Off-topic and Chatter: The Jolly Boar Inn => General Chatter - The Boozer => Topic started by: Jubal on June 03, 2019, 10:16:47 PM

Title: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Jubal on June 03, 2019, 10:16:47 PM
Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen

It was in Aachen when I really realised where I was going. I’d planned this trip in advance of course – a night in Maastricht, then two in the small Belgian town of Opglabbeek, seeing some good friends and knocking two countries off my “not yet visited” list in disconcertingly quick succession. But in Aachen, waiting for the connecting train to Maastricht, I looked at some of the local light rail and bus timetables briefly, listened to the conversations, and it entirely hit me that I wasn’t, in fact, really “in Germany and about to go to the Netherlands”. That was technically true, but in fact I was just somehow… in Europe. The voices around me mingled French, German, Dutch and English in a swirling mixture, the local public transport simply ignored the technicalities of border distinctions. It was a funny thing to have happen in the city of Charlemagne, this appreciation of how intertwined this part of Europe now was. Maastricht was only to confirm that view.


The Helpoort. I had lunch at the cafe in the background.
Maastricht, where I arrived a little over an hour later, is according to numerous observers not so much a Dutch city as a polyglot European one that happens to be attached to the Netherlands for administrative purposes. It sticks out awkwardly on a territorial lobe that heads southwards - and thus upland and inland, and into majority Catholic country - from the wide, flat Netherlands to the north. In my native UK, its name is synonymous with the treaty that bears its name, the result of one of many international negotiations hosted by Maastricht in the last century or two - but one notable in the UK for sparking the Conservative Party civil wars in the 1990s, which in turn ultimately formed a prequel to the Brexit narrative currently unfolding; and it is an appropriate impact for a city that comes across as publicly and almost fiercely European to have had.

As one of the only Dutch cities that can reasonably trace its lineage back to the Roman era, it’s a city to which the idea of Europe is nothing especially new. Situated well to dominate a vital ford across the Maas (or Meuse) river, the city’s strategic position was claimed by the Romans, sat at the heart of the Carolingian Empire, and then had its governance shared between the prince-Bishops of Liege and a succession of secular actors – the Dukes of Brabant, the Spanish crown, the Dutch estates-general, and on several occasions the French. At almost any given time, then, the dominant power of the European mainland has counted Maastricht within its domains. Its fortifications have surprisingly large surviving sections considering this fact, including the Helpoort, a 13th century gate which is the oldest surviving city gate in the Netherlands. The ‘Hell Gate’ is an eighteenth century name, and for most of its history this was known as the High Bridge Gate, standing where the bridge over the Jeker would once have been, just north of the city park. The Helpoort is an impressive building and has a detailed museum display in Dutch inside and a fairly nice open-air café quite nearby – sadly the construction of the building does not allow for good views from it, but the display was interesting even as a non-Dutch speaker and English guidebooks (and a helpful English speaker on the desk) are available.

Europe’s largest non-state actor for the past two millennia, the Catholic church, was very much involved in the city as well, with the city’s two Basilicas, that of the Armenian Saint Servatius and the Basilica of Our Lady, the latter of which I was able to look around, enjoying the dark and somewhat atmospheric space. The modern, more secular-leaning Maastricht has ended up with so many spare religious buildings that it has practically developed “converted church” into an architectural style. One of the crowning glories of this is the former Dominican church that now houses a three-storey bookshop and cafe. The English language section thereof is extensive and has a SF/Fantasy shelving area that would be very respectable indeed in a similarly sized English bookshop; perhaps sadly or perhaps fortunately, I felt I was carrying quite enough luggage as it was.

The beaver of Maastricht, tucking into some food.
I was hosted by two old friends from the UK who are now living in Maastricht (one of them being Exilian’s Fish Priest) – it was very good to see them both, and after chatter about Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, and a good dinner, we went for a walk down the Jeker, a small river that feeds into the Maas in the city. Having been wandering through the city and its parks earlier, I had noted (besides the fact that everything was really very pretty) that there were an astonishing number of painted tortoises sunbathing on one of the ponds in the main city park. An American species, the painted tortoise is now well established on city ponds across Europe largely due to introductions and escapes from pet populations, and I had seen them in Frankfurt – but seeing thirty or so clustered on a small island, with moorhens and coot carefully picking their way around them, was still a surprise, as it was to my hosts, so we went looking for them. We did indeed find some swimming around in the late evening light, but they were rather surpassed by a much larger semi-aquatic visitor to the pond – which, as the eagle-eyed of you will no doubt have spotted already from my accompanying photograph to this part of the piece, was a Eurasian beaver.

