I’ve lived in The Netherlands for four years now and have never been to Germany. It’s not from lack of desire or some repressed cold-war hostility I hold onto as an American. On the contrary, I have German friends; I admire German efficiency and quite often covet German-made products. I also hold certain vague notions of what Germany is like. Considering we live so close, it would be nice to have a chance to turn notion into first-hand observation; to develop feelings for a place based on experience, rather than my brother’s crazy German punk friends from university days, snippets from the news and early childhood televisions choices like Hogan’s Heroes.
So when I discovered that my son’s free Friday happened to fall on the same weekend as my free Sunday, I knew I wanted to get away for a weekend, and I knew I wanted it to be in Germany. After much deliberation, studying of train schedules and distance, we settled on Aachen, a city very close to the border of The Netherlands and Belgium.
Don’t see it on the map? It’s just over the Belgian border, and the name on this map is, strangely enough, placed right beneath Belgium in the yellow of this neighboring country.
I knew we were in Germany the moment we transferred trains. Not only did I hear the German language all around me, but I also noted how clean and roomy the German trains are. We checked into our clean and orderly Ibis hotel in Aachen and headed into the old center, home to cathedrals, museums, printen laden sweet shops, many a fountain and the centuries-old influence of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne.
This formidable figure, despite being dead for over 1200 years, is still the star attraction in Aachen. As if proving the point, our first stop was the Imperial Cathedral– the oldest cathedral in Europe and the final resting place of Charlemagne.
Many Catholic cathedrals I have visited have chaste marble or stone columns that seem to be intentionally subtle in color so as not to take away from the grandeur of the stain glass windows, marble statues, and golden chalices associated with Catholic mass. But clearly, it wasn’t always that way.
The intricate tile work on the interior columns and ceilings of the Imperial Cathedral, has an exquisitely exotic feel to it.
Another striking difference of being in Germany was the eating experience. I was impressed with the presentation and proportions of the meals. We had delicious food served by friendly wait staff. In addition, the proportions were 30% to 50% bigger and at least 20% cheaper than what you would pay in The Netherlands.
Because time was short and we had done so little research due to the spontaneous nature of our trip, we decided to go on a guided tour of the town’s ancient center. Our guide, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed German with a mediocre command of the English language led us slowly through the medieval streets.
Water seemed to be the central theme of the tour. Aachen, a spa town with sulfer spring water acclaimed for its healing properties, has been visited throughout the ages by important figures, from Kings, generals and Duchesses to movie stars. “Let us go meet the water,” she announced, as she led us within the domed pavilion bordering the tourist office. We met the water by running our hands under a stream of water coming out of a wall-mounted faucet above a bronze basin.
Aachen is also known as the City of Fountains. Although we only saw a handful on our tour, we could understand their appeal. Each fountain seems to have its own message or social commentary built into the design. One fountain with a a constant circular flow is lined by bronze statues, each figure depicting a human relationship with money: greed, poverty, sharing, receiving, profiting, etc. Eliminating any chance for subtle irony, this fountain is called “The Circulation of Money,” and the construction of this particular fountain was sponsored by a bank.
Another fountain, called the “Puppenbrunnen” was surrounded by characters with moveable arms and legs. Each figure represents a certain aspect of Aachen society, from a church figure and knight, to a presumably poor older woman with rotting teeth. Our guide informed us that the locals say her teeth are rotting due to all the “Prenten” she has eaten over the years.
My favorite part of the tour was when the guide sat us all down on a stone bench with a commanding view of the Imperial Cathedral on the far side of a grand square. Although the tourist office guides are not allowed to lead tours within the cathedral, they can certainly discuss some of the highlights at a distance. She explained among other things, that this beautiful cathedral is the oldest in Northern Europe; that many kings and queens were coronated in this cathedral; the unique octoganal geometry at play in the Palatine chapel within and that it is where Charlemagne is buried.
Then she proceeded to tell us about the important relics housed within the cathedral in a golden box, otherwise known as the Marienschrein.
“Inside are special relics that are only on view to the public during pilgrimages to Aachen. For example, it holds the dress of Mary and the nappy of Jesus.”
She didn’t seem surprised that her announcement was met with laughter instead of oohs and aahs. One British man on the tour repeated her claim. “The Nappy of Jesus?” he mocked, an incredulous expression on his face.
“Yes,” she confirmed. To the Brits, nappy means diaper, not men’s undergarments. But she insisted that her information was correct.
Wikipedia, it seems would concur with our tour guide: The relics include: the nappy and loin cloth of Jesus, the dress of Mary and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist, which have been shown to the congregation and to pilgrims participating in the Aachen pilgrimage every seven years since plague struck in 1349. ~Wikipedia discussing the contents of the Marienschrein.
Is it time to edit this Wikipedia entry, or is nappy truly appropriate? And what will this do for the reputation of Jesus? I can already hear the jokes now. He wore diapers as a 33-year old? Mary was really hanging onto his childhood.