Sailing the River Rhine Part 6: The Back-and-Forth History of Trier, Germany

Trier has a complicated history dating back millennia and featuring booms and busts and invasion after invasion. These days it's known for its wine and as the birthplace of a very prominent, and controversial, political figure.

The Uniworld Rhine Basin map. The Uniworld River Queen tied down in Trier, Germany.

About 25 miles as the crow flies, Trier is just across the Moselle from Luxembourg. It is Germany’s oldest city. The Romans “subdued” the Celtic tribes in this spot in the year 58 BC, and then abandoned the location. They were back in 30 BC and again in force in 100 AD. This is Trier and it’s had as many ups and downs in its fortune as John Travolta has had in his film career. Indeed, it went from a population of 80,000 in the 4th century to a mere 5,000 at the beginning of the 5th century. Around this time it was attacked by the Franks in 413 and 421, then Attila and his Huns in 451. Then the Franks came back. They stayed for a long time, but in 882 the town was sacked by the Vikings who burned most churches and abbeys. Despite that, power then passed into the hands of the archbishops and this continued until the French Revolution. In the 12th century the fortifications surrounding the city ”enclosed an area less than half the size of the Roman city a thousand years earlier.”

History books report that “from the 10th century and throughout the Middle Ages Trier made several attempts to achieve autonomy from the Archbishopric of Trier but was ultimately unsuccessful.” This was before the days of the Spanish Inquisition but Trier’s appalling witch hunts in the late 1500s led to mass executions of hundreds of people who had offended the church.

An unbelievable number of wars kept Trier in conflict with its neighbors from 902 AD until the end of World War II. A review of its history suggests it has never been more at peace than in the last half-century.

We meet our guide in the center of town. In case any river boat passenger is confused by the number of cities we have visited, our guide holds up the town flag. Yes, we are finally in Trier, the city we’ve heard about in previous trips around Germany mostly in relation to some regional misadventure the Archbishop of Trier was involved in because he did seem to have his finger in every pie through the centuries.

The guide holds up another item, a black and white photograph with a face that seems vaguely familiar, a bearded serious face.

“Who is this?” she asks.

“Einstein?” ventures one in our group. “Winston Churchill?” another suggests, smiling.

She laughs. “No! Karl Marx! He was born here in 1818 and his house on Brückenstrasse is now a museum. And we see a lot of visitors from China as a result.”

For a 2006 New York Times story click here.

The Imperial Roman Baths. The enormous Porta Nigra (the Black Gate) was one of four strong defensive gates protecting Roman Trier. It was constructed in the 2nd century of grey sandstone much of which has been cannibalized by citizens over the last two millennia (the other three gates have disappeared, too, as locals built houses from the soot-stained stones.) It’s no surprise to find an ompah band performing for visitors at the Porta Nigra. It’s a very Bavarian moment but part of Bavaria was incorporated in 1946 in the newly formed state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Trier Cathedral is close by, a more business-like church than many we have visited in many trips to Europe. One guide book says “Here Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture and art meet in this vaulted, fortress-style cathedral.” The cathedral stands on the remains of a Roman palace and has as a church-in-the-round a complicated history. It was easy in the Middle Ages for religious institutions to publicize that they had religious relics important to devout God-fearing citizens. Trier Cathedral claims it has the Seamless Robe of Jesus that he wore during his crucifixion, the skull of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor and one of the Holy Nails from the Cross — all of which somehow escaped the deprivations of the Vandals.

Ground was broken for the present Trier Cathedral in 1235. Previous religious buildings had been destroyed by the Vandals. We had thought the bishop figure (bottom left image) might be the first archbishop, but it was St. Nicolaus, the Eastern European religious saint so generous in his kindness he gradually assumed the identity of Santa Clause.

Graffiti by indolent youth was clearly not a problem when European cities were built. Visitors can enjoy the elaborate beauty of Germany’s oldest city as well as its elegant young ladies and its cutest canines.

Views of what’s good looking in Trier.

The House of the Three Magi on Simeonstrasse erected around 1230 is one of about six houses built before the medieval wall was completed. As a consequence to prevent what today are called home invasions, each house had to defend itself. The method was not to provide an entry door at ground level but higher up accessible only by wooden staircase or ladder that could be pulled up once the family was safely inside.

The House of the Three Magi. A hanging Guild sign in town recalls earlier times. For information on such signs click here.

Medieval architecture, religious institutions, and Roman town planning all pale compared to what brings many tourists to Trier, actually what partly brought Romans, too. Wine making!

Near the main square stands a reproduction of the Neumagen Wine Ship, a special ship built in Roman times to transport barrels of wine. The original, created about 220 AD, is now in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in town. Carved in Roman sandstone those monuments were used in pairs to mark the graves of wealthy wine merchants. Four were discovered in the late 1800s in the village of Neumagen-Dhron which lies about 12 miles northwest of Trier — the river Dhron is a tributary of the Moselle.

The Romans encouraged winemaking. The phrase an army “marches on its stomach” has been attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great. When water purity was suspect such that parents preferred their children drank wine rather than local water it is no surprise army commanders felt the same way. Encyclopedias tell us Romans believed wine cured gout, snake bites, tapeworms and halitosis as well as depression and grief. It could be used as an analgesic for surgery and an antiseptic for wounds. No wonder Roman settlements developed vineyards across Europe and the farther they were from Rome the more the garrisons needed to be self-reliant.

And the closer visitors can get to the vineyards more easily, the more they will want to see -- and maybe the more wine tasting they will want to do.

Replica Neumagen Wine ship. Trier vineyard

The River Queen this close to a Trier vineyard! This Uniworld river boat is particularly interesting; although remodeled in 2010, it is designed to show the elegance of the 1930’s Art Deco movement This website gives an outsider review of our favorite river cruise line.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.