I used to know the Latin for, inter alia, ‘The Roman army marched over the hill and conquered the Gauls,’ but such topics seldom came up in conversation, so I forgot most of that language. Now I’ve just used my high school Latin to order a meal, and can proudly report that I passed the test, cum laude.
I’ve been dining in Zum Domstein restaurant in Trier, which claims to be Germany’s oldest town, and is particularly proud of its Roman heritage. The restaurant’s menu is taken from a 2000-year-old recipe book by Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Jamie Oliver of his day. Excellent fare was on offer, in Zum Domstein and in Trier itself, and I can now give you, pro bono, my assessments of both.
Aperitif: Mulsum – white wine with spices and a dash of honey, served chilled in a terracotta beaker. Verdict – interesting, sweet but not sickly.
My foretaste of Trier was a train ride from Frankfurt, heading northwest along the Rhine, brown and choppy on a winter’s day. Steep hills on both sides of the river were covered with vineyard terraces. Fairytale castles perched on every crag, and half-timbered villages with pink and white churches clung to the riverbanks, watching barges plying back and forth in front of their windows.
At Koblenz I changed trains and headed southwest down the Moselle through more vineyards. Verdict – as above; interesting, sweet but not sickly. The Rhine leg in particular must be even lovelier when the vines are in leaf.
Tisana – hearty barley soup, with a squeeze of lemon, garnished with dill.
Lucanicae cum fabiacie virides – warm sausages of pine nuts, accompanied by green beans in fish sauce.
Cardui – artichoke hearts, drizzled with creamy vinaigrette.
Verdict: Splendid variety here. Most promising.
Trier introduced itself to me via a handsome avenue leading from the station to the Porta Nigra, entrance to the Altstadt (old town). The Porta Nigra was once the most impressive city entrance in Europe, and it’s still up there, four stories high, black, ugly and big enough to drive several chariots through. A town needs to be important before it gets a gate like this, and Trier was indeed once enormously significant. This was looking good.
Clutching a walking map provided by Trier Information Centre, I headed into the Hauptmarkt, as colourful and charming as any market square in Germany, and although shops and cafes were unashamedly modern, the McDonalds and Subway signs were restrained enough not to spoil the appeal.
A 16th century statue of St Peter stared down at us from a tall fountain, and peeping over the buildings were the towers of neighbouring churches. The spire of St Gangolf’s was cute enough to remind me of the Disney logo, but it can hardly be blamed for that. The tower was built in the 16th century, before the invention of kitsch. My guidebook offered me ad hoc viewings of palaces, cathedrals, gardens and a toy museum. Verdict – ditto; splendid variety here, very promising.
Mensa Prima (first course) – Perna cum caricis – ham slices with a sweet brown sauce of figs, flavoured with myrtle leaf.
Verdict – a little tough and dry in parts, but with a fascinating flavour.
The main dish for visitors to Trier is Roman history. Chartered by Caesar Augustus in 16BC, Trier came of age in 393 anno domini, when Emperor Constantine made the town his HQ. He built Trier to a size and grandeur rivalling Rome’s and erected UNESCO World Heritage Sites all over the place.
The Rheinische Landesmuseum (Municipal Museum) gave me a brief English rundown of the town’s history and displayed the statuary, mosaic tiles, household paraphernalia et cetera, that apparently still get unearthed whenever anyone sticks a spade into Trier. Thousands of coins have been retrieved from the Moselle mud under the Roman Bridge, since it was the custom to throw a coin into the river when leaving town.
On the walls in the massive Konstantin Basilika, the largest surviving single room from the ancient world, I read the curriculum vitae of Constantine the Great. Depending on your interpretation, he was either the saint who spread Christianity through Europe, or a cynical opportunist, pragmatically tolerating a new religion in order to bring harmony to his empire.
Under Constantine, Trier became a city of over 40,000 people, with an amphitheatre seating 25,000, and huge bathhouses for washing gladiators and crowds after the fun. The ruins are open to the public and in the warmer months, Roman shows, in German, are staged in the amphitheatre.
Verdict: Yes, the history is fascinating and important, but some of the presentation is a little tough and dry.
Mensa secunda (second course)
Patina de piris –soufflé of pears, topped with custard and peppercorns.
Verdict: Surprising and spicy.
For dessert, Trier had an unexpected treat for me. Karl Marx was born in the Bruckenstrasse in 1818, and lived in Trier until he was seventeen. The old house is now a museum. In eras when Marx was persona non grata, memorabilia from his life here were destroyed, so there’s nothing to show how the family lived. However, my audio guide gave a detailed account of Marx’s life, work and influence. I shared my visit with a group of Chinese gentlemen, queuing to take photos of each other next to the celebrated bust. Verdict: See ‘patina de piris’ above.
Summary: Those Romans must certainly have tasted the dolce vita, and a visit to Trier is highly recommended. Do it soon. Carpe diem!
GETTING THERE: The fast ICE train from Frankfurt to Trier costs EUR50 for a reserved second-class seat on the three-hour trip via Koblenz.
STAYING THERE: Hotel-Restaurant Constantin has single rooms from EUR44 per night http://www.hotel-constantin.de
EATING THERE: Restaurant Zum Domstein is in the Hauptmarkt. http://www.domstein.de
FURTHER INFORMATION: Walking tour map of Trier costs EUR2.90 at the visitor information centre. Combined entry to the Porta Nigra, amphitheatre and baths is EUR6.20. Rheinische Landesmuseum entry is EUR5. Karl Marx Haus entry costs EUR3. See also http://www.trier.de
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney