Germany is the world’s economic and innovations powerhouse, and its rich culture and heritage should also be given the same regard. As travellers venture to the country’s southwest region, they will be treated to riveting history that goes far back to the time of the Roman Empire, gorgeous landscapes of greeneries, enduring traditions, and outstanding architectural styles across multiple art periods. And then, there is also an endless list of well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage sites, all possess their own stories. This region is perfect for travellers to get cultured and be inspired.
Trier, aptly known as ‘Rome of the North’, is Germany’s oldest city (more than 2,000 years old!) where it used to serve as the seat of government for the Western Roman Empire. Over time, there were at least eight Roman emperors who made the city as their residence. Due to its importance, many structures were built within Trier to serve the empire. Today, nine of them are enlisted as part of the World Heritage sites, turning Trier into a treasure trove of historic gems.
Travellers can take advantage of the city’s relatively small size to explore the entire area on foot, with places of interest being located just a stone’s throw away from each other. But if you are pressed for time, there is also the special Römer Express train (www.roemer-express.de/en) that can bring visitors around the Old Town on a 35-minute tour.
If walls could talk, imagine the stories that the walls of this piece of historic legacy would divulge. Built in 170 A.D. during the Roman Empire – or 1,849 years ago – Porta Nigra is the only surviving gate out of the quartet of gates that used to guard Trier city. Its original Roman name remained unknown up until today, but as the facade began turning dark in the Middle Ages due to age, locals started calling it Porta Nigra (‘Black Gate’), which comprises two towers with a small courtyard in between, all built in typically Roman mortar-less technique (the structure’s large stones are held together by iron rods).
In 1030, a hermit named Simeon moved into the tower of Porta Nigra with the approval from the archbishop of Trier. When he died five years later, he was sanctified and his body was buried inside the gate. Porta Nigra soon transformed into a church, and because of its religious significance, the gate had been safe from the ever-changing marauders that came after. However, when Napoleon arrived in the city, he asked for the church to be dissolved and ordered it to be restored to its original role for defence. Today, visitors are welcome to explore the towers on their own at a small fee; but for more in-depth experience, opt for a tour complete with a guide dressed as a centurion.
Aula Palatina (Basilica of Constantine)
Built in 310 A.D., the throne room that once belonged to Emperor Constantine is today the largest surviving ancient Roman single-room structure. Its huge size often fascinates visitors, but one could only imagine the grandeur that the hall once commanded before it was remodelled and repurposed throughout the span of its history. In the Middle Ages, the hall had been converted into a fortress, living quarters for the city’s archbishops, and finally the first Protestant church for the city in 1856. An air raid during World War II almost destroyed the building, but a thorough repair work managed to preserve the historical inner decorations from 19th century.
Almost similar to the huge stadiums found today, amphitheatres were crucial in ancient Roman culture since they were built in major cities (often where emperors resided) to bring large-scale entertainment like gladiator fights to the people. The one in Trier could seat up to 20,000 spectators, connoting the city’s magnitude at that time.
In the past, baths were a community centre where Romans bathed together and socialised. Some of them were so big that they could incorporate multiple hot and cold baths, library, gymnasium and garden. One such infrastructure was the Barbara Baths, the oldest public bathing facility in the city. At the time of its construction, it was presumed to be almost the size of six American football pitches, making it the second largest of its kind in the whole of Roman Empire! Today, visitors can only witness the ruins, but there’s a visitor’s walkway built across the area for those who are interested to learn more about this splendid architecture and the conservation efforts initiated by the city council.
Another great example of Roman bathing facility in Trier is the Imperial Baths, relatively the newest in the city, considered as one of the most impressive complexes ever built in terms of grandeur. It comprises two areas: the thermae (baths) that was large enough to fit a present-day 650-seater opera, and the palaestra, which was a courtyard used for exercise. The complex was eventually converted into a castle during the Middle Ages.
Church of Our Lady
Originally, there was a Roman double church stood on site, until its southern section was torn down around 1200 and replaced by the Early Gothic Church of Our Lady, making it the first and oldest Gothic church in the country.
Saint Peter’s Cathedral
This Roman Catholic church, also known as Trierer Dom, is the oldest bishop’s church in Germany, commissioned by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, in the fourth century. The church continued to flourish and stood the test of time, rebuilt and renovated along the way according to multiple period influences such as Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance. Yet, the Roman central section with the original walls remains intact and can still be seen today as part of this architectural masterpiece. The church also contains impressive Christian art and holy relics like the Seamless Robe of Jesus, though it is kept in an annex and rarely shown to the public.
