Plenty on offer in historical Trier

Trier, Germany’s oldest town, a tourist jewel, barely an hour’s flight from London, is a perfect weekend get-away

The quaint university town on the Moselle has some magic ingredients – steep vineyards, a wide river, and thick surrounding woods. On top of that if offers no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, most of them in a radius of about three kilometres and best explored on foot.

The historical town nestling in the valley with its red sandstone cliffs and woods on the one side and vineyards on the other, lies on the border to Luxembourg and unites two worlds - German and French: in the way-of-life, the cuisine and its liquid specialities. It also combines nature and history in the best possible way.

"Since being founded by the Romans in 17 BC, Constantine the Great bestowed Trier with its Golden Age; Karl Marx was born here and the apostle Matthew is supposed to be buried here; while the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was here as a Second World War POW, and William Turner painted it.”, I wrote in my book and in a nutshell that is Trier.

For four centuries during the height of the Roman Empire, it was one of the four important cities of Roman rule – the others being Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria. Walking through the small town one encounters two thousand years of history in two thousand steps. One is greeted by a picture of churches, well-preserved Romans ruins, narrow medieval alleys, a Rococo palace and traces of the French occupation under Napoleon.

Towering above it all is the huge Roman Basilica, today the Protestant Church in Trier, originally built in the fourth century as the Throne Room of Emperor Constantine.

Trier offers the visitor something in every season. Spring is good for hiking and cycling, in summer there is a wine festival or town festival every weekend. Autumn is harvesting time and in winter there is the Christmas market and Carnival in February. It is surrounded by forests that make it perfect for hiking.

What to do:

The well-preserved Roman heritage sites are “must” sees. It is always best to start at the Porta Nigra – the Roman black gates. Looking down from the Porta Nigra towards the City, on the left hand side, is the small house where Karl Marx grew up in. The Karl Marx museum, in his house of birth, is right on the other side of the pedestrian area.

Trier boasts one of the most perfect European Cathedrals. Started in the fourth century when Constantine allowed Christianity in the Roman Empire, it hosts the Shroud of Christ that was brought to Trier by his mother, Empress Helena. Well, fine, there are about six such shrouds in the world. This one was however found in Jerusalem and dates from the first century.

There are churches everywhere, from every century and architectural style, and mostly they are open, so one can peek in. In winter they all have a nativity corner. It is Germany’s oldest Diocese and many buildings to this day belong to the Catholic Church. Imagine as you walk through town that below your feet are huge vaulted cellars dating from Roman times and belonging to the State and the Church, harbouring some of the best Moselle wines – that may drive you underground! Unfortunately they only open the doors to visitors on special days.

In December, the squares in front of the Cathedral and the town’s main square transform into one of the most beautiful Christmas markets in Germany. Half-timbered houses form the backdrop on the one square and the majestic Cathedral serves as an imposing backdrop on the other. This year the market is from November 24 to December 22.

Other places of interest:

* The Church of Our Lady, the finest example of French Gothic style.

* The Basilica – the vastness of the building is impressive. In summer there are organ concerts.

* From the Basilica it is a brisk walk through the Palace Gardens to either the Museum with its mummies and Roman relics or to the Imperial Baths. Do go in! The cellar area is well-preserved and gives one a good insight into Roman architecture and its sophisticated heating system.

* The first century amphitheatre is very well-preserved and in summer the venue for concerts and opera. Just above the amphitheatre, only a kilometre from the town centre, the steep vineyards start. There are well-paved paths for jogging or walking.

* The Karl Marx Museum in his house of birth – follow the Chinese signs!

* St. Matthews Cathedral and the grave of the disciple, is about two km from the town centre.

* A short boat trip to Pfalzel on the other side of the Moselle – one can cycle there and take a boat back

Trier is a shopping paradise, offering something for every taste. It has the greatest selection of shoe shops I know of – go to Ragazza for real leather Italian shoes. The Neustrasse houses small boutiques with funky jewellery, affordable designer clothes, home accessories, and even Carol Boyes. In the main retail outlets, electronic gadgets, generally cheaper than in the UK, can be found.

Food and Wine

As a wine-growing area its cuisine and beverages are very much seasonally inspired. In autumn an onion tart or onion quiche and sweet first wine – called Federweisser - is a favourite.

All year round there is Flammkuechen on offer. It is a French-German version of pizza, with a lighter dough.

The Moselle and Saar valleys are famous for its Rieslings and Müller Turgau grapes. Its famous semi-sweet wines are really good to drink as an aperitif with cheeses. My personal favourite are the Pinot Blancs – called Weissbürgunder by the Germans.

Sekt – sparkling wine – is widely drunk in this area from anytime after ten in the morning, starting with a Sekt breakfast to a lunchtime or dinner starter. Most of the vintners offer wine tasting tours and one can buy wine directly from them.

As an alternative to wine, the locals drink copious amounts of sour cidre in huge half-a-litre white porcelain mugs; it is called a Porz Viez in the local dialect. It is best as half mineral water, half cidre.

Where to eat:

Blesius Garten, in the wine suburb of Olewig has the only brewery in town and in summer a great beer garden. In winter it offers great traditional pub meals. 

Frankenturm, a pub and hotel in a side street, off the main city square, offers cheap and tasty meals and sells local wines.

Weinstube Kesselstatt, right across from the Church of Our Lady, has a great outdoor terrace in summer. In winter it is a quaint wine café, with a great selection of excellent, own wines, stacked on racks against the wall. It is self-service which circumvents the notoriously bad German service.

Das Weinhaus, across from Karl Marx Museum has a great selection of wines, bought directly from the vintners and with only a small surcharge. For as little as 8 Euros one can enjoy a good bottle of wine. Traditional food served and a wonderful platter of local cheeses.

Where to stay:

Blesius Garten Hotel, is surrounded by steep vineyards and yet only a kilometre from the town centre. In town itself, Hotel Frankenturm offers clean simple rooms. Or look on the tourism information website.

How to get there:

Ryan Air flies to Frankfurt Hahn airport about 75 kilometres from Trier. There is a bus to Trier station about every three hours or rent-a-car and travel through isolated low-range mountains.

Or fly to Luxemburg Airport, a mere 40 kilometres from Trier. Luxair flies from Heathrow and City; BA from Gatwick. Either rent a car or from Luxembourg Station take a train to Trier.

Anli Serfontein lives in Trier and is the author of the book From Rock to Kraut ( about a South African settling in Trier. For more information on Trier visit or

Published in the expat newspapers: The South African, London and Australian Times, London
October 2008

(c) Anli Serfontein 2008. Not to be used or re-printed without permission