Just imagine, whilst taking a communal bath, the members of the Karlspreis (Charlemagne Award) directorate discuss the candidates for the coming year. Enveloped in hot steam, these directors of the Aachen Carnival Association (AKV Aachener Karnevalsverein) debate prospective winners of the award contrary to the deadly seriousness. Whilst in the caldarium, the committee of the Aachen-Laurensbereger horse racing association tries to keep a cool head as they draft the plans for the next international festival of equestrian sport. A strange scene? In Roman times, and even as recently as only a few hundred years ago, no one would have thought this scene in any way strange. After all, since antiquity, the joys of bathing - comparable with culinary delights - had a highly regarded social function because they combined the notion of usefulness perfectly with pleasure. Only in the 20th century has the bath as a public meeting place and communal bathing as a setting for communication for business and other official or social occasions gone out of fashion. Today, bathing is mostly associated with sport or medicine, such as in the fight against flab or the race against the clock, striving for fitness, physical balance and rehabilitation to improve people's health.
In Aachen, however, the city's almost two-thousand-year-old bathing tradition is now to be given a new lease of life, as namely a new/old bathing culture is to be founded with the Carolus Thermen thermal baths - a place where 'wellness' and 'fun', healthy relaxation and friendly communication are to be made into a truly extraordinary health experience, exploiting the hot water as a fundamental elixir of life.
"Aquae granni" - or: back to the springs
A name says a lot about a town: The fact that water has always played an important role in the history of Aachen is bound up with the city's name. After all, Aachen means water, derived from the Roman name of "Aquae granni", which in turn stems from the Celtic god of healing Grannus.
It is thus obvious, even if not yet fully scientifically documented, that it was the Celts who first discovered these hot springs with temperatures of between 45°C und 75°C in the somewhat inhospitably marshy area around Aachen's basin-shaped valley region and which they used for their own good. There is substantial evidence, however, that - shortly after the start of the Christian calendar - both of the thermal baths belonging to "Aquae granni" became a bathing and health cure resort frequented by Roman legionnaires. We are led to believe that this would have been a lively place full of hustle and bustle, since the Romans enjoyed an intensive bathing culture - and the spaciously designed premises with all their comfort and their advanced technical and interior designs presented the ideal venue for enjoying the delights of water and all manners of festivities in a social atmosphere. Medicinal prophylaxis and therapeutics were by no means the only main uses. In particular, the bath was a meeting place for enjoying oneself, discussing matters and, in a highly pleasurable way, to indulge oneself in idleness...
"He loved the warm water - often, lots of it and with particular delight".
Charlemagne and his relish of water
The spread of Christianity quickly and permanently put a stop to the physical and pleasure-orientated bathing culture of antique provenance.
Everywhere since the early Middle Ages, the benefits of water and sociability in water became discredited: after all, the concerns of the Church Fathers regarding the salvation in the next life and the corresponding spiritual purification in this life were what counted.
In such a climate of outright hostility towards the body, the pleasures of bathing no longer had a right to exist. Only in Aachen - thanks to Charlemagne - did bathing culture experience a short-lived new high point in the early Middle Ages.
Gladly told time and time again - but only borrowed from the realm of legends - is the story of Charlemagne's trusty horse, that pawed the ground with its hoof to expose the first hot spring and thus triggered the foundation of a residence at the same location. Historically correct, however, is that prior to this, Pippin, Charlemagne's father, was building an estate close to the former Roman cathedral thermal spring to which he would retreat on important special occasions. Like him, Charlemagne, whose swimming abilities were praised far and wide, appreciated relaxing at the hot springs. These were, according to the reports of his biographer Einhard, the reason for Charlemagne choosing Aachen as the permanent residence and political centre of this empire: "This is why he gladly settled in Aachen, and set up house which already had a warm bath in it."
For Charlemagne, a spacious thermal bathing facility was built on the ruins of the old Roman baths and in the immediate vicinity of his palace. He frequented the baths every day, and wherever possible was accompanied by family members, officials or guests.
In this regard at least, Charlemagne was committed to the spirit of antiquity, since, for him, too, besides the therapeutic function, bathing also had an important communicative and social role to play. Following his death, the bathing culture in Aachen diminished noticeably - and it has taken a few centuries for this city - that attracts bathing guests from all over the world - to experience for the third time an era of unspoilt bathing pleasures.
