Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Afternoon in Germany's Oldest City

Sonndeg, 6 Dezember.

Today I went to Trier! Or, if you are Luxembourgish, to Tréier. Or, if you are French, to Trèves. Or, if you are an ancient Roman living in the first century BCE, Augusta Treverorum. Do you get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this city has an interesting history?!

One of the most interesting things about Trier for this temporary Luxembourger is how easy -- and inexpensive -- it is to go there! Trains run frequently between Luxembourg City and Trier and the entire trip takes about an hour. If you have a transport pass or have already bought a ticket for in-country travel, you can buy a round-trip ticket from Wasserbillig (the last stop in Luxembourg) and get to Trier for around eight euros. So when you have a free Sunday afternoon and a handful of enthusiastic housemates ... why not go?!

Fun fact: the red house is called "Rotes Haus" (three guesses what that means) and was built in 1684.

After getting off the train and following the crowds in the direction of downtown Trier, the first thing you see is the famous Porta Nigra. This gate was built in the second century A.D. and served as an entrance into the city during Roman times. The gate lost its primary function during the Middle Ages and was turned into a church, a development that was later reversed by Napoleon upon his arrival in the city in the early 19th century.

Interestingly, although "Porta Nigra" is Latin, it is not the name that the ancient Romans would have used. In fact, we don't know what the Romans called the gate! The name "Porta Nigra" or "Black Gate" only originated during the Middle Ages, when pollution darkened the gray sandstone.

The Porta Nigra is one of the many remains of  Augusta Treverorum. the first of several famous sites from Trier's Roman past. Among other things, the city is home to an amphitheater and a Roman bridge.

We also visited the Barbara Baths or Barbarathermen, a bath complex located just outside the city center. (Or, more accurately, we accidentally stumbled upon them while searching for the aforementioned bridge.) Although the current site of the Barbara Baths takes up a full city block, this represents only a small fraction of the former baths, believed to be the largest Roman bath north of the Alps.


The ruins themselves are closed for preservation, but a bridge across the excavation site allows visitors to explore key locations and to situate them within their historical context. Informational panels along the bridge show artistic renderings of the baths in their original state.

In addition to the Barbara Baths, Trier is also home to the Forum Baths, or Viehmarktthermen, as well as the Imperial Baths, or Kaiserthermen. Of the three, it is the Imperial Baths (located just down the street from the Barbara Baths that appear to be the best preserved. Other Roman sites include the Igel Column (a sandstone column built in the third century), the Aula Palatina (a fourth century basilica now known as the Basilica of Constantine or Konstantinbasilika), and the Trier Amphitheater. Although I did not have the opportunity to check out all of these sites, I look forward to visiting them in the future

In addition to these carefully-preserved ruins, Trier is also home to some slightly more subtle tributes to Ancient Rome. In the heart of downtown Trier stand two particularly stately neighbors, both with ancient roots: the Cathedral of Trier, or Trierer Dom, and the Church of Our Lady, or Liebfrauenkirche.

The Trierer Dom, shown on the left in the photos above, is the oldest cathedral in Germany. You can find a complete history of the structure (in German) on the church's official website and a short video on the city's tourist site, but baaaasically this is a very old church. First built in the fourth century on the site of a former Roman palace, the cathedral was destroyed in the fifth and again in the ninth century A.D. It was restored after each attack and now features additions in a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architectural styles.

UNESCO provides this description of the cathedral's architectural and historical merit: "One of the oldest church buildings in the Western world, the Cathedral has been a witness to the Christian faith since Constantine made Christianity a tolerated and supported religion in his Empire. Its architectural design unites elements of all the periods of classical, medieval and modern times, but has always been marked by the monumental concept that lies at its origins. The series of archbishops’ tombs covers with few interruptions the entire period from the 12th to the late 18th century. The Romanesque parclose, the renaissance pulpit and some of the Baroque marble altars belong to the major works of sculpture of their respective periods."

One of the most famous additions to the cathedral is a small Baroque chapel located behind the altar. Since the eighteenth century, it has housed the Heiliger Rock, the garment believed to be the seamless robe worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. (Remember that section of the Gospel in which the Roman soldiers cast lots instead of dividing the garment? Well, that's the one.) According to one legend, the robe was recovered by Constantine's mother, Saint Helena, and made its way to the city of Trier. It was entombed in the cathedral's altar, but was later removed and placed in a special reliquary.


Not to be outdone by its ancient neighbor, the Liebfrauenkirche holds an important title of its own as the earliest Gothic church in Germany.

It was built in the thirteenth century on the ruins of a Roman church, the remains of which have been excavated but remain closed to the public. Though not particularly large, the church is stunning. According to UNESCO: "Its purity of style (it was completed in only 30 years) and the undeviating implementation of the architect’s plan for a basilica-shaped graduated central area, for which there were partial models, though no entire prototype, in France probably make it the most perfect example of the centralized construction concept in Gothic style."

One of my favorite parts of our visit to the two famous churches was walking through the cloisters, which house the tombs of bishops provide a lovely view of both the Trier Dom and the Liebfrauenkirche. When we visited on a busy Sunday afternoon, the cloister was quiet and nearly empty -- a far cry from the busting Christmas market on the other side of the wall!


Together with the city's ancient Roman monuments, these two churches round out Trier's UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the history of Trier is of interest for more than just its Roman roots. The city was the birthplace of Karl Marx and now houses a museum located in the writer's birthplace (creatively called Karl-Marx-Haus). It also features a number of famous homes and palaces, including the former Electoral Palace, or Kurfürstliches Palais.

Attached to the backside of the Konstantinbasilika (which, given that I had no idea what it was until we were back on the train to Luxembourg, is rather ironically visible in the upper left corner of the photo below), the Electoral Palace is a seventeenth-century building considered among the most beautiful rococo palaces in the world. (Or so they say.

I didn't really understand the purpose of the palace when we visited (and don't really understand it now), but ain't it purdy?! We had a lot of fun taking photos and running around the palace gardens.

Since Christmas markets are just about my favorite thing in the entire world, there is no way that I went to Trier in December and left without visiting the local weihnachtsmarkt. Stay tuned for another post with snapshots of our adventures at the Trierer Weihnachtsmarkt!

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