Brussels to Cologne

On The Road Travel Essays

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Brussels to Cologne

Louvain  Situated to the north of the highway is the city of Louvain (Leuven in Flemish), a city of 40,000 people and the capital of the old Duchy of Brabant. It is the center of Catholic intellectual life in Belgium and possibly in all of Europe. This is due mainly to its university, one of the world's great institutions of learning. Thousands of students from all over the world, many from the U.S. come here to study in every field from folklore to phenomenology. The university goes back to 1432, and was one of the largest in Europe by the 16th century, when it had more than 6,000 students in 52 colleges.

Liege  Called Luik in Flemish, Liege is Belgium's greatest industrial city, with a population of over 500,000. Many of the people work in the sprawling iron and steel refineries on the outskirts of the city (that's what all the smokestacks are about). But Liege has its cultural associations too: the 19th-century composer Cesar Franck was born in Liege, and the University of Liege offers some of the best science and engineering courses in Europe. The city's Walloon (French-speaking) population is known for its liveliness, and any number of fairs and festivals take place regularly. Liege has more than 100 church spires, each one honoring a local saint who is responsible for curing a specific ailment.

Aachen  After crossing the German border, we're on a new Autobahn, which whisks us past some important cities, including (off to our left) Aachen. The city was called Aix-la-Chapelle during the Middle Ages, and it still is in French. It was the capital of Charlemagne's vast empire in the 9th century.

Charlemagne: This Christian emperor holds a place of permanent importance in the evolution of modern Europe. He brought together the Franks to the west (in what is now France), the Bavarians to the south, the Saxons in northern and central Europe, and welded these diverse tribes into a powerful state which preserved what was left of classical learning after the fall of Rome. He patronized artists and scholars, including Alcuin, the greatest teacher of his day. Charlemagne even tried to teach himself Greek and Latin, but failed. He never learned to read or write, in spite of the cultural revival he brought about in Europe.

Aachen today: Aachen is a surging industrial center, busily refining coal and ore from nearby mines. Its technical schools are some of the finest in Europe, especially for electronics and engineering. Its population of 200,000 indicates how dense are the cities and industrial works in this part of Germany -- the gateway to the Ruhr Basin. But Aachen preserves its small pleasures: the city's health spas boast some of the hottest springs (166 Deg. F.) in Europe.

Ruhr Basin  About 30 miles north of us is Western Europe's greatest concentration of industry: the Ruhr Basin. The name is appropriate. Ruhr, the name of a river running through the area, also means "commotion" in German. In the Ruhr Basin are the oil refineries, iron and steel mills, and chemical plants that kept Germany going through two world wars. The most famous is the Krupp armament works. It was all heavily bombed during the war, but has come back to life and continues to be the power plant of the West German economy.

Over 5 million people live and work in the Ruhr Basin, mostly in industry and the professions. Though the Autobahn runs 20 or 30 miles south of all this, you can see occasional smokestacks and industrial works. For the most part, though, it's mainly wheat and cattle raising that take up the land between Aachen and Cologne.

(COURIER: As you near Cologne, begin your introduction to the city.)

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