TRIER, GERMANY — The man dressed like a Roman centurion commands that we listen to his instructions before he’ll allow us to enter this city’s landmark Porta Nigra (Black Gate).
“There will be no photographs taken once you are inside,” orders the man, one of a troop of local actors who portray Roman soldiers, senators and other high officials while guiding visitors around this remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The small group nods our obedience — mostly so we can escape the spring downpour — and the centurion allows us to pass under the massive city gate ordered built by Emperor Constantine in the 2nd century when he ruled the Roman Empire from this southern German outpost.
Once inside the World Heritage Site — one of 10 in Trier — the man stays in character and enthusiastically flashes us a few “all hail Caesar” salutes as he explains the gate's fascinating history.
Above: The massive Porta Nigra is one of Germany's most important ancient landmarks.
“First, says the actor, “the name Porta Nigra is not from Roman times. We do not even know if the Romans gave the gate a name.
“No,” he continues, “the name first appeared in the Middle Ages when the stone the gate is made from started to turn black thanks to pollution (coal fires).
“The fact the French came later and burnt much of the city down did not help the gate's facade, either,” he smiles.
When the theatrical tour reaches the highest point of the three storey Porta Nigra, we’re afforded uninterrupted views of some of the other Roman trappings Constantine had built to make his stay here feel more like home, like:
• The massive Roman baths;
• An amphitheatre that could sit 20,000 in its prime,
• The great basilica that houses Constantine’s throne room,
• And the city’s magnificent church, where the Robe of Jesus — the emperor’s mother Helena brought that back to Trier from Jerusalem — is kept under lock and key.
Above: Guides dressed up like Romans lead visitors around the Porta Nigra, which served as a city gate and a church.
Below the gate's entrance is the all important Mosel River from where fields lush with grape vines — first planted by the Romans — fan out in all directions. Behind the gate is the quaint Medieval city that sprung up after the Romans left.
“From this vantage point the Romans kept the Germanic tribes at bay. And when they did attack, the Romans rained hot oil and stones down on them from here.
“The Porta Nigra made the city impenetrable,” shouts the centurion in a performance worthy of Broadway.
However, it wasn’t the only gate in Trier at that time.
“The Romans actually built four of them and they were connected by a massive city wall,” he continues. “Only the Porta Nigra survives because when Napoleon arrived, instead of destroying it like he did the rest of the city, he turned the Porta Nigra into a church.”
During Constantine’s time, Trier, which is Germany’s oldest city, was very large — extruding 6.5 sq. km with a population of 80,000 — but modern Trier, where now 110,000 live, has shrunk to just 1.5 sq. km.
“That just shows you how important Trier was to the Romans,” offers the actor, who calls the guided tours “infotainment.”
That also means there’s still a lot of ancient history buried beneath Trier.
Above: From the top of Porta Nigra visitors get glorious views of the Old Town and the churches built during Roman times.
“Less than 25 per cent of the city has been excavated,” says the guide, who quickly adds with a smile, “I don't know where we would put all the artifacts if they were dug up.”
Right now, the city’s storehouse of history is a small museum located near the great church. Excavation under the museum has unearthed Roman pillars and other artifacts.
The incredible imperial baths, which date back to the 4th century, are currently under renovation and work should be completed by 2022.
“The workmen are using ancient tools and methods to restore the baths,” says the centurion, “so our tourists (Trier gets five million annually) can see how construction was done back in Roman times.”
Only the lavish entrance, the arena floor and a few stone seats remain visible at the amphitheatre, much of which has been reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Once a year, the Tunic of Christ, as it’s officially known, is exhibited in the Emperor’s Church — Constantine was the first Roman leader to embrace Christianity — and thousands from around the world make the pilgrimage each year to Trier to see it.
Above: There is still plenty of artifacts left from the Roman stay in Trier. Most of the relics still remained buried, though.
The first mention of the Holy Robe was in the 11th-century and it was reliably documented from the 12th-century onward. It was placed in the main alter of the church in 1196 and has remained there ever since.
The city’s three stone bridges also date back to the Roman times. The first was constructed by Constantine’s legions in the 2nd century, while the others followed in 17AD and 144AD. Amazingly, all three remain in use today.
While Roman history is what most tourists come to see — Trier is a main stop for river boat cruises out of Amsterdam — the city also gets lots of Chinese visitors because Carl Marx, the father of socialism, was born here. On a narrow street around the corner from the Porta Nigra stands a large bronze statue of Marx, which was presented to Germany by China’s government on the anniversary of Marx’s 200th birthday in 2018.
One of Marx’s main economic theories was that the world would be better off without paper money.
City officials here agree and have come up with a euro bill bearing Marx’s image that has a valuation of 0.
It makes for a great souvenir from this remarkable city that is so rich in history.
Above: The streets of old Trier are lined with impressive mansions featuring statue filled gardens.
JUST THE FACTS
• Trier is two hours by train from Frankfurt and just 30 minutes from Luxembourg.
• Best place to stay: The Vienna House, which is close to the city’s historic area and within walking distance of the Porta Nigra.
• Best place to eat: Weinwirtschaft Friedrich Wilhelm, near Market Square and Constantine’s Church.
• Getting there: Air Canada and Luthfansa offer daily service from several Canadian cities to Frankfurt and Munich.
• More info on Germany: Go to http://www.germany.travel/en