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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINETY SIX Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle

We are waiting for our supper allocation of calories to arrive - Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and Earth - mashed potatoes from the earth and apple puree from the skies) with a generous helping of fried Flönz (the lightly smoked blood sausage of Cologne). Here in the Rhineland, they eat heartily: we had Pillekoochen potato cakes with golden syrup for lunch – impressive, given that the Race Marshal had insisted that we return to the cafe in the Chocolate Museum for breakfast.

I should have protested – rather like Cologne's Cardinal at the unveiling of Gerhard Richter's window in the south transept of the Cathedral. The furore was over the abstract nature of Richter's design – 11,263 four-inch-glass squares of seventy two colours arranged randomly over 106 square metres of Gothic tracery. The local paper explained: "In the 1960s, Richter painted his first colour grids as an attack against the falsehood and piety … fulminating against 'devotional art' and 'religious applied arts'."

Cardinal Joachim Meisner had urged the cathedral chapter (of which he was not part) to create a figurative depiction of 20th-century Catholic martyrs. In his view, Richter's abstraction missed the point of stained glass in a cathedral: "The window would be better suited to a mosque or another house of prayer. If we're going to have a new window, it should be one that reflects our faith. Not just any."

This was not the first conflict witnessed by the cathedral: there is film of a tank battle in the great square at the west end. For centuries, the cathedral struggled even to be built: in 1880 Kaiser Wilhelm celebrated its completion – 632 years after the foundation stone was laid. The photograph below shows the unfinished south tower with a construction crane that had been put there in the fifteenth century.

Cologne Cathedral with the fifteenth century crane on the south tower (c)wikicommons

After our Pillekoochen lunch, we staggered over to nearby Aachen Cathedral, one of the original twelve UNESCO Heritage Sites (along with Lalibela and the Galapagos). The cathedral today is an assemblage of structures around the original octagon built by Charlemagne in 796 AD. His chapel has sixteen walls on the outside and an octagonal interior, a design that for two centuries had the greatest span and highest dome north of the Alps.

In part, the UNESCO citation reads: “The construction of the Chapel of the Emperor at Aachen symbolised the unification of the West and its spiritual and political revival under the aegis of Charlemagne. In 814, Charlemagne was buried here, and throughout the Middle Ages until 1531, the German emperors continued to be crowned at Aachen. The collection of the treasury of the Cathedral is of inestimable archaeological, aesthetic and historic interest.”

Charlemagne loved Aachen; he may even have been born here. The town is built along the fault line that produces Germany's earthquakes. The hot springs were exploited by the Romans who called their spa Aquae Granni - Grannus being the Celtic god of light and healing. Apparently Charlemagne loved nothing more than to swim in the warm sulphur waters and he spent every winter here - perhaps riding Abul Abbas, his pet elephant, a gift from a Jewish merchant who had gone with Charlemagne's ambassadors to the Caliphate.

Charlemagne was incredibly important. He really was the 'Father of Europe': his tribe, the Franks, emerged from the chaos left by the departing Romans to become the dominant force in Europe. When the Pope crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, the Frankish empire spanned France, Germany, lands to the east of the Elbe, some of the Balkans and part of Italy south beyond Rome.

The lines in red mark the outer limits of the Frankish rule – the areas in light green-grey were added by Charlemagne (c)wikicommons

On Charlemagne's death in 814, the empire was divided between his three sons. One received France and the other two divided the rest between them. And this has created an interesting source of confusion. I have used the name Charlemagne but only the French and British call him that; to Germans he is Karl der Grosse. And I said we are in Aachen – but the French know the town as Aix-la-Chappelle.

Which nation has inherited the mantle of Charlemagne? When Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804, he had a statue of Charlemagne placed in front of Notre Dame and during the ceremony, he wore Charlemagne's sword. Already in Paris, stolen from Aachen by French troops, were some of the ancient columns that Charlemagne had taken from Rome for his chapel (some are still in the Louvre). And by the Peace of Amiens in 1801, Aachen was brought under French dominion – until taken by the Prussians on Napoleon's defeat. France struck back in the 1880s with a new and bigger statue of Charlemagne placed on the spot outside Notre Dame where Napoleon had put his statue of the Emperor.

The Nazis too exploited Charlemagne's charisma. The last unit to surrender in the Battle for Berlin was the 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French) - formed exclusively of volunteer Frenchmen from Vichy or the Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme.

Does the German/French tussle still matter? In Europe it does: paradoxically Charlemagne has become the symbol of unity between the two nations. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Western European states worked together to integrate on an economic, political and military level. Part of the intended integration was a customs union – which foundered almost immediately on the rocks of British opposition.

The people of Aachen responded to this fissure: just before Christmas 1949 they appealed for European unity and launched what was then a novel prize - the annual Der Internationale Karlspreis zu Aachen which is awarded to the person making “the most valuable contribution to West European understanding”.

Adenauer and de Gaulle in Reims Cathedral in 1962 (c)ghdi.ghi-dc

They were not alone in harnessing the symbolism of Charlemagne. In 1962, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and de Gaulle celebrated their mass of peace and reconciliation in Reims Cathedral - where Charlemagne's son, Ludwig I, was crowned. It was also the place, incidentally, where the Wehrmacht capitulated on May 7, 1945.

Viking River Cruises' film of Cologne Cathedral -

The tank battle outside Cologne Cathedral (beware - real war scenes) -

DW's film of Aachen Cathedral -

45 minute Yale lecture on Charlemagne -

A Norwegian girls' choir singing Kim Andre Arnesen's Even When He Is Silent in Cologne Cathedral -

Aachen Cathedral Choir singing Widor's Gloria -

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