Trier: Germany’s Ancient Roman City

All Roads Lead to…Trier. Germany’s Oldest City Offers a Taste of Ancient Rome.

Roman arches in Trier, Germany. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse

“Arch” you surprised to see so many ancient Roman ruins in Germany? (Apologies, but I had to get that out of my system).

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.

Sausages with green beans and fish sauce at Zum Domstein, prepared using 2,000-year-old Roman recipes. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Sausages with green beans and fish sauce at Zum Domstein, prepared using 2,000-year-old Roman recipes.

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.

Das Weinhaus wine shop stocks bottles emblazoned with the bearded mug of Trier's most famous native son, Karl Marx. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Das Weinhaus wine shop stocks bottles emblazoned with the bearded mug of Trier’s most famous native son, Karl Marx.

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.

Roman relics at Zum Domstein restaurant in Trier, Germany. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Roman relics at Zum Domstein.

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.

Porta Nigra Roman gate, Trier, Germany

The Porta Nigra. Credit estralla-ontour/Pixabay.

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.

Guide Claudia Kuhnen stands outside the door to the cell where St. Simeon, Trier's patron saint, lived for seven years inside the Porta Nigra Roman gate. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Guide Claudia Kuhnen stands outside the door to the cell where St. Simeon lived for seven years inside the Porta Nigra Roman gate.

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.

Ile de Re bookshop, located across from the birthplace of Karl Marx on Bruckenstrasse, sells Marx statues and autobiographies. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Not so jolly old…Karl Marx, doing his grumpy Santa Claus impression in the window of Ile de Re bookshop in Trier.

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.

A tourist train parks outside Trier’s Euroshop, housed on the ground floor of Karl Marx’s childhood home.

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.

glass of white wine on historic square in Trier, Germany

Cheers to Trier!

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.

The Hauptmarket in Trier showcases a variety of architectural styles. Zum Domstein, which serves a special Roman dinner, stands beside Germany's oldest pharmacy. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

The Hauptmarket in Trier showcases a variety of architectural styles. Zum Domstein, which serves a special Roman dinner, stands beside Germany’s oldest pharmacy.

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.

Trierer Dom (left), beside the Liebfrauenkirche, also known as the Church of Our Lady. Credit Historic Highlights of Germany.

Trierer Dom (left), beside the Liebfrauenkirche, also known as the Church of Our Lady. Credit Historic Highlights of Germany.

Continuing south past the Hauptmarkt, I find a hat-trick of Roman attractions all 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 dimensions.

The Constantine Basilica in Trier is the largest single-room Roman structure still standing. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

The Constantine Basilica.

From there, a pleasant stroll through the gardens of the Rococo Electoral Palace brings me to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, boasting Germany’s most extensive stash of Roman antiquities, including the world’s biggest horde of Roman gold coins. The stash of more than 2,600 coins was discovered beneath a cellar floor during building works in Trier in 1993.

Trier's Rheinisches Landesmuseum holds the world's largest hoard of Roman gold. The stash of more than 2,600 coins was discovered beneath a cellar floor during building works in Trier in 1993. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Trier’s Rheinisches Landesmuseum holds the world’s largest hoard of Roman gold.

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.

The Kaiserthermen Roman bath complex in Trier. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse

The Kaiserthermen Roman bath complex in Trier.

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.

Trier's Roman Amphitheater once accommodated up to 20,000 spectators. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Trier’s Roman Amphitheater.

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.

Tourism information: Historic Germanytrier-info.de

Tourist Information Trier’s “Antiquity Card Premium” offers discounted admission to the Landesmuseum and the Porta Nigra, Kaiserthermen, Amphitheatre and Forum Baths.

Guided tours: Trier’s tourism office offers guided tours with locals like Claudia Kuhnen (clauku@arcor.de) and author Jens Baumeister, who offers a tour focusing on Karl Marx.

If Trier whets your appetite for a trip to Rome itself, check out these top tips for tourists to the Italian capital.

Visit the subterranean tunnels beneath Trier's Kaiserthermen Imperial Baths, and you may have the site completely to yourself. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Visit the subterranean tunnels beneath Trier’s Kaiserthermen Imperial Baths, and you may have the site completely to yourself.

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