Bath of­fers easy, el­e­gant ur­ban de­lights If you visit

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE -

Eng­land’s best city within easy strik­ing dis­tance of Lon­don is Bath — just a 90-minute train ride from the city cen­ter. Bath is pop­u­lar and ex­pen­sive, but it’s a joy to visit. And rather than deal with Lon­don’s in­ten­sity right off the bat, I like to take the train from the air­port to Lon­don’s Padding­ton Sta­tion and then hop on a con­nec­tion to this more re­laxed and el­e­gant ex­am­ple of ur­ban Eng­land.

Bath was a joy even in an­cient Ro­man times, when pa­tri­cians soaked in the city’s min­eral springs. From Lon­dinium (to­day’s Lon­don), Ro­mans trav­eled so of­ten to “Aquae Sulis,” as the city was called, to “take a bath” that fi­nally it be­came known sim­ply as “Bath.” To­day, a fine mu­seum sur­rounds the an­cient bathing site. With the help of a great au­dio guide, vis­i­tors can wan­der past well­doc­u­mented dis­plays, Ro­man ar­ti­facts, ex­ca­vated foun­da­tions and the ac­tual mouth of the health-giv­ing spring.

Bath later pros­pered as a wool town, build­ing its grand abbey about 500 years ago — the last great me­dieval church built in Eng­land. The abbey’s fa­cade fea­tures a very lit­eral Ja­cob’s lad­der — with an­gels go­ing up ... and down. The in­te­rior has breezy fan vault­ing and is lit with enough stained glass to earn it the nick­name “Lantern of the West.”

By the mid­dle of the 1600s, Bath’s hey­day had passed, and its pop­u­la­tion dropped to about 1,500 peo­ple — just a hud­dle of huts at the base of the abbey. Then, in 1687, King James II’s wife, Queen Mary, strug­gling with in­fer­til­ity, came here and bathed. Within about 10 months she gave birth to a son. A few decades later, her step­daugh­ter Queen Anne came here to treat her gout. With all this royal in­ter­est, Bath was re­born as a re­sort.

Most of the build­ings you’ll see in Bath to­day are from the 18th cen­tury. Built of the creamy warm-tone lime­stone called “Bath stone,” the ci­tyscape is a tri­umph of the neo­clas­si­cal style that dom­i­nated the Ge­or­gian era. Free, fas­ci­nat­ing town walks are of­fered every day by vol­un­teers who bring to life high­lights of this Ge­or­gian her­itage — such as the Cir­cus and Royal Cres­cent build­ing com­plexes.

The Cir­cus is like a coli­seum turned in­side out, with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian cap­i­tal dec­o­ra­tions that pay homage to its Greco-Ro­man ori­gin — a re­minder that Bath (with its seven hills) as­pired to be “the Rome of Eng­land.” About a block away, the Royal Cres­cent is a long, grace­ful arc of build­ings — im­pos­si­ble to see in one glance un­less you step way back to the edge of the park in front. You can go in­side one of these classy fa­cades at No. 1 Royal Cres­cent, now a mu­seum where you can see how the wealthy lived in 18th-cen­tury Bath.

Dur­ing the Ge­or­gian era, Bath was the trend­set­ting Tin­sel­town of Britain, where the filthy rich went to es­cape the filthy cities. A pro­fes­sional gam­bler named Beau Nash fol­lowed his clients (and their money) to this re­sort town — and then acted as its one-man tourism pro­mo­tion depart­ment. He or­ga­nized daily ac­tiv­i­ties, did match­mak­ing and helped spiff up the city. To­day his statue stands above the Ro­man baths.

You can see how natty Ge­or­gian-era folks dressed at the Fash­ion Mu­seum — which ex­hibits his­tor­i­cal gar­ments from every era since the days when there were no right or left shoes, all the way up to the present. A ma­jor fea­ture of the mu­seum is the “Dress of the Year” dis­play, on­go­ing since 1963. Above the Fash­ion Mu­seum you can view the city’s his­toric Assem­bly Rooms, where card games, con­certs, teas and dances were held (be­fore fancy ho­tels with grand pub­lic spa­ces made them ob­so­lete).

Af­ter a day of sight­see­ing, street the­ater is a fun evening op­tion and a rit­ual for me in Bath. The best hour and a half of laughs I’ve had any­where in Britain is on the Bizarre Bath Com­edy Walk. They prom­ise to in­clude “ab­so­lutely no his­tory or cul­ture” dur­ing their wan­der of Bath’s back lanes. Lis­ten­ing to the guides is al­ways a de­light — they may tell the same old jokes, but they’re spiced up with a sharp, ad-lib wit that plays off the in­ter­na­tional crowd.

I also en­joy the Ther­mae Bath Spa, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing chilly evening vis­its, when Bath’s twi­light glows through the steam from the rooftop pool. It’s pricey, but it’s the only nat­u­ral ther­mal spa in the U.K., and your one chance to ac­tu­ally bathe in Bath.

An­other of my fa­vorite cap­pers for a day in Bath is head­ing to a pub to have scrumpy — “hard hard cider.” It’s no­to­ri­ously strong: When I last or­dered it, ev­ery­one stopped what they were do­ing just to see what would hap­pen.

From its evening in­dul­gences to its el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­ture, Bath com­bines beauty and hos­pi­tal­ity bet­ter than most. It’s a place drenched in his­tory but made for re­lax­ation.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

The an­cient Ro­man spa that gave Bath its name is the town’s sight­see­ing cen­ter­piece, with tem­ple re­mains and a mu­seum. Vis­i­tors can see dis­plays, Ro­man ar­ti­facts, ex­ca­vated foun­da­tions and the mouth of the health-giv­ing spring. Sleep­ing: Brooks Guest­house is an af­ford­able B&B near the Royal Cres­cent with 22 mod­ern rooms (mod­er­ate, www.brooks guest­house.com). The Roseate Villa, a short walk from the city cen­ter, of­fers 21 rooms in a Vic­to­rian man­sion sur­rounded by a park and ex­ten­sive lawn (splurge, roseate­ho­tels .com/bath/theroseate villa). Eat­ing: Clay­ton’s Kitchen, run by Miche­lin-star chef Rob Clay­ton, has a ro­man­tic at­mos­phere and of­fers up­scale Bri­tish cui­sine that is art­fully pre­pared and pre­sented (15 Ge­orge St., www.clay­ton­skitchen .com). The Scal­lop Shell serves lav­ish fish dishes as well as Bath’s best fish and chips (27 Mon­mouth Place, www.thescal­lop­shell.co .uk). Get­ting around: You won’t need a car in this pedes­trian-friendly city; buses and taxis are read­ily avail­able. Tourist in­for­ma­tion: www.vis­it­bath.co.uk.

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