Train to Trier

From Luxembourg to Trier is just an hour on the train, hugging the banks of the River Mosel. We're both rushing to join the Rhine. The scenery green and pleasant enough, the famed vineyards beginning to appear as we near the city, vertical lines up the lower slopes, dark green forests up top. There are no luggage racks and I daren’t let go of my case, as it careers all over the carriage.

Trier

Trier claims several records. It is said to be the oldest town in Germany - having been founded by the Romans. There’s a huge relic to prove it - the dark sandstone Porta Nigra - the largest Roman gate north of the Alps. There’s also a Roman bridge, spa and amphitheatre.

In addition, a very old market place, dating from 958 and the oldest basilica in Germany. Here are sets of chiming bells, an ancient stone cross, carved gables and an imposing city hall tower.

I follow the marked tourist trail through the centre of town to a huge UNESCO listed cathedral complex. St Peter’s is the oldest church in the country, having been commissioned by Constantine at the same time as St Peter’s in Rome; the earliest parts date back to the fourth century. It is Romanesque and fortress like; the original cathedral was four times the size of this one, so it must have been truly enormous. It houses (so they say) the seamless or sacred robe that Jesus wore at the crucifixion, brought back to the church by Helena, Constantine’s mother (her palace is under the cathedral). though it’s sealed away in a shrine and you only get to see it every several decades or so. In addition there’s also a nail from the crucifixion, on display in the treasury. The slightly daintier Church of Our Lady adjacent to the main cathedral is the oldest Gothic church in the country. That one was begin in 1230.

Well, I attempt to follow the tourist trail but either I get lost or the signs disappear, so I'm reduced to wandering and looking vainly at my map. But I manage to discover another huge Roman basilica - Aula Palatinata - this one known as Constantine’s Basilica, a splendid pink Electoral Palace, set in a park resplendent with fountains and neat flower beds and the house where Karl Marx was born. These are linked by pedestrianised shopping streets - the shops dull mid range chains and cut price stores for the most part.

Along the Mosel

Plan A, long since buried in the mists of time involved a Rhine cruise which would have terminated here, so I wander down to the river to see where my boat would have docked. A pleasure cruise is about to depart and I hop on. I'm exhausted and it’s scorching hot today, there is virtually no breeze.

It’s possibly the least scenic part of the Mosel, camp sites, cranes and the odd monument. We sail under the old Roman Bridge. It’s only marginally cooler on the water, but at least I'm sitting down.

My Hotel in Trier

Romantik Hotel Zur Glocke is the oldest inn in Trier (of course) and thoughtfully serves its guest welcome drinks - sparkling Mosel wine. I also need to mention the Bierkeller – superb schnitzel.

Train to Koblenz

I had been really looking forward to revisiting the Mosel - I have fond memories of goblets of wine sipped in fragrant gasthaus gardens, gazing across the water to the vine laden banks. Sadly, it’s raining today. Dark skies rarely improve the view and that’s definitely the case as we rattle through what is clearly gorgeous river valley scenery, ladders of vines with delightful villages scattered on both sides.

Koblenz on the Rhine

Koblenz has some similarities to Trier, but not the same claims to antiquity. It has a palace, the Kurfurstliches Schloss this time, grey-white and spreading along the banks of the river and a compact old town with churches, more sets of bells and some nice examples of those small curved tile dormer windows that are common round here.

Koblenz also has a lot of shops on pedestrian streets. It makes more of its river though. Much of the town is built along the banks and the palace churches and other monuments form part of the mile long Rhine promenade, which is a UNESCO heritage site. I saunter along here several times, savouring the views. Probably the most well known area is the gargantuan Kaiser Wilhelm monument on the Deutche Eck (corner) at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine. The name Koblenz actually originates from  the Latin confluentes. It's just about obligatory to have your photo taken here.

Opposite, is the huge and sprawling but ugly Rhine fortress, the second largest in Europe. You can take a cable car across to the top if you are so inclined. I hope the view from up top is nicer than the one from down here. There’s a smaller version of the fortress above the station, quite close to my hotel. It turns out that this is the prison.

Am Rhein (On the Rhine)

I'm taking a day cruise on the Rhine to replace the week long journey I had originally booked. Even the day cruises are curtailed due to lack of demand. The boat normally seats 600, has currently been limited to 285 and today is carrying under 20 passengers at the start, as far as I can see, though the top outside deck fills up, as the day progresses.

