Wednesday 28 May, Trier
This morning we moved on from Saarburg to Trier. We had intended staying on at Saarburg, which we find a very agreeable and lively little town, but the walk to the unstaffed station in its insalubrious setting with only an automated ticket distributer that disliked our bank card decided us to drive to Trier and seek out the local campsite instead. Generally it was a good move. The campsite is on the banks of the lovely Moselle river and only a shortish walk to the centre of Trier.
Trier is considered to be the oldest city in Germany with three sets of Roman baths as well as a huge and imposing Roman gateway into the city, the Porta Nigra, erected at the end of the second century. The emperor Constantine who, for some reason we’ve never discovered, resided in the city and ruled the Roman Empire from here, erected the massive basilica in the fourth century. This was formerly his throne room but after serving various uses over the centuries, including a barracks, it was dedicated as a Protestant church in the nineteenth century.
By the time we’d found the campsite, settled Modestine and walked along the banks of the Moselle to the roman bridge and crossed into the city it was pretty well lunch time. So, after being enthusiastically marched around by Ian to look at some remains of the Barbarathermen, a set of Roman bathhouses and a gigantic sculptured foot of Constantine, we bought a couple of baked fish rolls with salad and sat ourselves down on a well worn ledge of the Porta Nigra, or Black Gate to rest our weary limbs as we ate. The ledge had obviously served countless backsides for nearly 2000 years and proved extremely comfortable. I had thought the gate so named because it was constructed in black volcanic stone but our close encounter ascertained that it is in fact discoloured sandstone which has absorbed the dirt of the town over the centuries until today it is completely blackened.
Trier is a lively and colourful city with little traffic in the city centre. The pedestrianised shopping streets are full of cafes and the squares have gilded fountains and colourful umbrellas beneath which people linger over lunch or enjoy ices at special ice cream parlours.
Whilst Ian examined, brick by brick, the massive Aula Palatina, the 4th century basilica, I took a rest and dozed gently on one of the benches until he’d finished. Next we explored the lovely formal gardens in which stood the pretty pink and white baroque Electoral Palace built into the end wall of Constantine’s throne room. No doubt it was criticised in its day but personally I thought it rather jolly. Across the highway were the ruins of the Imperial Baths. Ian showed more alacrity in visiting these than he does the ones on the campsites - which are marginally superior.
Finally Ian announced he wanted to see the amphitheatre, way off along the road out of Trier. I told him he’d be going alone as I was as bored with Constantine on this visit as I’d been on our last and was off to look around the Karl Marx Museum. Ian abandoned Constantine and decided to join me.
The house at 26 Brückenstrasse where Karl Marx was born in 1818 really became a museum by accident. About a year after his birth his father, who was a lawyer, moved to another address. This fact was only discovered in 1904 by a historian who stumbled across a newspaper advertisement announcing the move. The house was acquired by the Socialist party in 1928 and restored and material collected for a museum. The Nazis expropriated the house and destroyed most of the artefacts, but it was restored to the SPD after the war. This tortured history explains why there so few original artefacts in the museum, but the display panels give an excellent outline of Marx and his influence. Starting with a history of the house it continues by describing his parents and family, Marx's youth and education, his marriage with Jenny von Westphalen and his early years as a radical journalist and political philosopher. The revolutions of 1848 had a profound effect on him, and his writings resulted in his exile, first in Belgium and later in London. His political theories are outlined, also his relation to the labour movements. The impact of Marx's ideas are also covered, the splitting of the labour movement during World War One and after the Russian Revolution, the impact of Nazism, the split of Europe after World War Two until 1989 and the wider impact in Latin America, China and elsewhere. We had seen shelf-loads of Marx's collected works in libraries and bookshops in the old GDR. Interestingly there were none on display in the museum – just copies of the Communist manifesto in a range of languages and copies of some of his newspaper articles.
The exhibition was intriguing and thought provoking and took up much of the afternoon. My over simplistic impression is that Marx lived very much the life of a theoretical communist rather than actually being one. He was very much an ideas man, having a bourgeois lifestyle, a large family and always living beyond his means, entertaining and giving balls. Jenny's health suffered and they went on a series of cures. The family life was often troubled. Two children died in infancy, Marx had an illegitimate son with their landlady and two of his daughters committed suicide. In London he continued to build up debts but received financial support from his fellow countryman and political theorist Friedrich Engels. The two men were close allies for the rest of their lives and Engels became the beneficiary of Marx’s political writings after his death in 1883, preparing them for later publication. He carried on the crusade for workers’ rights and political freedom after the death of Marx. He was though, unlike Marx, a practical thinker and he was also co-owner of a Manchester cotton mill which greatly helped with financing Marx as he wrote his masterwork Das Kapital, demanding freedom for the very people whose labours were supporting him in his armchair theorising. However, it is from his ideas that workers uprisings throughout Europe gained strength, leading to the Paris Commune in 1870, the Russian revolution and the subsequent repression of workers’ rights under Stalin – a perversion of Marxist ideals.
By the time we left it was already early evening. Buying some bread we walked back across the roman bridge to the campsite where we sat in the evening sun in a beer garden on the banks of the Moselle enjoying a glass of cold beer before returning to Modestine to prepare supper. It has been a very enjoyable day.
