Genoa or Genova?

After a summer in which the media (the Guardian in particular – see this and this) carried regular reports on how cities like Venice (and Florence, and Barcelona, and others) were so overwhelmed by tourism that there are now anti-tourism protests and demands for local authorities to restrict tourist numbers, it seemed that I should suggest Genova as an alternative to Venice. (I prefer to use the local names, eg Genova, but it seems a bit pointless in the case of Venezia.) After all, they were the two great maritime trading republics of Renaissance Italy, and both have a wonderful legacy of art and architecture from their heydays. But in the end I have to admit that there are clear and obvious reasons why Venice is likely to receive (‘welcome’ would not be the right word) 20 million tourists this year and Genova is not. Venice is simply one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, while Genova is a crowded workaday port where tourism is just a minor business.

While Venice was establishing colonies and trading settlements in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean, Genova was doing the same, in the Black Sea and Crimea (where I came across their traces while writing my guides to Ukraine and Georgia) and also in Corsica, as mentioned here. By the mid-fourteenth century these had mostly been lost to the advancing Ottomans, and Genova’s merchants moved into banking, in particular providing the kingdom of Spain with large loans at very high interest rates, only affordable because of the flow of gold from South America. Spain gradually forced a change to longer-term loans at much lower rates, but Genova and its bankers became immensely rich and spent the wealth on art and culture, so that the period from 1560 to 1640 became known as the Genoese century.

This was when Genova’s own World Heritage Site, known as the Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli, was created – the Strada Nouva or New Street (now Strada Garibaldi) was laid out after 1550 on the hilly edge of the then city (it has now climbed right up every available hill in the area, requiring a slightly Valparaíso-esque system of funiculars and escalators to reach them all), but the term Strade Nuove (plural) also includes Via Cairoli and Via Balbi. They were created to allow the city’s leading families to build immense new palaces – they were listed on official Rolls (Rolli) that obliged them to take turns hosting official guests to the city, rather than building an official government police. Now 42 palaces (of well over 100 in all) are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the tourist office organises regular tours, but the easiest and most obvious ones to visit are the three housing the city’s art galleries – get your ticket from the shop in the Palazzo Bianco then start with the Palazzo Rosso, across the road, before returning to the Palazzo Bianco and the linked Palazzo Tursi. Most of the palazzi were built by 1588, but the Rosso and Bianco were built a century later. In 1622 Rubens had published a famous and very influential book of engravings of the Palazzi di Genova, quite a feat seeing how hard it is to photograph the palazzi on this narrow street, less than 8m wide (see below).

 

The Palazzo Rosso was built for the two Brignole-Sale brothers, so it has two equally grand piani nobili or reception floors – the lower is a pure art gallery, while the upper has more of the original décor. They have some of the big names of the Italian Renaissance here – Andrea del Sarto, Bassano, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Titian, Tintoretto (circle of) and Veronese, as well as a surprisingly good portrait of a gentleman by an unknown Venetian from the end of the sixteenth century or the start of the seventeenth – scholars still have plenty of work to do. There are also, of course, various Genoese artists who weren’t bad at all, the best being Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), as well as Bernardo Castello (1557-1629), Cesare Corte (1550-1613), and the eighteenth-century sculptors Bernardo and Francesco Schiaffino. There’s also a good crop of Flemish art, as is quite normal in Italy due to the large numbers of northern artists travelling south. Here we have a good portrait by Willem Key (1515-68), who I hadn’t come across before, an uninspiring Deposition from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, who I usually find wonderful, plus Joos van der Cleve, Frans Pourbus, Hendrick Avercamp, Abraham Teniers, a series of the months of the year by Jan Wildens and, not exactly Flemish, a Dürer portrait of a young man. Upstairs they also have seven portraits of the Borgnone-Sale family by van Dyck, who spent the years 1621 to 1627 in Genova. Next you should take the lift to the 6th floor and go up to the rooftop viewpoint, for great photos of the city, and in particular the narrow Strada Nuova and its palaces. Then it’s down to the 4th floor to visit a couple of apartments, one with family portraits, big Chinese vases and library furniture (c.1840) by Henry Thomas Peters, and the other created in 1955 for the museum’s director, with a mix of modern (notably the fireplace) and ancient.