The route on offer is Koblenz to St Goar and back, with stops at St Goar and Boppard. It’s overcast, but not raining, so I at least get to see the Rhine Gorge and the Lorelei Rock, even if they aren't displayed in their full magnificence.

First up is the Koblenz Brewery (which looks like a castle), followed by Stolzenfels Castle (once a medieval castle rebuilt as a nineteenth century Gothic palace) on one side and Lahnstein Castle (medieval but heavily restored) on the other.

A glut of castles. Germany has more castles than any other country in the world. (Over 25,000 but no-one knows the exact number.) Marksburg lording it from the top of one peak is the only genuinely original medieval castle on the middle Rhine and thus is deemed to be the most suitable home for the German Castles Organisation. Others of note are the so called Hostile Brothers, two adjacent castles south of Boppard. And a little further on Cat Castle, close by Mouse Castle. They should have called them Tom and Jerry.

South into the celebrated Rhine Bend, the slopes of the limestone hills lengthen to vertical crags. Neat villages, whitewashed houses, helmed churches, to the east, vines to the west. It deserves its reputation as a must-see.

The Lorelei Rock

I've been advised to disembark at St Goar, which is where the boat turns round. There is more to see there than at St Goarhausen on the opposite bank, I'm told. And it has the biggest castle on the Rhine. But I’ve had a sufficiency of castles; Goarhausen offers access to the Lorelei and that's on my bucket list. So I'm disobedient, get off here and march along the riverbank, to the famous statue. This is Germany's equivalent of The Little Mermaid, except that this slightly more malevolent person enticed sailors onto the rocks. The statue of the maiden is on a rock promontory, at the end of an extremely uneven path. The rock itself - the story goes that the siren threw herself off this - is a little further upriver. It's the narrowest part of the gorge. Making my way back along the riverbank I wander into Goarhausen's tiny deserted old town. Unexpected and rewarding. I'm very happy with my choice.

Boppard on the Rhine

A stop at Boppard for a couple of hours. Another extraordinary double steeple church. More gorgeous town houses. And a huge cutlet with mashed potatoes in an inn by the river. This is another country to get fat in. Schnitzel, kartoffelnsalat (potato salad), apfelstrudel, kasekuchen (cheesecake). Ice cream parlours proliferate and schlagsahne (whipped cream) with everything. The fast food of choice is curry wurst with chips. There’s a booth on every corner.

Train to Cologne

I’ve opted for the train from Koblenz to Cologne, as I’ve read that it’s a very scenic journey. And I’ve duly selected a seat on the right as instructed, as I’m told the train runs along the left bank of the Rhine. Except that there are works on the line and the train has been re-routed, often through industrial, warehouse ridden hinterland and the few bits of river that I do glimpse are on the left hand side. The train is full, so I can’t move. There are only two toilets aboard and they’re both out of order, so I’m relieved, literally when we arrive. It’s just like being at home.

Cologne

Cologne isn't the prettiest city that I’ve visited. The main land mark is the cathedral. It’s immense, towers over the city and is the first building I see as we arrive at the Hauptbahnhof. I’m not a great fan of the restoration of historical buildings, but this one is in dire need of restoration. It’s filthy and badly eroded. And restoration is indeed underway. The entire building is shrouded in scaffolding. There is even an array of turrets that have been removed for repair, standing on the floor. It must be a mammoth undertaking.

The city hall is also being restored. It stands on the edge of the Altstadt. This is signposted, but is smaller than the old towns in most of the Rhine villages. There are a couple of large squares, more churches and some new houses, mixed in with the older ones, built in roughly the same style. Along the river are walkways with museums housed in brutalist style architecture - it’s a smaller version of the South Bank in London.

Otherwise there are a plethora of mid to low price bars restaurants and shops. As with much of Germany there is plenty of English integrated into the general signage' as well as the announcements. ‘Sandwiches, speed dating, ticket controller, pub, teenagers and shopping.........

Prague next.

Or read more about Germany here.

