Never judge a town by its train station. By that standard, arriving in Trier is a real letdown. This is Germany's oldest city? Home of the best preserved ancient Roman building outside of Rome? From this vantage point, it looks more like the home of Germany's worst 1960s architecture, from which not even the station itself was spared.
But if you walk a little farther, you'll begin to notice some elegant 19th century town homes to your left, and before you've gone much further, something far older and far more interresting appears. The Porta Nigra, or Black Gate (named for the darkened sandstone from which it was made), marks a grand entrance into Trier's old town.
Walk through this portal, and the traffic and ugly architecture of more rececnt times are quickly put out of sight and mind. While little original is left of what was once a grand Roman city, capitol of the Western sector of ancient Rome after the Emperor Diocletian split the empire into four parts, what you'll see today features a mix of medeival and more, all centered around a pretty market square and capped with Germany's oldest Christian church, a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic, built upon an ancient Roman foundation. Even signs announcing the location of H&M and McDonald's above glassy window displays do little to detract from the scene.
Even better than the beautiful buildings, the people of Trier are what brings the town to life. It's easy to imagine that the town's inhabitants have been buying their fruit and vegetables here for hundreds of years, where today teenagers camp next to medeival monuments and practice their skateboarding moves in the square outside the fourth century Roman basilica. Around the corner, families stroll in Baroque gardens, enjoying the lack of rain despite grey skies overhead.
When the time comes for me to head back to Mainz, I walk straight through the Porta Nigra, exchanging the sound of children laughing for that of city traffic. But it only takes a quick turn of the head to see that the Porta Nigra still stands, no longer a necessary protector of the city, but a welcome into another world.