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Exploring the Oldest City of Germany

From Ancient Rome to… Karl Marks

What city is the oldest in Germany? Certainly, not Berlin. Then, maybe, Munich, Frankfurt, or Cologne? Indeed, Cologne is over two millennia old, but a much lesser-known city is 4 centuries older! As a non-German guy, I have never heard of it before. And you?

© All photos by Slava Shestopalov

This city was founded in the 4th century BC by the Celtic tribe of Treveri, who inhabited the valley of the River Moselle.

The city’s name was Treuorum.

After the Roman conquest in 16 BC — Augusta Treverorum.

Now it’s called Trier.

Trier is located right at Germany’s border: merely 40 minutes on the train to Luxembourg and 3,5 hours to Paris.

The Porta Nigra (“Black Gate” in Latin) is the only preserved gate out of four Roman city gates.

We stayed in Trier for several days before and after the new year 2022, hence the holiday decoration in the photos.

As usual, I wanted to capture the city in its “pristine” form: without crowds of tourists, rushing local dwellers, parked cars, and urban buzz. Trier is packed with sights, and I desired to see them all by myself. Besides, there is nothing sadder than snowless winter midday.

That’s why I decided to walk early in the morning, after the sunrize, and in the evening, before the sunset. There was almost no one around. Thank god for people’s laziness after the holidays!

The Porta Nigra, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps and a UNESCO world heritage site.

The first artifact that greets you in Trier is the Porta Nigra, an ancient Roman gate built around 170 AD. It’s impossible to miss it when you go from the railway station to the city center.

Porta Nigra is the oldest existing city gate of antiquity! Let me give you some context: it was finished in the same century as the famous Trajan’s Column and Pantheon in Rome or, let’s say, the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. And Trier is so far from both Rome and Athens. Fantastic!

The Porta Nigra initially had four floors.

Greek monk Simeon lived as a hermit in the gate ruins in the 11th century. After his death, the gate was rebuilt and housed two churches.

In 1802, when Trier was part of the French Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte disbanded the churches and ordered to convert the Porta Nigra back to its original Roman form.

The Moselle river and sunset as seen from the ancient Roman bridge.

Trier (Augusta Treverorum) flourished in the 4th century, under the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. It was a rich and influential city and one of the empire’s capitals alongside:

  • Mediolanum — present-day Milan, Italy;
  • Nicomedia — present-day İzmit, Turkey;
  • Eburacum — nowadays York, England;
  • and Sirmium — in modern Serbia, no longer exists.

Trier was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, with a population of 75–100 thousand citizens. Ironically, now it has 105,000 inhabitants.

Meanwhile, our next stop: a gorgeous Roman bridge.

Roman bridge before the sunset; street lights aren’t on yet.

Trier’s bridge is the oldest one in Germany. Its pillars date back to the 2nd century AD, whereas the upper part underwent post-war renovation twice, in the 12th and 18th centuries.

Roman bridge over the Moselle River.

In a five-minute walk from the bridge stands a pair of medieval cranes. Trier used to be a busy river port with dozens of floating cranes moving along the bank to load and unload goods.

In 1413, the first static stone crane was erected. It’s still fully functional but stands too far from the water now. The second stone crane appeared centuries later but followed the same cylindrical design.

A late-medieval stone crane on the bank of Moselle.

The rule of Emperor Constantine (whom I already mentioned above) coincided with the rise of Christianity that soon overpowered Roman and Celtic cults and became the major religion in Trier. Actually, Constantine himself converted to Christianity.

And here is a stone witness of that era — St. Peter’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Germany. Its most ancient parts date back to the early 4th century: you can touch the fascinating Roman brickwork of the northern facade. As for the front facade, it’s a superb example of Romanesque style completed in the 11th century. This design with four towers and an apse has been copied many times back then.

St. Peter’s Cathedral: look at the tiny people silhouettes near the entrance to realize the building’s immense size.
St. Peter’s Cathedral: the oldest part (Roman brickwork) and the clock tower.

The cathedral was part of the greatest ensemble of sacred buildings in Western Europe outside of Rome. The initial ground plan was four times larger than the current building!

St. Peter’s Cathedral: another example of Roman brickwork.

St. Peter’s Cathedral survived destruction by Franks and Vikings. And even though renovations brought Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements to its design, you can still recognize its Roman/Romanesque character.

St. Peter’s Cathedral: the rear side early in the morning.

But St. Peter’s Cathedral is not the only remarkable temple in the city. The neighboring Church of Our Lady is famous for being Germany’s earliest Gothic church (along with the Magdeburg Cathedral). This church follows the French architectural tradition.

Church of Our Lady: one of the two earliest Gothic churches in the country.

The building has an unusual round floorplan. It resembles a 12-petaled rose (symbol of the Virgin Mary) and symbolizes the 12 Apostles or 12 tribes of Israel. Some of the church’s Gothic pillars stand on the foundations of an earlier Roman double temple.

The unique round floorplan of the Church of Our Lady (Source: Wikipedia)

You might have an impression that I’ve already shown all the city’s Roman artifacts to you, but as Master Yoda puts it, “There is another…”

The Aula Palatina was constructed as a “basilica” in the Roman sense: a hall for political events — not a large, important church as we interpret this term nowadays. Many smaller auxiliary structures surrounded Emperor Constantine’s basilica, but they didn’t survive.

The Aula Palatina in the evening. Look at the silhouette near the wall for scale.
The Aula Palatina: night lighting of the walls and the minimalistic interior.

The basilica contains the largest existing hall of the antiquity era, which, of course, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hall is 67 m long, 26 m wide, and 33 m high. Windows create an illusion of even greater volume: the apse windows are smaller than the side ones.

The Aula Palatina after the sunset.

