Few places can claim such proudly European credentials as AACHEN (known as Aix-la-Chapelle in French, Aken to the Dutch). Its hot thermal springs were known to the Celts and Romans, but it wasn’t until Charlemagne took up residence in 768 AD that the city briefly took centre stage as the capital of his vast Frankish empire. At its height, this encompassed much of what would form – more than a millennium later – the original core of the European Union. But it didn’t long survive his death, and nor did Aachen’s political importance, though for six centuries afterwards the city remained the place where German emperors were crowned. Charlemagne’s chief legacy is the magnificent domed court chapel – now the city’s cathedral and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that is still the most splendid thing in the city.
During World War II, Aachen was the first German city in the west to fall to Allied invasion, after a six-week battle in the autumn of 1944 that laid waste to much of it. However, the cathedral escaped destruction and the heart of the city, at least, retains a pleasing sense of history. These days, Germany’s most westerly city is a lively, medium-sized place, its municipal boundary forming the international frontier at the point where Belgium and the Netherlands meet, creating an easy-going and cosmopolitan feel, with the student population supporting a vibrant nightlife scene and the spa bringing in a steady stream of more genteel visitors.