In the Palazzo Bianco (also built for the Brignone-Sale family) there are more paintings by Luca Cambiaso (including a self-portrait) and Veronese, plus Palma Il Giovane, Caravaggio and Simon Vouet; on the second floor the focus is on Tuscany, with a very striking Filippino Lippi (of Saints Sebastian, John the Baptist and Francis; 1503) facing the top of the stairs, and a Vasari portrait, as well as works by the three Spaniards Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, and more Flemish and Dutch art, including paintings by Gerard David, Jan Provoost, Joos van Cleve, Jan Matsys, Joos de Momper, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and Aer van der Meer, as well as van Dyck, Rubens and Memling. There are more Genoese artists, Gioacchino Assereto (1600–49), Orazio de Ferrari (1606-57), and moving into the Baroque period Valerio Castello (1624-59), Domenico Piola (1628-1703) and his son Pablo Gerolamo Piola (1666-1724). A modern tunnel (with exhibits of textiles and stone carvings) takes you to the Palazzo Tursi via the garden, with a few remains of the church of San Francisco in Castellotto (1255-1302), burial place of the first doge of Genova, Simone Boccanegra, and of the Empress Margaret of Brabant, who died of plague here in 1311.

The Palazzo Tursi (1565-79) has a few eighteenth-century works, including by the Genoese Gregorio de Ferrari (c.1647–1726) and Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), plus Canova’s sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (c.1795), which was wildly popular at the time (Stendhal called it ‘the greatest work of modern times’) but also highly controversial due to the use of a metal crucifix and, apparently, waxed hair, blurring the boundaries of art and nature. There are also exhibits of weights and measures from the fifteenth century on, medals, coins, pharmacy jars and dishes, seventeenth-century Brussels tapestries and finally the Paganini room, celebrating the first great virtuoso violinist, born in Genova in 1782 – the centrepiece is his legendary Cannone (Canon) violin, made by Guarneri in 1743.

You can also visit a couple of palaces on via Balbi, notably the Palazzo Reale (or Palazzo Stefano Balbi), which was built between 1643 and 1650 and enlarged after 1824 when became the Genova home of the House of Savoy (rulers of Piedmont, Sardinia, and from 1861 of the united Italy). It probably retains more of its original furnishings and frescoes than any other of the city’s palaces (although they could do with sprucing up), and there’s a fine art collection here too, including paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Bassano, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, van Dyck and Guercino, and sculptures by Filippo Parodi. Across the road, it’s worth stepping into the courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Universita, built in 1634-40 for the Jesuits, and as grand a palace as any in the city – it’s no wonder they were expelled a century later. Since 1775 it has been the seat of the city’s university, and you’re free to look in and admire the lions on Parodi’s grand staircase.

It’s not far from via Balbi to the Villa Principe, also known as the Palazzo de Andrea Doria, near the railway station on Piazza del Principe – this was begun in 1529 by Andrea Doria, the great admiral of the Habsburg Empire, who was able to walk from the port to his palace through his magnificent gardens. After extensive bomb damage during World War II (hmmm, maybe being so close to the docks wasn’t such a great idea after all) the gardens have been beautifully restored to their seventeenth-century condition, with the imposing Fountain of Neptune (1601) as their centrepiece, and can be visited without payment. The villa (which you do have to pay to visit) was decorated internally with mythological frescoes and plasterwork by Perino del Vaga (a pupil of Raphael, who later became the leading painter in Rome), as well as seventeenth-century tapestries and paintings by del Piombo, Bronzino and Piola. The Habsburg emperor Charles V was a regular guest here of Andrea Doria, and in 1877 the villa became the winter home of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), between Piazza Matteoti and Piazza De Ferrari, not because it is old and beautiful – it was largely rebuilt in Neoclassical style after a fire in 1777 – but because it houses an excellent programme of exhibitions and events.