The Aula Palatina was equipped with a hypocaust. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an ancient heating system invented by Romans for houses and baths. The hypocaust remained in use from 350 BC till the early 15th century, when tiled stoves gained popularity in Europe.

In the 17th century, the prince-archbishop of Trier added his Baroque palace just next to the Aula Palatina. This “wedding cake” building, to my taste, looks completely off here. See for yourself:

The contrast between the archbishop’s palace and Aula Palatina.

In the 19th century, German Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV ordered to restore the building to its original Roman state. As for inner decorations, they burned due to an allied air raid in the Second World War, but weren’t reconstructed — and I think this is alright since you can now see authentic Roman brickwork from the inside as well.

Today the Aula Palatina is a protestant church.

Believe it or not, I haven’t covered everything “Roman” in Trier yet. They also have an ancient amphitheater with a well-preserved cellar; it was an arena behind city walls for gladiator events and animal shows. And impressive ruins of Barbara Baths and Imperial Baths are in Trier, too.

But enough Romans for today. Let’s go to the Haupmarkt, which literally means “the main square.”

The Hauptmarkt on an early holiday morning: there is no one in the street.

This square appeared at an intersection of the main commercial streets. In 958, the archbishop granted the Hauptmarkt with a so-called “market cross,” a symbol of sovereignty. Two-thirds of historical houses facing the square were preserved; they represent the Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, and Historism architecture styles.

The Steipe, a beautiful white house built around 1430, unfortunately, was ruined in the Second World War. It was rebuilt utilizing so-called “creative monument preservation.” Just like centuries ago, the Steipe and adjacent Red House accommodate the city council.

Beautiful Renaissance and neo-Renaissance houses of the Hauptmarkt.

Another signature building is the Church of St. Gangolf (don’t confuse with Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings”). It’s completely enclosed, and one can access it only through a Baroque gate from the market.

The church appeared as a municipal temple in contrast to the bishop’s cathedral. The first market church was erected in the 10th century, then replaced with a new building in the 13th century, and finally remodeled in the late Gothic spirit around 1500.

St. Gangolf Church and the Petrusbrunnen (St Peter’s Fountain).

Although I try to illustrate all my articles with my own photos and schemes, let’s make one exception. Look at a 120-year-old Hauptmarkt picture below. Quite similar to the modern state, isn’t it?

The Hauptmarkt in 1899 (Source: Wikipedia)

Not far from the church, you can notice a richly embellished fountain, the Petrusbrunnen (St. Peter’s Fountain). It was created in 1595 and features the stunning colored statues of St. Peter himself and the four virtues: Justice, Strength, Wisdom, and Temperance. In addition to its decorative function, the fountain used to serve as a water supply.

Now let’s take a minute and adore a group of three fabulous red-and-white half-timbered Renaissance houses. The first two of them are historical, built in 1605 and 1602 respectively.

Renaissance houses on the Hauptmarkt.

See a gate below the three houses? This is the Kleine Judenpforte (Minor Jewry Gate) that dates back to 1219. You could enter the Jewish quarter through this gate in the Middle Ages.

Well, Trier’s main square is worth gazing at for hours, but other streets are worth attention, too. For example, the Fleischstraße, or “the meat street” in German, named after the medieval butchers’ guild. It stretches from the city center to the Roman bridge. I really liked how contemporary and not-so-old buildings complement the historical ones here.

Comparably new houses on the historical streets.

If you walk down the Fleischstraße, you’ll soon discover a cute three-story house, pretty typical for Trier. However, this one is special.

It’s the birthplace of a famous German philosopher and political theorist, the author of “Capital,” and a passionate communism promoter — Karl Marx. His family occupied several rooms on the ground and first floor. But Marx moved from Germany due to his political publications. The Social Democratic Party purchased the house in 1928 and turned it into a museum.

Karl Marx’s house and museum before the sunrise.

Want some Marxist philosophy now?

Ha-ha. Just kidding. I’d better switch back to my favorite topic.

Historians note that Trier didn’t have complete and well-functioning fortification in the Middle Ages, so rich people fortified their dwellings individually. Today you can find 4 remnants of over a dozen medieval residential towers, and here are my two favorites.

The Frankenturm (Franco’s Tower) was built around 1100 and named after its 14th-century resident. Originally it had five stories but was later reduced to just two and a half. The current condition of the Frankenturm is a result of reconstruction before the Second World War.

The Frankenturm on a cold winter morning.
The Frankenturm at night. The lining room was probably behind these Romanesque arched windows.

The tower’s masonry technique deliberately imitates Roman ruins, which were in abundance back then. Besides, the Frankenturm contains materials from former Roman buildings, for example, a 2nd-century tombstone with partly preserved letters. The original entrance to the house was on the second floor and accessible through wooden stairs, so that they could be pulled up in case of defense.

The Dreikönigenhaus (The Three Kings’ House) is located not far from the Porta Nigra and is another Gothic residential tower. Its name originates from the 17th-century inn “Zu den drei Königen.”

The Dreikönigenhaus in the evening and early in the morning.

According to the tree-ring dating studies, the house was built between 1200 and 1231. It consisted of two separate buildings — the front and back house — which were later joined by a staircase. Unlike other residential towers in Trier, this one is plastered and colorfully decorated.

The Dreikönigenhaus also had a high entrance — you can see it today, next to the three arched twin windows.

That’s it, folks. Here is a map of my walks. Hopefully, it’ll help you when you happen to visit this fantastic city yourself.

Since you’ve scrolled all the way down, you owe me a round of 👏 applause, and don’t hesitate to 🔔 follow the 5 a.m. Magazine. Thank you!

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦

#StandWithUkraine · Design manager, public speaker, weird travel blogger · medium.com/5-a-m