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.

Berlin – new museums for the cultural powerhouse of Europe

Berlin is positioning itself as the capital of post-Brexit Europe, in case you hadn’t noticed, the most culturally dynamic city at the heart of the continent’s most powerful economy. Huge amounts of money are being spent over long timescales to take the already wonderful cultural assets of two cities, East and West Berlin, and make them into a global powerhouse. The key to this is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island, just inside the former East Berlin), where a huge extension to the legendary Pergamon Gallery is being built in five phases between 2012 and 2025, including a fourth wing to the west as in Alfred Messel’s original plan. In 2017-9 visitor services are being transferred to the new James Simon Gallery, named after the Jewish businessman who gave huge and very important donations to the museum in 1904 and 1918. Designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, this will be a combined visitor centre for all the Museumsinsel museums. The new entrance will be on the south side, not far from the new U-Bahn station (on line U5, opening in mid-2019) at the west end of the Schlossbrücke (and next to the German History Museum). It will also give access to the Neues Museum, the second world-class archeology museum on the island – this was beautifully refurbished in 2003-9 by David Chipperfield, who has incorporated the damage caused in World War II rather than trying to remove or hide it.

 

There’s nowhere else like the Pergamon, with its full-size reconstructions of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II and Processional Way of Babylon and the Market Gate of Miletus in the south wing, and the altar hall of Pergamon in the north wing, although this is closed for refurbishment from 2014 until 2019. It really will knock you sideways. Meanwhile the Neues Museum has beautifully presented displays of Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the site of Troy (which he secretly removed from Turkey, having to pay a fine afterwards – it doesn’t seem so unfair that much of the collection was then seized by the Soviet Union in 1945, although it is about time that it was returned), as well as the iconic long-necked bust of Nefertiti and the Golden Hat of a Bronze Age Celtic priest, with a 19-year sun/moon cycle encoded on it.

 

Also here are the Altes Museum, the first museum built on the island (by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1823-30), housing classical antiquities; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery, displaying a wonderful collection of 19th-century German and French art) and the Bode Museum, home to Byzantine art and sculpture, including what is in my opinion a wonderful collection of Italian Renaissance altars by virtually unknown artists. Anywhere else these museums would be huge cultural draws, but here they tend to be overshadowed.

All this money being poured into the former East Berlin has left the former cultural hotspots of West Berlin looking rather sorry for themselves – the Kulturforum, around the Philharmonie concert hall (and near the horribly over-rated Potsdamer Platz), seems very uncared for, with lots of long grass and no signage. The Neues Nationalgalerie, one of Mies van der Rohe’s finest buildings, is closed for refurbishment (by the ubiquitous David Chipperfield) and won’t re-open before 2019; by 2027 it will be linked by a tunnel to the Museum of the 20th Century, a new museum of 20th-century art by Herzog & de Meuron. Yet the Gemälde Galerie probably has the most complete and wide-ranging collection of all Berlin’s art galleries, covering all of European painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries. All the Italian, Flemish and German masters of the Renaissance are here, followed by a superb group of 16 Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers, as well as other 17th-century Dutch works; it’s pleasing to see a group of fine 18th-century British works, by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, Lawrence and Hoppner, too. Allow plenty of time – a full tour will cover 2km, taking in 72 main galleries and lots of side rooms, with around 1,000 works on display, as well as 400 more in the lower-level study gallery (open Friday to Sunday only). It’s definitely one of Europe’s great galleries.
While you’re at the Gemälde Galerie, see what’s on at the Kupferstichkabinett (the Cabinet of Engravings), in the same building – for conservation reasons they only put on temporary shows, but they have an excellent collection to draw on.
For 20th- and 21st-century art, the place to go is the Berlinische Galerie, which has interesting temporary exhibits downstairs and its permanent collection upstairs (running up to 1980, not 1989 as one might have expected) – it’s a good representative overview, with one painting by just about everyone who should be represented, but it doesn’t really get excited and go into depth about anything in particular, especially not Expressionism, Germany’s main contribution to modern art.
I didn’t go back to Dahlem, in the southwestern suburbs, site of West Berlin’s other main grouping of museums, but I assume it has a similar uncared-for feel, as it’s intended to move the Museum of European Culture to the Kulturforum, and the Museums of Ethnography and Asian art to the Berliner Schloss, now being built immediately south of the Museumsinsel. This is a very controversial project to recreate the largely 18th-century palace of the Electors of Prussia, which was heavily damaged in World War II and demolished in 1950 by communist East Germany. They created the huge Marx-Engels Platz and the Palace of the Republic (1976), which was itself demolished in 2008, supposedly due to the presence of asbestos. There’s a strong feeling that this historic building, where German reunification was agreed and where East Germany’s first free parliament met, should have been preserved rather than being demolished for petty political point-scoring. Certainly the plan to rebuild the Schloss is backwards-looking and reeks of imperial bombast; nevertheless the concrete shell has been completed and a new north-south pedestrian axis created, from the Lustgarten to Breite Strasse, and it only remains to deck it out with Baroque features and to move the museums in, by 2019. One good sign is that the project is led by Neil MacGregor, the very successful director of the British Museum until 2015. It’s run by the private Humboldt Forum, which commemorates Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the explorer and biologist, rather than his brother Wilhelm (1776-1835), politician, linguist and founder of the university now named after him, who is probably better known in Berlin; the temporary Humboldt Cube, on the north side, houses a general exhibition on the project and tasters of what’s to come (for instance ‘Frog Trading in Africa – the ecological effects’ – looking at the spread of malaria).
The historic centre of Berlin, from the 13th century, was the Nikolaiviertel, to the east of the Schloss near the Rathaus, and it was only after 1688 as the city expanded to the west that the area of the Schloss became central; in the 1730s Friedrichstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse were extended to Mehringplatz and Leipziger Platz, and in 1788 the Brandenburg Gate was erected. The Nikolaiviertel has been pedestrianised and prettified, with fairly generic new bars and terraces, as well as August Kiss’s statue of St George and the Dragon, and four museums, mostly remembering bourgeois life in the area.

Katy says the next bit is very boring (except the news of the new cycle scheme) unless you are a transport buff….so you have been warned!!

Berlin’s public transport system is of course also being unified and integrated – the huge Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), opened in 2006 where the city’s North-South and East-West lines cross, is just the latest stage in its evolution. The Lehrter Bahnhof, opened in 1871, was the terminus of the railway from Hannover, and from 1884 from Hamburg – this route was extended eastwards through the city and is now a four-track elevated line with one pair of tracks for long-distance trains and one pair for the Stadtbahn, carrying local S-Bahn services. The North-South line was created when various terminals north and south of the centre were closed (some architectural traces can still be identified) and mainly carries S-Bahn services. Meanwhile the city’s Ring line was completed by the DDR (to allow its trains to avoid West Berlin) and carries another useful range of S-Bahn services.

Construction of the U-Bahn (underground railway) began before World War I, but it took its present shape when the city was divided and West Berlin had to create new routes to avoid East Berlin; new routes into the East are now under construction (see above), but very slowly due to spending constraints.
   Trams, traditionally a feature of East Berlin, are slowly being extended into the West, with routes M5, M8 and M10 being extended to the Hauptbahnhof in 2014 and 2015. But cycling really is the best way to get around Berlin, with 620km of cycle tracks and 13% of journeys made by bike. In spring 2017 Germany’s largest bike-sharing scheme is due to go live here, with thousands of bikes at 700 rental stations, roughly 150m apart.

The ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, abandoned when the rail tracks were put underground to link the north and south of Berlin