From bathing culture to the spa cult of the 18th and 19th century
In the 16th century, medicine developed a lasting interest in the benefits of water for curing all kinds of different illnesses.
Bathing in thermal water and, increasingly also drinking cures, became the standard remedy for skin and joint disorders, as well as for gastrointestinal problems and strokes.
The European nobility and the upwardly aspiring bourgeoisie, regardless of whether they were suffering or not, recognised in the medicinal recommendations a welcome reason to initiate a new travel culture. Thus, trips to spas became a status symbol and one of the most popular leisure time pursuits - to the benefit of the spa, which was able to boast wholehearted medicinal recommendations and for whom wealth and prosperity were assured.
Aachen was also supported by medicine in its rise to become one of the most famous spas in Europe. As early as 1546, doctor Franciscus Fabricius Ruremundanus from Aachen published a detailed appreciation of the healing springs in Aachen and Burtscheid. A hundred years later, Franciscus Blondel, who originated from Lüttich, set up a practice as a spa and town doctor in Aachen.
His contributions to the balneological literature of this era offered the advantage that the lay public could also understand them and, consequently, proved to be good for publicity. His "Detailed explanation and the apparent miracle effect of the healing bathing and drinking waters of Aachen" recommended Aachen's thermal springs as the first address for bathing and drinking cures. - And with lasting success. From the 18th century to around the mid 19th century, as a spa, Aachen experienced a textbook career as regards bathing culture. This involved the magnificent extension of the town with a spacious promenade and new bathing facilities, which, among other things, also included steam baths, bathing showers and single baths. This led to the building of the municipal theatre, a pump room and extensive park and green areas.
And this also entailed, above all, the arrival of guests from all corners of Europe, who came in pursuit of the glowing reputation that Aachen now enjoyed - emperors and kings, princes and bishops, statesmen, artists, Bohemians and bon vivants, Russians and Danes, Italians and French - and, last but not least, medical experts from all over the world, who journeyed here for the purpose of their own recreation and to study the Aachen springs and whose countless publications served to constantly polish the sparkling image of the town.
It goes without saying, of course, that besides the bathing activities, the social life of the town - with art and culture, with balls and games and all kinds of amusements - provided an equally beneficial contribution towards physical and mental relaxation, stimulation, cheering up of the guests: "Amongst all the places in Europe that are famous for their gatherings of foreigners, it is difficult to find another where one encounters a more substantial change in leisure time than in Aachen", writes for example Karl Ludwig Baron of Pöllnitz in 1737:
"The location of this town... and all the wondrous beauties of nature and art... are capable of inspiring curiosity in the most indifferent, or inattentive of people. ... The freedom of an informal manners that everyone otherwise wishes for, and without which the most precious moments appear routine, are focused in Aachen."
The medicinal bathing cure of the 20th century
In the late 19th century, not even the "fashionable spa" of Aachen could escape the fate of every fashion, to which they all succumb at some time or other. It was simply no longer "en vogue" amongst the rich and famous of this world, who in their quest for change and new pleasures directed their attention increasingly towards Baden-Baden, for example. Inner-city problems in Aachen itself, caused by the growing population, the growth in traffic, the spread of industry, encouraged this development.
This development did, however, prove to have a lasting effect on the medicinal cures offered here, particularly in Burtscheid, that was incorporated in 1897. Even to this date, this is the centre for in-patient medicinal bathing activities. And fashion always comes round again: The some 30 plus sulphurous springs with their high percentage of mineral and trace elements and temperatures of up to 75°C still bubble away merrily today and are just as healthy and medicinal as ever.
And every year, no fewer than 8,000 patients visit the spa of Aachen for three to four weeks at a time, where, in one of the three cure clinics under specialist medical supervision, they attend cures in a bid to speed up recovery and rehabilitation, particularly patients suffering from illnesses of the musculoskeletal system.
The Carolus Thermen Bad Aachen, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Monheimsallee health resort, will add a new, and in this form, unique facet to Aachen's bubbling diversity of bathing facilities and its history. The versatile thermal water experience landscape opens up new dimensions in water pleasures, which do not require an illness-related justification, but which can be simply enjoyed for what they are and for the sake of communal enjoyment. Water-bathing entertainment with communicative, social and also positively healthy side-effects is the motto under which Aachen is aspiring to continue the successful 2000-year-old bathing history for the next millennium...
(Text by Dr. Rita Mielke)