Aachen’s magnificent and world famous Dom is unlike any other cathedral in western Europe. Although the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands are literally just a few bus stops away from Germany’s most westerly city, it is Turkey that appears to have influenced one of the most important buildings in Catholicism, with an interior surprisingly reminiscent of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Although the Palace Chapel is the oldest part of the whole cathedral – completed in 800 AD for Charlemagne’s coronation there – the interior of the cupola is seventeenth century. In fact little inside the cathedral dates back to Charlemagne’s reign.
The Shrine of St Mary contains what is believed to be the loin-cloth Jesus wore when he was crucified, swaddling clothes used to dress the baby Jesus, the clothes John the Baptist wore when he was beheaded, and a cloak worn by the Virgin Mary. All four relics are taken out and displayed once every seven years and thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the cathedral to see them.
As well as housing the remains of Charlemagne and holding relics of great Christian importance, Aachen Cathedral is also the site where over thirty German Kings were coronated. Unlike the gilded and jewel-crusted shrines and altars on the ground floor of the cathedral, the imperial marble throne used to crown Charlemagne and his successors until the sixteenth century, strangely lacks any decoration at all. It is located on the upper floor of the cathedral but can only be seen as part of a guided tour. When I visited Aachen Cathedral back in July 2015, there were no further tours taking place that day and so I was unable to see the throne up close.
I did however, come close to an ancient Greek She-Wolf inside the cathedral.
The ‘She-Wolf’ statue is believed to symbolise the legend behind the building of the cathedral; when the money ran out to finish the Dom at the end of the eighth century, it is said that the devil stepped in and offered to fund the completion of the project in exchange for the soul of the first mortal to enter the completed building. So desperate to finish the building in time for Charlemagne’s coronation, the city agreed to the terms. Not wanting the sacrifice one of their own however, the people of the city captured a wolf and let it loose in the cathedral making it the first mortal to step inside the completed Dom. Unaware, the devil apparently ravaged the wolf and took the creature’s soul before realising he had been tricked. In a fit of rage, the devil slammed the doors of the cathedral trapping and severing his thumb in the process. To this day visitors are invited to feel inside the mouths of the two lions’ heads adorning the ninth century Carolingian bronze ‘Wolf’ doors to the Dom and if they are (un)lucky, they will feel the devil’s severed thumb inside one of the mouths.
The cathedral is not the only medieval building in Aachen to have its architectural foibles.
Aachen can easily be reached from Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt. Outside Germany the city has good transport connections with Brussels. High speed trains to Cologne and Frankfurt leave Brussels Midi station three times a day and pass through Aachen in less than 90 minutes.
On two occasions however, I have been incredibly unlucky and on arriving at Brussels Midi I learnt the fast trains to Aachen had been cancelled (the first time was due to Belgian industrial action, the second time was due to maintenance work on the main line over-running). On both occasions I took the much longer train journey (two hours) from Brussels Midi to the Belgian border town of Verviers and picked up a connecting train (a further twenty minutes) to Aachen from there.
The best way to get around Aachen is by foot. It is not a large city, and all the main sites are within walking distance – usually in pedestrianised zones – close to the cathedral. There are plenty of buses from the main train station that will take energy-conserving passengers to various parts of town.
Aachen Cathedral is open daily to visitors until 6pm, except during Mass and special religious events. Entrance to the ground floor of the Dom is free. Guided tours of the Dom giving access to the Imperial Marble Throne on the upper floor and the sarcophaguses in the Dom Choir have to be booked in advance. Most tours are in German, but there is an English tour daily at 2pm. Bookings can be made at the Visitors’ Centre outside the cathedral on the day or can be booked by phone. There is a small fee of a few Euros per person for the tour.
The next Aachen Pilgrimage where the holy relics will be put on display in the cathedral will be in June 2021.
More information on opening times, events and tour prices can be found on the official cathedral’s website here.
The Drielandenpunt, close to Vaals and Aachen. An obelisk marking where three countries meet, found in the Netherlands. Or is it in Belgium? No, it’s definitely in Germany.