Between Strada Garibaldi and the old port is the old town of Genova, a maze of alleys that used to be a filthy and dangerous no-go area; now it’s seeing some gentrification and has certainly been thoroughly cleaned up. At its heart is the duomo or cathedral of San Lorenzo, begun c.1098, consecrated in 1118 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1296. The façade was completed in 1312, in what looks to me like a Pisan Gothic style (with a fine carving of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo above the main door dating from c.1255), but much of the Romanesque interior remains. In the north aisle, the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1492-1608) is a little Renaissance masterpiece, with a statue by Domenico Gagini and a grand baldachino (1532-41). For a Brit, one interesting sight is an unexploded 15-inch shell near the southeastern corner of the cathedral – it was fired from HMS Malaya in a raid on the docks in February 1941, but went slightly astray. Naturally the fact that it failed to explode was ascribed to the Virgin Mary.

As for other churches, San Luca was rebuilt in 1626-50 and totally covered in frescoes by Piola, and there’s a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception by Filippo Parodi on the altar. And as Baroque monstrosities go, the Basilica dell’Annunziata isn’t too bad.

None of this adds up to a fraction of what’s on view in Venezia, and Genova doesn’t have that certa qualcosa (a certain something) that makes every visitor to Europe want to visit Venice, but still, it’s worth at least a day of anyone’s time.

Some practicalities

Genova is far better than Venezia only in terms of its restaurants – there’s almost nothing left in Venice that isn’t a tourist trap, but Genova has some excellent restaurants serving authentic local food. The city is famous above all for pesto genovese, the basil and garlic paste that, with a little pasta, makes a wonderfully satisfying meal on its own, and also for foccacia, a herby flat bread like a very basic pizza, but many people come here simply to eat seafood, such as lobster with pasta or squid ink risotto. I have no personal recommendations, but friends have enjoyed Panson, San Giorgio and Il Genovino. One place that caught my eye is Tiflis, an Italian-Georgian fusion place that I shall have to try as and when I next stop over here. (I’m about to go to Georgia to research the sixth edition of my Bradt guidebook.)

The mid-station of the Zecca-Righi funicular

I stayed at the official youth hostel, in a stunning location high above the city (with parakeets flying past, just like in London); it’s clean and decent enough but maintenance is not their strong point (that’s typically Italian, however). There’s a good bus service from the Brignole railway station, but if you walk up the steps cunningly concealed behind the hostel car park and walk to the right for ten minutes you’ll come to the top station of the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes (06.40 to midnight) down to the city centre with five stops (plus two in a tunnel where the balancing car is at a stop). It’s covered by the standard €1.50 AMT ticket which gives travel for 100 minutes on buses, funiculars and elevators, and the city’s rather basic metro, which covers a 7km route largely parallel to the waterfront from the Brignole railway station, via Piazza Principe, the city’s other main station, to Brin, just northwest of the centre. Principe is the station for the Stazione Marittima, which nowadays handles cruise ships (and there are usually one or two of them docked here), but the next station west, Dinegro, is the one for the ferry port, with ships leaving frequently for Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. San Giorgio, between Brignole and Principe, is the station for the tourist information office, but the sign as you leave the metro sends you in diametrically the wrong direction – it’s to the right, not the left.

A new railway line, tunnelling through the hills just inland from the coast, should open in 2021 – in addition to linking to the high-speed network to Torino, Milano and beyond, it will also carry freight from the Ligurian ports and release capacity for the development of regional passenger services. I hope the new tunnels are maintained better than those along the coast towards the French border, through which trains travel fairly fast but rather bouncily.

Lewes – lively and liveable

Lewes looks like a town that I could live in (yes, I’ve always said that I could only live in a university town, but Brighton is close enough – the University of Sussex is close to Falmer station, on the Lewes side of town). The town may look quintessentially Tory with its cute cottages housing secondhand bookshops and tearooms, but in fact it’s been a hotbed of anarchy, rebellion and general bolshiness for many centuries, and still is. The Battle of Lewes in 1264 led to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, effectively taking power from King Henry III for a year, during which he called England’s first two parliaments, and thus perhaps led to Magna Carta too. Tom Paine lived here for six years from 1768, developing his political ideas in talks to the Headstrong Club; in 1774 he left for America and went on to write The Rights of Man, which influenced the French revolution, Common Sense, which influenced the American, and The Age of Reason, which influenced the revolution against religion.

