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History, Heavenly Hotels and the UK's Biggest Food Fair
More from Travel
My idea of an exciting weekend city break has always been a European destination, for the atmosphere, culture and food. However, I had cause to change my mind after a trip to York.
We stayed at the stylish Hotel du Vin, where the room was heavenly and the enormous roll-top bath had a good view of the television, but we dragged ourselves away to walk into town for a restorative coffee at the famous Bettys Tea Room in St Helens Square.
This branch opened in the Thirties, and the majestic interior was inspired by the trip the founder took on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary. This civilised establishment is open until 9pm in the evening and was still thronged with customers at 7pm.
As we were finishing our drinks, there was a violent downpour and so we crossed the square to Harkers, an elegant pub in a Georgian building, to sketch out our plans for the weekend.
We'd visited York for the annual Food and Drink Festival - apparently the largest in the UK - and a hugely popular event that has been running for 15 years. A ten-day city-wide festival to promote local and regional food and drink, it also highlights produce from around the world.
The giant street market sprawls across York's pedestrianised historic centre with workshops, cooking demonstrations and no end of outlets in which to dine.
The astonishing quality and variety of York's architecture and many sights amazed me, with reminders on every street of a great cultural past.
We got up early the next day and the first foray was to Fairfax House, a preserved 18th Century townhouse crammed with period furniture, antiques, costumes and curios.
The house was the winter home of Viscount Fairfax, whereas the contents were once the property of Noel Terry, of Terry's Chocolate, originally of York. Terry was an obsessive collector and his Georgian treasures were described by Christie's as one of the finest private collections of the 20th Century. The marriage of the house and the collection is arresting and it bristles with atmosphere.
From there, it was back in time to the Jorvik Viking Centre, a museum dedicated to the Vikings and their time in York. Visitors travel for part of their tour in a pod through a reconstructed settlement, on the site of where well-preserved remains of some of the Viking city of Jorvik were discovered. There is even a rather foul aroma piped into the museum to recreate the stink of Viking York. It smells a little like rotting tree bark and leaves one a little queasy, but does not diminish this fascinating experience.
York is quite small so there was time to take in a quick exhibition of some William Etty paintings - he is York's most famous artist and specialised in nudes.
All those fleshy bodies did nothing to quell our appetites and we could resist the Food Fair no longer, which was at its vibrant best by lunchtime. Masses of local sausages, cheeses, honeys and wild mushrooms jostled with stalls selling champagne, crepes and sloe gins. There was something delicious for every palate.
The rain came down again but it didn't deplete the crowds, most of whom didn't appear to be tourists like us. Waistbands groaning, it seemed almost a shame to dash off for a matinee at the York Theatre Royal. We saw The Debt Collectors by another proud Yorkshireman, John Godber, which was thoroughly entertaining. There was time for a quick coffee with friends who are fortunate enough to live near York, at the convivial Cafe Concerto, before a trip to York Minster for Evensong.
What a majestic beast - it's the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe after Cologne Cathedral. The undercroft, treasury and crypt have traces of the earlier Norman minster and of the Roman headquarters where Constantine was proclaimed Emperor. We recovered our appetites enough to keep our dinner booking at J. Baker's Bistro Moderne on Fossgate, whose Michelin-starred chef is Jeff Baker. We even managed a seven-course tasting menu bursting with Yorkshire produce.
On Sunday we went to York Castle Museum, a vast attraction dedicated to 'everyday life'. It shows how people used to live by displaying thousands of household objects (I enjoyed the enormous collections of toys and fashion) and by recreating rooms, shops and a whole Victorian street.
York Castle Prison feels like a separate museum in its own right, though there is no extra charge for visiting. Perusing the dank, cramped cells and learning about some of their past inhabitants - including Dick Turpin - is an eerie experience. This site has been a place of incarceration and justice for more than a thousand years.
We were enchanted by the richness of what is on offer in York. And there is so much left for our next trip - we didn't even make it to the National Railway Museum (the largest in the world), York Dungeon or the Yorkshire Museum. Obviously, the weather is usually terrible but you can't have everything.
Hotel du Vin (01904 557350, hotelduvin.com) has rooms from £170 per night.
York Information Centre (01904 550099,visityork.org) is at 1 Museum Street, York, YO1 7DT. You can also buy the York Pass, which offers you a choice of entry into more than 30 attractions. One, two and threeday passes are available. The annual Food & Drink Festival is on now until September 30.