The lands around the Rhine and Moselle remain a remarkably beautiful corner of northern Europe, beauty that was praised by poets and courtiers who lived under the Roman Imperium and during the time of the recreation of that empire under Charlemagne (ad 768–814). The region is also host to some of the greatest standing remains, artworks and artefacts of both empires in Europe.
The decline of the Roman Empire in northern Europe and the transformation of governance and lifestyles have puzzled and unsettled successor inhabitants since the Renaissance. Scarcely less surprising is how a Frankish king, Charles – better known as Charlemagne – succeeded recreating something of the Empire.
Over the course of his 46-year reign, he created a single administrative unit encompassing much of western and central Europe. More than mere territorial expansion, this was a conscious attempt to revive the glories of the Roman paradigm. He had himself crowned Emperor in Rome in ad 800, strove to re-establish learning and scholarship, and spread education througout his lands.
The precious material remains of his achievement are few but fascinating and moving. Charlemagne’s achievement and influence was greater than they suggest; the myth became more important than the man as he came to be seen as the ideal Christian king and a model for European rulers througout the Middle Ages and even, in the case of Kaiser Wilhelm II, into the 20th century.
Stunning Roman remains constitute an apposite counterpoint to the enthralling story of the Carolingian Renaissance. The tour explores the growth of the settlements of Mainz and Xanten from military installations into towns of status and prosperity; the emergence of the sophisticated urban space and mercantile hub that was the Roman city of Cologne, largest city north of the Alps; and the transformation of Trier, in the early fourth century, into a capital of befitting and beguiling grandeur for Constantine and his family.
Along the way, we encounter world-class collections of Roman antiquities, some of the most splendid tombs of the imperial era, and, in Mainz, the remains of those very ships that plied these river systems and underpinned Roman civic pride and prosperity.
Trier. Fly towards midday from London City Airport to Luxembourg (Luxair) and drive the half hour to Trier (Germany). Here see one of the great sights of late antiquity, the Porta Nigra, a massive gateway rising its original 40m height, and the Cathedral of St Peter which, uniquely in Europe, incorporates walls from the 4th-century church in the medieval structure. First of two nights in Trier.
Trier. The Aula Palatina is another astonishing survival, a vast Basilica which is one of the very few roofed Roman buildings. The ‘Kaiser’ baths are among the largest ever built, an outstanding collection of Roman material is displayed in the Landesmuseum, the Cathedral Museum has a painted ceiling from the Constantinian palace and the superb Schatzkammer shows an astonishing Constantinian intaglio. Finish the day with a trip to the countryside villa complex at Otrang.
Ingelheim, Mainz. Built under Charlemagne and his successor, the walls of a uniquely compete fortified court and ecclesiastical centre erupt throughout the little town of Ingelheim am Rhein. Since Roman times, Mainz has been a major trading city (particularly wine), and six Roman ships (including two warships) are displayed in the excellent Museum für Antike Schiffahrt. The Zentralmuseum has an excellent collection of items from Germany’s first thousand years. First of two nights in Mainz.
Frankfurt, Michelstadt-Steinbach, Lorsch. The centre of Frankfurt has been transformed by the rebuilding of whole streets and cultural facilities. The Archäologisches Museum, beautifully installed in a Gothic church, has a choice Roman section. Excavations have revealed the great hall in the Königspfalz, another of Charlemagne’s imperial palatinates. Drive to the village of Steinbach to see the remarkable Carolingian church built in the 830s by the emperor’s biographer. The classical gatehouse at Lorsch Abbey is one of the most complete examples of Carolingian architectural design.
Mainz, Cologne. Free time in Mainz (the Romanesque cathedral and the Guttenberg Museum are highly recommended) before driving north, tracking the Rhine. Cologne was the largest Roman city north of the Alps, and had a similar status in the Middle Ages. St Gereon is one of the dozen major Romanesque churches here, and its unique ten-sided nave dates from the 4th century – Roman work can be seen embedded in the 13th-century structure. First of three nights in Cologne.
Xanten, Cologne. We visit the fine RömerMuseum in Xanten and then the epic recreation of the Colonia Ulpia Traiana at the Archaeological Park. Construction used only Roman methods and materials. Back in Cologne, spend the afternoon in the world-class Roman-German Museum, which in the range and quality of its collections surpasses even Trier; it re-opens in 2021 after major refurbishment.
Cologne, Aachen. Cologne Cathedral possesses one of the most revolutionary devotional and artistic objects of the early Middle Ages – the Gero crucifix. Then by train to Aachen. Begin with a walking tour of Charlemagne’s palace before exploring his great hall. The Cathedral Treasury has an unparalleled assemblage of early medieval treasures including what is almost certainly Charlemagne’s sarcophagus. We finish with his palatine chapel, the finest surviving architectural achievement of the era.
Cologne. A little free time free to explore Cologne, or visit one of its excellent art galleries or museums. Return to London by train, arriving around 4.00pm.
Dr Hugh Doherty
Lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia. He was taught at the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and was a research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. He specialises in the period, 700–1200, and publishes on western kings, secular élites and their records. He is a keen believer in the value of exploring and understanding the architectural fabric, material culture and landscapes of the past.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,960 or £2,740 without flights/trains. Single occupancy: £3,220 or £3,000 without flights/trains.
Flight (economy class) with Luxair and train/Eurostar (first class/standard premier); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Park Plaza, Trier: 4-star, 10 minutes’ walk from the cathedral. Hyatt Regency, Mainz: 4-star on the banks of the Rhine. Hotel Mondial am Dom, Cologne: 4-star close to the cathedral. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking and standing in museums and churches. A good level of fitness is essential. You will be on your feet for lengthy stretches of time. Average distance by coach per day: 70 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.