Saturday, 27 August 2016


Today we will continue our trip to Germany and our trip in time. I am proud to introduce you to an amazing city that was founded by Romans in 16 BC as Augusta Treverorum and is today known as Trier.

The Roman monuments of Trier have been inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage List. The most famous is probably the Porta Nigra or Black Gate.

Porta Nigra used to be one of four gates in the city walls. Its name is of course due to the black shade that the sandstone took over the ages. It comes from the Middle Ages, the original Roman name is not known. But to me this one fits more than well.

Porta Nigra is the largest Roman city gate North of the Alps. It was constructed, together with the city walls, to protect the city from the Germanic tribes, one of which was called Treverans. I can only imagine how impressed where the nomadic warriors when they first saw the Porta Nigra and Trier.

You probably ask yourself how Porta Nigra managed to survive the last two thousand years, while most of other Roman buildings were destroyed by locals looking for stones to build their houses. Well, the answer is more than surprising - it was recycled! In the Middle Ages, the Porta Nigra was turned into a double-level church and remained one for several centuries, until Napoleon ordered that it to be restored to its original shape. I know it is hard to imagine, but according to old paintings, this is more or less what it looked like.

When you enter the first floor, you can easily see the religious reliefs made in the old Roman walls.

The space in the middle, between the two corridors, was covered with a floor and thus constituted the main nave of the lower church.

If you come to Trier you just must visit it with the audio-guide - unlike in most places it not only talks to the visitors (in two versions - for children and for adults) but it also shows some visualisations of the past shape of the place.

The apse in the back included of course the altar. You can see on the walls and the ceiling the remainings of religious frescoes.

On the side wall comes an amazing relief.

Let's move to the second floor. If you perch (a bit!) through the window you can see the courtyard below. Probably in Roman times this is where the soldiers were gathering during their watching shifts.

The first and the second floor where again separated by a ceiling and a roof covered the top of the second floor, forming this the second level of the church accessible only to the privileged ones.

The apse seems even bigger here.

Looking at Porta Nigra in its new-old shape it is almost hard to believe that for seven centuries the Roman town gate was disguised into a church.

But Porta Nigra is not the only place to be seen in Trier. Just look at the city - we need to visit at least the market place and the cathedral.

The Market Square is surrounded by nice residential buildings. You will sure notice in the back the church of Saint George ...

... and the fountain in the middle.

The building on the left hand side is called Steipe and it used to be a party hall for the local authorities.

Finally, we arrive to the Roman cathedral of Trier. No my friends, I did not mean to say the Romanesque cathedral of Trier. This cathedral was really built by the Romans, since Trier was the seat of a christian bishops starting in 273 AD. The bishops of Trier were really powerful gentlemen, serving during Middle Ages and modern times as electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

I am sure you will not be surprised to find this sign here. Trier as a city of major importance for the Christianity is of course on one of the paths leading to Santiago de Compostela.

Inside, the cathedral is really impressive. Its biggest treasure is the Seamless Robe of Jesus, the one in which he is supposed to have gone through the Way of the Cross. It is however not possible to take pictures of the Robe.

I always wonder how they managed to put all these decorations on the ceiling, in a period when they did not have cranes or forklifts.

One amazing thing about the Trier cathedral is that it has another church literally glued to it. It is linked by a small corridor and seems to be almost a unique case of conjoined twins in architecture.

Source: Wikimedia

Contrary to the cathedral which is rectangular, the church of Virgin Mary is basically round-shaped.

I hope that you have enjoyed this walk through time and space, in a city where recycling took a completely new meaning for me.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Monastic Island Reichenau

Last week we have visited the Pile dwellings, a UNESCO site on the shores of Lake Constance. But this is not the only UNESCO site in this area. Today I will be happy to take you to yet another one - the Monastic Island of Reichenau.

The Reichenau Island is the biggest island on Lake Constance. It is connected to the land by a small causeway created in 1838.

At the beginning of the eight century, a monk called Pirmin (who later became Saint Pirmin) founded there a Benedictine monastery, in which the monks prayed and worked ("ora et labora"). Their primary work related to the books. Since Gutenberg invented the printing centuries later, the Benedictine monks were re-writing precious manuscripts by hand.

