Bored of Brussels bureaucrats? Fed up with Euro-federalists? Better count your blessings. Because if Aachen had lived up to its imperial aspirations, Europe would have been united 12 centuries ago, and its various nation states might never even have evolved.
The Romans founded Aachen as somewhere to unwind, away from the workaday grind of garrison towns like Cologne, but it was Charlemagne who really put this antiquated spa town on the map. At the end of the 8th century, he established his court here, and when, on Christmas Day AD800, the Pope crowned him Holy Roman Emperor, he resolved to revive the Roman Empire and make Aachen the new Rome.
Charlemagne wasn't quite a Caesar or a Constantine, but he did come close. His Holy Roman Empire straddled France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Western Germany, Northern Italy and Catalan Spain - a set of borders remarkably similar to those of the original Common Market. Yet since it took two months to send a message from one end of his realm to another, his achievement was infinitely greater. And unlike the European Union, he even persuaded the Swiss to join in.
Charlemagne chose Aachen as his capital for several reasons. Its Roman street system was still intact. Its position, between the Ardenne and the Eifel mountains, made it ideal for hunting. And Charlemagne suffered from rheumatism, which Aachen's hot sulphur springs were supposed to cure. To this natural wonder, he added a man-made one of his own.
In Britain, at least, Aachen's cathedral is one of Europe's great unsung glories. The French still call Aachen Aix-la-Chapelle, the "chapel spa", a Gallic shorthand for the city's two eternal attractions. For the first time since the fall of Rome, Western Europe had a proper empire, from Hamburg to Barcelona, and a metropolis to match.
Yet Aachen's fame was fleeting, its fall from glory as swift as its ascent. If Charlemagne had only borne one son, Aachen might have remained the capital of a united Europe to this day. But he sired three, and within a generation of his death, his grand domain had disintegrated into civil war. Eventually, it was carved up between his three grandsons. Charles claimed France, Louis took Germany and Lothar got the bit in between, the Low Countries, the Rhineland, the Saarland, Alsace and Lorraine. Aachen, archaic crossroads of the Western World, ended up sandwiched between two warring neighbours, as France and Germany fought for this fertile no man's land, off and on, for a thousand years.
Today, Aachen is in Germany, but only just. Both the Dutch and Belgian borders are merely a few miles away. And in the Second World War, its pivotal location proved to be its undoing. It was the first German city to fall to the Allies, but only after a fierce street battle. By the end, only one building in five survived, and its population had shrunk from six figures to six thousand. Aachen's decline was complete.
So whatever became of the mainland's neglected axis? And how come we've never heard of it? One reason for Aachen's British anonymity is surely our disinterest in any aspect of German history before the First World War, but another problem is probably its sheer accessibility. Once the new Rome, to where all roads led, Europe's sometime epicentre is now simply somewhere on the way to everywhere else. You're far more likely to travel through it than you ever are to actually arrive there. Which is why, even though it's only a few hours from London by train, it remains one of Deutschland's best- kept secrets. Twelve hundred years since its brief starring role as the political nucleus of the Continent, Aachen is still an unexpected treat.
After its wartime devastation, Aachen's architects could have been forgiven for tearing up its medieval street map and starting all over again. Thankfully, they opted for patient repair rather than rapid replacement, and managed to salvage the atmosphere, if not the actual fabric, of the old town. …