Lewes castle gates

Nowadays the town is perhaps best known for its riotous bonfire celebrations on November 5, when its Bonfire Societies compete to stage the best bonfire. In principle, the six main societies process separately through town and then repair to their own part of town for a bonfire and firework display; in practice it’s not that simple, as there’s a certain level of drunken anarchy about the whole thing (though people rarely seem to get hurt). The crowds are massive and the authorities try their level best to cordon the town off and keep the event for locals. In fact they never succeed, but you should definitely forget about coming by car – train is the best option, although you’ll have to stand. The main pubs admit people by ticket only and food options are limited. You’ll also need to buy a ticket in advance for the bonfire sites, but bring cash for a programme and other charitable donations.

Bonfire Night, for those of you not of the British persuasion, celebrates the failure of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament in 1605, but here it also commemorates the seventeen martyrs burnt at the stake in Lewes in the 1550s; the processions also stop at war memorials to remember those who died fighting tyranny – very much a Lewes thing. There is also satire and protest about contemporary events and politicians, of course.

There was also a minor insurrection in 2006-7 when Greene King, the expansionist regional brewer from East Anglia, took over some local pubs including the Lewes Arms, a very popular pub in the town centre, and actually prevented the landlord from selling Sussex Best Bitter, from the Harveys brewery just half a mile away, and rightly revered as a fine local ale. The Lewes Arms is the perfect community pub, with no TV, jukebox or gambling machines, a place where people go to meet friends old and new, and they supported their local brewery – Sussex Bitter outsold Greene King’s offerings by at least 4 to 1, which may be why GK wanted to oust it. In any event there were widespread protests, and the locals not only boycotted their pub but also assiduously picketed it for four months until GK backed down, with a large amount of egg on their face. The fact that there are so many Morris Minor cars here might also be seen as some kind of revolt against modernity.

And so it was that I found myself in a Harveys pub called The Rights of Man in the centre of Lewes, which serves good old Sussex Best Bitter, but also modern (craft beer/American-style) IPAs such as Olympia, Wharf IPA (‘citrus and British hops’) and the dry-hopped Armada Ale, as well as Wild Hop blonde and Castle Brown. It turns out that Harveys are aiming to expand the brand beyond the traditional 60-mile range, producing a seasonal ale every month and putting more beers into bottles and cans. There’s a modern visual branding for the pumpclips and labels, and they’ve adopted the Sussex county motto We Wunt Be Druv! (We Won’t Be Driven!), which has always seemed to fit Lewes far better than the rest of the county (which in theory no longer exists anyway, having been split into East and West Sussex). In 2016 they also finally added an apostrophe to their name, becoming Harvey’s and pleasing pedants everywhere, as the founder in 1796 was in fact John Harvey.

Incidentally, the Depot Cinema is a new three-screen community cinema and café-restaurant on the Harvey’s Depot site next to the railway station – it looks pretty good.

Property is certainly not cheap here – of my various Lewes-area friends, one commutes to work at the Houses of Parliament, so can afford local house prices, one is a travel writer so of course cannot (and lives in the relatively down-at-heel ferry port of Newhaven), and one is a folk-singer and jobbing museumologist and has long left the area. In fact it’s as much a suburb of Brighton as of London, with lots of retired folk but not a lot of work locally.

A few notes on the Coast to Coast walk

I recently led a group on the Coast to Coast hike across northern England – it’s well covered by guidebooks and online resources, so I’ll just offer a few tangential thoughts here. Speaking to some Australians, I found that the C2C is the only British hike they had heard of before coming here (and the Camino de Santiago and the Tour du Mont Blanc are more or less the only ones on mainland Europe), and they were surprised how poorly signed it was. I explained that when Alfred Wainwright first wrote about it in 1973, he called his book ‘A Coast-to-Coast Walk’ and invited people to create their own version, knitting together public footpaths in the same way that he had done. But we like sheep (Herdwicks, of course) have gone astray, all treating his book as the bible, and as more and more B&Bs and cafés (not to mention baggage transfer services and the like) have opened along his route it’s become more and more entrenched as THE Coast-to-Coast. So maybe it needs to become a National Trail, like the Pennine Way, which was very busy when I was a lad but is not much heard of now. Fair enough, because it is pretty dull and samey.

