A visit to this city's Roman ruins and imperial vestiges along with information on museums, wine, hotels, and restaurants.
By Nikki Goth Itoi
This summer, we traced the winding Mosel River to its western origins to find an ancient Roman city in the midst of yet another transformation.
There are some destinations where a guided tour genuinely enhances even the most frequent traveler's understanding of a city. Usually, a less structured wandering of a place provides a richer and more individually tailored experience. In the 2000 year-old German city of Trier, however, the two-hour guided walking tour of its Roman ruins and imperial vestiges is absolutely a must. An appreciation of history is, after all, what this city is really all about.
Trier is situated along the Mosel River in a 20 kilometer-long valley that lies between the Eifel Massif to the west and the foothills of the Hunsrück mountains to the east. Historically, the valley has served as the meeting point of major trade routes, turning the city into an early cultural, religious, political, and commercial center. Trier was first established in 16 BC under Emperor Augustus as Augusta Trevorum, and later flourished in the 3rd and 4th centuries, when it became the seat of the Western Roman Empire, a domain that at one time reached from Britain all the way to southern Spain.
Although the city has never since attained the glory it experienced during Roman times, it has continued to thrive on a more modest scale as the political center of Germany's Rheinland-Pfalz. The canalization of the Mosel in 1957 helped revitalize the city after years of occupation and wartime destruction. The University of Trier, which was founded in 1970 and now has 12,000 students, has also added new life.
Early on a sunny July morning, our guide Brigitte - a bubbly, retired Lufthansa flight attendant - led us on a walk through time that began with the story of how the towering Roman gate, Porta Nigra, was preserved by chance. In medieval times, unused public buildings except for churches were often torn down for their stones and timbers. The old gate was just such a target until, in the 11th century, in memory of Trier's Archbishop Poppo, the upper levels of its east tower were converted into a church, thus saving it from destruction.
Brigitte's fascinating narrative culminated in the story of the grand double Cathedral and Liebfrauenkirche. Inside and out, the two connected buildings combine elements from every major architectural period from Romanesque times to the 19th century.
This wonder alone convinced us that every Trier visitor will be captivated by stories of the city's rise and fall over the centuries.
Our first stop in Trier was to take in a spectacular panoramic view of the city from our room at the charming Hotel Petrisberg. From there, curiosity led us to the birthplace of Karl Marx, to the lavish rococo Electoral Palace and gardens and to the incredibly well-engineered Imperial Baths built under Constantine the Great.
As we crossed the Römerbrücke (Roman bridge), which has served as a crossing since the second century, and sat in the austere Basilika, built by Constantine the Great in 300, we felt grateful for the fateful turn of events that preserved these relics. We felt we somehow understood the stories behind the sense of history that oozes out of every building, garden, monument, and museum in this ancient town.
Visitors eager to learn more about Trier's long history shouldn't miss the 100-year-old Rheinisches Landesmuseum, one of Germany's most important archaeological museums. its collection follows human civilization all the way back to the Late Stone Age (4300-1800 BC). On display are artifacts from viticulture in Roman times, the largest collection of Roman mosaics in Germany, a gold coin collection that provides portraits of the late Roman emperors, and tombstone monuments arranged to look like a Roman roadside cemetery. The museum continues to research the history of Trier and the surrounding area. (Ostalle 44, Tues.-Fri. 9:30-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 10:30-5pm.)
Time permitting, several additional museums are worth a peek: the Municipal Museum Simeonstift (at the Porta Nigra) documents the city's history and art dating from the middle ages through the 19th century; the Bischöfliche Museum, in the old city jail (Windstrasse 6), contains a collection of religious art treasures and most prominently, a painted ceiling from the Roman Palace under the Trier Cathedral, dating from the time of Constantine; the Karl Marx House (Brückenstrasse 10) displays documents concerning the life and work of the founder of communism; and the Spielzeug Museum, featuring three floors and two centuries of toys, is sure to trigger a trip down memory lane for kids of all ages. (Magelstrasse 4-5, tel. +49-0651-75850)
This year marked Trier's first Antiquity Festival, established to celebrate the city's long tradition of theater. Throughout the event, classical pieces were performed in the Basilika, Amphitheater, and other historical venues. We attended the first Trier performance of Richard Strauss' opera Elektra, held outdoors under the stars in the amphitheater, the city's oldest Roman construct (100 AD).
