Founded by Augustus Caesar in the century just before the birth of Christ, Trier became known as The Second Rome and still bears the marks of that great empire
By Jim Johnson
|When in Rome|
As a recent walking tour ended in front of Trier's ancient Porta Nigra gate, an Italian visitor exclaimed to his guide, "This is even better than Rome!"
While such a statement might be blamed on too much Riesling, Trier, Germany's oldest city, does contain the largest collection of ancient Roman buildings outside of Rome - with nary a touch of that city's traffic and in a more concentrated, pedestrian-friendly area. In Trier, travelers walk past and through the Porta Nigra, the Roman Empire's largest intact city gate. They marvel at the size and majesty of the Basilika, used in the early 4th century by Emperor Constantine as an audience hall and throne room, and which is the largest single-room structure surviving from Roman times. They explore the expansive ruins of the Imperial Baths, remodeled during the 4th century as barracks for more than 1,000 soldiers. Many of the walls still stand.
They see the foundation of Germany's oldest bridge, then as now a gateway to Mosel vineyards first planted by the Romans.
From the Amphitheater's terraced seats one can almost hear the roar of 20,000 spectators, the snarl of tigers and the groans and frightened cries of gladiators and prisoners of war. It was here Romans gathered to watch animal fights as a prelude to those between man and beast and, ultimately, man against man to the death. In the dank dungeons, it's easy to imagine the last moments before the condemned were forced into the arena.
Founded in 16 B.C. under Emperor Augustus, Trier expanded as an imperial residence and capital of the Western Roman Empire. To serve its emperors and a growing population, the Romans built a city of such unprecedented proportions that it was known as Roma Secunda (Rome the Second) and had a population of 80,000.
After the Empire's fall and the city's decline during the Dark Ages, Trier rebounded strongly in the Middle Ages thanks to the power of the Catholic Church and the town's role as residence of archbishops and prince electors. It is a period that produced an extensive collection of medieval, renaissance and baroque buildings. In the early 20th-century the focus shifted to charming Jugendstil structures.
While stunning ancient architecture is the city's strongest draw, don't miss newer buildings such as the baroque St. Paulin's Church and the Church of our Lady, Germany's oldest Gothic church. Behind these medieval façades, visitors find architectural styles from the 4th through 18th centuries. Trier's expansive Electoral Palace, built as a "wing" to the Basilika, is considered one of the finest examples of rococo style in Germany, and its baroque Palace Gardens are a peaceful green oasis in mid-city. Another popular baroque attraction is the Karl Marx Haus, his birthplace but now a museum.
Perhaps one of Trier's most charming areas is its former Cathedral City, a mostly intact medieval district. Within the former city-within-a-city, a warren of narrow alleys runs between medieval houses. Much of the old wall still stands, though at somewhat precarious angles.
With most of the ancient city built over through the centuries, and many buildings destroyed by bombs, after the war Trier faced a choice of excavating ancient buildings or constructing new ones. Although many tired, boxy department stores from the 1940s and 1950s stand in the shadows of old monuments, the city often chose to dig; mainly out of historic pride and a hope tourists would come. The gamble paid off, tourism and wine are now the city's top two industries. In 1987, UNESCO named Trier a World Heritage Site. In that same year, construction workers building an underground parking garage found the Forum Baths, today one of the city's popular attractions.
"Every time someone puts a shovel in the ground, they find a piece of ancient Trier," said one guide. The moment even a fragment of ancient wall is unearthed, historical preservation laws require that construction stop and archaeologists be called in. Still, much of the old city, the extensive temple district and the 80,000-seat Roman Circus, for example, remains hidden and only partially charted.
Although some guidebooks suggest ways to "see Trier in one day" or even one hour, the city deserves at least two days. With interior visits, it takes nearly a full day just to explore the attractions around the pedestrian district. Several key stops such as the Barbara Baths, Roman Bridge and Amphitheater require a short walk or drive outside the central district, though they are still within the walls. Add a boat ride or stroll along the Mosel and some quiet lunchtime moments at a wine bistro, and two days are quickly filled.
Try to fit in a visit to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, an outstanding archaeological museum with Germany's most extensive Roman collection. Leading treasures include a giant mosaic of a chariot driver, a grouping of magnificent glass artifacts, one of the world's largest collections of Roman coins, and a courtyard with building stones, columns and sarcophagi.
Trier is considered the cradle of German wine culture, and the mile-long Wine Teaching Path winds through vineyards to the village of Olewig. Rotating weekly, village vintners offer tours of their wineries and wine cellars, tastings and light food.
The city also is a staging point for excursions (by car, bus or bicycle) to the remote, volcanic mountains of the Eifel region north of the Mosel, the more rugged Hunsrück Region to the south, to the nearby Ruwer, Saar and Sauer Rivers and along the Mosel itself- either toward the Rhine or upstream to Luxembourg. It is also only minutes from France.
Guided walking tours in English are available Saturdays at 1:30pm from May through October. The two-hour sojourn covers most major attractions from the outside with interior visits to the Basilika and the Imperial Baths. The Amphitheater is not included. The City-Tour Trier, a 35-minute whirlwind in a covered, double-decker bus, runs from March through November with hourly trips each day from 10am to 5pm.
Another option is the Trier-Card, which includes free transportation on city buses. The "TrierTour" bus route includes stops at 16 attractions where travelers can get off and on with no time limits. The card, good for three days, also entitles visitors to reduced admission prices to museums and monuments and on tours and bike rentals. The cost is €9 for adults and €15 for a family of up to two adults and three children.
If budget permits, it's worthwhile to hire a private guide through the Trier Tourist Office. The cost is €65 for two hours, €90 for three hours, and €150 for a full day. The guides- many of them retired teachers or professors- use Trier's history to impart a deeper understanding of how Europe developed over the past 2,000 years. And, unlike guidebooks, they are aware of the very latest discoveries: Just this year, for example, during excavation on the grounds of the city's Mutterhaus Hospital, experts from the Roman Archaeological Museum unearthed a Roman "insula"- a residential city block- as well as a partially paved street and a structure about 130 feet (40 meters) long.
Trier's English-language tourism Website is an excellent source of information and includes current schedules and prices for all attractions. (Note that many attractions are closed or have limited hours from November-March.)