We (Wilderness Travel) follow Wainwright’s advice and have created our own version of the C2C, starting from Ravenglass (to cut out the very dull first day from St Bees Head) and staying two nights in each hotel (with one exception) to fit the best hikes in around excellent feeding opportunities – we also cut out three more dull days, through Shap and across the Vale of York, both largely flat and agricultural and mostly on asphalt, and the slog across the Pennine watershed, which is largely peat bog. After the driest winter in twenty years, the worst bits of peat bog are not actually too bad, and there were lots of heli-bags of rocks by the path, indicating that more boggy sections are to be made dry and hiker-friendly.

But there’s actually been far more wet weather than dry in recent years – much of the Lake District was badly hit by Storm Desmond in December 2015. In Keswick the Pencil Museum, the town’s main rainy-weather attraction (ironically enough), was flooded and closed until May 2017 (taking the opportunity for a major revamp too). Across the road, the excellent Luca’s Ristorante just closed down, while the Keswick branch of fabulous Booth’s supermarket chain was also flooded, reopening in March 2016 – known as ‘the Waitrose of the north’, its bags carry tags like ‘Cumbria not Umbria’ and ‘fettle not feta’ (Yorkshire fettle being a suspiciously feta-like cheese). I saw Fitz Park, by the river in the centre of Keswick, being returfed in summer 2016, while the very popular Keswick to Threlkeld Railway Path was badly hit – a couple of hundred metres of path were washed away a mile or two east of town, two bridges collapsed into the River Greta and a third was soon closed. About half the path (from Low Briery to Brundholme Rd) reopened by Easter 2016 and the two collapsed bridges were cleared over the summer of 2016 (once the water was low enough), but rebuilding, or perhaps rerouting of the path, now seems to be stuck in a morass of national park planning and funding decisions. The A591, between Keswick and Grasmere, was also washed out, but was naturally a much higher priority than a walking and cycling route and was reopened in May 2016 – the lane on the far side of Thirlmere was used for a bus shuttle until a temporary roadway opened.

And spare a thought for Glenridding, which was hit hard twice in December 2015, by Storms Desmond and Eva – there was a lot of construction work underway in the streambed in the summer of 2016, and it was still going on the next summer. The previously nice Ramblers Bar at the Inn on the Lake in Glenridding reopened at the end of May 2016, in an enlarged and characterless form. Appleby was also hit by Storm Desmond and was just getting back to normal in May, in time for its annual invasion by Travellers attending the Horse Fair (which many residents would probably be happy to have seen cancelled).

East of the Pennines, York was also hit by flooding on Boxing Day of 2015, the most high-profile casualty being the Jorvik Viking Centre – this has undergone a £4.3m ‘re-imagining’, with more cutting-edge technology, and reopened in April 2017. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that the Yorkshire Museum has an exhibition entitled ‘Viking – Rediscover the Legend’ in the summer of 2017 – a reduced version of the successful British Museum exhibition. And it’s definitely a coincidence that York’s Mansion House (home to the Lord Mayor) is reopening in late 2017 after a couple of years of painstaking restoration and delays. It will display civic treasures with an exhibition of the city’s gold and silver collection, a Georgian kitchen and new virtual tours. This will presumably compete with Fairfax House, which claims to be ‘the finest Georgian town house in England’.

Some practicalities

In Keswick we love to eat at Morrel’s (shame about the group of noisy Americans – oh, no, that was us) and to drink at the Dog & Gun (recently refurbished but still offering goulash and Old Peculier – most of the time, anyway). It’s also worth checking out Magnolia, almost opposite Morrel’s – a bistro-bar with a great range of Belgian beers (also to be found in the Open All Hours Premier shop).

In Richmond (North Yorkshire) we have to stay at the King’s Head due to the lack of suitable alternatives. It’s just been refurbished and the ground floor is now a coffee-bar with no drinkable real ale when we were there (gin and tonics for all!), and reception is now upstairs. The bedrooms have weird spotlights and back-lighting behind the bedhead and the kind of ‘cool’ showers with controls that don’t show what they do or where the hot water is. We weren’t impressed.

