Friday 19 December 2014

Trier, Germany - A fault line in history

Jamie Blake Knox

Published 25/08/2014 | 02:30

Moselle Valley: It was easy to see why romantic poets were so captivated by this scenery.
Moselle Valley: It was easy to see why romantic poets were so captivated by this scenery.
Porta Nigra
Panoramic: Jamie takes a look at the city of Trier from the top of Porta Nigra.
Trier is located close to Belgium and France.

Trier may seem like a sleepy provincial backwater, but it boasts a rich and ancient history. It was founded during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and is arguably the oldest city in Germany, for over 2000 years, it has stood on a fault line of Europe's history.

I flew into Frankfurt, and from there it was just a short train journey to Trier. I arrived soon after mid-day, and checked into the Mercure Hotel. Its décor was slightly dated, but it was comfortable, and it would be hard to have wished for a better location. The hotel was situated directly opposite the stunning Porta Nigra. Darkened by the passage of time, this massive "black gate" is the only remaining Roman entrance to the city, and is one of a series of Unesco protected monuments throughout Trier. It is now possible to climb up to the top floors, and enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Trier is small enough to easily walk around, and many of its most impressive sites are located close to one another. In the bright summer sun, the main square with its vividly coloured ornate townhouses looked like something from a fairy-tale. I walked down the historic Judengasse - or Jewish Alleyway - and eventually made my way to the Basilica of Constantine. It is the largest surviving Roman structure outside of Rome itself.

It was badly damaged during the war, and when it was repaired, the historical inner decorations were not reconstructed. Now, all that remains of the original structure are its stark brick walls. It has been so mutilated by architects, accidents and bombs that it is difficult to know how to respond beyond a basic startled sense of awe that it has stood in some shape for more than sixteen hundred years.

Exhausted and in much need of refreshment, I headed to Weinerlebniswelt Oechsle - a restaurant which boasts a huge selection of over 120 local wines from over 100 wineries in the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer. The local Devonian slate, on which the vines are grown, gives the wines their unique flavour, and I must confess that I sampled a fair number of crisp and dry Reislings. Fortunately, it was only a short stumble back to my hotel.

The next afternoon I lunched at the Weinstube Kesselstatt, the restaurant which looks directly onto the High Cathedral of Saint Peter - an extraordinary example of Romanesque architecture and the oldest cathedral in Germany. Due to its long lifespan, the Cathedral contains a wealth of architectural influences - from the Gothic through the High Renaissance to the Baroque. It was almost completely destroyed and it was only after decades of painstaking restoration that it was finally reopened in 1974.

Nearby is the home of Trier's most famous son - Karl Marx. It is revealing of the contradictory emotions that Marx continues to evoke in his homeland that his house is the only museum in Germany which curates his life, work and influence.

The museum claims about a third of its visitors are from China. Sadly, in its current form the museum and its exhibits are so detailed that I suspect it would test the patience of even the most committed of Marxists. In part, this may be due to the fact that few of Marx's papers or personal effects have survived. As soon as the Nazis took power, they confiscated all materials relating to Marx that were held in Trier, and destroyed them.

Later that night I went on a pilgrimage to Kraft Brau located just on the edge of the city, past the Roman amphitheatre. Aside from a wide range of international and regional beers some of their own beers were delicious. I particularly enjoyed both Seb's pale ale ­- which was crisp and well- hopped and the Viennese lager, which was a rich autumn red, and full bodied.

Fully recovered I drove to Speyer, as you approach the spires of its churches can be seen looming in the distance. The main Romanesque cathedral is made from local red sandstone, and is absolutely enormous. It is the burial site for countless Salian, Staufer and Habsburg emperors and kings. Nearby, there is the smaller Trinity Church. This charming little wooden church is the oldest of the five Protestant churches in Speyer, amazingly this most fragile of buildings survived the war and it is a jewel of the Baroque architecture.

The next morning, I awoke early to visit the Messel Pit - a disused quarry where bituminous shale was once mined. Although the site is rich in unique fossils, it almost became a landfill before local protests lead to its preservation. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995. The museum is small, but contains many intriguing and rather bizarre early mammal skeletons found here, and the level of preservation is quite remarkable. If you are accompanied by a guide, you can walk down into the enormous crater which resembles a Martian landscape. The shale is so delicate that it is possible to separate the individual sheets in your hands uncovering plants and shells.

Arriving at Rüdesheim later that afternoon, I did not expect to be greeted by thousands of Harley Davison enthusiasts. The narrow streets of this small picturesque medieval town were overrun with bearded, tattooed and leather-clad Hells Angels. Anxious to escape, I jumped in a cable car and rode up to the gigantic Niederwald Monument. This was built to commemorate the foundation of the Second Reich after German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, and offers panoramic views of the Rhine Valley. The banks on each side are covered in lush vineyards, and it is easy to see why so many romantic poets were captivated by this dramatic landscape. Each bend in the river seems to offer up new and charming vistas, filled with rocky outcrops, imposing Renaissance castles, and Gothic ruins.

I was famished that evening, and eager to dine at the Rüdesheimer Schloss. Its owner was a very welcoming woman, and she brought a vast selection of dishes for me to try. I began with a plate of different hams, cooked meats, bread, pate, pickles and preserves. This was followed by a delicious, but very rich cheese, and Riesling soup served with spinach. I could barely move, but somehow managed to persevere. The main course was a huge juicy steak with roast potatoes, and a decadently rich cream and wild mushroom sauce.

It would be easy to become disheartened by all the priceless treasures that were destroyed and lost in the last world war. However, what has survived or been re-constructed serves as a poignant reminder of Germany's remarkable ability to overcome the scourge of Nazism, and to create a bright and stable future for its citizens.

Getting there

Deutsche Bahn: www.bahn.com

Lufthansa: www.lufthansa.com/ACCOMMODATION

Mercure Hotel Trier Porta Nigra: www.mercure.com

NH Hotel Weinheim: www.nh-hotels.com

Lindner Congress Hotel Frankfurt: www.lindner.de/en/index_html

GENERAL

Unesco sites: whc.unesco.org/

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