They love their Charlemagnes in Aachen.
So much so that in April, 500 red, plastic one-metre high statues of the medieval king were lined up in the square between the cathedral and the town hall of this gorgeous spa town on the Rhine.
As artist Ottmar Hoerl says, everybody has a different picture of “his Karl: the father of Europe, the womaniser, the Ururururur-Ahn (as in the ancestor), the Saxons butcher, the postcard, the missionary, the visionary, the promoter of culture and many more”.
Well, he did have a lot to do with putting Aachen on the map.
In 794AD, the rheumatic Charlemagne, lured by its boiling hot “miracle” waters so loved by battle-weary Roman soldiers, made the city the capital of his vast Frankish empire.
Around 800AD he built the octagonal-shaped Byzantine cathedral where on a white marble imperial throne 30 German kings were later crowned. He was also buried there 1200 years ago in January, and Aachen is celebrating.
In 1978, the cathedral was the first German monument to be added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and as you view it and its treasury’s glories it’s easy to understand why.
The cathedral is still a pilgrimage site and not just for tourists – the cathedral’s provost, Msgr Helmut Poque, tells us: “We have tried to stress that our cathedral is not a museum but a church with many objects of art.”
Some of the precious relics are displayed only once every seven years including this June. And Poque says they are applying for the actual pilgrimages to be recognised as World Heritage.
Aachen’s fountains symbolise what is special to its people, who even have their own greeting – known as “klenkes” (putting the little finger up) which dates back to its days as a cloth and needle-making town, and who are likely to speak several languages with its location in the border triangle between the Netherlands and Belgium.
Every bakery has its own recipe for “printen” – spicy, crunchy biscuits, which we try on a morning walk.
At night, after a dinner using fresh, local produce at Ratskeller Aachen in the former 14th-century Town Hall, we have a beer in its lively student quarter next to the old town gate, where around 48,000 mainly technical students party.
Once full of small spas, the town decided to close them and pipe the water minus the sulphur smell to a large, modern spa, the Carolus Thermen, on the other side of the city park, which now boasts more than 20 different types of saunas (be prepared to bare all as the Germans do). The city is also known for its rehabilitation clinics, based on its mineral waters.
Aachen is on the UNESCO Savoir Vivre and Sophistication Route, which begins in Frankfurt, runs along the Rhine and features castles, Cologne Cathedral and the Ruhr region, finishing in fashionable Dusseldorf.
The former Zollverein Coal Mine and Coking Plant outside Essen, which closed in 1986, was the first UNESCO site in the Ruhr region, considered the largest man-made landscape in Europe.
But where once the skies were filled with smoke and pollution, we visit on a clear, Spring day to see what is strangely described as “the most beautiful colliery in the world”.
It’s been turned into a huge events space, galleries, gourmet restaurants such as the Casino Zollverein in its Bauhaus-design Compressor Hall, the Red Hot Design Centre and even a swimming pool and ice-skating rink. We are told the location symbolises what the Ruhr was famous for from the 19th century to the 1980s – hard work, and the basis of Germany’s economy.
The Ruhr Museum in the former coal washery, however, doesn’t shy away from some of the region’s dark history involving the collaboration between industrialists such as the Krupp family and the Nazis which included the use of some 100,000 slave laborers from occupied eastern Europe.
Some of the former miners and workers have become tour guides such as Detlef Spahn, who says the job was often so dangerous you had to take care of your “buddies”; he witnessed three fatal accidents.
If the widow (there were no women coal miners) agreed, “the entire shift attended the funeral. There were brass bands and the miners wore uniforms with brass buckles, hat and feathers,” he tells us.
Other UNESCO sites in the area include the Augustusburg and Falkenlust palaces, including the exquisite Hunting Lodge Falkenlust at Bruhl, and Cologne Cathedral, which took 632 years in total to build.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Lufthansa flies daily from Sydney to Frankfurt, with connections via Singapore with partner airlines. To book, go to lufthansa广西桑拿, or call 1300 655 727.
Aachen, Essen and Cologne can be reached by train, and Deutsche Bahn timetables are at bahn广西桑拿,.
STAYING THERE: The Mercure Aachen am Dom is very close to the old town and cathedral mercure广西桑拿,.
In Cologne, the Maritim Hotel Koln is right on the Rhine River, and part of the Maritim Hotelgesellschaft hotel group; visit maritim广西桑拿,.
PLAYING THERE: The Welterbe free app details 38 UNESCO sites throughout Germany with eight different potential routes or visit unesco.germany.travel for more information.
* The writer travelled as a guest of the German National Tourist Board.