Trier – we have the best Roman baths

A couple of months ago I found myself by chance at the Welwyn Roman Bath, which just consists of a few low walls and is of relatively little interest except for the fact that it’s in a vault like an air-raid shelter directly beneath the A1(M) motorway (which is totally inaudible). But it reminded me that I wanted to write about Trier, a small town in Germany which was once the capital of the Roman Empire. It’s not that well known today, probably because few of the Roman remains could be excavated until after World War II, and also perhaps because of its position on the far westernmost side of Germany, close to Luxembourg.

The history of Trier

A small Celtic town was conquered by the Romans in the late 1st century (and still claims to be the oldest town in Germany). It was just a local administrative centre (capital of the Civitas Treveroum) until AD 269, when it became capital of the Gallic Empire (not recognised by Rome), governing Gaul, Britannia and parts of Hispania, Germania and Raetia. This lasted just five years before being re-integrated into the Roman Empire, and in 275/6 and 287 Trier was destroyed by Germanic (barbarian) invasions. In 286 the Emperor Diocletian created Maximinian his co-regent, then appointed two more to form a tetrarchy, and Trier became capital of Gaul and an imperial residence (and Trevorum became Augusta Treverorum, meaning The City of Augustus among the Treveri). A palace district, including the Imperial Baths, was created in the eastern part of the present-day city, but work stopped as Constantine the Great (who had spent a lot of time here from 306 to 316) switched his attention to the Eastern Empire. From 328 Constantine II (son of Constantine the Great) was based in Trier; he was Emperor of the West from 337 to 340, followed by his brothers Constans I until 350 and Constantius II until 353. This was a time of revolts, but after 364 there was peace, and Trier saw its heyday under the emperors Valentinian I (who continued building the palace district, completing the baths in 375 – although they were used as barracks) and his son Gratian. Its population may have been as high as 100,000, the same as today. Valentinian II was the last emperor to occasionally reside in Trier, and after 395 Trier lost its importance, as the imperial court moved to Milan and the provincial administration to Arles.

In about 460-470 it was taken over by the Franks and developed steadily as part of the Holy Roman Empire, its bishops becoming archbishops and prince-electors, responsible for choosing the next emperor. One amusing footnote concerns the Synod of Trier (1147) which went a bit wrong when some of the bishops went to Troyes in France instead – it was reconvened in 1148 as the Council of Reims.

France attempted to seize Trier during the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Polish Succession, and the French Revolutionary Wars – it was captured by France in 1794 and the electoral archbishopric was dissolved, along with the Holy Roman Empire itself, in 1806. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Trier passed to the Kingdom of Prussia, and continued to develop, with industrialisation to go along with the well-established wine industry.

The sights

So what can be seen now? Lots – there are plenty of Roman ruins (and a lot more still to be excavated) and some fantastic churches, which mostly have Roman origins anyway. They’re all part of UNESCO’s Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier World Heritage Site, created in 1986 – details are here. The most famous Roman remains are probably the Imperial Baths (Kaiserthermen), which cover a wide expanse just south of the city centre, with atmospheric underground passages; there’s a good little museum here. Near the Imperial Baths, a little way southeast of the centre off Spotzmühle, is the amphitheatre – built to seat around 18,000 in the second century, this mostly staged bloody fights, animals against animals, gladiators against animals, and no doubt gladiators against gladiators too.

I was particularly taken by the St Barbara Baths (Barbara-thermen), southwest of the Altstadt on Bäderstrasse, which were built in the 2nd century outside the city walls in the suburb later named after the abbey of St Barbara. Covering an area 172m by 240m, they were the second largest baths in the Roman Empire, and the largest north of the Alps. Abandoned from the 5th century, a church and houses were built inside their walls, and then destroyed in the 17th century, when the Roman stones were taken to build a Jesuit college. Now only the foundations remain, along with various tunnels below, but a modern (free) walkway across the site allows you to see the layout of the whole complex, including pools and furnaces and the heating and sewerage systems.

More or less in the city centre, the Forum Baths were discovered only in 1987, when an underground car park was being built – the remains of the two hot-water baths, a cold-water bath, under-floor heating systems and sewers are now roofed over and can be visited from 9am to 5pm except on Mondays. Most of the other sites are open daily from 9am to 4, 5, or 6pm according to the season, and typically cost €4.

