Thursday, 2 June 2011



From Brussels, the high-speed Thalys provides a rapid route into Germany, but most train travellers head straight through to Cologne without considering stopping off in Aachen on the way. They don't know what they're missing. Like a lot of Rhineland cities it's been knocked about a bit, but its historic core makes it a fascinating place to spend a few days.

Aachen is in Germany, but only just. From the suburbs it's a short walk into Belgium or the Netherlands. Lots of locals criss-cross these borders every day, and this border-hopping lifestyle gives Aachen a cosmopolitan flavour - which is fitting since it used to be the capital of most of Europe. The Romans founded Aachen as a spa town, on account of its hot sulphur springs, and 800 years later King Charlemagne came here looking for a cure for his rheumatism, and made Aachen the capital of a kingdom that stretched from Hamburg to Barcelona.

A city bombed to bits 65 years ago will never be uniformly beautiful, and a lot of Aachen's rebuilt city centre is uninspiring, to say the least. Yet in its reconstructed side streets, you can still sense its remarkable history.
Ratskeller Aachen (00 49 2413 5001; modern food in a traditional setting is the house style of this sleek restaurant in the ancient cellar of Aachen's city hall. Dutch chef Maurice de Boer has created a light international menu that reflects his cosmopolitan background and the proximity of the border.

Van den Daele (00 49 2413 5724; in the heart of the restored old town, this cosy café is especially popular for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), the German equivalent of high tea. The business was founded in the 19th century but the building dates back to the 1600s. Be sure to try some Printen, the delicious local gingerbread.

Side by side on the Markt, Aachen's medieval marketplace, the Goldener Schwan (00 49 2413 1649; and Zum Goldenen Einhorn (00 49 2413 2693; are two historic inns where you can enjoy a stand-up drink or a wholesome sit-down meal. The local brew is Kölsch, a light aromatic lager served in a dainty 200ml glass.

 Apart from the cathedral, Aachen's main attraction is its imposing Rathaus, built in 1350 on the site of Charlemagne's palace. It's more stately home than town hall, an impressive sight inside and out. The stairwell is lined with portraits of the winners of the Charlemagne Prize for European Unity, including Winston Churchill, Edward Heath and Tony Blair.

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