I once passed through Aachen without stopping and have been looking for an excuse to come back ever since. I’ve done that before, sailing south to Puerto Natales without seeing Torres del Paine, swerving museums and must-sees in other places only to realise the error of my ways. Today’s visit to the city’s cathedral scratched the Charlemagne itch. It’s an itchy kind of place: no wonder Pepin the Bald lost his hair.
That Aachen is not better known proves Europe’s incredible depth. The mosaics and scale of the original Palatine Chapel are equalled in probably fewer than a dozen places, and none have the iconic name of the first Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled and died here. Yet most people would shrug at the name, and few who recognize it could place it on a map. UNESCO didn’t make that mistake, adding it to their inaugural list of World Heritage sites in 1978. So, why the unknown? It may be to do with its distinctly mitten-European location and ambience. Germany is the lost heart of Europe for visitors and it keeps its secrets behind impenetrable geography and linguistic confusion. But you only have to get off the train and look, and here it is. A small but lovely heart of just a few squares, one home to the cathedral, one to the town hall, and a little in between, and the rest the low-rise shopfronts and kiosks of post-war West Germany.
Back on the ground, the after-work drinkers are standing outside little bars, their gentle laughter rolling out over the cobbles. In the evening sunshine locals gather on the grass behind the Elisenbrunnen, where warm mineral waters still gush out of fancy fountains. The sun strikes the spire of the ancient Aachener Dom and inside stained glass turns the cantons of light into beams of purple, pink and blue. The golden relics of Charlemagne glow quietly to themselves in the adjacent treasury.