Historic Trier on the Mosel River

Trier's Porta Nigra gate was built without mortar by the Romans.
By Rick Steves

Trier, Germany's oldest city, lies at the head of the scenic Mosel Valley near the Luxembourg border. An ancient Roman capital, Trier brags that it was inhabited for 1,300 years before the Romans arrived. Today Trier feels young and thriving. A short stop here offers you a look at Germany's oldest Christian church, one of its most enjoyable market squares, its best Roman ruins, and a touch of Marx.

Founded by Augustus in 15 B.C., Trier was the Roman "Augusta Treverorum" for 500 years. For most of the fourth century, this city of 80,000 — with a four-mile-long wall, four great gates, and 47 round towers — was the favored residence of Roman emperors. Emperor Constantine used the town as the capital of his fading western Roman Empire.

Today Trier's Roman sights include baths, a 25,000-seat amphitheater, and a huge city gate. Of the original four gates, only the Porta Nigra survives. This most impressive Roman fortification in Germany was built without mortar — only iron pegs hold the sandstone blocks together.

While the other three gates were destroyed by medieval metal and stone scavengers, this "black gate" survived because it became a church. St. Simeon — a pious Greek recluse — lived inside the gate for seven years. After his death in 1035, the Simeon monastery was established and the gate was made into a two-story church — lay church on the bottom, monastery church on top. Napoleon had the church destroyed in 1803, but the 12th-century Romanesque apse survived. You can climb around inside the gate, but there's little to see other than a fine town view. Entrance is through the adjacent City Museum. As you go in, look for pictures of how the gate looked during various eras, including its church phase.

Trier's main pedestrian drag, which leads away from the gate, is named for St. Simeon. The arcaded courtyard and buildings of the monastery of St. Simeon remain, and are now home to the tourist information office and the slick City Museum (Stadtmuseum Simeonstift). The museum's collection seems to be largely made up of anything old that turned up in townspeople's basements, and most of the items on display are only mildly interesting. However, the third floor holds a fascinating model — painstakingly constructed over 19 years — of Trier as it looked in 1800.

Trier's market square is a people-filled swirl of fruit stands, flowers, painted facades, and fountains. This is one of Germany's most in-love-with-life marketplaces. Its centerpiece, a market cross from 958 (with an ancient Roman pedestal), celebrates the trading rights given to the town by King Otto the Great. The adjacent Renaissance fountain symbolizes thoughtful city government with allegorical statues of justice (sword and scale), fortitude (broken column), temperance (wine and water), and prudence (snake and mirror).

The city's cathedral, the oldest in Germany, goes back to Roman times. St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine (who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire), let part of her palace be used as the first church on this spot. In 326, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his reign, Constantine began the construction of St. Peter's in Rome and this huge cathedral in Trier. The cathedral contains two important relics — the "Holy Robe" of Christ (found by St. Helena on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem) and a "holy nail" thought to be from the Crucifixion.

Stop by the city's basilica. This 200-foot-long and 100-foot-high building is the largest intact Roman structure outside of Rome. Imagine this hall of justice in ancient times: decorated with golden mosaics, rich marble, colorful stucco, and busts of Constantine and his family filling the niches. The emperor sat in majesty under a canopy on his altarlike throne.

A 10-minute walk from the market square, communists can lick their wounds at Karl Marx's house. While the influential economist/philosopher is a fascinating and important figure, this place has almost no historic artifacts. Visiting this "museum" is like reading a book in a foreign language, while standing up. The included audioguide gives more meaning to the displays, but even that is pretty tedious.