- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
It’s just over the border from Holland and you can reach Aachen, known as the Spa of Kings, in less than four hours by rail. There are even plans for German trains to run there directly through the Channel Tunnel from London St Pancras. So it's all aboard for a destination famous for a Holy Roman Emperor’s treasure, fine dining and a biscuit...
Aachen holds pole position on any alphabetical list – and it is first in a geographical sense too: just over the border from Belgium and Holland, it’s the closest German city to the UK. I took the Eurostar to Brussels, continuing on the high-speed line through the Ardennes.
One day, though, I’ll take a slower approach, to the imaginary rhythm of horses’ hooves in Browning’s 1838 poem How They Brought The Good News From Ghent To Aix (which refers to Aix La Chapelle, the old French name for Aachen).
They love giving prizes in Aachen, and one award shows their light side. The annual Medal for Combating Deadly Seriousness is granted to politicians, diplomats and lawyers across Europe for showing a sense of humour.
A more serious award is the Charlemagne Prize, for politicians who advance European unity. The prize commemorates Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire, who ruled from Aachen in about 800 AD and is buried in the cathedral.
The award ceremony is held in the 14th Century town hall on the market square. Another highlight is the International Newspaper Museum, reopened in 2011. Its collection includes some of the very first newspapers.
When you’ve seen the tremendous cathedral – Germany’s first Unesco World Heritage Site – head on down to the crypt for one of the finest ecclesiastical treasuries outside Italy. Prime exhibit is the medieval Cross of Lothair (990 AD), which is encased in gold and silver and encrusted with gems and pearls.
See, too, the velvet chasuble – a clerical robe – and a silver and gold bust of Charlemagne and his marble tomb decorated with a relief of the abduction of the Roman goddess Proserpina.
Taste the tradition
International catering outlets are tightening their grip on our towns and cities. But a very distinct 500-year-old local product is still sold by bakeries in this city. The Aachen Printen is a kind of hard, spicy biscuit, made in a mould and bearing an imprint of a person or scene.
The EU has given it Protected Designation of Origin status – along with Caerphilly cheese and Cornish pasties. It can be made only by bakers in and around Aachen.
They bake it with a delicious mix of cinnamon, aniseed, clove, cardamom, coriander, allspice and ginger (the proportions are secret).
Cross out that old cliche about sauerkraut and sausages washed down with steins of foaming beer.
The German kitchen is full of finesse and invention, and Restaurant Ratskeller, under the historic town hall on the main square, is an excellent ambassador.
Genial chef Maurice de Boer sat me down, gave me a copy of his book and described the four-course special he had planned, with a glass or two of outstanding Rhine wine. I can still taste the roasted pineapple with black pepper sauce, with coconut ice cream and passion fruit.