Trier's economy today is driven primarily by the wine and tourism industries, although a smattering of small businesses and larger industrial corporations are also fueling economic growth. Incredibly, the city's wine tradition is even older than its historical buildings. The Romans are said to have planted vines on the slopes of the town by the middle of the first century AD, which predates even the amphitheater.
If you haven't had your fill of Riesling wines from elsewhere in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, Trier offers a few gems of its own. For one, we visited the young and gregarious Georg-Fritz von Nell, who now runs the business that has been in his family since 1803. The winery consists of 16 hectares; grapes are pressed on the premises and aged in oak barrels.
In the family's Weingut, Edith von Nell prepares a specialty dish of pork marinated for two days in a semi-dry Riesling Qualitätswein, then roasted over a vine-wood fire, served with rich, creamy au gratin potatoes and fresh green salad. Although it's not a public restaurant, if you call ahead, they will often accommodate guests for dinner. Cellar visits and wine tastings are offered in English by appointment. (D-5500 Trier, im Tiergarten 12, near the amphitheater, tel. +49/0651/323 97, fax 300-797)
Another stop was Saar-Mosel Winzersekt, where we learned about the traditional method of making high-quality sparkling wine. At this facility, vintners from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region bring their Riesling and Elbling grapes to make four varieties of Sekt: Mosel (extra brut), Saar (brut), Ruwer (dry), and Obermosel (extra dry). A jovial wine expert, Herr Hechler, led us through the dark, vast cellars, showing us how to riddle (slightly rotating the bottles by hand during the in-bottle fermentation) and offering an endless stream of facts and figures about his craft. He told us the quality of the Sekt derives from a careful selection of grapes, a six-month barrel maturing time, 12-months bottle maturation, and the hand riddling. The tourist office can arrange tours by appointment. (Gilbertstrasse 34, D-5500 Trier, tel +49-0651-42627, fax +49-0651-42644.)
Over the last 10 years, Trier has served mainly as a stopover for tourists en route between northern and southern Europe. Few foreigners spend significant vacation time here, but in our opinion the city is worth a few extra days. The tourist office has begun to work aggressively to change its image from a city that intercepts tourists bound for other places, to a genuine destination itself. Look for a variety of special package deals meant to lure American vacationers from the larger and better-known destinations. September and October during the harvest and April through June are the high seasons. Advent in December is said to be an especially enchanted time to visit.
Trier offers a wide range of accommodations - though few, if any, are true bargains - from small guest houses loaded with character, to standard chain hotels that boast convenient locations and an abundance of business services.
Our favorite establishment is not in Trier proper, but about seven kilometers to the south in Trier-Pfalzel (30 minutes by boat). On the west bank of the Mosel sits Klosterschenke, an 800 year-old monastery that was turned into a guest house in 1824.
Here, the friendly Betz family has impressively melded the old with the new in the monastery's eleven individually decorated rooms. Twelve foot high ceilings, well-preserved hardwood floors, and tasteful floral wallpaper give the rooms an airy, garden feel. Despite recent renovations, the owners have managed to preserve the original style of the building by highlighting exposed beams and ornate moldings.
The bathrooms are small, but bright, clean, and modern. Room Number 16 has a larger bathroom and also a large window with a beautiful view of the river below. Number 27 is the only one with a bathtub, all others have showers.
Guests (and non-guests) can enjoy breakfast or lunch on the outdoor terrace shaded by linden trees, gaze at the river and the vine-covered hills beyond, and watch cyclists peddle leisurely along the Moselfahrradweg.
Dinner guests are treated to a menu of regional specialties, including lamb cutlets from the Ruwer Valley roasted and served with pine nuts, fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil. For special occasions, small groups can reserve the table in the Petri Capelle, which was built in 1511.
A drawback is that none of the rooms is designated nonsmoking.
Daily Rates: Singles 100 DM ($59), doubles 165 DM ($98). Closed January.
Contact: Klosterschenke, Klosterstr. 10, D-54293 Trier-Pfalzel, tel. +49/0651/6089, fax 64313
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 15/20
Hotel Villa Hügel
For a romantic and more central locale (10 minutes walk to downtown), we would choose the Hügel, an art nouveau villa built in 1914. The owners recently renovated and expanded the hotel to a capacity of 70 beds (14 rooms in the original part; 16 in the new building), many of which feature views of the Cathedral, Imperial Baths, and the Electoral Palace and Gardens.