March 1990 - After the Wall Came Down Backpacking Tour of Eastern Europe, with Friend Jenny 

Out to Berlin, backpacking,  as soon as we can after The Wall comes down,  a stepping stone to post-Gorbachov Eastern Europe.  The PR people like to point out that Berlin has more bridges than Venice -1700 -, but of course the city is also much bigger than Venice. The capital of Germany is the largest city in the European Union, now London is no longer included (sigh). Combined with its surrounding state Brandenburg, it houses Europe’s largest inland water network.

Exploring Post Wall Berlin

We take in Alexanderplatz, its surrounding churches and striking townhall, with its top heavy tower. Then, visit the big museums on an island in the River Spree, gaping at the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, and the cathedral on iconic Unter den Linden. Unter den Linden, at the heart of historic Berlin, is probably the grandest and most famous street in the city. It's lined with places, museums, state buildings and embassies. It developed from a bridle path laid out by Elector John George of Brandenburg in the 16th century leading from his palace, to reach his hunting grounds in the current Tiergarten (zoo) area. It was expanded to a boulevard of linden trees as Berlin grew and now finishes at the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

The Gate is today utilised as a site for major historical events. It's seen as a symbol of peace, as well as representing the tumultuous histories of Germany and Europe. I'm not sure how the two sit side by side. It was originally built to celebrate the Prussian suppression of Dutch unrest, on behalf of the Orangists in the 1730s.

We wander through the gardens stretching to the zoo and the Victory Column, beyond the  wreck of the Reichstag building. The asphalt paths are lined with flowers bobbing in the sun and the air full of music from the organ grinders dotting the way. The Reichstag was opened in 1894 and used to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It was set on fire in 1933, It's very moving. My clearest and most poignant memory is of reading the numbers of dead from the war, posted inside what remained of the ruined hulk.

The first set of traffic lights in Europe was put into service in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin in 1924. A replica of the lights can still be admired there today. We tiptoe cautiously through Checkpoint Charlie, the one gate between East and West Berlin, only very recently opened for good. Being on the site of such momentous recent history is not to be taken lightly. It all feels fresh and raw, as well as exciting. We examine the many chunks of The Wall for sale on the streets, daubed pebbles in plastic bags. I’m not convinced many are genuine.

The Hundertwasser Haus, with its extraordinary glittery decoration, is a must. And we eat ice cream sundaes in the revolving café at the top of the TV Tower. It is all we can afford to order, but we make it last the hour it takes for the restaurant to turn once. We watch the sun set over the roofs of Berlin.

We are staying in East Berlin with a family, in their flat. They are terrified of the Stasi, who they tell us are very much still operating.

Berlin Revisited in the 20s

I've returned to Berlin three times. The most obvious change is the Reichstag. It has been imposingly rebuilt by Norman Foster to house the National Parliament, a huge  tri-coloured flag billowing above. The organ grinders are still there. The streets are busy with yellow trams. There are more big churches and civic building with onion domes than I remember. And masses of street art.

There's a sobering Holocaust memorial south and  not so far from the Reichstag. Many of the old Soviet style blocks have disappeared. The original Checkpoint Charlie is now in a museum, There's a tourist offering, complete with shop  on the site  instead.

There's more time to explore the university area and the 'cooler districts' of Berlin. Friedrichshain, (this is where you'll find the legendary Berghain club, with one of the strictest door policies in the world), Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Pankow, Mitte and Tempelhof-Schöneberg (berliners turn out to wander about on the old airfield here).

I've discovered a striking bridge on the river, with turrets (pretty isn't really the right word). A remaining piece of Wall nearby (I'm surprised there's anything left)  has been sectioned off to create an outdoor East Side- Art Gallery. The murals are fascinating, colourful and satirical.

Otherwise, the city does not feel hugely different in the centre,  except that  Unter den Linden has become a building site.

Berlin with Friends

One return is for a Yoga of Relationships mini retreat. Partner Barbara speaks fluent German and we ride the busses with ease, as she acquires new friends at every stop. A tea shop is a chance for sacher torte and yet more new acquaintances. Barbara is is also a big fan of Trippen shoes and a visit to the outlet factory is obligatory. I buy a pair of purple boots that I don't need.

On my last trip, I'm able to catch up with friends Hari and Kirsten and stay at the Nhow Hotel on the river. It's ultra modern and the first to be music themed throughout. You can even choose your music genre lift to travel in.

Read more about Germany here.

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