Holy emperors! It's the birthplace of Europe

Unity takes on a new meaning when Jeremy Atiyah travels with his father to Aachen to visit Charlemagne's grave
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The Independent Travel

It is not easy choosing a holiday destination for you and your father, when you are already 40 years old. I was wondering if we might take a week in Greece, or Spain, in early summer. Instead, we are going to Aachen, in Germany, by train, in the middle of the winter.

It is not easy choosing a holiday destination for you and your father, when you are already 40 years old. I was wondering if we might take a week in Greece, or Spain, in early summer. Instead, we are going to Aachen, in Germany, by train, in the middle of the winter.

My dad insists. "Charlemagne is buried there," he explains. "The first Holy Roman Emperor! The founder of European unity!"

And so do things begin to make sense. My dad is the type who goes misty-eyed at the thought of the peoples of Europe coming together in harmony. He loves the Roman empire, the Mediterranean, sunshine, fresh fruit and wine. The trouble is that he doesn't like cold weather, sauerkraut or beer.

I just have to hope for the best. Anyway, it won't be a long trip. We are going by Eurostar to Brussels, and then on to Aachen. To be on the safe side, although this is the nethermost of low seasons, my dad has gone to prodigious lengths to book his train tickets weeks in advance, visiting half the travel agents in southern England in the process.

And although we are going only just beyond Belgium, when we meet at Waterloo I find him dressed for Siberia. "You're ready then?" I mumble, looking at his Russian fur hat and padded gloves and trench coat. He could be a general in the Soviet army. "The last time I went to Brussels," he reminds me, sternly, "was in 1938." He seems to be suggesting that it would be wise to be ready for any outcome.

Off we go. It is dark and wet. Our journey through the tunnel to Belgium seems normal to me, though my dad can't understand why we are being served a meal at 11 o'clock in the morning. "What do they think this is, lunch-time?" he exclaims indignantly, having dismissed, with some contempt, the offer of champagne. What's more we have only 20 minutes to make our connection to Aachen, and we look like being late into Brussels. In the event, we are obliged to run for it, which may be the first time my dad has does any kind of running since 1963.

An hour later, though, he is beginning to cheer up. We are reaching Germany. As we cross the border, somewhere between Liège and Aachen, the sky is almost pitch black, and he has begun recalling his last visit to this part of Germany – during that same trip in 1938. "Yes, now let me see," he suddenly exclaims, trying to peer out into the darkness, "where are those famous German autobahns?"

In Aachen itself, by the time we arrive, my dad seems contented. It's a tidy, medium-sized provincial town. He keeps marvelling at the nicely painted apartment blocks. The only trouble is that he can't help talking about the war in a loud voice wherever we go. "I don't know if we really needed to smash them so thoroughly," he muses, looking at the passers-by.

Anyway, the main reason for our presence here is to visit the relics of Charlemagne, which we begin doing the next day. Under dark skies, we amble through the lanes in the centre of town, which are full of brightly lit shops selling gingerbread and tarts and cakes and biscuits. Hardly anyone is out in this freezing wind, except us.

Our first stop is the Schatzkammer ("treasury"), containing Aachen's hoarded treasures from the past 1,200 years. My dad seems suitably impressed. The first thing we see is the famous life-sized bust of Charlemagne, made of partly gilded silver and covered in antique gems and cameos. Charlemagne's real cranium, we read, is enclosed behind this forehead, in the "anatomically correct position". In the next room, we find the 1,000-year-old gold Cross of Lothair, studded with huge precious stones. My dad begins marvelling aloud at the altars, reliquaries, chalices, sceptres and crowns, all embodying the spirit of European unity.

By now we are ready to enter the church itself, built by Charlemagne more than 1,200 years ago. Only when we find ourselves signing up for the compulsory guided tour does my dad suddenly look suspicious. "What?" he exclaims. "A guided tour in German?" And he begins muttering darkly about this whole trip having been a waste of time, until our guide actually appears.

Like most Germans, she speaks perfect English. From her, we immediately learn that the cathedral was the first monument in Germany to be included in the Unesco Cultural Heritage list. All I have seen of the building until now has been a sooty, scaffolding-clad conglomeration of steeples and vaults and porches. But the moment we step inside, we can see what the fuss is about. We are standing under a 1,200-year-old octagonal tower. Galleries rise up around us to a distant ceiling that is almost lost in the gloom. A colossal chandelier suspended on a dizzyingly long chain hangs almost to our faces: in fact, this turns out to be a recent addition, a mere 800 years old, given in the 12th century by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. "After organising the canonization of Charlemagne," our guide informs us, "Barbarossa declared the inhabitants of Aachen to be freemen, and the burgher-community was granted liberal rights of coinage and commerce ..."

My dad likes the sound of this. It seems to fit perfectly with his ideas of European unity. "Yes yes," he keeps exclaiming, "Frederick ... I must read more on him ..."

Meanwhile, our guide is taking us through the Gothic choir, to one gilded shrine containing the relics of Charlemagne, and another containing the nappies of the infant Jesus. She then leads us upstairs to the gallery to inspect an ancient marble throne on which 32 German kings were crowned. Tests prove that the throne dates back to the age of Charlemagne himself.

What single object, suggests our guide, could be more sacred in the history of European unity than this? "How marvellous!" sighs my dad. Whereupon we leave the church, well satisfied with our discoveries. Just round the corner, stands the gothic City Hall, built up from the ruins of a separate annexe of Charlemagne's palace. We gaze at its great façade, still decorated with the statues of the Holy Roman emperors. In a vaulted hall within, we learn that the annual "Charlemagne Prize" is awarded for services to the ideal of European unity. Up the stairs hang pictures of previous winners, who include Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath and Tony Blair. My dad is nodding in approval, once he has got over his hilarity at finding that the German word for city hall, Rathaus, sounds exactly like "Rat House".

By now it's almost time for dinner. I propose something authentic: a knuckle of pork with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, and a litre of beer. "Beer for dinner?" chokes my dad, as we step into a cosy inn, with dark panelling. There's a nasty moment when he can't find any wine at all on the menu, and Charlemagne's reputation looks to be in the gravest doubt. Only after studying the small print does he find that wine is served by the glass; only then can he possibly agree to drink a toast to European unity.

The Facts

Getting there

Eurostar (0870 160 6600; www.eurostar.com) offers return Leisure fares to Aachen via Brussels from £85 return if you book 14 days in advance.

Further information

For accommodation, contact the German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.de).

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