I’m sitting in a Belgian café near my flat, drinking chai and pondering the season. I returned a few days ago from a couple of weeks in Aachen which was thankfully slightly more play than work, albeit fraught with logistical calisthenics. But we’re in these times, so it’s par for the course, I guess. Life as a rollercoaster.
I decided to do this trip last-minute, to visit friends, see the Aachen Weihnachtsmarkt, and mostly to get away from the Novemberness here. Having spent nearly 3 months there last year, it was something of a homecoming. Aachen is a warm, charming cobblestoned city surrounded by Nadelwälder (piney forests) and fairytale villages. I probably romanticize it too much but castles and old stone architecture do that to me.
Somehow, the garbage weather kept itself at bay while I had time off, thankfully raining the heaviest buckets whilst I was working, giving me ample time for traipsing the city under gray, but mostly not-downpouring skies. Then, the snow…
It was a whirlwind trip with no real agendas, save mid-week days filled with work and meetings. So I balanced those hours by enjoying cosy dinners at friends’ homes, exploring museums, wandering the cobblestoned streets, savoring hot cups of tea – and glühwein, sampling Weihnachts delicacies (and declaring Reibekuchen the winner!), all the while breathing in the mineral spring-tinged air. For me there’s something healing about being in this city built atop a network of ancient hot springs and rich mineral deposits.
So in the spirit of the holiday, here’s a synopsis of my world for a couple of weeks in early December…During my lightning trip to Germany, Aachen gave to me:
Eins taste of Eierpunsch. This German version of eggnog is served warm and topped with sahne (cream). Sipping Eierpunsch amongst the throngs and din at the Weinachtsmarkt at the Aachen Dom, surrounded by buildings commissioned by Charlemagne and alongside a dear companion I hadn’t seen in too long, marked the end to a perfect day exploring Aachen’s neighbourhoods.
Zwei different kinds of Glühwein: This warm and wonderful mulled wine is served by myriad vendors across the city in fanciful mugs, each commemorative of that year’s Weinachtsmarkt. Glühwein comes in white and red. Jury is still out on which I liked more!
Drei (maybe more) different Christstollen. Each bakery has its own secret recipe, and every Aachenite has their own favourite. Whichever you choose, the marzipan in the center is like finding hidden treasure!
Vier Weihnachtsmarkt. I landed in Düsseldorf, took a train to Aachen, checked into my hotel and promptly crashed for a much-needed nap. Mid-afternoon, I was pulled out of sleep by a friend calling to invite me to a neighbourhood Christmas market in nearby Würselen. Over the course of my trip, I went to Weihnachtsmarkt in Burtscheid, Stolberg and of course the star of the show at the center of Aachen.
Fünf Reibekuchen… That first night, at the Würselen Christmas market, we were about to get something to eat and I noticed a man carrying a steaming plate of a potato pancake-looking thing. They looked simply lecker (loosely translated: YUMMY!) Turns out it was a Christmas favourite called Reibekuchen, made from grated potatoes and onions, fried and served right out of the pan with applesauce. We managed to sample them at each of the Christmarkets… More, please!
Sechs kilos of Aachener Printen that came back to the States with me (Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little bit). Printen is one of the delights for which Aachen is famous. Think gingerbread, heavy on the ginger and crunch, add some kraüter (herbs; each Printenbäckerei has its own proprietary blend), and top with almonds, hazelnuts or chocolate, then serve with tea. The challenge, of course, is to be frugal with the ones I don’t give away and conserve until I can get to Aachen again. Everyone has theirs, but my favourite is the Klein Printenbäckerei.
Sieben(hundert) visions of a king…it was late in the 8th Century when Charlemagne began wintering in Aachen. Once he was coronated King of the Frankish Empire, he built a stunning palace (now the Rathaus) and the Aachen Cathedral (Dom) here. One cannot go more than a block without seeing Charlemagne’s influence on the city (or a likeness of him, for that matter!).
Acht (or more) Aachener Thermalquellen, or mineral springs. There is a network of mineral springs weaving its way beneath the streets of Aachen. With the largest hotspots (as it were) in the Elisenbrunnen and Burtscheid areas, there are public fountains where you can wash in the stinky-but-purifying waters.
Neun (or so) cobbled and enchanting streets, leading to and from the center of town, winding their way around the main attraction: the Dom. Each of these streets looks like it was pulled straight out of a storybook, the old buildings, ironwork, Gothic architecture, fountains, shops and cafés lining the pedestrian streets. Annastraße, Jacobstraße… the Rommelsgasse and nearbly Hühnemarkt, with its Römischer Portikus, a Roman arch looking like it was dropped there from another world until you remember that Aachen was a Roman spa town in the 1st Century AD.
Zehn (probably more) weird relics housed in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury. This museum houses the significant treasures of Charlemagne’s church and was added, with the Dom, as the first German UNESCO World Heritage site. Per the website of the Domschatz, According to legend, the reliquary treasure in Aachen goes back to a gift from the Byzantine Emperor to Charlemagne. Among the relics are Jesus’ swaddling clothes and the loincloth he wore on the cross. It’s no surprise, then, that Pilgrims flock to Aachen to see these treasures in particular, and it is apparently quite the pilgrimage event when they are placed on display. While I did not get the opportunity to see those relics, I was able to view some just as morbidly fascinating: called the “three small relics”, these reliquaries are purported to house a piece of clothing from the Virgin Mary, a loincloth from Christ, and a garment worn during his scourge. In addition, there were oodles of oddities here, crowns, jewels, and other gold carvings including another reliquary in the shape of a large golden arm, housing the bones of Charlemagne’s forearm. Full disclosure: I’m not Catholic, nor do I understand how relics are certified and attributed to their original owners. Fact or legend, these treasures are fascinating nonetheless.
Elf Tore. Not to be confused with the seasonal toy- and mischief-makers, there once were elf, eleven, gates (Tore) along the old city’s wall. Today, only two city gates remain, impressive and substantial, and two of the reasons I adore this city: Ponttor (to the North) and Marschiertor (to the South). Both of which I visited several times during my trip to get my medieval castle-y fix.
Zwölf (and more) new memories. Am zwölften weihnachtstag (on the twelfth day of Christmas) I won’t have received birds or maids or gold rings or lords or pipers… But I came back feeling grateful and hopeful, enough to tide me through the season and ‘til the next escapade.
The trip was both too quick and just right, leaving me sated with cobblestones and monuments, gothic spires and bronze fountains, medieval gates and 19th Century façades, printen and stollen, food, friends, their dogs and their families…just what the holiday spirit calls for, in any country, in every language.
Frohe Weihnachten. May your holidays bring joy and light, food and warmth, family and friends, peace and simplicity, and may all the wishes on your list come true.