Cathedral Squares

Cologne and Aachen

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 5-7, 2017

We’d heard some European cities celebrate the Christmas season with flair, including warm wine and hearty hot dogs. Since sipping glühwein and noshing on street treats while perusing a variety of wares augments the holiday spirit, we decided to check two out on our way to Hoorn. Of course, we can’t just go to a market when a huge stone presence, i.e., cathedral, demands your attention first. Almost like having to eat your peas before you can have cake. So, off we drove.

Leaving Denmark, we headed for Cologne. Part of the religious experience, evidently, comes from climbing 533 steps (someone else counted them, not moi) up a spiraling tower. I later found out a good friend who mountain-goated up the same tower became so sweaty he had to change his shirt before getting on a plane that same day.

Fortunately, three side platforms offered breathers from the heart-pounding slog and a respite from pressing one’s four limbs and trunk against the stone walls to allow the fortunate descenders to descend. By the time we reached the last 10% we faced a metal scaffold-type staircase with open risers. No thanks. Just typing this now I feel perspiration beginning to form on my fingers.

As I watched Max slowly disappear to the tippy-top I saw I had company, both young and old, unwilling to make the final ascent. Fifteen minutes later Max emerged saying the view wasn’t that spectacular due to iron grating:


yet, he got some great photos, one being of our “dessert” way down below:


After retracing our steps with our hearts pumping normally we exited the tower area and entered the main part of the cathedral.


This huge Christian edifice got its start in the 4th century as stated in some documents naming Cologne’s first Bishop, Martenus, back then. By 870 a structure was consecrated. Cologne hit the jackpot three years later when the bones of the Three Magi (am sure they are real…) were moved from Milan to this town in 1164. To house these money-makers, a glittery golden reliquary was ordered and completed in1225.


As an increasing number of pilgrims strolled, pitter-pattered, and crawled to this relic, the Catholic powers decided to build a new cathedral in the new Gothic style to accommodate the prestige (and crowds, and the money they brought) associated with the pilgrimage. Building began in mid-1200s and finished in 1880 when Kaiser Wilhelm I saw the last stone placed.

Chapels galore, soaring stained glass, statues,

and tombs, some featuring pretty relaxed looking folk,


filled the cathedral.

We walked, we stared, we peered, and then we left for the treasury. Here we found the typical wealth found in Catholic religious buildings, so we breezed through, stopping when something flashier or older than usual caught our eyes. Frankly, the most interesting site–which, of course we don’t have a photo of–was the medieval, stone signage stipulating the length of firewood to be donated each year thanks to some nobelwoman’s will.

But, NOW our reward:  the Christmas market :)


Because we were driving we had to forgo any alcoholic beverages in spite of the tempting glow they’d bring to offset the chill. However, we managed to partake of some edibles while joining the crowd of shoppers. And, Max, who had the camera, delightedly got his payback. Now he could snap photos of my stuffing my face, which I gleefully did.


Hey, I’m not shy when it comes to food.

After an hour of winding our way through other Christmas marketees we ended up back in  the car and heading for our next tourist duet–market and cathedral; however this one promised a more (to us) interesting tale as it was associated with the first Holy Roman Emperor: Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.).

The city of Aachen boasts plenty of historical Charlemagne sites, but we focused on three:  the cathedral; the town hall; and, a museum that tells us why we should be here.

So, going in reverse order, we spent over an hour learning about the early Roman settlement (thanks to the thermal springs). Then quickly caught up to the most famous Aachenite:  Charlemagne.

Both he and his brother, Carloman (not too imaginative with the names), became co-rulers, inheriting the throne on the death of their father, King-of-the-Franks, Pepin the Short (714-768). A fraternal war seemed inevitable if Carloman hadn’t died in 771. Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great, aka Charles I, aka Father of Europe) basically doubled the size of the Franconian Empire. The title ’emperor’ suited Charlemagne nicely since his realm matched the glory (and size) not seen since the height of the Roman Empire (96 B.C.E. to 180 C.E) .

Charlemagne selected this German town as his seat of government in the 709s and proceeded to build his palace including the famous octagonal chapel around 800. With Christianity as his realm’s religion–make that ‘required’ religion– it’s no surprise he poured a lot of money and effort into his place of worship, the Royal Church of St. Mary (which you’ll see a little bit later on here).

The museum explained the site of Charlemagne’s palace with a video diagraming the buildings.


It also continued past the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire moving into the later centuries, covering Napoleon’s occupation in 1794  and his desire to be seen as a Charlemagne figure himself…


The city became known for its high-quality needle production in the mid-1800s with one company, Schmetz, over 160 years old, being the first to standardize needle sizes in the mid 1900s…


A fun historical item relates to the 2014 movie THE MONUMENT MEN, which tells how the allies in WWII found the Nazis’ hidden art treasures, one of which is the crown being tried on for size:


Today Aachen has earned the reputation of as a German technology leader thanks to the RWTH Aachen University.

By now we felt well acquainted with this city’s history and wanted to explore the two major sites, the first being the Rathaus or Town Hall. Just a short stroll from the museum, this building stands on what once was the King’s Hall. Charlemagne constructed his palace based on the former Roman basilica, and the Rathaus along with the Church contain the largest remnants of the Emperor’s Aachen palace.

