Finally getting around to my travels from this past vacances de Noël! As you probably know, I spent my holidays in two different countries– Germany and Spain– so I will be starting with the former since it was the first destination that I visited. With that said, let’s get to it!
My Christmas holidays began early this year, since I’d asked my school if I could actually leave Thursday to head over to Germany for the Christmas markets, one of the things on my bucket list that I’d been meaning to do whilst being in Europe. Granted, I had classes to teach on Thursday, and I tried to see if I could make up hours earlier in the week with the ones I would be missing, but in the end, my colleagues were fine with me going early, which was really nice of them.
In any case, I took the train over to Paris, then transferred to Gare du Nord, which would be where I would be catching the train over to Aachen (or “Aix-la-Chapelle” in French), my first destination in Germany. I would be taking the Thalys train, which I’d actually taken before the year before when I went to Belgium.
Funny enough, I had trouble navigating Gare du Nord, just because I never took trains from there, so I got a bit lost, first trying to find the area which served international trips (namely, Germany), then to find my platform, then to get on the correct train to Germany, because strangely enough, there were two different trains on the same platform, one of them heading only to Belgium and the other heading to both Belgium and Germany. A bit of a headache, but after asking two shopkeepers at the gare for directions, and realizing that I’d gotten on the only-Belgium train beforehand and practically running over to the front of the platform to get the actual train to Germany, I could finally settle down and enjoy the two to three-hour ride over to Aachen.
I was very impressed with the Thalys train: I found the seats to be plush and spacious, along with a phone charger and even Wifi on-board (wasn’t the strongest connection, but still something!). There was even a minibar at the back of the train, which was quite nice. Definitely made my journey over to Germany a pleasant one.
Arrived at the Aachen Hauptbahnhof (main train station) around 18h30 and made my way over to my hostel. It was only a two-minute walk from the station, and so I finally arrived, checked in, and went up to the all-female dorm, of which I shared with two other hostel goers. Although there weren’t any lockers to store my belongings (which made me nervous), the room was all right and considering that it was more of a “private” one had others I’d stayed in (three people to a room), I actually liked it. The shower was also stocked with tissue paper and bath gel/shampoo, so that was a plus!
I didn’t spend too long inside the dorm, just because I wanted to check out the Christmas market as soon as possible. With that said, I dropped my belongings off and headed back out to make my way to the town center, about a fifteen-minute walk. Along the way, I passed by the Theater Aachen and the Elisenbrunnen, which are places that house musical/play productions and cultural events with thermal fountains, respectively.
I made it over to the Christmas market, centered in front of the Aachen Cathedral and also the Rathaus, or town hall. Tons of people– locals and tourists alike– were everywhere, wandering through the stalls, eating street snacks, drinking mulled wine, and otherwise making merry and enjoying the festive season in the night. The square was certainly decked out with numerous stalls, lights, and Christmas cheer:
I first popped into a Nobis store to purchase the famous Aachener printen, which is a sort of gingerbread biscuit that is a local thing in Aachen. My German assistante flatmate, who is from Aachen, had recommended that I try it when I was visiting, so I bought a small bag of assorted flavors (chocolate, nuts, original) and headed out to check out the market stalls, which at one of them I squeezed through a large crowd of people for some mulled wine.
Now interestingly, it is necessary to pay a deposit of 3 euros for the cup that comes with your wine, as a way to prevent people from stealing or otherwise taking them home as a present. Ingenious idea, if you ask me…that said, I paid 6 euros in total (3 euros for the deposit, 3 euros for the mulled wine itself), drank the wine (super deliciously, by the way, hot and well-spiced: probably one of the best mulled wines I’ve had so far!), returned the empty cup and got my 3 euros back.
I wandered around the Christmas market some more, checking out the stalls selling artwork, including intricately-designed glass ornaments, wood carvings, and of course, knitted scarves and hats for the long, cold winter to come…mind you, it actually wasn’t that cold when I visited Aachen; I found it on-par with the temperature in Normandy, which I’d gotten accustomed to, so it turned out to be a pleasant stay when I was there!
Around 21h00, I decided to call it a night, tired after having traveled for a good part of the day to get to Germany. I headed back to my hostel where I met another American in my dorm, and we talked for a bit before I turned in for the night, since I needed to wake up early to catch a ride to Cologne, where I would be doing a day trip (more on that in the next post).
The day after, it was my last full day in Aachen. My train back to Paris wasn’t until the late afternoon, so after checking out of the hostel at 10h00, I spent the whole day on foot exploring Aachen in the day time. Of course, I headed back to the town center, with the Christmas markets and the cathedral looming in the background. I saw that one of the market stands was opened and selling reibekuchen, which is very similar to latkes (potato pancakes) and also came with applesauce. The portions were surprisingly large, but for 3,50 euros, I wasn’t complaining! Hot and hearty, they were the ultimate comfort food for an otherwise overcast, drizzly morning.
I wandered around the cathedral and town hall, enjoying the fact that it was still early so there were less people around. When I’d come the night that I’d arrived, it was crowded to the point that at times, I felt claustrophobic- that said, visiting the markets in the daytime was a relief to me!
After a while, I decided to head out of the center, and instead check out Lousberg, which is a neighborhood located on the hill of Aachen. Once again, my German assistante flatmate recommended that I climb the hill to get panoramic views of the town and I, being a sucker for good views and willing to work for that, made it my mission to go.
With that said, I set off on foot past the Rathaus, passing by Ponttor, one of the two remaining gates from the original city wall (the other being Marschiertor, which I saw earlier in the morning). Walked up the hill through the residential area before making my way to a park-forest kind of area where the views were to be. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a clear view of Aachen, because there were trees blocking it! Either people hadn’t come to clear the trees or I wasn’t in the right area to see it, but in any case I ended up leaving without the view, which was disappointing, but perhaps another time…
I also tried to see if I could go see the Carolus Thermen, which is a sort of thermal baths resort that’s well-known in Aachen; interestingly, the town itself is both a spa resort and a university town, so I can imagine that lots of tourists and young people come over from all over. Again, I got lost trying to find it, even wandering through a really large park, but when I did find it, I ended up not going in, just because one had to pay for the thermal baths and I realized that I hadn’t bring swimwear to do so. I left and ended up returning to the town center where I visited the inside of the Aachen Cathedral, which was absolutely lavish with its high ceilings and gilded interior all over the walls. You could tell that this cathedral had some serious money with the amount of gold that was inside. I believe the cathedral, along with the town, is dedicated to Charlemagne, the King of the Franks back in the eighth and ninth centuries who lived part of his life in Aachen and died there as well. Lots of fascinating history within the gilded walls, and I was glad to have checked it out.
I also briefly visited the Fischmarkt, a small, cute square near the cathedral, before making my way to see the Super C, which is a modern-architectural building that is part of the sciences department at the RWTH Aachen University. Finally, I was pretty much done with visiting the places that I wanted to visit, and headed back to the hostel where I just stayed in the lobby to rest until it was time to catch the train back to Paris for the evening.
Overall, I found Aachen to be a very charming town; if I had to compare it to another town or city in Europe, then I would say that it is very similar to Rouen in Normandy, France, at least in terms of size and atmosphere. There’s a very local feel to it, with the Christmas markets and the way the town is laid-out, and I quite liked it. Not to forget again that the mulled wine that I had that night was one of the best I’ve ever had! Great markets, great food- I had a good time.
I’ll be sharing my day trip to Cologne, Germany soon, so stay tuned! À bientôt.