Thursday 29th May 2014, Verdun
Not one of our more successful days. We were up and away, intending to do Luxembourg, perhaps staying a couple of nights. All went well at first and we arrived in Echternach, an attractive little town on the river Sure which forms the border with Germany at this point. It had a picturesque market place and an old church perched on top of a hillock that had been fortified in Roman times.
But it was deadly quiet with nobody around and all the shops closed. We decided to move on to our intended campsite on the outskirts of Luxembourg city and then make our way into town and see if it was any livelier there. A series of mistakes at the motorway junctions led us directly into the middle of Luxembourg which seemed every bit as dead as the smaller places we had passed through. By the time we reached our campsite it had just closed for the two hour midday break. We decided to give up on Luxembourg and headed south into France, filling up with cheap diesel (1.19 Euros a litre) on the way. France we found almost as dead and realised it must be Ascension Day which is a national holiday in many parts of Europe, and began to worry as we were very low on food. We eventually found a Leclerc supermarket open and continued to a packed campsite in Verdun.
We have written a moving account of our detailed visit to Verdun. Not wishing to disturb that memory we have deliberately chosen to avoid returning to the battlefield where so many young men, French and German, suffered so terribly during the 1914-18 war. There is a link to our Verdun blog below.
30 May 2014, Romilly-sur-Seine
Last night my eyes were sore and very inflamed. So while Ian worked in the front of Modestine sorting out photos and making notes for the blog I climbed into the back and was asleep within seconds. Nearly twelve hours later I woke feeling very much better and generally my eyes have behaved fairly well today. I need to wear sunglasses much of the time as the sunlight reflects off so many surfaces. They fell apart as we were passing through the unremarkable town of Ste Menehould – yet another saint honoured in this laic country. In desperation we stopped to ask the town optician if they could fix them for us. Not only did they manage to refix the miniscule screw, they polished them, adjusted them and returned them as good as new. When we asked what we owed them the staff lined up with big smiles and declared it was un cadeau – a gift for English visitors! It added sudden colour to our otherwise wane impression of the town. Shabby as the town is today, back in the 1730s it had obviously been wealthy and influential with a massive central square surrounded by once elegant buildings, now rather woebegone and decayed. Deciding such a helpful little town needed a spot of tourist interest we used the bar of the only hotel in the town for a couple of really good coffees and a browse through the local newspaper.
Our route today has been across the vast empty countryside of France that lies between Verdun and Chalon-en-Champagne. I had expected our route to reach Chalon passing through the vine clad hillsides and villages with their cellars where the famed Champagne is produced. Ian however directed us via a completely different route and we saw no vines at all, rather we travelled through an empty, slightly undulating countryside of cereal crops stretching as far as the eye could see. French agriculture is carried out on a grandiose scale. With no villages or habitation for many miles we cannot fathom out how everything gets ploughed, planted, irrigated and harvested. Very rarely do we see anyone actually out there working in the hot sunshine. Indeed today we hardly saw anything other than a few huge lorries making their way across France on the long, straight departmental roads.
Around lunchtime we passed through the little village of Epine with its 700 inhabitants. The French countryside is full of surprises and this village has a wonderful gem. It is dominated by the huge 15th century basilica, Notre Dame de l’Epine, with its astonishing flamboyant gothic facade, arched windows and fantastic ornate gargoyles. Superstition and religion have blended wonderfully on the exterior where the decoration is of saints, demons and fantastic creatures, many rendered even more bizarre by the effects of weathering. The open, decorative towers do not match. Apparently one was smashed down during the French revolution and subsequently replaced by a telegraph signalling station in 1794! A replacement tower was reconstructed, based on old prints, during the 19th century. Inside, the church is a little more subdued but with a wonderful carved stone entombment of Christ dating from the late 15th century. On the altar is a small carved wooden statue of the virgin Mary claimed to have been discovered by shepherds in a burning bush around 1400. The construction of the church dates from shortly after this date.
Chalon en Champagne did not look inspiring from a distance being a mass of white blocks of flats towering out of the flat agricultural landscape. We’d not been over-impressed when we camped there previously so we bypassed the town and turned south to avoid heading towards Paris.
Not only do very few people seem to live in this part of France, there are very few campsites around either. So tonight we are camped on one of the few we have seen, near the town of Romilly-sur-Seine. It is set amidst lakes and is very pleasant. There seems to be lots of Brits and a few French here. Needless to say the free wifi does not work. We’ve pretty well given up on getting access anywhere on this trip. Romilly itself is rather a boring, rundown town with an exceptional number of weird people roaming its streets. In the grey and dusty main street we were accosted by a elderly man in a baseball cap, leading a large bloodhound. He wanted to shake our hands. Giving both him and his dog a wide berth we later saw him going down the street asking everyone to shake hands with him and cursing as people avoided him. The town claims Roman origin, based on it being called Romilly we presume as it doesn’t seem to be substantiated. It also calls itself Romilly-sur-Seine but we crossed the river several kilometres before we reached here.
Saarburg See entry for 20th June 2007
Saarburg See entry for 25th June 2010
Saarburg See entry for 27th May 2014
Champagne producing region around Chalon 2007