Eurasian beavers, a distinct species from their American cousins, are on the increase across Europe after being nearly hunted to extinction by around 1900, and the smaller rivers and wetlands around Maastricht are known to have them. That fact did not in any sense decrease the surprise at seeing, one or two metres away, a beaver in the central park of a city, entirely unbothered by the excitable hairless apes chattering and pointing funny black boxes at it and just getting on with mowing through the grass with all the gusto that over twenty kilograms of rodent can muster (which, for the record, is plenty). Not far off a metre long even discounting the tail, beavers are the second heaviest rodents in the world after capybaras, and one really gets a sense of that size when privileged to have such a good view of one. Whilst the light wasn’t fantastic, I did my best to get some good pictures – none quite perfect, but some quite acceptable results thanks more to my supremely relaxed subject than any ability on my own part. A mix of Dutch and English chatter ensued as tourists, students, and residents alike stopped to be captivated by its stoical and businesslike progress through consuming the local flora - it was a strangely unifying moment for people from different walks of life. All was not to remain peaceful for the beaver though, as two mute swans sailed up with all the grace of high class Mafiosi – outnumbered two to one as much as the human observers were rooting for it, and faced with a barrage of threatening hisses, the beaver first retreated along the bank and then slipped back into the water, heading out towards the Jeker again to make good its escape. It’s probably the most exciting wildlife sighting I’ve had this year at least; being able to get such a close view was definitely a privilege, and one I was glad I could record.


A nature reserve near Opglabbeek - the frogs in this pool were extremely vocal!
The next morning, I headed to Genk on the bus, crossing the seamless border into northern Belgium, and then changed at the station to head onward to Opglabbeek, where I would be staying for the next two nights. Rural Flanders of all places reminded me strangely of Lincolnshire in the UK – a somewhat rolling countryside with a mix of mostly twentieth or nineteenth century brick buildings of one to two storeys, some flat-topped shops, advertising hoardings, and a somewhat bric-a-brac approach to planning in which little thought had been given to consistency and demand had not been so high as to fill in the gaps between the houses. This region, and Maastricht’s part of the Netherlands, are both known as Limburg – a curious name, since the historical Duchy of Limburg actually incorporated none of this territory, and lay further south in what’s now Belgium’s Liege province, as can be seen from the location of Limbourg itself. The modern Limburg, straddling Belgium and the Netherlands, was originally to be called Maastricht Province after its main city, but William I of the post-Napoleonic Netherlands was loath for the name of the Duchy of Limburg to be lost from the organisation of his new state, and solved the problem by relabelling Maastricht province to that effect.

Opglabbeek, whose name means something like “clear beck”, was bundled into that new Limburg like many other nearby places. In the medieval period it was within the County of Loon, dominated by the aforementioned prince-Bishops of Liege and roughly coterminous with modern Belgian Limburg, though the Abbey of Averbode were the direct overlords here. The modern town has a small, open, centre of shops, with its old church at its heart (which sadly I wasn’t able to look inside). Parts of the church are medieval, parts early modern, and parts twentieth century – in general, the town feels more modern than old in its building style, having grown rapidly post-industrialisation.

The friend I was staying with there, besides being an excellent host, is a hammered dulcimer player and singer who performs as Elvya Dulcimer and whose YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZNSK2cb_wTE48asn8Frrvg) is very well worth a listen with two albums if you find you like the results! I got a brief chance to try playing the instrument myself, but fortunately for the world no recordings were made of the attempt! As she’s a fan of barefoot walking, I followed suit for much of the time I was there, which was another interesting aspect of the trip as a whole. I definitely felt the lack of my guitar, which is currently sitting in Vienna and which my current wrist RSI problems make it difficult to play for long periods in any case – not that the woods of Belgium ended up devoid of music on either of our parts, as voices at least are portable.

One of the two imposing towers of C-mine. The metal wall on the left is part of the maze.
Elvya is among other things a fairly serious player of Ingress, so this trip reintroduced me to Niantic-style mobile gaming which I hadn’t touched since 2016 – nonetheless my Pidgeot named Rustaveli and my Bulbasaur named Alexiad were still sitting on Niantic’s servers so I fired Pokemon Go up again and spent a while playing as we were going around the area. These sorts of geographically focused games which encourage players to move and find different stops are interesting, and clearly excellent for building local communities of players, not just for playing but for metagame aspects like submitting and placing new stops – two of which in the area my friend had created by doing pieces of street art where she wanted the stop to be and submitting those! I still find Pokemon Go frustrating after a while due to the lack of tactics and the extent to which one gets swamped with carrying around over a hundred Pokemon (at which point, naturally, remembering which is which gets rather futile). The charm for me of a game like Pokemon is the idea of building my own team and then carefully using them, whereas the approach adopted in Pokemon Go feels rather blunter and more based on doing a lot of screen tapping which is less to my taste.

