It must be the American in me, because I love to travel by car. Road trips are far less stressful than airline trips: you have to get to the airport two hours ahead of time, often are delayed, and then find yourself stuck in an airplane seat for hours. I'd rather be in a car, free to stop and smell the roses, or at least the diesel at a motorway rest stop.
So when my husband announced he had to work a few days in Darmstadt, Germany, I suggested we make it a road trip, with stops along the way at interesting cities. One place I had in mind was Cologne, which I'd planned to visit last June, but aborted the idea when I became ill.
We left at the leisurely hour of 8:30, and arrived at the Eurotunnel for our 10:20 crossing more or less on time. We crossed into France and followed the autoroute into Belgium, heading toward Brussels. When you're driving through Europe, it's a good idea to know which city you need to head for. But Belgium has a few tricks to throw you off. We needed to head toward Liege, but in Flemish Belgium it's known as Liuk. And the German name for Cologne is Köln—Germany itself, of course, is Deutschland.
European motorways—autoroutes and autobahns—are plentiful and fast. Service areas where you can refuel and take a break are frequent, and usually offer a taste of local delicacies, if you're so inclined. In France a service area is called an "aire" and in Germany, a "rasthof".
Our American Volvo, with its left-side steering, is right at home on European motorways. But I was surprised when, right after crossing into Belgium, I saw a small convoy of classic American cars: a 60s Ford Falcon, a 70s Chevy Impala, and an '80s era Buick estate wagon. It made me wish I still had my 1979 Trans Am, especially when the German Mercedes all raced past us on the speed-limitless stretches of the autobahn.
As we neared Cologne, I caught a glimpse of the famous cathedral spires, towering over the city on the Rhine. I imagine medieval pilgrims must have had the same thrill, approaching the city on donkey carts. The twin towers stick out like spikes thrusting into the sky.
We'd made a miscalculation, however. We'd arrived at Cologne around 5, near the time every tourist attraction closes. And it was Easter Sunday, so we didn't even try to go into the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Romanische Museum is closed on Mondays, and many restaurants and shops were closed for the Bank Holiday.
We did visit the Cathedral on Monday, but found they were conducting a mass. So though we couldn't wander through the cathedral, I did see some of the mass procession, where red-robed men and boys carried incense through the nave.
Next we spent a couple of nights in Darmstadt. I didn't do much sightseeing there, but I did manage to find a German supermarket, where I found vegan fake meats—bratworst and sandwich slices. I also learned a lot about German wine, which I'd never before liked. Turns out they export the sweet wines—if you've ever tried Blue Nun, you know what I mean—but save the nice "trocken" dry wines for home.
After stocking up on pretzels, hot German mustard, and wine, we made our way to Trier, a city I'd heard much about in my class on Roman Britain. Trier is chock full of Roman ruins, in surprisingly good condition, considering the town was sacked by the German tribes in the fifth century. Our hotel was right across the street from the Porta Nigra—the best view in town.
The Porta Nigra, the Black Gate, was built by the Romans in the second century. Its gray sandstone has turned black, especially on the city side. During the medieval period the Porta Nigra was used as a church, and restored to its Roman beginnings by Napoleon. It is now a World Heritage Site. You can tour the inside for three euros—at a euro per level, it's a bargain.
Trier also boasts the only Roman bridge north of the Alps still used today. The Romans built the bridge over the Mosel, but today, the piers are the only remaining Roman parts. The arches were constructed in 1717, and the current bridge is both graceful and useful. Walking along the river from there, we saw one of the two cranes that once pulled cargo off the river barges.
There are scads of churches in Trier—you'll hear bells peeling constantly from one bell tower or another. The Aula Palatina is the oldest, built for Emperor Constantine in the fourth century (310 AD). Constantine lived in Trier, which was one of the most important Roman cities. The Aula Palatina, known as the Basilica of Constantine (who was Christian, you'll remember from your Roman history class), was the throne hall of Constantine. Today it's a Protestant church, empty and bleak inside, though we didn't get a chance to go in.
Trier, as a busy Roman city, had three bath complexes. The largest, the Kaiserthermen, was built for Constantine and has an exercise area the size of a football pitch. The Roman architecture here is fascinating, with brick patterns and archways unlike anything in Britain. If we'd had more time, I'd have explored the "Thermen am Viehmarkt", which was discovered when the city center was dug up for a carpark. Instead, they found another extensive bath area, and covered it with a glass structure. I got a glimpse with my camera.
In honor of my Aunt Barbara, I'd have liked to visit the "Barbara Thermae", but there just wasn't time.
However, I did get to spend an hour at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, which houses many Roman relics. I was hoping to see a painting of a Roman villa I'd read about for the paper I wrote on Roman villas, but it wasn't currently on display. The mosaics almost made up for it—they put the British mosaics I've been admiring to shame.
It's surprising so few people visit Trier—it was once one of the four most important cities in the Roman world: Rome, Athens, Constantinople, and Trier. It never really recovered after getting sacked, however; its current population is around 100,000.
I could have spent days in Trier, but sadly, we had a date with the Eurotunnel. After a rainy drive through Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, we hit Calais in time to shop at our favorite supermarché, Auchan. Today, listening to news about the airports' closure due to volcanic ash, I pity those who only travel by airplane. There are so many places to see that aren't served by major airlines—including the funky service center where we stopped in Belgium, which had metro signs from Paris on the walls, but reminded me of nothing so much as a truck stop in Arkansas that just happened to sell Belgian beer and chocolate.
Perhaps they even had a few classic American cars in back.
More photos here.