Germany off the beaten track

Trier: The Unesco World Heritage Site Porta Nigra (about 180 A.D.) © Bjoern Rudek

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On the track of history

Trier, a city of the Romans, is an architectural showcase with buildings from a rich 2000-year history. Not only is Trier a Roman city, it is also the oldest city in Germany, then a purely civilian city 120 kilometers/80 miles away from the Rhine and the Germanic tribes. It began around a wooden bridge from 18 B.C. at the site of a ford used by the Celtic Treveri and soon occupied the wide valley with an extensive grid pattern of streets on the site of sporadic Celtic settlements. Because it had been founded under Roman Emperor Augustus in the area of the Treveri, it was called Augusta Treverorum and later shortened to Treveri.

Facing the threat of a Germanic invasion, the Romans finally built a city wall around A.D. 180, 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) long, which ultimately had five gates. The remains of the gates at the Amphitheater and the Römerbrücke (Roman Bridge) can still be seen and the Porta Nigra is almost perfectly preserved. The prosperity of Treveri is attested to by the largest gold coin hoard from antiquity found in 1993 (2517 gold coins), but in 275, the city was destroyed by the Germanic Alamanni only to be reborn even more magnificently after 293 as one of the three capitals of the Western Roman Empire alongside York and Milan.

In the 4th century, the city numbered between 60,000 and 80,000 inhabitants, saw six emperors reign from here and, under Constantine the Great (306-316), became an early center for the spread of Christianity north of the Alps.

The Germanic tribal migrations of the fifth century brought destruction at the hands of the Franks, who took over politically after 485 and thus also imported their Germanic language. Treveris, as it was now called, had dwindled down to perhaps 2000 to 3000 inhabitants, but the elevation of the Trier bishop to archbishop in 802 by Charlemagne signaled a new ascent when in 882 the Vikings destroyed Trier.

The city never recovered its former splendor, but at least it grew (more than 12,000 inhabitants in the 14th century); it finished its new city wall in 1248 and had in Balduin of Luxembourg (1307-1354) its leading prince elector. Balduin, brother and great-uncle to two Holy Roman emperors, Henry VII and Charles IV, made sure that he and his successors were among the seven prince electors to elect the German kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

The city itself, however, tried to become more independent of the archbishops, who, in turn, spent more and more time in Koblenz on the Rhine. Trier, as it was now called, played host to several imperial diets. During the one in 1473, the university was founded; during another, the most famous relic of the Cathedral, the "Heilige Rock" (Holy Robe), was shown publicly for the first time in 1512.

In 1522, the city wall proved strong enough to withstand a siege by Franz von Sickingen, thus vouchsafing Christopher Marlowe's later assessment, but the Reformation and the subsequent religious quarrels weakened Trier. The attempt to introduce the Reformation in 1559 failed, and the Reformation-minded weavers, the backbone of the local economy, moved out. In 1580, the Imperial Court ruled in favor of the archbishop/elector, who took possession of Trier again. The return of the electoral administration partly offset the loss of workplaces in manufacturing and wine trading - the climate had worsened, producing a string of bad wine harvests, which in turn led to hundreds of witch trials.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and the subsequent French Wars brought Trier, only 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the French border after 1552, an almost continuing series of sieges, occupations, and destructions between 1635 and 1737. In 1697, Trier numbered fewer than 2,700 inhabitants - plus the residents of 29 monasteries.

It was its function as a religious center that kept Trier going, and by the middle of the 18th century, eminent architects and artists turned Trier into a place set splendidly with baroque and rococo churches, palaces, and gardens. It was the ecclesiastical splendor that Goethe eloquently described in 1792 on his way to the battles against the French Revolutionary troops. But Goethe saw the change, too - the French won, and by 1794, Trier was taken and later, like the whole area west of the Rhine, incorporated into France. Irreversible changes took place: the university was closed in 1798; the old guilds were abolished; the vestiges of the Electoral State were dissolved in 1802 along with the office of archbishop, an office created by Charlemagne exactly a millennium earlier; French law was introduced along with the metric system; Napoleon was hailed as a visitor in 1804.

After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 at the hands of the British and the Prussians, the latter took over Trier as their westernmost possession, poor and isolated. Here, in 1818, Karl Marx was born when Trier numbered fewer than 10,000 people.

The First World War set Trier back again: it was bombed 50 times; it lost all its hinterland again and became a French garrison city (with a young major, Charles de Gaulle). The Second World War seemingly brought the end: 40 percent of the inner city was destroyed and Trier was so poor that little could be rebuilt immediately. That, however, proved to be a boon since enough historical consciousness developed later to repair and rebuild along historical lines so that in spite of the wartime losses, Trier is an architectural showcase with buildings from a rich 2000-year history.

Since 1970 a university city again (with other academic institutions), Trier is an administrative center as well as a shopping center for shoppers from as far as Luxembourg and parts of Belgium and France, a city of 100,000 inhabitants where every building site is an investment in the future as well as an investigation of the past.

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Inspiration, discoveries, relaxation, family fun: whatever your mood and whoever you´re with, an escape to the beautiful and historic places makes a perfect day out.

Trier: Guided City Walking Tour

As Germany's oldest city, Trier began as a metropolis of the Roman Empire and enjoyed prosperous medieval and Renaissance eras as well. Today the city's glorious history can be witnessed at every step on a stroll through the bustling Old Town. A good way to get to know Trier is to take a guided walking tour or city tour by bus. The Tourist Information provides you with detailed information on tours and sights.

Further information

European History: Constantine the Great

The Roman emperor reigned from Trier and converted as first Roman emperor to Christianity.
Trier became an early center for the spread of Christianity north of the Alps.