In addition, don’t miss the Porta Nigra (Black Gate), on the north side of the Altstadt, towards the station, a massive Roman city gate in which the Greek monk Simeon had himself walled

The Porta Nigra nowadays
The Porta Nigra as it was in the Middle Age

up as a hermit, dying there in 1034 or 1035. He was made a saint and two churches were built into the gate, one above the other – these were removed, along with the upper story of the eastern tower, in 1804-19, but you can see a model of this rather bizarre hybrid construction in the city history museum next door in the Simeonstift, a former monastery. In addition to a series of plans explaining the city’s development (only in German), there’s a display of sculptures by Ferdinand Tietz (1707-77) around the upper level of the cloister. Anyway, you can walk through and around the gate, while the interior is open in the same way as the other Roman sights.

There are also a couple of quite stunning churches to be seen here. First, the huge Basilica of Constantine, at the east end of Konstanstinstrasse, has an ugly red-brick exterior but a stunning bare interior, no less than 67m long by 26m wide and 33m high – it was built in c310 as the imperial throne room; it was left roofless by the Germanic tribes when they sacked the city, and they built a settlement inside the ruin. It later became a church and the administrative centre of the bishop of Trier, with the apse converted into his residence, until a new palace was built alongside from 1614. In the mid-19th century it was restored to its original condition and has been a Lutheran church since 1856 – the usual Protestant lack of internal decoration is ideal to show off the building’s Roman bones. There’s also an optical illusion that emphasises the building’s depth, as the apse’s windows and the niches below them become progressively smaller towards the middle.

The city’s cathedral or Dom is also superb – the oldest cathedral in Germany, it’s built on the ruins of a much bigger Roman church complex and incorporates some walls from a 4th-century church, still up to 26m in height. It was rebuilt in Romanesque style at the end of the 10th and 12th centuries, with Gothic vaults added later. There’s also the Baroque Chapel of the Holy Robe, built to house the Seamless Robe (or Chiton) of Jesus, the one which the soldiers who crucified Jesus cast lots for (rather than ripping it apart), because it was made of one seamless piece of cloth. The Emperor Constantine’s mother, St Helena, supposedly found it in about AD 327 on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and donated it to the church that Constantine had started building in Trier in 326 (he founded St Peter’s Basilica in Rome the same year, to mark the twentieth anniversary of his reign). The robe was certainly here by 1196, when it was sealed in a new altar, and only removed in 1512; since then it has been displayed to the faithful every few decades, attracting up to a million pilgrims. Normally the robe is hidden away in a reliquary in this chapel, which can merely be glimpsed by processing up behind the high altar of the cathedral – it gives great views down the nave, but is a waste of time in terms of seeing the robe or the chapel of the robe.

Entering through the cloister, you have the Dom on your right, and the Church of the Virgin (the Liebfrauen) on your left – this was built in Early Gothic style around 1200, and is totally different in atmosphere to the rather hectic Dom. It’s much darker (due to the stained glass) and there’s quiet choral music playing, so that tourists and others sit quietly and meditatively.

Changing gear totally, Karl Marx was born in Trier in 1818, and the family house at Brückenstraße 10 is now a museum about his life and writings as well as the history of communism; I’ve seen enough of communism and I didn’t get here. But Roman baths do seem to be a bit of a theme at the moment – in addition to Trier and Welwyn, I recently saw one in Cimiez (in Nice, next to the Matisse museum), and most years I lead a hiking group to the Roman bath house at Ravenglass, which boasts the highest Roman walls in northern Britain, no less than 4m high (I’m being ironic). It was built in about AD c130, as part of a fort guarding the supply line from the port here to the central part of Hadrian’s Wall.

This is what Roman ruins look like in northern England.
A very few practicalities

I stayed at the youth hostel, which is typically German and efficient; there are some pleasant riverside restaurants nearby, next to the Roman bridge over the Mosel river. Built around 144-152 AD, this is the oldest bridge in Germany, although in fact only the pilings are original and the arches and roadway date from the 18th century. The German army planned to demolish the bridge in March 1945, but a lightning advance by General Patton’s tanks led to its being captured before they had the chance to do so. It now leads to the delightful pedestrian and cycle route along the far bank of the Mosel.