In Germany, a taste of ancient Rome
The historical gems of Trier offer visitors something they can't get from Italy's grand landmarks: the opportunity to explore in peace
It's been nearly 48 hours since I arrived in Germany, and neither beer nor schnitzel has yet passed my lips. Now, I know what you're probably thinking: "How is this even possible? What is she doing, then?"
In fact, I'm in a cozy, wood-paneled 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 nosh 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.
So, what does a long-dead chef have to do with Germany? Well, quite a lot, actually, if you happen to be visiting this country's oldest city, Trier, founded by the Romans in 16 BC.
Located near Germany's western border in the Mosel River wine-growing region, Trier is one of more than a dozen lesser-known cities belonging to a tourism association 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 overspiced 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 millenniums-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 – doubly impressive when you consider that 40 per cent of the city was destroyed in the Second World War.
To learn more, I take a tour with guide Claudia Kuhnen. We begin at the Porta Nigra, an imposing, time-blackened sandstone gate from the second century. 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 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 11th century. "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 bird's-eye views from the Porta Nigra's arched windows overlooking Trier. Near the gate's base, I can easily make out the childhood home of Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday will be roundly feted next May here in his native city.
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 a 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 marketplace, 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 10th-century market cross atop a Roman column and the 16th-century St. Peter's fountain. There's also a Renaissance building housing the oldest pharmacy in Germany; a Baroque beauty that's now home to H&M; a Gothic guild hall; and a row of 17th-century 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 Cathedral of Trier, 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, I find a hat-trick of Roman attractions, all within a 10-minute walk. First up is the monolithic Basilica of Constantine – the largest single-room Roman structure still standing, commissioned by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century – with a soaring, unadorned interior that is jaw-dropping in its dimensions.
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, unearthed in a Trier basement in 1993. A final five-minute walk leads to the Kaiserthermen, the most impressive of Trier's three Roman bath complexes, with the ruins of a curving arched wall on one end and spooky, moss-lined corridors 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 screaming 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 millenniums past, fuelled by my own imagination.
Here, in the far western reaches of Germany, I've found the perfect taster tour of Rome.
The writer was a guest of Historic Highlights of Germany. It did not review or approve this story.
If you go
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 stay
Schroeders Wein-Style-Hotel Trier, which is located across the road from vineyards, about a 15-minute bus ride from the historic centre of Trier (from €89, or $131 Canadian). In town, four-star accommodations include the Park Plaza Trier (from €125), and the Mercure Hotel Trier Porta Nigra (from €86).
Where to eat
Zum Domstein offers an authentic Roman meal, as well as more typical German fare such as schnitzel and sauerkraut with sausages. Hauptmarkt 5.
Weinstube Kesselstatt is lined with wood panels and wine barrels and features a terrace overlooking the Cathedral of Trier. It serves local wines and regional specialties such as "himmel und erde," which is black pudding with sliced potatoes and apples. Liebfrauenstrasse 10.
What to do
Tourist Information Trier's " Antiquity Card Premium" offers admission to the Landesmuseum, Porta Nigra, Kaiserthermen, amphitheatre and Forum Baths for €18 an adult, which includes up to four kids under 18.
Guided tours: Book guided tours via Trier Tourism. Guides include Claudia Kuhnen and author Jens Baumeister.
For more information, visit historicgermany.com.