The first church was located in the village called Mittelzell. It is dedicated to Virgin Mary and Saint Marc.

The interior of the church is really modest, almost refreshing after all the baroque cathedrals drowning in gold.

The church was built in the the Romanesque style. You can easily see it by the type of arches supporting the ceiling. Not as high as in the gothic style, invented much later.

On the walls, the old frescoes could probably tell more stories than we could understand.

When they were not praying or working in their famous garden, the monks of Reichenau were spreading christianity amoung surrounding Allemanic nations. This brought them close with the Frankonian and Germanic kings. The Carolingian Emperor Charles III the Fat is buried in the Mittelzell church.

At the end of the eight century another church was build, dedicated this time to Saint Peter and located in Niederzell. Did I mention that Reichenau was famous for its agriculture? Well, it still is, you can even judge by yourself.

From the original church only the towers survived the turmoil of time.

The main part of the church was rebuilt. Luckily it was done with a lot of good taste.

Only the ceiling is decorated with an amazing painting. It completes the original frescoes in the old part of the church, near the altar.

Those of you who speak German surely noticed that we have been in the Mittelzell (or the Middle Cell) and in the Niederzell (or the Lower Cell). Of course there is also an Upper Cell - Oberzell. And of course there is yet another church there, dedicated to Saint George. Unfortunately, it was closed when I arrived there. Really bad luck since it caters some of the most magnificent murals depicting the miracles of Christ. These unique pieces of art from the tenth century are the witnesses of the Ottonian Renaissance.

The Benedictine monks were forced to leave Reichenau in the middle of the eighteenth century. They only returned here in 2001. I hope that you have enjoyed this walk on the peaceful island that despite its small size had an immense impact on the culture of France, Germany and Switzerland over the last thousand years.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Pile dwellings around Lake Constance

Today I will take you on a journey both in time and space. Imagine that you are a man (or a woman) born in the Bronze Age. Or let's be ambitious, born even earlier, in the Neolitic, so the Stone Age. You have found a nice place to live around the mountains that your great-grandchildren will call Alps. There is just one problem, the area is full of lakes and marshy lands, putting your house at risk of flooding. Do not think of the Flintstones, this was not a documentary. The real people who lived around the Alps somewhere between 5000 and 1000 BC found a solution to this equation. A solution that was recognised by the UNESCO as having a universal value for humanity.

To discover it, I will take you to the open air museum in Unteruhldingen, at the shore of Lake Constance (called in German Bodensee). As we approach the lake some wooden constructions are visible through the leaves.

As we get closer we finally see a full village that is literally standing on water!

Obviously wooden houses would not survive (especially in such proximity of water) thousands of years. These are reconstructions prepared by archaeologists based on meticulous research. We know that the individual houses were constructed on piles hammered into the bottom of lake.

Some of these piles can still be found in various places around Lake Constance but also in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, France and Slovenia.

Those individual houses are connected by roads. Or better said by bridges, standing of course on piles.

Let's come closer to one of the houses.

Inside you can see a reconstruction of what the archaeologists believe could have been a dwelling of people living in this area thousands of years ago. One room for a big family, often with some animals.

One of the major challenges for our prehistoric ancestors who could not use refrigerators was the storage of food. Especially on the shore of a lake, the humidity and the insects did not help to protect the crops. So special houses were usually built to store grain.

To protect themselves from invaders, the owners of the pile dwelling were building palisades. Standing on piles of course.

Next to it you have surely spotted the Rolls-Royce (or the Volkswagen, since we are in Germany) of the prehistoric times. It does not look either safe or comfortable.

When you look through the window of a pile dwelling, the lake does not look impressive. One could almost start to wonder why someone would put so much effort into building a whole village on high piles.

But do not underestimate Lake Constance. In the last 20 years it has already twice risen substantially (in 1999 by two meters!). It is calm when it is calm but it is still a large amount of water.

The life in the pile dwellings around the Alps was surely difficult. In all honesty, I prefer my warm and dry stable. Even if the view here is magnificent.