The Hügel takes pride in its stylish ambiance. A modern atrium fills the lobby with natural light and welcomes guests to this idyllic getaway. Each room is individually decorated and named after a European city. The hotel's favorite room is the Köln, which features the original plaster ceiling and double French doors opening to a balcony and a sweeping view of Trier. The Hamburg is the only other room to have a balcony. Rooms that face the street are less expensive, and yet not likely to be loud, as the hotel sits on a lightly trafficked private way. All rooms come with minibar, cable-TV, telephone, and shower or bath.
Amenities include an outdoor patio, an indoor pool, and a sauna. A restaurant, available for house guests only, serves a gourmet breakfast and light afternoon or evening fare such as salads and crêpes.
In order to foster a more intimate atmosphere, the hotel discourages large groups. Nonsmoking rooms are available and English is spoken.
Daily Rates: Singles 110 to 150 DM ($65-$89), doubles 170-235 DM ($101-$139).
Contact: Villa Hügel, Bernhardstrasse 14, D-54295 Trier, tel. +49/0651/33066, fax 37958
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 14/20
Our return to this longtime Gemütlichkeit favorite found the Pantenburg brothers, Helmut and Wolfgang, continuing to keep up with the times without sacrificing the personalized hospitality that makes the Petrisberg a gem. With other guests, we were treated to an afternoon snack on the lawn, which overlooks the amphitheater and city below.
Wolfgang, the decorator, has remodeled nearly all 34 rooms, with modern bathrooms, ornate French styled wallpaper, and handmade wooden beds. He continues to add to his collection of ceramics, which are placed throughout the rooms and corridors of the hotel. Helmut says that hairdryers and safes will be the next additions, followed by an elevator. TVs are still not in every room, although guests can request one for six DM per day. Thankfully for us, the Pantenburgs still do not permit smoking in their breakfast room.
Daily Rates: Singles 100 to 110 DM ($59-$65), doubles 150-180 DM ($89-$107). No credit cards.
Contact: Hotel Petrisberg, Sickingenstrasse 11-13, D-54296 Trier, tel. +49/0651/4640, fax 46450
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20
Responsibility for running the Weinhaus Becker has just been passed to the next generation. With that change, has come a burst of energy and a flurry of improvements. A year ago, daughter Christine Becker and her husband expanded the house's cellar and kitchen. The next project will be a new reception area so guests don't have to enter the hotel through the restaurant.
The house is located in Olewig, not far from the amphitheater. It offers 42 beds; all rooms have telephones, TV, WC, and shower; some have balconies. The Beckers serve a buffet breakfast and they recently added a new dinner menu emphasizing regional specialties served to match the house wines.
Guests can join the family in the fall harvest to experience the wine-making process firsthand. Tastings are available by appointment. No designated nonsmoking rooms.
Daily Rates: Singles 75 to 85 DM ($44-$50), doubles 130 to 160 DM ($77-$95). No credit cards.
Contact: Weinhaus Becker, Olewiger Strasse 206, D-54295 Trier-Olewig, tel. +49/0651/938 080
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
Because of its situation directly across from the Porta Nigra in Trier, the Dorint Hotel offers the view of choice and utter convenience in location. However, its corporate owners were heavily criticized for tearing down the old Porta Nigra Hotel in 1968 and putting an ugly modern building in its place.
The Dorint offers 106 fairly standard rooms, room service, garage parking for 14 DM ($8) per day, and most other business amenities. It plans to add air-conditioning within two years. Ask for a room in the older building (which has newer rooms with halogen lighting and more modern colors) on the side that faces the Porta Nigra. The windows are double-paned to keep the bustle of the city below to a murmur. Nonsmoking rooms are available.
On the street level, the Salon, decorated in a turn of the century motif, is open for lunch and dinner. The adjacent casino grants free entry to house guests.
Daily Rates: Singles 180 DM ($107), doubles 318 DM ($188).
Contact: Dorint Hotel, Porta Nigra Platz 1, D-54292 Trier, tel +49/0651/27010, fax 2701-176
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 9/20
Hotel Deutscher Hof
Ten minutes from the city center is another business-oriented hotel, the Deutscher Hof, run by Andrea Weber. It features 98 rooms on three floors, all with shower or bath, WC, telephone, and color TV. Ten percent of them are designated nonsmoking. Rates include a breakfast buffet and parking.
There is presently no fitness facility, but Ms. Weber plans to add a small health center soon. Ask for a room that faces the garden, rather than the busy street below. Bikes are available for free use, because, as Ms. Weber says "You can't have culture all day long!"
