Once again, I’m in Rome of the North. That’s twice in one year. And yet, I haven’t been in the same place twice… what’s going on?
In the early summer, I spent half a day wandering around Roman ruins in Aosta, capital of the Aosta Valley and self-declared Rome of the North. That seems to be an all-round desirable label to have, because now, on a sunny October day, I find myself in another Rome of the North.
Which Rome of the North is this?
Well, pray tell, Sophie!
Yes, I can hear your thoughts. And far be it from me to keep you in suspense. I will reveal this other Rome of the North for you in a minute! But first… I will give you a chance to guess!
- This Rome of the North is also known as the Second Rome, and has been since the 290s (yes, that’s 290s, not 1290s).
- This Rome of the North was a Roman colony from the first century CE, and one of the largest cities in the Empire. It was the seat of the vice-emperor of the Western Empire, i.e. the Caesar of the West.
- This Rome of the North is situated along a famous river with some of the world’s steepest vineyards. In fact, it’s not unusual to wear a harness when harvesting the grapes here. The landscape is lovely, and there isn’t much in the world of wines that can beat a Riesling from this valley.
Before Rome there was Trier
Let’s travel back in time, to 2000 BCE. Rome won’t be founded for another 1,247 years. But in present-day Trier people are settling along the banks of the Moselle River. ‘Before Rome, there was Trier’, says a guide in the tourism office.
2,000 years after the settlers came, in 57 BCE, Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered, cause that is what he did. Fast forward 41 years and his successor and grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius – better known as Emperor Augustus – establishes a Roman city here: Augusta Treverorum.
And with that I give you the oldest city in Germany. Some claim that distinction belongs to Worms, others say it is Speyer. Other cities chime in as well, but Trier generally seems to win that particular debate.
We are back in Roman times now, and Augusta Treverorum is one of the grandest cities in Europe. So important is it, Augustus and his successors use it as their base for 500 years, through years and decades and centuries of warfare. One successor in particular, Constantine the Great, has a particular place in the city’s history. Constantine, as you may recall, is responsible for throwing out the Ancient Roman gang of gods in favour of the biblical one.
Over the years, the various Roman rulers build imposing structures in Trier – strong city walls, an amphitheatre, several Roman baths, a monumental cathedral, and perhaps most impressively, the Porta Nigra.
Porta Nigra: walk 2,000 steps through 2,000 years of history
Let’s begin with the Porta Nigra. Because that is what I do.
The only one remaining of four, this massive city gate is all about power. Or at least, that’s how it looks to me. Imperial power. I’ll allow you through, to sell your wares or your services, I imagine the Porta Nigra has said, again and again through the centuries. Come in, but behave! Do not mess with Augusta Treverorum. Do not mess with Trier.
It’s not always easy to determine the exact age of ancient structures, but thanks to a piece of wood, we know Porta Nigra was built in the winter of 169/170 CE.
For 1,852 years, Porta Nigra has guarded the northern entrance to Trier.
Destruction – and return to former glory
A few centuries later, and the gates aren’t needed anymore. The stones and other materials are reused in other buildings.
Oh no! How to save this important piece of history from destruction? Turn it into a church, of course. In fact, turn it into two churches: one for monks and one for the common folk.
Speeding through the centuries, in 1802, an infamous megalomaniac stop by. Napoleon dissolves most of the churches in town, including these. Rumour has it he wanted to tear the Porta Nigra down completely, but thought better of it, and instead had it returned to its original form.
As I go through the impressive black gate; it feels as if I am is walking through a portal to another time. Once inside, I decide to go, well, inside. Inside the Porta Nigra, that is. And I suggest you do, too. It will cost you €4 (October 2022), and is worth every penny.
On the outskirts of town is a large amphitheatre, still intact. From ca 100 CE, this is the oldest building of them all. By the time I get there, it is closed for the day, and all I can do is catch glimpses through the turnstile gate and through tiny openings in the surrounding walls. I close my eyes and imagine 20,000 spectators amused by grand gladiatorial games. (Struggling with the amused bit, though).
One of these days, I’ll learn to plan better. Or just plan, really.
Kaiserthermen, the Roman Imperial baths
Also closed by the time I get there, I have to settle for seeing only parts of the Imperial baths above the wall.
Yes, Trier is keen to show off the coveted UNESCO World Heritage signs. Can’t miss ’em.
However, trekking back to town after the futile attempt at seeing the amphitheatre, I see the baths from a better angle.
Best outside view of the Kaiserthermen
The streets of Roman Trier must have been a magnificent sight! Indeed, back in 41 CE, in his treatise De Situ Orbis (the most influential work on geography for 13 centuries), Roman writer Pomponius Mela called the city urbs opulentissima, opulent city.
Today, Roman Trier is surrounded by Medieval Trier. German Trier. It is a stunning city still. The juxtaposition of Ancient Rome and Medieval Germany is delightful, representing 2,000 years of well-preserved European history. Here is a glimpse of Rome, of Gaul, the Age of Enlightenment, and modern-day Germany, all rolled into one.
Just up the street from Porta Nigra is the picturebook-pretty central square, Hauptmarkt.
Next to Hauptmarkt is one of the oldest churches in the Western world, the Cathedral of Saint Peter (Trierer Dom) from the 4th century CE, all the way back when Rome first tolerated Christians.
The cathedral has many interesting features, including tombs of its archbishops through time – and a curious relic.
A intriguing item in this almost 2000-year-old cathedral is the Holy Robe, a shirt allegedly worn by Jesus himself. The shirt is hidden in a chapel, behind this golden gate.
And this is as close as I am able to get to the mythical garment. And as close as you can get, too, I’m afraid. I have read claims, saying the Holy Robe is shown to the public every year between 13 April and 13 May, so I ask a guide in the church. Not so, he says. Only once in every blue moon is this relic taken out and displayed, at the sole discretion of the archbishop. Last time the robe saw the light of day, was in 2012. When next time will be, is anybody’s guess. But, he says, the archbishop will most likely give a few years’ notice.
Must admit I am curious to see this mysterious shirt now. Here is a picture of a picture of it, a postcard from when I was here last, nearly 20 years ago.
Liebfrauenkirche, Church of Our Lady
To the right of the cathedral, sharing a wall, is the elegant Liebfrauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, built on the site where was once a Roman double church. You can’t see anything Roman here anymore, but there are large-scale excavations going on underneath here.
According to a sign on a column inside,
Der bau dieser Kirche ward angefangen im Jahr 1227 und geendigt im Jahr 1243.
And that in a time when it often took centuries to build a church! The short turnaround time also means it is all built in one style, French High Gothic. Simple. Lovely.
What else? Border hopping, wine and Karl Marx!
- If you like border hopping, Trier has you covered. We are in a four-country aggregation here: Luxembourg/Germany/France/Belgium. Luxembourg City is 49 km (a 45-min drive) away. The French border is about an hour away, so is the Belgian one.
- As for wine, Trier is on the Moselle River, home of some of the most famous whites in the world. But did you know there is also a sweet red wine from the Moselle Valley? It’s called Dornfelder. And you can of course taste it, as well as the delicious Rieslings. There are wine shops, wine cellars and wine bars aplenty, and between March and November, there are wine booths on the Hauptmarkt, where local growers present their wines. Like at the Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the glass, and get it back when you return it. You’ll find more info and the wine booth calendar here.
- Last, but not least, Trier is the birthplace of Karl Marx. He was born in this house in 1818. You can wander around the house that might have helped inspire his thoughts on philosophy, politics and economics. Whatever you think of his ideas, he was quite the capacity.
Workers of the world unite!
Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.