Walk through history in Germany's oldest city

Walk through history in Germany's oldest city

by Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

At some point in time, virtually all military families have endured assignments that weren’t quite their cup of tea. It could be due to location, moving away from dear friends, or leaving favorite schools. It could even be weather—as this Texas native (and former missile officer) discovered as I froze through a duty tour in snowbound Wyoming.  

At one time, Germany’s oldest city Trier suffered the same perception. Founded by Augustus in 16 B.C., Trier served as the capital of the west (which included modern-day Germany, France, Spain, and England) in Rome’s vast empire. 
Although Trier was named as an ancient Roman capital, this status wasn’t enough to change the perception that Trier was a far-flung, forsaken corner of the empire. To make the city more livable and appealing, the empire spent lavishly on Trier—transforming it into a city favored by Roman emperors.

But as the Roman Empire weakened, so did Trier, and the city was captured by Germanic tribes, as well as the Huns under Attila, in the 5th century. Power changed hands many times—but many historical relics and infrastructure elements survived over the centuries and stand to this very day.


The Porta Nigra

At one time, Trier was encircled by a 4-mile-long wall. The full wall no longer remains, but the massive northern city gate does. Originally a light sandstone, this “black gate” has darkened over time. It survived by being turned into a church, the St. Simeon monastery. For a small fee, you can climb inside the gate and view the apse of the former church. Amazingly, the stones of the Porta Nigra are not secured with mortar—iron pegs have held the sandstone together for centuries.  

The House of the Three Magi

On Simeon Strasse (the main pedestrian street) stands the Dreikonigenhaus, a 13th century keep where the wealthy used to keep precious goods. Facing the front of the building, you will notice a paned door on the second story. This was actually the sole entrance to the house, accessible only via a wooden ladder that was lowered for entry. Now a coffee shop, the house is easy to spot—it’s the tall, white building featuring Venetian architecture that looks nothing like its neighbors.  

The Hauptmarkt

Trier’s market square is not only lovely, it’s bursting with symbolism. As Trier moved into medieval times, tensions between the townspeople and the newly appointed archbishop increased. The central argument: citizens wanted Trier to be a free imperial city with full trading rights, without trading and taxation dictated by a local prince or archbishop. For example, when citizens wanted a town hall—and the archbishop said no—citizens built an “assembly” hall instead and situated it opposite of the cathedral, along with very specific messages. One corner of the building still features a knight with his mask up, facing the market square to watch over the townspeople. Another knight, however, faces the cathedral (and the archbishop) with a mask down, hand on his sword ready for battle. Also notice that the Church of St. Gangolf (church of the people) has a Gothic tower built to make it taller than the cathedral, another not-so-subtle message. 

St. Peter’s Cathedral and Bishop’s Museum

Trier’s cathedral is the oldest Christian church in Germany and formerly a part of Saint Helena’s (mother of Emperor Constantine) palace. Constantine simultaneously began construction of two churches during his reign; one was St. Peter’s in Rome, the other—also named St. Peter’s—was built in Trier. To the left of the cathedral is the Bishop’s Museum, with exquisite frescoes and panels focusing on the history of the cathedral.

Other sights not to miss

The Basilica and Imperial Throne Room: The largest intact Roman structure outside of Rome.

The Elector’s Palace: An ornate, pink Rococo-styled palace facing a beautifully landscaped garden, perfect for a romantic walk or picnic.

Imperial Baths: Although Constantine didn’t complete his grand vision to build the most intricate baths in the world, 30 years of construction has left a lot of history to explore.

Amphitheater: The sign of a city of importance, this ancient theater seated 16,000 and once hosted gladiators and religious festivals, and later served as a refuge from attacks, a quarry, and even a vineyard.

Where to eat

Zum Domstein: Trier has no shortage of restaurants, but a personal favorite is Zum Domstein in the Hauptmarkt. This neat little find features both delicious traditional German fare and dishes based on ancient Roman recipes! The Roman menu was inspired during renovations to the cellar, when a Roman column was discovered. The column still remains and is now in the restaurant’s basement.  

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