In the Land of Charlemagne
Friday, June 18th, 2004: Gent, Belgium
Köln via Aachen to Gent: 303 kilometres
Charlemagne is in evidence everywhere through these parts – his name, in its Latin, German, Dutch and Flemish forms appears on road signs schools, and bars as we drive through western Germany, Holland and enter Belgium.
We stop in Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital and long the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. It has gone back and forth between opposing armies over centuries, and it is perhaps an omen of a stable and long-lasting peace that today the signs throughout Aachen are trilingual – Aachen, Aken, and Aix La Chappelle.
Most of Charlemagne’s castle is gone, and we find a quaint and unexpectedly pretty town in its place; Aachen is well-accustomed to tourists, as evidenced by the high-end shops that line the streets. What is left is Charlemagne’s Dom – unexpectedly small on the outside. It must be the cathedral, it has pride of place, but we walk the exterior expressing skepticism until we find confirmation, which comes in the form of a sign announcing the cathedrals 1,200th birthday celebrations. Inside, the Cathedral is as unlike the great cathedrals of Europe as it is possible for a church to be – the influence of Byzantium is very clear, in the beautiful mosaics of black, gold and mother of pearl that cover the walls and ceiling, creating a dark and almost mysterious interior. We feel that we have been transported back to Turkey in this serene space.
Into Town for Dinner
We walk into the old town for dinner, and discover that Gent has been able, somehow, to maintain its historic look and feel in the centre. We decide that instead of driving as planned to Brugge tomorrow morning, we will spend the morning exploring Gent and will pass on Brugge, at least for the moment. (We are told repeatedly over the next day that Brugge is for tourists, Gent is more beautiful.)
From Aachen the drive to Gent takes us through the Netherlands – a tiny finger extending down to Maastricht – and into Belgium, through flat, lush farmland. We take the ring road around Brussels and get caught in Friday afternoon traffic.
Our B&B in Gent, Chambres d’Ami(e)s is a 100 year old mansion that Marc and Yves bought a few years ago and restored themselves to its original splendour – uncovering in the process the frescos on the walls of the entrance foyer that had been painted over. Despite its grandeur, Marc and Yves have turned their home into a welcoming and comfortable place, and we feel lucky to have such a nice place to call home for the night.