We have found that often the coolest places we encounter in our travels are not well known tourist destinations. Trier, known as the oldest city in Germany, is certainly one of those places.
Oldest may even be an understatement. The city is certifiably ancient. Before we even made it into town we were literally crossing over history, because the bridge over the Moselle River is nearly two thousand years old.
Römerbrücke, the Roman Bridge, and the entire city dates back to when this was called Augusta Treverorum, meaning the City of Augustus in the land of the Treveri. Over time it would become one of Rome’s most important municipalities.
For several centuries this was the main outpost for the northern expansion of the empire. Then, around the year 305, Constantine arrived and things really took off. He designed Trier as his imperial city and from here his military exploits led to becoming Emperor.
We learned, once we were inside the ancient walls, that much of his handiwork is still visible. In fact, this is the most impressive array of Roman ruins, as well as intact structures, that we have seen anywhere other than The Eternal City itself.
First we passed the Roman baths, or Kaiserthermen, which were specifically designed to rival the best in Rome. Heated water from six boilers, four of which are still visible in the ruins, fed three pools for bathers.
But this was more than just a place for cleaning up, citizens could gamble, take care of business, or go to a hairdresser or a pub.
As impressive as the baths are, they are in a state of disrepair, which could not be said for our next stop. The Konstantinbasilika, or Aula Palatina, that Emperor Constantine built is still standing tall.
The Roman brick layers that constructed this Palace Basilica in the year 310 can’t take all of the credit for its longevity though, since major rebuilds have been required over time. The most extensive after the building was damaged in an air raid during World War II.
This was one of the largest covered spaces ever built by the Romans, and certainly the biggest still intact. As with many Roman structures, it became a church and today serves as the Church of the Redeemer, a congregation within the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland.
During the Middle Ages, it was also used as a home for the bishop until a more proper palace was constructed in the seventeenth century. The newer ornate quarters are connected to the basilica and look every bit fit for a king, or at least a prince.
The regal residence became known as the Electoral Palace because it was the seat for Electors and Archbishops when Trier was under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, which had no relation to the old Romans who had ruled before.
It is considered one of the most elaborate palaces in the world and now contains the offices of the District Administration. Not bad digs as government work goes.
Because of its age the city is quite compact, so it was an easy walk to the center where the non-Roman landmarks are located. On the way we passed two of Trier’s most venerable churches.
The Liebfrauenkirche, Church of Our Lady, holds the title of the oldest Gothic church in Germany. An inscription in the church reads: “The construction of this church was started in 1227 and ended in 1243,” but due to the unreliable nature of calendars back then the exact date of construction cannot be determined.
In the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue (1492 for those who don’t recall the old schoolhouse rhyme) the tower was topped off and then, like so many buildings across Germany, was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War.
Right next door, the High Cathedral of Saint Peter is the oldest church of any kind in the country. After Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, Bishop Maximin of Trier was determined to create the greatest collection of religious structures anywhere outside of Rome.
The cathedral, built on top of Roman ruins, was the centerpiece before being ransacked by the Franks a few centuries later, but it was rebuilt. Then the Normans destroyed the church again in 882, and again it was restored.
Moving into the newer part of town, where some of the buildings are even less than a thousand years old, we came to the main square, the Hauptmarkt.
A Market Cross, which are more common in Great Britain, marks the place that the royalty had designated for buying and selling. In this case, it also served as a pillory and holes can still be seen where the chains and shackles were attached.
Funny how little has changed, because this is still a place of commerce today. Maybe that is what drove Karl Marx to communism. Wait, what?
Oh yeah, Karl Marx was from Trier, and his house is very near the marketplace. This is not his birthplace, that is a museum about a half a mile away, but in a bit of irony this home where he spent his teens is now a Euro Shop, or what we know as a dollar store.
Somehow we just don’t see the author of The Communist Manifesto shouting out, “price check on aisle 3,” before bursting into laughter because everything costs one Euro. No, that humor might be just a touch too capitalist.
Perhaps Trier’s most famous landmark is the Porta Nigra, or black gate, which was our way out of the old center. This is the only remaining of four original passages through the defensive city walls that the Romans built around 200 AD.
We have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for the fact that the gate still exists. On a visit to Trier in 1804 Napoleon ordered that the Porta Nigra be returned to its original state after being converted to a church.
Guess we weren’t alone in finding Trier to be a very cool place to visit.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Written aboard the Longship Odin on her river voyage with stops in Paris, Luxembourg, Trier, Cochem, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, Nuremberg and Prague. Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.