All Roads Lead to…Trier. Germany’s Oldest City Offers a Taste of Ancient Rome.
It’s been more than 24 hours since I arrived in Germany, and neither beer nor schnitzel has passed my lips. It’s not that I’m opposed to a boozy nosh in a good old-fashioned beer hall. Far from it. But when in Trier…do as the Romans do.
Germany’s oldest city, Trier, was founded by the Romans in 16 BC, and the toga-clad conquerors left a lasting legacy. That’s why tonight, I’ve opted for a cozy, wood-panelled restaurant called Zum Domstein, where I’ve just sat down to an ancient Roman feast of sausage with fish sauce, suckling pig, and ham with figs and myrtle–the very definition of “pigging out”–and that’s not even half the repast laid out on my groaning table.
To wash down my dinner, I’ve got a mugful of mulsum, a rich cocktail comprised of dry white wine, honey and anise. Everything has been prepared according to 2,000-year-old recipes originated by Marcus Gavius Apicius, who catered for the Roman Empire’s elite during the reign of Tiberius. (Whether Chef Boyardee’s culinary impact will stand such an extraordinary test of time remains to be seen, but something tells me those tins of spaghetti and meatballs will be well past their best-by date before the next millennium.)
Of course, Trier has a lot more going for it than a long-dead Italian chef. Located near Germany’s western border in the Mosel River wine-growing region, it is one of more than a dozen lesser-known cities belonging to a consortium known as Historic Highlights of Germany. To qualify, each destination must have a minimum population of 100,000, a university, long-distance train service, and at least 700 years of history. My goal is to discover Trier’s off-the-beaten-track attractions, from its ancient Roman ruins to its wine and cuisine.
Sascha Mayerer, a Trier native who works with Historic Highlights of Germany, suggested the Roman dinner at Zum Domstein, although some might have their reservations (ahem). “It’s not to everyone’s taste,” he admits, “because Romans over-spiced their food. Sometimes, the meat was a little bit rotten, so they had to put in spices to make it edible.” Well, alrighty, then. Sign me up!
Considering those caveats, I’m pleased to say I thoroughly enjoy the savoury spread of meat, meat and more meat. As an added bonus, a friendly young waiter gives me a tour of the Roman relics housed in a large subterranean dining room, which typically opens only on the busiest nights. Some restaurants might frame the first dollar (or Euro) they ever earned, or fill their walls with portraits of famous customers. But at Zum Domstein, display cases boast millennia-old glass vases and pottery and handfuls of Roman coins.
When it comes to Roman treasures, that’s just the tip of Trier’s iceberg. This small city is home to the largest collection of ancient Roman structures outside Rome itself, seven of which are UNESCO listed sites, which is doubly impressive when you consider that 40 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II.
To learn more, I take a tour with guide Claudia Kuhnen. We begin at the Porta Nigra, an imposing sandstone gate from the 2ndcentury. At 29 metres high, 22 metres deep and 36 metres wide, it would’ve served as a pretty effective “keep out” notice to would-be invading barbarians, although now it feels like more like a welcoming introduction to the city’s history.
Certainly, St. Simeon, who willingly bunked in one dank cell for the last seven years of his life, found it hospitable enough in the 11thcentury. “Sure, it would’ve been cold in winter, and there would have been rats,” Kuhnen allows, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “But people brought him food and drink and he had many visitors who would discuss the Bible and religion.” Still, it doesn’t sound as though Simeon’s humble hermit digs would’ve earned a five-star TripAdvisor rating from me.
I do give high marks to the birds-eye views from the Porta Nigra’s arched windows overlooking Trier’s city streets. Near the gate’s base, I can easily make out the childhood home of Karl Marx, who was born in this city in May 1818.
Today, on the ground floor of Marx’s house, there’s a Euroshop, selling everything for, you guessed it, one Euro. It might seem a rather ignominious use for such an historic structure, but perhaps Marx wouldn’t have minded.
“He was full of ideas,” as Kuhnen explains, “but he was never full of money.” I’d like to think that the idea of scooping up smiling scrub brushes and solar-powered bobble head figures (although, curiously, none of Marx himself) for pocket change might have brought a beard-parting smile to his rather sober face.