Back in the real world (or as close to it as this leg of the trip got, at least) our travels took us out to the woods around Opglabbeek twice, both an interesting insight into the area and its wildlife. The clear beck that gives Opglabbeek its name, the Bosbeek, flows through an area of significant natural importance, with dense wet woodland but also sandy ridges and dune formations. The mixture of dry and wet woodland, grassland, and ponds provide a wide range of local habitats, and numerous very pleasant walks. Beavers are growing in number in the landscape, and we saw at least two dams while there. Without binoculars and given the hot weather I had little luck with the local birds, and wished on more than one occasion that I was better at identifying bird noises – there were definitely interesting things there and a wide range of calls to be heard. I did a little better with the local invertebrates and amphibians, it has to be said, and got some good practice with the macro setting on my camera. There were lots of very loud frogs, and baby frogs crossing the path regularly as well; this area hosts two frog species of European interest, the moor and pool frogs. The sandy parts of the woods host ant-lions among other things, though these were sadly not so forthcoming.

Some of the sundials in Sundial Park - note the digital display sundial on the left!
Besides the forests, there were also trips to Genk itself. Unlike Maastricht, Genk is a fairly new city – a quiet backwater for centuries, its great resource only came into use in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a brief, heady, and indeed literal blaze, and is all but gone again today. That resource is coal, and one of Genk’s two main attractions today for tourists (and mobile gamers, as it turns out) is C-mine, a cultural/creative centre and cinema built around two now disused coal mine towers which are left standing as part of the city’s cultural legacy. A maze at the centre of the complex provides some artistic shots and its rough metal feel gives a certain post-industrial dignity to the place. Genk’s miners were in many cases migrants, and today the town is very diverse as a result. One friend who we went to C-mine with and who kindly discussed several aspects of the place with me was from a Greco-Turkish family who had come to dig coal and stayed. Those from new families will just as happily give you a joking warning about the dangers of going to Wallonia as the longer-rooted members of the Flemish population, of course – some things are pretty unifying in Flanders.

Genk’s other major attraction is Sundial Park, which I can wholeheartedly recommend if you happen to be in town on a nice day. As the name implies, it’s a park full of sundials – twelve of them, each with very different workings, including a book sundial, a sundial that contains a moondial for time telling at night, and what was apparently the world’s first public digital sundial, in which a clever arrangement of slits allows the sun to shine through clearly readable numbers to tell the time. All of the pieces are fascinating (though one or two are sadly lacking necessary parts), and I enjoyed my trip there enough that I took an hour out of the journey home to go and have another look at several of them. It’s a nice park generally too, with some chickens and goats by way of animal enclosures, a large lake with some impressive ornamental water-birds that look a bit like a cross between a turkey, a mallard, and a tyrannosaurus, a lot of moorhens, and some woodland areas where I found and photographed a field-mouse. If you want to find out more about Sundial Park and how its attractions work, I can very much recommend the online guide written by Dutch engineer Frans Maes (http://www.fransmaes.nl/genk/welcome-e.htm), which I used myself as a guide to the park and which was very helpful.

After a rather epic scale dinner at Sashimi, Genk’s rather good all you can eat sushi restaurant, a night-wander back through Sundial Park found me in a contemplative mood – when one finds oneself sitting on part of a giant Belgian sundial, at night, in the dark, with a belly full of Japanese cuisine and no shoes on, contemplation seems like the best activity to engage in. The next morning nonetheless beckoned me onwards, via the aforementioned final stop in Sundial Park, towards Maastricht. My train was booked for half past six from Maastricht, but arriving there at around two I made a quick decision to cut off the early part of the journey and hop on a bus to where I would meet my connection – that is, I headed back to Aachen. It was not a decision I in any way regretted.


The Elisenbrunnen - note the cathedral roof in the background.
The bus pulled up next to Aachen’s Elisenbrunnen park, which boasts a rather nice colonnade-type building (the Elisenbrunnen itself) at the bottom in which some classical musicians were playing. It’s a small park and was fairly packed with people, though worth a visit nonetheless for the small pavilion of historic ruins which contains a good potted exhibition guide to the city’s history, from its beginnings as a Celtic settlement where people gathered at the hot sulphurous springs and worshipped the god Grannus, hence the subsequent Roman town of Aquae Grannus. From a Roman bath town, it became Charlemagne’s preferred residence in the heyday of his Empire – the twenty years in which Aachen was his main winter residence were just a short episode in the city’s history, but they determined much of its future. In the distance, above the buildings, I could already see Aachen’s cathedral – built with the octagon of Charlemagne’s palatine chapel still standing at its heart.