Being the oldest bridge in the country that can still withstand heavy use up until today, Trier’s Roman Bridge is a fine example of the Roman’s architectural prowess. It was built in the second century, connecting the west bank to the city across Mosel River. While the foundation remains strong till today, the upper part had to be renewed twice over time due to destruction from wars.
At 23 metres tall, Igel Column is the tallest Roman burial tomb in the north of the Alps, built in 250 A.D. It pays tribute to the rich cloth merchant family called Secundinier, whose trading business believed to reach as far as Rome. Watch closely, and visitors would be able to admire the original ancient images on the column that show a glimpse of everyday scenes of trading life from about 1,800 years ago.
Rüdesheim am Rhein
This storybook town will leave a mark in one’s heart as a romantic destination, filled to the brim with pretty timbered houses and a string of medieval castles, draped in gorgeous vineyards that also known to produce world-famous Riesling wines. The town is also a part of UNESCO World Heritage Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
The most popular way of exploring Rüdesheim is by taking a romantic cruise along the river (www.k-d.com/en/landing-stages/ruedesheim/) that passes by the Loreley Rock to St Goar and St Goarhausen. But if you prefer to travel by land, a slow train service also takes visitors to all major landmarks for a small fee.
In the late 1860s, France was regarded as the most powerful country in mainland Europe, but its dominance was challenged by the rise of Prussia (historically prominent German state) that defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War in 1866. The news of potential alliance between Prussia and Spain provoked France and led to the now famous Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871. Prussia won, and subsequently resulted to the unification of various German states that formed the German Empire. A monument in Niederwald was created between 1870 and 1880 to commemorate this historic unification.
This 38-metre tall monument now towers above the Rhine Valley, treating its visitors not only lessons in history but also a fantastic panorama over the shimmering Rhine River, quaint villages and romantic vineyards. In fact, the best seat in the house to enjoy Rudesheim’s bewitching beauty is by taking a short cable car ride from the village to Niederwald Monument. Alternatively, visitors may also take the chairlift from nearby Assmannshausen village to the top of the hill.
Built in the 20th century on top of the hill graciously overlooking the magnificent Middle Rhine Valley, the abbey evokes drama in the landscape with its Romanesque structure rising between the greenery of the surrounding vineyards. Inside, it displays beautiful frescoes, and sometimes used for concerts such as the Rheingau Musik Festival.
Step back in time in a charming cobblestoned alleyway that runs through the heart of the old town, where its origin dated back to the 15th century. The street today spills out quaint artisanal shops and garden taverns, echoing conversations and music that blend well with the magical chimes from the nearby bell tower. For a true German hospitality, make way to Breuer’s Rüdesheimer Schlosss (www.ruedesheimer-schloss.com/en/), a family-run restaurant that serves delicious regional cuisine for over 60 years, often accompanied by outstanding live band that plays both folk and contemporary music.
Fulfil your fairytale fantasy with a visit to an actual castle, Rheinstein, which depicts the Romanticism period at its best. Built in the late 13th century, this castle was originally a customs castle meant to protect the Mainz territory against robber knights, but later got heavily destroyed due to wars around the 17th century. In 1823, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia acquired the ruins and revived it according to Romanticism style by adding a beautiful courtyard and Gothic altarpiece in the castle’s chapel. Travellers are allowed to roam within the towers, where they get to admire gorgeous stained-glass windows and three-dimensional paintings.
Saarbrücken is the capital of Saarland, which is one of the smallest states in Germany. But despite its modest size, the city prospers as an economic heart where a majority of people from the state work, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the country. Its laidback lifestyle attracts locals, whilst the gorgeous Baroque architectures and vibrant cultural scene draw travellers. Interestingly, the city also has a strong French influence since it borders with France, so don’t be surprised if you hear French being widely spoken here!
Being a largely industrial city since the 18th century, Saarbrücken celebrates many engineering milestones in its history, including the Völklingen Ironworks, which is the world’s only surviving smelting works from the late 19th century. Up until today, the plant is considered as what UNESCO says “a symbol of human achievement during the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. At the height of its operation, Völklingen Ironworks employed 17,000 people.” Its finest technological innovations had benefitted the smelting industry at large, therefore when its production ceased in 1986, numerous efforts were taken to make sure that the plant doesn’t disappear in vain. In 1994, the plant became the first industrial site to be added to the World Heritage List.
Today, this somewhat surreal complex remains the same at most parts, and now opens as a museum where visitors can learn about the history of ironmaking. Information are presented in great detail, and travellers can even explore the production area. Guided tour is also available; however, advance booking is required. There is a 30-metre charging platform on site, now becomes a viewing platform that affords a spectacular view of the complex. From time to time, the complex plays a host to concerts and multiple art exhibitions, including the popular UrbanArt Biennale® that showcases incredible works from urban artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Futura.