It always rains in Aachen, they say. But when was that ever a problem in Europe, where storms are rare and few, and most rain showers are but gentle drizzles designed to lace your skin with nearly invisible dew? It’s true that we spent a couple of days wheezing and sneezing when we got back home but since we recovered before New Year’s Eve, it didn’t really matter.
What is Aachen all about?
Just an hour’s drive away from Bonn, Aachen is a historical spa town on the border of West Germany, with proximity to both Netherlands and Belgium. Thus, it is quite common to pass by French and Dutch-speaking people on the cobble-stoned streets of the market square. It is famous for the annual World Equestrian Festival, and the lingering architectural relics of the power centre established by Charlemagne, the great Roman Emperor. Aachen is also home to esteemed universities and the hottest natural springs that Europe can boast of.
The Old City Centre: Lessons in History and Architecture
We arrived in Aachen a day before Christmas Eve, knowing that it was the last day of the Christmas Market. By day, we were able to explore the old city centre at leisure, unfazed by the crowds that would seep in into the evening. The most notable structures are the Aachener Dom (cathedral), which is on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List, and the majestic Rathaus (city hall), whose walls crawl with intricate carvings and statues. The market square, called Katschhof, is also known for its quaint old fountains and landmarks such as Puppenbrunnen, a fountain of dolls that you can actually play with, since they have rotating arms and legs, and a sculpture portraying three ladies carrying umbrellas – rather apt, given the rainy weather.
Further away is the Elisenbrunnen, a classical foyer with a columned portico and two fountains bubbling with rather evil-smelling but quite miraculous sulphurous water. On the way to the city centre, we passed by Ponttor, one of many ancient gates in the city. We couldn’t get inside the Aachen Cathedral due to a high number of visitors and early closure, but we did wander into many other churches with incredibly beautiful interiors and a pervading serenity. Those who wish to experience the healing waters of Aachen must pay the hefty fees at The Carolus Thermen Spa but we were content to see it from the outside. Below, we present some photos of the above-mentioned marvels with some facts that you might enjoy:
A Dreamy Christmas Eve
In the evening, we wandered around the wonderful Christmas market, with stalls spread out in front of the Rathaus. It was drizzling slightly, and visitors expertly balanced their umbrellas and glasses of steaming hot gluhwein. We felt giddy from the aromas of freshly buttered waffles, pancakes, and other sweet goodies, and bit into a few ourselves. The bluish twilight added to the charm of the trees adorned with Christmas lights and a giant gingerbread man. We climbed the stairs of the Rathaus for a sweeping view of the market, with enchanting Christmas carols in the background. Truly, Christmas in Germany is one of the warmest cultural experiences we’ve ever had.
Off the Beaten Track in Johannisbach
On day two, we sauntered over to Netherlands, and on day three, we had a few hours before our bus back to Bonn. We hadn’t seen much of nature in Aachen thus far but a small town in Germany without a generous smattering of idyllic fields, rivulets, and sheep would be an impossibility indeed. Away from the old city, Aachen teems with countryside bliss and stables full of healthy horses. We spotted Johannisbach on the map, a lovely little stream that eventually merges with the River Wurm. The 13th century Marschiertor was on our route, and we wondered at the melancholy air of the bronze soldier sitting before its bright red door.
The path to Johannisbach took us through a narrow alley beside a private property, eventually leading to the stream and a riding school on the left and a pretty bridge straight ahead. Magnificent horses trotted around in the circular enclosure at the riding school, and a few riders led their horses up the path circling the stream. The stream itself was serene, home to swimming ducks, and trembling reflections of sepia trees. Further ahead, we saw a horse stable to our right, and beyond lay more animal enclosures and verdant fields. An old man in a smart hat walked around the same circles as us with his baby granddaughter in tow, and we spotted him at least thrice!
Plan your Trip
Depending on your budget, interests, and the time of year, here are three kinds of trips that you could plan to Aachen (also known as Aix-la-Chapelle):
- A spa trip: Set aside an entire day for soaking in the mineral water goodness at The Carolus Therman (a full day pass begins at €18, €36 with sauna), and another day for sight-seeing in Aachen. The spa has various indoor and outdoor thermal baths and pools, as well as a sauna and massages, if you’re so inclined.
- CHIO World Equestrian Festival: If visiting in summer, don’t miss this worldwide sporting event for horses, including dressage, jumping, eventing, driving and vaulting. The 2019 dates are from July 12-21. You can get tickets for the entire tournament or an event of your choice.
- Aachen-Vaals-Maastricht: This is what we did, and we totally recommend it as an all-year-round option. One day for Aachen’s city centre, and a second for Vaals (climb the Dreilandenpunt) & Maastricht (riverside university city), both in Netherlands, accessible by Arriva bus 350. Stay at A&O Hostel Aachen Hauptbahnhof, and travel by Flixbus to keep your wallet healthy!
A day trip to Aachen is quite enough for covering the main historical attractions, while an overnight stay allows you more flexibility. A two-night stay would be ideal if you’re doing the Aachen-Vaals-Maastricht circuit.
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