Inside Odo of Metz's octagonal masterpiece.
It was over a century between Charlemagne’s death and the decision of Otto I to claim his legacy for his Ottonian dynasty by being crowned in Aachen, on the surprisingly plain throne that his Carolingian predecessor had placed there and which still sits on the upper level facing the choir, just about visible, today. Otto’s decision set the trend so that for half a millennium, German kings followed that road to this otherwise relatively unassuming and neutral city, before in the early modern period coronations finally moved to larger and more powerful Frankfurt. The cathedral was extended in the late middle ages with a huge gothic choir, impressive in its own right, with vast stained-glass windows. It is the Carolingian octagon, though, surviving past French and Spanish invasions in the early modern period and even heavy Allied bombing in the 1940s, that forms the real majesty of the building. We even know the name of the architect, Odo of Metz, who may have been of Armenian origin according to some sources, from a tenth century inscription around the dome (along with St. Servatius this makes two Armenians mentioned in this piece, which is two more than I expected to turn up in a piece on a trip to the low countries!) In any case, whatever Odo's origins, if any of us can put our name to something quite so impressive, standing so long, we will have done well indeed.

The octagon is free to enter, with a one euro charge to take pictures – though it’s tricky to take anything that really gets the scale of a building that is far taller than it is wide. A squat ground layer gives way to high Roman-era columns and arches that reach towards a high golden roof, with neatly chosen stonework and beautifully made mosaic, with utterly stunning mosaic ceilings around the edge of the octagon which support the mezzanine level on which Charlemagne’s throne (not accessible to the public) can be found. Many of the staples of medieval church art are there, such as the medieval pelican, but also a lion, a rooster, a ship, and numerous birds can be found. Even the borders and pattern designs are individually extremely impressive pieces of work. I frequently find the highly decorated cathedrals of mainland Europe to be too artistically busy for me for me to appreciate them, but Aachen retains sufficient consistency and is of such quality that it was simply an overwhelmingly beautiful place to visit.

The "Oliphant of Charlemagne" - probably actually of 11th century Mediterranean origin.
The artworks and relics of the church, and the nearby Cathedral treasury which can be found just to the north of the cathedral courtyard and which is also well worth looking through, are an impressive collection both in their antiquity and their historical resonances. The mighty golden 12th century Karlsschrein in the choir of the cathedral contains Charlemagne’s probable remains, while the smaller 13th century Marienschrein (Shrine of Mary) contains the principal relics of the church – the supposed loincloth and swaddling cloth of Jesus, the dress of Mary, and the execution cloth of John the Baptist. The octagon’s chandelier was donated by Frederick Barbarossa in the 12th century, and the golden, gem-studded pulpit and golden altar front are 11th century additions. In the treasury, meanwhile, a number of other treasures linked to Charlemagne can be found, including the ‘Oliphant’, a beautiful elephant ivory hunting horn which in fact post-dates Charlemagne by a century or two, an eighth century Damascus steel knife which apocryphally belonged to him as well, and a Roman era sarcophagus which according to some was his original resting place before his remains were reinterred in the Karlsschrein some centuries later. Beside these, a number of impressive relics and heraldic items are on display, including the crown of Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV who married Charles the Bold of Burgundy – between that and the 11th century sheath of Charlemagne’s hunting knife, on which the inscription is in Old English, it served as a surprising reminder (though it should have been no surprise at all) of how inseparable my home islands have always been from the workings of the continent they are a part of.

I wandered Aachen’s streets for a short while as well, looking at the Rathaus, itself an immensely impressive building with some elements of its 14th century construction and style surviving, sitting north of the Cathedral and just south of the main old market square. Just south of the Cathedral its small predecessor, the Grashaus, also survives and can be seen. I also got to see both of the city’s surviving city gates, part of a once extremely impressive double wall fortification system – the Ponttor, in the north, is the more impressive of the two, and contains the statue of Mary in her traditional niche, watching still over a gateway that no longer guards the entrance to her city. The other surviving gate, the Marschiertor, is easy to see even if you have only a short stop in the city as it's conveniently placed five minutes walk from the station to which, regretfully, I had at last to head to make my way home.