In the 13th century a decision was made to build a new structure to be used both as the town’s administrative center and as a banquet hall. Subsequent natural (fires) and unnatural (WWII bombing) disasters resulted in rebuilding and renovations. By 1979 the final construction was completed.


Prior to entering this rather large building we spotted two tall men ahead, one being a guy with a gold crown, robe and staff. Inching closer we discovered a film crew interviewing them. We just snapped a photo


then went inside and began our self-guided tour through elaborately decorated rooms, such as:

The Master Craftsmen’s Court where cloth makers submitted their wares for quality inspection…


The 1727 White Hall where portraits of envoys who participated in the “Aachen Peace” ending the Austrian War of Succession in 1748 (including the Earl of Sandwich)…


The Red Hall where the treaty negotiations for the above peace were supposed to occur but hierarchical disputes meant it wasn’t used…


And, the Coronation Hall, the largest secular Hall in the Holy Roman Empire by 1349.

Today it’s where the International Charlemagne Prize is presented. Originating in 1950, the prize is awarded to an individual or organization who’s work has contributed to European unity or cooperation between its states.


On the way down we caught an excellent view of the Christmas market (and, this was only 1/4 of it).

As we reached the ground floor of the Town Hall and headed for the front door we poked our head into the Council Hall, cordoned off except a few yards beyond the doorway. This room featured portraits, two being Napoleon and Josephine,

and has been used for the City Councilors and Town Mayor from 1349 to the present with the exception of some interruptions between 1943 and 1951.


Oh, and you know that person standing with Santa in the interview we saw? Turns out it’s the Mayor (!). We recognized him from a photo in the Town Hall brochure :)


Now, onto the biggest draw here:  Charlemagne’s church (which has been expanded as the bronze models below show).

We missed the English-speaking tour but were able to glean enough from the brochure. Passing through the main entrance we passed by the original bronze door from 800.


Continuing on we entered the octagonal church, the core building of the Cathedral known as the Palace Chapel and the first post-classical cupola constructed north of the Alps.



Charlemagne was enamored of all things Roman, including art and architecture, which is why mosaics patterned after the famous ones in Ravenna, Italy adorn the ceiling of his chapel. And, this octagon worship house is something to see. I mean, look at these mosaics (!)

Because we weren’t part of an organized tour we couldn’t reach the Shrine of Charlemagne, a gold chest holding Charlemagne’s remains; however, Max did manage to snap a photo (it’s the reliquary in the back):


This one in front of Charlemagne’s is the Marienschrein or Shrine of the Virgin Mary.


Again, if we had been on that tour, one of the other key sites was Charlemagne’s throne on the second floor, supposedly a recycled piece of marble where kings sat from 936 to 1531 after being anointed and crowned at the altar below.

We ended up in the Treasury where we peeked at religious items, typically gold and gem-encrusted, and, of course, reliquaries. I must say if you were to build a church and wanted to ensure others funded it, be sure to throw in some old relics of a Saint. Better yet, make it some item tied to Jesus and his mom, and you’ve got yourself a pilgrimage site on par with Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela.

For that’s what Aachen did. This cathedral possesses four primo relics: the church Mary gave birth in (uh-huh, sure)… Jesus’s original swaddling clothes (i.e., diapers)… a cloth used during John the Baptist’s beheading (couldn’t have been a kerchief as not much use there)… and, drum roll… THE loincloth Jesus wore during his crucifixion!

Hey, at least time-dating proves these textiles are truly old, going back to the 1st and 2nd centuries post-Christ.

These relics are exposed to public eyes for ten days every seven years, the last time being June 20-30, 2014. Why every seven years? I don’t know but, trust me, you better reserve a spot in a line if you want to be there in 2021.

To display the four relics above necessitates snapping the lock off the Shrine of Mary, and, some of the recent locks being on display:


Alas, we didn’t see the actual relics but did see some of the other most valuable items held in this treasury:

the arm reliquary holding Charlemagne’s ulna and radios of his right forearm…

The bust of Charlemagne; as a huge fan of the man, Charles IV (1316-1378) donated this in 1349 along with the crown used during his 1347 coronation. FYI:  Pieces of Charlemagne’s cranium truly are in the head here.

The real Reliquary of Charlemagne (which makes the one in the church a copy), also attributed to a donation by Charles IV…

The Cross of Lothair from the 10th century and “one of the most valuable objects of medieval gold work” according to the write-up…

And, the Cappa Leonis or coronation cape from the 14th century (name based on the assumption Pope Leo III (750-816) wore it).


Another one I found intriguing was the crown Margaret of York wore at her wedding to Charles the Bold in Bruges 1468; made in England around 1461, Margaret donated this with its leather box when visiting the church in 1475.


More reliquaries and religious artifacts abounded, but we’d had enough religion for the day. We left and walked into the Christmas market, which, considering they have the Three Magis’ bones rattling around in that reliquary, makes perfect sense to host an amazing Christmas market, right?

Another opportunity to eat and walk, we joined the jolly crowd, and, once again, Max was captain of the camera.

Yet, I managed to grab it to document his purchase:  glühwein for a cold winter night.

As twilight approached we left Aachen to drive the last leg of our winter road trip. Heading back to Hoorn we realized just how much we’d been able to see and experience, yet another memory to cherish.



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