From the market place, it’s a short stroll north along Simeonstrasse, Trier’s version of the High Street, to the Hauptmarkt, the city’s central square. Here, Kuhnen and I admire a century-spanning array of architectural styles while sipping a Roter Elbling “feinherb” wine—a subtle compromise between dry and sweet–from a pop-up stand. Elbling is a grape rarely found outside the Mosel region, so in the name of research, I feel compelled to sample a glass, or maybe two, to be really thorough.
In the centre of the square, Kuhnen points out a 10thcentury market cross atop a Roman column and the 16thcentury St. Peter’s fountain. There’s also a Renaissance building housing the oldest pharmacy in German, a Baroque beauty that’s now home to H&M, a Gothic guild hall, and a row of 17thcentury quintessentially German half-timbered façades.
Peeking over the rooftops, the 62-metre tower of St. Gangolf market church was once the tallest building in Trier. But the Archbishop couldn’t be one-upped by a church built by townspeople. He felt compelled to erect an addition to one of the towers of the Trierer Dom, a turreted brick-and-stone cathedral just off the market square, which sits upon Roman foundations and counts the rarely-displayed Seamless Robe of Jesus among its holy relics.
Continuing south past the Hauptmarkt, a hat-trick of Roman attractions all lie within a ten-minute walk. First up is the monolithic Constantine Basilica–the largest single-room Roman structure still standing, commissioned by Emperor Constantine in the 4thcentury AD–with a soaring, unadorned interior that is jaw-dropping in its enormity.
From there, a short stroll through the gardens of the Rococo Electoral Palace brings me to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, which holds Germany’s most extensive collection of Roman antiquities, including the world’s biggest horde of Roman gold coins. This famous booty haul, consisting of more than 2,600 coins, was discovered beneath a cellar floor during building works in Trier in 1993.
A final five-minute walk leads to the Kaiserthermen, the most impressive of Trier’s three Roman bath complexes. Above ground, you’ll find the ruins of a curving arched wall, while a labyrinth of spooky, moss-lined corridors tunnels through the earth below.
Further southeast, after a couple of wrong turns along quiet neighbourhood streets, I finally reach the one outlier of my Roman antiquity tour: the amphitheatre. In its heyday—that is to say, around 2,000 years ago—it would have held up to 20,000 spectators baying for blood, as muscle-bound gladiators and ill-fated beasts battled to the death. Today, however, it’s all but abandoned, with barely a handful of visitors. The grassy slopes encircling the walled arena are long since stripped of their stone benches. Autumnal trees form a protective circle at the top of the hill, and a sloping vineyard rises up to one side.
While Trier’s amphitheatre can’t compete with the grandeur of the Colosseum in Rome, this city’s ancient sites offer something that has always eluded me when visiting the Italian capital’s famous antiquities: an incredible sense of peace and solitude. In Trier, I have the opportunity to explore Roman ruins almost entirely alone, at my own pace, filling the silent void by recreating scenes from millennia past fuelled by my own imagination.
Here, in the far western reaches of Germany, I’ve find the perfect taster tour of Rome.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Luxembourg Airport is the closest international airport to Trier. By train, Trier’s main station (Trier Hauptbahnhof) is less than an hour from Luxembourg.
Where to eat: Zum Domstein offers an authentic Roman meal, as well as more typical German fare like schnitzel and sauerkraut with sausages. Hauptmarkt 5.
Weinstube Kesselstatt is lined with wood-panelling and wine barrels inside and features a terrace overlooking the Trierer Dom. It serves local wines and regional specialties like “Himmel und Erde,” which is black pudding with sliced potatoes and apples. Liebfrauenstrasse 10.
Tourist Information Trier’s “Antiquity Card Premium” offers discounted admission to the Landesmuseum and the Porta Nigra, Kaiserthermen, Amphitheatre and Forum Baths.
If Trier whets your appetite for a trip to Rome itself, check out these top tips for tourists to the Italian capital.