TRIER AND ITS TREASURES: FINDING GHOSTS IN A ROMAN EMPIRE OUTPOST

Story by Anne Z. Cooke and Images by ColorWorld/Steve Haggerty

TRIER AND ITS TREASURES: FINDING GHOSTS IN A ROMAN EMPIRE OUTPOST

TRIER, Germany- Arriving in Trier on a dark and moonless night, was never part of the plan.  I rushed through the train station, misplaced my carry-on luggage, found it after a frantic search, missed the express train to Trier. I should have slowed down, ordered a bratwurst in one of the station's cafes then moseyed on down to the platform and boarded the next train out.  

The Porta Nigra or “black gate,” built in 180 AD, is one of five original gates in the old Roman wall. Trier, Germany.

What I mean is, you don't have to make the same mistake. Schedule a dusk arrival as part of your plans and you’ll be treated to an unearthly light show when the spotlights illuminating Trier's most famous Roman ruin, blink on, bathing it in a golden glow.

Outlined against the gloom, this massive sandstone pile looked so new that I almost expected to see columns of armed centurions marching in and out. Built by Rome’s master masons, the 98-foot-high pile lasted almost intact into the 21rst century, long enough to be declared a World Heritage Site, one of nine such places in Trier.   

It was early when I returned the next morning, but the tour groups were already there, milling around in front of the Tourism Office, sipping take-out coffees, perusing brochures and waiting for their guides. While they snapped pictures, I stepped into the office to pick up a city map and to ask about local restaurants and scheduled city tours.  

Trier Cathedral and the Liebfrauenkirche church, seen here from the front, combine Romanesque, Gothic, and baroque architectural styles.

"We've got something for every age," said the desk clerk, looking me up and down to assess my age.  The most popular tours, she said, were the afternoon trips to the vineyards and wineries along the Moselle River. Not surprising, I thought, since Moselle wines are among Europe's best. Some tours go by bus, she explained, or I could take a river boat down the Moselle.  In the meantime, she offered alternatives: the Roman Ruins tour led by a centurion in a breast plate and helmet. Or if I fancied wearing a sheet, the Toga Tour of Roman Trier, with guide and visitors dressed like the actors in “Animal House.”   

Then there was the gladiator-led adventure to the town Amphitheater, a chance for kids with a taste for gore to get their jollies. But my favorite, the dark side choice, had to be the "Devil in Trier," promising a spooky immersion in the Middle Age's grimmest, most oppressive years. These were the centuries when free thinkers were burned at the stake and the Jewish community was chained into a narrow, cobblestone alley at night, handily signed as “Jews’ Alley.”

“Beware of witchcraft!" said the clerk with jolly smile, handing over a ticket. Soon after I joined a crowd of enthusiastic witches and warlocks for a morning’s walk through the old town streets, learning about the ignorance and superstition that kept Trier's beleaguered citizens in line for a couple of hundred years until the Renaissance opened their eyes and enlightenment followed.

River cruise ships detouring from the Rhine for shore tours in Trier, dock at the Moselle River’s Kaiser Wilhelm Bridge.

After another hour revisiting some of the streets we’d missed, we ran into the same Chinese tourist group we’d passed several times, exploring the Roman baths and peering at the statuary in the town’s Romanesque cathedral. Hurrying by, they were making a break for a modest three-story, pale pink house I hadn’t noticed, with a "Euroshop" (a 99-cent store) on the ground floor and a historic plaque on the wall.

"What's the attraction?" I asked our guide, Elke Schmeier, wondering if I’d missed something. 

"They want to see where Karl Marx grew up," she explained. "This house here and the Marx museum down the street are the first thing Chinese tourists ask about," she said. "They’ve read all about him in school. Then they come here and find out he came from a middle-class family."  

Vineyards and wineries, introduced by the Romans, cover every inch of the Moselle River banks. Trier, Germany.

And so it went on that first day in Trier, where a high-speed flight through 2,000 years of history flew by, telescoped into ten surprising hours. More was to come over the following week in the Rhineland, but as dusk settled over Trier, my first thought was food. And there, on the corner across from the 10th century market square was a 20th century favorite: You guess it -- McDonald's.

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