Like the Dorint, this hotel caters especially to groups and business conventions. However, as we toured the facility, Ms. Weber chatted with people she encountered along the way, suggesting to us that despite the hotel's size, she is able to pay personal attention to most of her guests. The staff speaks excellent English.
Daily Rates: Singles 110 to 145 DM ($65-$86), doubles 155-185 DM ($92-$109).
Contact: Hotel Deutscher Hof, Südallee 25, D-54292 Trier, tel +49/0651/977 80, fax 977 8400
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
Hotel zur Römerbrücke
In checking out another part of town, just across the Roman Bridge, we inspected the Hotel zur Römerbrücke, which offers 45 rooms, all with shower/bath, WC, radio, telephone, minibar, and television.
The location sounds deceptively far from town. In fact, the pleasant and scenic walk across the river takes only about 10 minutes. Like so many other hotels in Trier, this one was under renovation. Bathrooms are large and bright white; first floor rooms are larger and have bathtubs, the rest have showers. Room Number 101 has a balcony and double sink; Number 102 is also large with a great view of the river.
The east-facing breakfast room was drenched with morning sunlight when we arrived. A new, hip bistro next door, owned and operated by the hotel, has been open for just over six months and a local artist has adorned the walls with brightly colored murals of the Basilika, Römerbrücke, and the Porta Nigra.
Daily Rates: Singles 110 DM ($65), doubles 160 DM ($95)
Contact: Hotel Römerbrücke, Aachener Strasse 5, D-54294 Trier, tel. +49/0651/82660, fax 8266 500
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 11/20
Several of Trier's fine restaurants are historical landmarks, as well as culinary attractions. French and Mediterranean dishes influence many of the menus.
A few months ago, this famous venue had a change of heart. Rather than continuing to cater to an upscale crowd, it decided to target a more mainstream clientèle. New managers Burkhard and Katja Weiler, who rent the palace from the Kesselstatt family, offer cuisine based on regional specialties. The result is that prices have come down, but the quality of the food and the extraordinary ambiance has not.
The restaurant is centrally located across from the southern annex of the Liebfrauenkirche. It was built by the bailiff Karl Melchior Freiherr von Kesselstatt in 1740-1745 and designed by Johann Valentin Thomann of Mainz, who is admired for having created a grand palace within a very limited space.
The original rococo interior was destroyed in 1944; today, however, the Weilers have redecorated the restaurant's two main rooms in keeping with the Baroque style of the building. Their plan is to change the menu seasonally, with lighter fare in summer and more hearty entrées in the winter.
If you can find room for it all, the full, fixed-price menu is a recommended indulgence. We sat at a corner table next to a tall, narrow window and examined a wine list which includes a wide selection of local vintages, plus many from France and Italy.
We began with an assorted appetizer plate of seasonal Pfifferlinge mushrooms, goat cheese drizzled with a sweet oil, and minced fresh tomatoes.
A huge salad of fresh, crisp lettuce, red cabbage, tiny croûtons, bacon bits, and chunks of cheese, was enough for an entire meal.
After the delicate cream soup with fresh herbs arrived, we should have called it quits. But yet to come was the entrée of pork medallions in a Cognac-pepper sauce, broccoli and cauliflower laced with a cheese sauce, bacon-wrapped green beans, and homemade noodles. While we ate and ate, a background tape of classical music played through twice.
Dessert was a fantastic combination of sorbet, ice cream, and fresh fruit. The meal was, to be sure, a culinary extravaganza for us. Prices fall in the mid-to-upper range for Trier. The fixed-price menus range from about 80 to 95 DM ($47-$56) per person.
(Next door is the Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, one of the largest private wine cafés in Germany, which offers more casual dining. A wine tip from the magazine Wein Sonderheft: the 1996 Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese trocken.)
Palais Kesselstatt, Liebfrauenstr. 9, Tel +49/0651/75101, fax 73316. Closed Sun.-Mon. Open 11am-2pm and 6pm-10pm. Closed in February.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 14/20
Schloss Monaise Bistro & Restaurant
Another stately dining experience is to be found at the Schloss Monaise, about seven kilometers north of Trier proper. Here, Birgit and Hubert Scheid, two famous local chefs, have been recruited to run a new gourmet restaurant.
