Vacances Part 1: Aachen

Also known as Aix-la-Chappelle, Aachen is famous for its cathedral that Charlemagne built and subsequently was buried in.  The trip got off to a rocky start- my train was delayed for over two hours because someone either jumped or was pushed off the train while it was it was in motion.  The police had to come on board and investigate, and although the train crew never told us what the findings were they did give us free dinner. My new friend Alex met me at the train station and cooked me dinner, very good-naturedly in view of the two-hour delay. Thursday I spent seeing everything Aachen has to offer, and, not to sound condescending, but a day is about all it takes.  I started with the cathedral, and, after purchasing a booklet with a printed walking tour, I saw the various Roman ruins, old medieval townhouses, town hall museum, and hot spring that make up the Aachen sights. The cathedral doors are famous first of all because they were the first bronze casting north of the Alps and because of the creepy legend about the cathedral’s construction.  The legend goes that when the funds for building the cathedral ran out, the Devil offered to pay for it, in exchange for the soul of the first person to enter the cathedral after it’s dedication. The townspeople agreed because they had hatched a plot to fool the Devil. After the dedication they chased a wolf into the doors and the Devil, eager for his soul in payment, took the wolf’s soul before realizing that it was not human. Once he saw that he had been cheated, in a rage he slammed the doors closed with such gusto that his thumb ripped off and got stuck inside the lion-head-shaped handles, where it rests to this day. When you reach inside the handles to this day you can feel his thumb in there. It was actually pretty unnerving- a bit like those haunted house things where you stuck your hand in a darkened box to feel “brains” that were actually just cold spaghetti. Aside from being the home of Satan’s thumb, the old town is very cute and full of cobblestoned squares with fountains at the centers.  Aachen is located very close to the spot where the borders of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands meet.  It is a border region, with the Belgian chocolate shops to prove it, but it also has a bit of French heritage in it as Charlemagne, who the city is most famous for, is both apart of German history, as the first Holy Roman Emperor, but also French history, as King of the Francs.  This French influence has disappeared there today. I have to say, having both English and French outranked by Dutch in translation order was amusing (who speaks Dutch, anyway?), strange (seriously, who?), and inconvenient (not me).  For dinner I had Himmel und Erde, an Aachen specialty.  It’s blutwurst, apples, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  I ordered it because it was the local specialty, but have to say that blutwurst is a bit rich for my taste. Thursday evening I went to see The Marriage of Figaro, the opera by Mozart, at the theater.  This was actually the reason I went to Aachen in the first place- to see this opera performed. I loved it- the opera is a great one and the singing was up to my non-existent standards.  Since I knew the story beforehand, having read the play by Beaumarchais, it was fine that the lyrics were in Italian and the subtitles in German, and in fact I think helped me concentrate on the music and performance more.  I left very early in the morning for my train to Strasbourg.  After getting off for a transfer prematurely and having to take a commuter rail a few stops and then catching the TGV a couple stops early in Cologne, I eventually got myself to my destination without delay or losing my luggage. A major accomplishment, I think!

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Fancy flower beds                                              Aachen is known for its  hot spring so it has a lot of fountains                  An adorable child

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So cute!                                                                                                                The Elisa Fountain (Elisenbrunnen) where the  hot spring is

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A cool bus stop I saw                                                                       The Aachen cathedral                                     Inside the cathedral

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The cathedral doors. The Devil’s thumb is in the one on the right.                               The cathedral seen from the side

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Arches left over from Roman times                              Statue of Charlemagne in Market Place     Haus Löwenstein, the oldest townhouse in Aachen

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Old townhouses on the Market Place                A walkway from the Town House. I love ultra-modern architecture mixed with ultra-old

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The Rathause (City Hall)

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter, or Pâques, and as France is still predominantly Roman Catholic, we get a three-day weekend. Around my apartment, the streets were deserted this morning and not a single store was open (including the grocery store), but around the touristy locales it is business as usual for the shops and restaurants.  Today I went to Sacré-Cœur for Easter Morning Mass.  Since I’m not Catholic, it was bound to be a little confusing, not to mention in a different language, but I think I followed along pretty well.  I decided not to receive Communion- I’m technically not allowed to since I’ve never had a First Communion (not being a Catholic), although I did receive it when I went to mass at Notre-Dame de Paris- mostly because they (the priest-guys – not sure what their official titles are) were placing the wafers in peoples’ mouths and I felt like they would be able to tell that I wasn’t a real Catholic.  I’ve never bought into the idea that Protestantism and Catholicism are like different, mutually exclusive religions. I like to think of them as people picking the way of being a Christian that they like best.  In that vein, I feel no qualms about attending non-Protestant services in general, and today was no different. As a result, I was slightly disgruntled when a tourist who had snuck into the pews whipped out his camera and started taking pictures of the ceiling (cameras are forbidden inside Sacré-Cœur).  The basilica was entirely full; people were even standing along the sides.  I anticipated this and got there an hour early so that I could get a good seat.  Within this mass of church-goers were tourists like the camera spy who were clearly only there as tourists, obviously well-practiced Catholics who knew the tunes and Latin words of the hymns, and people in-between, like myself.  I tried to follow the lead of the well-practiced worshippers- kneeling and standing and singing when appropriate.  This was my first service that nuns were participants in, so I tried not to draw too many comparisons to Sister Act when they sang, tempted though I was Smile with tongue out.  Easter at Sacré-Cœur was crowded but definitely worth the trouble.  It really was a marvel.  The organ and the huge congregation singing the Alleluias and Hosannas echoing around the hollows of the dome and the arches within the basilica was truly a sound to behold.