples dating back to the 1600’s.

ANDREAS DÜSPOHL ON CAMERA: We are, we are now in the International Newspaper Museum of Aachen, which was founded in the year 1886, by a man called Oscar von Forckenbeck, who started to collect newspapers from all over the world. And when he died, he gave all the newspapers that he collected to the city of Aachen, who chose this house to display all these newspapers.

The oldest newspaper that we have in our stock is from 1609 and we also have the oldest daily newspaper that was published in Leipzig in the year 1650.

The newspapers that we have show that the press has always been controlled by authorities. And especially in years of war newspapers were of course used for propaganda reasons. And in one of the displays you can see some newspapers where the French authorities have actually censored a newspaper freshly.

Also we display a couple of newspapers which deal with important historical events. For instance, the assassination of Kennedy, or the death of Sir Winston Churchill. Or the events related to the German reunification.


BURT WOLF: In the late 1700s, a French revolutionary army occupied Aachen and incorporated the town into the French empire. Napoleon had a soft spot for the city, since he considered himself the cultural descendent of Charlemagne and believed that like Charlemagne he would unite all of Europe under one rule.

BURT ON CAMERA: But Aachen’s time under French influence had some very positive benefits. The destructive guild system was dissolved. Currency was standardized. Transportation and the economy improved. But for me the most important French influence that still remains here in Aachen can be found in a small, almost hidden, restaurant.

BURT WOLF: It’s named Maier-Peveling's and its specialty is a typical German fast-food called a “currywurst”. Currywurst was invented in Berlin in 1949 and consists of a grilled Bratwurst sausage, covered with ketchup that has been laced with curry. It is traditionally served with French fried potatoes and a bread roll.

Maier-Peveling's was designed to represent the ultimate in currywurst culture. The sausages are made daily from the owners’ family recipe. The French fries, which are truly outstanding, are made to order and served with six different sauces that are made in an elegant French restaurant, also owned by the family. The only sauce they don’t make is the tomato ketchup which is Heinz---some things just can’t be improved upon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hello. This is the wurst connection I ever had.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And as long as we are talking about what’s cooking in Aachen, allow me to introduce you to printen. The word printen comes from the English word to print, but in Aachen it is a reference to a spicy, sweet, flat, hard cookie that is made in a mold.

BURT WOLF: They were developed by an Aachen baker about 300 years ago and became the favorite of the pilgrims.

The Klein Printen Bakery is one of the most respected in Aachen.

ULLA KLEIN ON CAMERA: We sell very different kinds of printen. The original one is the Kräuterprinten, with spices. You see it here, with almonds on it. And there are different sorts of printen, different kinds with chocolates, with nuts, white chocolate, or milk chocolate on it. And different forms, they taste very delicious.

BURT WOLF: Printens have an interesting taste, they’re nourishing, easy to carry around and they don’t get stale for months. These days, the bakers of Aachen produce over 4,500 tons of Printen each year.

And this is the Cafe Van Den Daele which was founded by a Belgian pastry chef.

It consists of four historic buildings---the oldest dates to1655.

Because each building was built at a different time and designed to meet the needs of a different family the inside rooms are connected by staircases and steps that lead in and out of seven different rooms. Picturesque for the patrons not that much fun for the waiters. The original baker was a collector of furniture, pictures and baking tins which are still on display.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The restaurant menu has a number of classic German dishes. But they’ve each been given a slight twist that makes them quite interesting. This is sauerbraten, its beef that's been marinated in vinegar and wine for a couple of days, and then roasted. Then the marinade is used to make a sauce. But when they’re making the sauce here they add printen cookies which gives it a gingerbread sweetness.

This is a rolled beef dish. The beef is filled with sautéed onions, bacon, and pesto sauce and served with sauerkraut and roasted potatoes. Very nice.

BURT WOLF: Van Den Daele is considered to be one of the finest cafes in Germany and particularly famous for its baked goods.

HANS-PETER MEIER ON CAMERA: Well the most popular one is this one. It’s called Belgium Rice Cake. And the best way to eat it when it’s warm coming out of the bakery. This is very popular. Especially in summer because it’s with the fruits. This is with apple and almond. And number three, again something for summer with seasonal fruits. For example, here we have a rice with strawberries.

BURT WOLF: What is that cake you’re hiding behind you?

HANS-PETER MEIER ON CAMERA: Well this is my top favorite maybe. It’s a French Apple Tart. It’s very thin with apple of course. Very tasty, very sweet, it’s just delicious.


BURT WOLF: Every year in June hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Aachen for one week to admire the horses at the World Equestrian Festival. The competition includes everything from show jumping to carriage driving.

Horses have been in the neighborhood for at least 30,000 years and it was Charlemagne’s horse pawing the ground that uncovered the hot springs that made Aachen Charlemagne’s favorite town. Charlemagne himself was passionate about breeding horses.

At the end of the festival everyone celebrates, music, dancing and a promise to return next year.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.