Schloss Monaise (roughly translated as "the palace of my leisure") was built beginning in 1779 to serve as the summer residence of Philipp Franz Graf von Walderdorff. In 1969, the palace became a property of the city of Trier. At one time, there were plans to turn it into a museum, but the city determined it was probably too far from the city center to attract enough visitors. So in 1994 through 1996, the city spent 12 million DM to restore the palace to be used as a restaurant. And in this capacity, it is drawing quite a crowd.
Dinner (or lunch) is served in a stylish atmosphere that tastefully mixes traditional fixtures like high ceilings and hardwood floors, with more modern accents like sleek black chairs, modern art on the walls, and silver candlesticks.
The Scheid's have designed a menu with a Mediterranean flair, which, incidentally, was handwritten on an antique gold framed mirror that stood in one corner of the main dining room. They prepare appetizers like melon soup with lox, gazpacho, fettuccine with Pfifferlinge mushrooms, carpaccio with green asparagus, and spring rolls served in herb sauce. And main entrées (29.50 DM/$17.45) include salmon with Hollandaise sauce, rabbit with an olive sauce, venison and fresh mushrooms, filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, and lobster served over fettuccine with cheese sauce and green asparagus.
We began with a refreshing Bellini cocktail (puree of peach mixed with rosee Sekt and white wine), a pate of calves tongue and wild mushrooms, and foie gras with pears marinated in Eiswein (super rich and super sweet), all served with a special homemade bread.
Next came a Mosel River specialty: sautéed monkfish in a lobster sauce. With it we chose a 1996 semi-dry Kesselstatt wine. For dessert, we kept it simple: fresh strawberries and cream. Dinner for two was 128 DM ($76) without drinks.
The service was friendly and attentive, without being intrusive. We especially enjoyed the quick tour of the upper floor, which is reserved for special occasions. All the original ornate plaster work has been preserved, as have the original wooden floors.
The restaurant also has a more casual outdoor café. Excellent English is spoken.
Schloss Monaise, Monaiser Strasse D-54294 Trier, tel +49/0651/828-670, fax 828-671
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 15/20
We stopped here for lunch, seeking an outdoor terrace where we could enjoy the mid-afternoon sunshine without straying far from the center of town. The Domstein has a more formal indoor restaurant and wine cellar that serves dishes cooked according to the Roman imperial chef Apicius. Some 200 regional wines are available.
Lunch specials range from about 13 to 18 DM ($8-$11). We ordered a trio of potato, ham, and corn salads, served with the delicious dark bread that is so popular in Germany; and a rather standard pasta dish of spinach and egg noodles served with Bolognese sauce. Service was friendly and adequate; some English spoken.
Zum Domstein, Am Hauptmarkt 6, tel +49/0651/74490, fax 74499
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 12/20
Trier Information for Tourists
* Düsseldorf 191 km/119 miles
* Frankfurt 191 km/119 miles
* Koblenz 124 km/78 miles
* Luxembourg 40 km/25 miles
* Munich 499 km/312 miles
Rail Connections: Direct service available from many cities, including Cochem, Bonn, Bremen, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Koblenz, Köln, Luxembourg, Mannheim, Stuttgart.
English Guided City Walking Tour: May 1-Oct. 31, daily at 10:30am and 2:30pm. Cost 10 DM.
* Christmas Market, Nov 25-Dec 22
* European Folk Festival, May 13-24
* Trier Old Town Festival, June 25-27
* Antiquity Festival, July 1999 - Performances will include Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and the national ballet of Spain (Medea-flamenco).
* Trier Mosel Festival, Jul. 10-13
* Trier Wine Festival, Aug. 6-9
Side Trips: Saar Valley, Ruwer Valley, Luxembourg, Eifel hills, Hochwald Mountains, Burg Eltz, Maria Laach Monastery, boat ride on the Mosel.
* Bischöfliche Weingüter, Gervasiusstr./Rahnenstr. Open Mon.-Fri., 9am-5pm. (Wine tip from Die Besten Weine in Deutschland: 1995 Eitelsbacher Marienholz Riesling trocken, DM 8/$4.73.)
* Stiftung Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium: Weberbach 75, Mon-Fri 9am-12:30, 1pm-5:45pm. (Wine tip from Die Besten Weine in Deutschland: 1995 Ockfener Scharzberg Riesling QbA trocken, DM 7.50.)
Weininformation: Konstantinplatz 11, Mon.-Fri. 11-1pm, 1:30-6:30, Sat. 10-1pm, 1:30-4pm, Sun. (Apr.-Oct.) 1pm-5pm.