And so I left Charlemagne’s Imperial capital, whose very existence was undoubtedly a recognition that something had changed in post-Roman Europe – that the reins of power could be held on the Rhine and Maas as much as on the Tiber. Since that twenty year period, twelve hundred years ago, this part of Europe has been skipping between its warring neighbours, servicing their aspirations to power, adapting to their shifting borders, and eventually rolling out the tables and chairs when they finally decided to sit down and talk, drawing the world around them quietly but inexorably together. For much of Europe, the modern, borderless reality we now live in is still a brave and exciting new departure; for the cities around Aachen and the Limburg borderlands, it is hard not to see that reality instead as a vindication of the long arc of their history. And on the train back to Frankfurt I wondered, as I reflected on friends made and sights seen, and as I started to write this piece, whether just maybe they’d managed to draw me, too, into being a part of that European journey.
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Glaurung on June 05, 2019, 12:10:56 AM
Many thanks for this: thoughtful and thought-provoking as ever. Once again, you've explored places that I've passed through but not properly looked at. Aachen cathedral in particular has moved up my "to do" list.
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Jubal on June 07, 2019, 11:04:18 PM
Yes - it's somewhere I'd happily go back to :) I've got a bunch of pictures of the ceiling mosaics if anyone's interested?
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Glaurung on June 08, 2019, 09:26:27 AM
I've got a bunch of pictures of the ceiling mosaics if anyone's interested?
Ooh, yes please!

Incidentally, some other places you might like to visit:
- another octagonal chapel: the Convento de Cristo in Tomar, Portugal. The Convento was built as the headquarters of the Portuguese branch of the Knights Templar.
- mosaics (and general breath-takingness): Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Jubal on June 08, 2019, 11:25:23 PM
Right, here we are! :)

The Hagia Sophia is unsurprisingly already on my list - the Convento de Cristo sounds well worth it as well, though, thankyou!

And without further ado, lots of ceilings...

General ceilings

Side ceilings - patterning like this covers most of the ceilings around the edge of the octagon, plus some detail panels shown below.
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Altarpiece. Angels and cross decoration.
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Edging on altarpiece decoration. Stunning 3D effect work:
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Main octagon dome. Redone in the baroque era, hence the much more fluid painted style. The columns you can see are genuine Roman originals moved by Charlemagne for the construction, and the chandelier you're looking through is Frederick Barbarossa's 12th century donation:
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Nb not all the details are here, though I think I have pictures of all the main detail panels - this is a decent chunk of the ones I liked most anyway.

Birds at the top of a column section:
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And some different column topping birds. I have a feeling these might be meant to be woodpeckers?
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Green woodpecker for comparison:
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Birds with tail streamers and serpent in the tree of knowledge:
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Lion, looking rather grumpy:
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Ship - interesting because it has an eye at the front, which I don't mentally associate with ships as late as this period, don't know if it's accurate or a classicising reference in the art:
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Five loaves and a fish - presumably a feeding the five thousand reference, though the fish seems to be very much alive and in water here:
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One of the classic medieval images, the pelican biting its breast to feed its young on its own blood, a popular medieval myth about parental devotion:
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Doves (I think) around a fountain. Not sure what the significance is, but super pretty:
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Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Glaurung on June 09, 2019, 02:23:22 PM
Many thanks. Wow - these are amazing: a blaze of light and beauty out of one of the more obscure periods of European history.

Could you say more about the classical imagery of the eye on the ship? I had no idea this was a classical theme; to me it recalls Ged's boat Lookfar (from Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea), with eyes painted on its prow. That is justified in its own terms in the book, so it never occurred to me that there might be a much longer real-world history.
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Jubal on June 09, 2019, 05:55:07 PM
Oh yes - ancient ships often (hard to say "usually" because lack of direct evidence) had eyes on the prow. Possibly to ward off evil (apotropaic eyes), possibly to "help the ship find its way" and represent a supernatural consciousness that could guide the ship (eyes as epiphanies). It's a completely standard thing to see on ship depictions in Greco-Roman art.

Academic paper for a good long-read on the Greek phenomenon, which suggests that the eyes may have been made of marble!

For examples from art, take a look at this Greek pot:

Or this Roman mosaic from Tunisia:

I can't find anything on whether the practice continued into the early medieval era though, annoyingly...
Title: Re: Amid the Building of Europe: A Trip to Limburg and Aachen
Post by: Jubal on June 26, 2019, 10:36:20 PM
Update on this - apparently the mosaic designs are actually vastly later than I realised - the original was mosaiced, but the current mosaic & designs are in large part C19 copies of Ravenna/Istanbul mosaics. Which then raises the question of whether the ship design is a nineteenth century classicising reference, or whether it was taken from a Byzantine/Late Roman one...