Now that itís definite that Betty Lou canít get her leave extended any longer, weíre trying to see as much as we can before we have to come back this summer. A recent weekend we visited Aachen, a couple of hoursí drive to the northwest near the border with the Netherlands and Belgium. Itís best known as being the headquarters of Charlemagne, or as heís known here, Karl der Gros. (The French, no doubt upset that his town is now in Germany, still refer to it as Aix-la-Chappele.)
The autobahn begins to climb as it turns north to parallel the Rhein and suddenly we were overlooking a broad valley which at first glance seemed to be covered with snow – I didnít realize there were so many fruit trees in this wine-growing area, and they were all in bloom. Later that evening we told the chef in the Aachen restaurant where we were eating that the flowering trees and bushes reminded us of the Washington area. He claimed that, because of the ice age, Europe only has 50 different trees whereas the U.S. has 500. The translation may not be exact (Iím sure the numbers are), but has anyone heard of such a thing? It seems like North America had its share of the Ice Age.
Part of the Aachen cathedral dates from Charlemagneís time (800) and thirty German kings were crowned there after him. One can view his marble throne and a carved gilded chest said to contain his bones. The later additions to the cathedral are fairly well integrated, in contrast to the nearby Rathaus (Town Hall). One end incorporates a tower from Charlemagneís original palace, the front is of the properly romantic 16th century German Gothic style, the back includes a modern glass and chrome addition, and the other end has a 17th century postal coach grafted on! Depending on the angle from which itís viewed, it ranges from conventional to garish. In the Coronation Chamber the Karl medal is annually awarded to the person contributing the most to European unity. Pictures of the award winners include most of the famous European leaders you know from the post-war period; Americans include George Marshall and Henry Kissinger. [And, more recently, Bill Clinton.]
The rest of the Old Town, a pedestrian zone as in many European cities, includes a variety of outdoor cafes, fountains, and shops, some of which had a vaguely "foreign" look to them. I suddenly realized that weíve been here long enough that the German style seems normal; even slight French (Belgian?) influences are noticeable.
The Doll Fountain includes knights, ladies, clowns and animals with movable joints which even some children enjoyed manipulating – Betty Lou was by no means the only adult participant. The weather was perfect for having a beer at an outdoor cafe and watching people – this is something weíre going to miss.
Of course, the Romans were also here, but the spa which now incorporates the mineral springs they discovered, in a big park on the north edge of town dates from the 19th century. The casinos help moderate the prices at the two-star restaurant where we dined. The next afternoon we checked the map in the front of the Michelin guide to see if there were any other noteworthy restaurants on the way back to Frankfurt. One called "The Restaurant in the Historic Inn on the Lahn" for some reason sounded familiar. The Lahn turned out to be a small river feeding into the Rhein near its junction with the Mosel, but we found the reason we had heard of it when we ordered mineral water. We were served "Selters an der Lahn," which is not only heavily advertised here but is the origin of the term "Seltzer water." We found out later that such an inn (several now claim the title) was renowned during the last century as a brothel, which is the subject of a multi-verse ditty still sung by naughty children.
Weíve used the Michelin map technique with great success – except for three-star restaurants on a weekend or during the summer thereís no problem calling from an hour away and making a reservation. However, itís easier to locate where the restaurants actually are in the larger towns, which rate their own maps on which recommended hotels and restaurants are identified. In the smaller towns, itís usually a matter of "drive into town and assume itís on the main drag." Lahnstein turned out to be a little too big for this, so we followed signs to the marketplace. Although it was Sunday, and therefore, by (German) definition, closed, we found a boy practicing wheelies on his BMX. He hadnít yet learned more English than we had German, so we hoped we were following the correct instructions. After the second left turn with several long blocks between we were straining to find a sign with the name of the street we were on when the boy zoomed out of a side street ahead of us. He had taken a shortcut through a pedestrian zone and down a one-way street the wrong way to guide us to a parking area along the Lahn. After pointing out the direction to walk along the river he pedaled off. Five minutes later, after we had changed clothes in the car (amusing to several strollers), we walked up the river, and found him waiting next to the inn to make sure we didnít miss it.
The restaurant itself was cozy, with eight tables amongst antiques: chairs with faces carved into the backs, a striking clock (that is, it struck the quarter hour – as well as being noteworthy), framed woodcuts and an ornate bar. Through the window was a terrace overlooking the Lahn. Towards the end of the meal, we saw the chef walk across the terrace and return with some herbs; the mint garnished our homemade Eis dessert.
It was after dark when we left. On the hill across the river to the left we saw an illuminated castle that we hadnít noticed when we arrived. We turned to the right towards our car, and saw another one – thatís another thing weíre going to miss!