|York Minister is a medieval giant of church history and architecture. (Lisa Howard for The Boston Globe)|
Roman remains, medieval mystique
I was disappointed to learn this small, charming city in northern England is not, in fact, the source of New York’s name. Ours was named after the eighth Duke of York (later King James II of England). But even if it is not technically “Olde’’ York, this city is positively vintage, dating to 71 AD when the Romans set up camp.
In addition to Roman and Viking ruins, visitors can experience England’s medieval past firsthand. Shops and restaurants operate in buildings that were antiques before Shakespeare was born in 1564. In addition to the magnificent York Minster cathedral, 18 medieval churches remain standing, and the city’s medieval walls — complete with macabre history — are some of the most intact in England. Every four years the city hosts the York Mystery Plays (July 11 and 18, 2010) a religious theatrical tradition dating to 1376.
Only two hours by train from London, York makes a perfect weekend excursion or side trip.
FRIDAY 4 p.m. The first thing to do is grab a map (you’ll need it) and pilot yourself around York’s labyrinthine cobblestoned streets and snickelways. Although the city has the usual British chain stores, colorful independents are scattered into the mix. Anti-Gravity offers an intriguing selection of juggling apparatuses; the French House inspired completely irrational thoughts about how I could fit oversized antiques into my luggage; Banks Music, which has been in business since 1756 (the year Mozart was born), has electric guitars as well as classical sheet music for brass and wind instruments; and Monk Bar Chocolatiers, housed in a 600-year-old former butcher shop with sloped beam ceilings, satisfied my curiosity about that rose-flavored British confection known as Turkish Delight. Be sure to amble down The Shambles; the narrow street dates to 1086.
5:30 p.m. York is a perfect place to discover the charms of British beer. One of its oldest pubs, the convivial Old White Swan, offers a large selection of seasonal English ales with names like Cropton Dangleberry, Nethergate Azzaparrot, and Thornbridge Kipling. My advice is to not think of your pint as warm, flat beer; rather, consider your freshly pulled cask ale as unfiltered, unpasteurized, and without artificial carbonation.
When you are ready to eat, walk to Oscar’s Wine Bar & Bistro, where you can get generous portions of tasty burgers and salads. For something spicy, the Viceroy of India, just outside the city walls, offers a delectable assortment of traditional and specialty Indian dishes.
7:30 p.m. Check in at the National Centre for Early Music in St. Margaret’s Church. In addition to medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, it features jazz, folk, and world. For something spooky, show up at the bottom of The Shambles by 7:30 for the Ghost Hunt of York, the nightly walking tour visiting York’s haunted locations.
SATURDAY 10:30 a.m. Head to one of the gateways — called bars — and amble along the top of York’s magnificent medieval walls. Built circa 1240-1340, the walls almost didn’t survive the first half of the 19th century, when the City Corporation (City Council), complaining about their age, the high cost of maintenance, and so forth, decided to simply demolish them. Only vigorous public outcry saved them. Although perfectly pleasant now, they were a bit grisly in their glory days: From the 14th century until 1746, the gateways displayed on spikes the decapitated heads of executed traitors. A note to anyone else with vertigo: Portions of the walls do not have railings.
11:30 a.m. The stats for York Minster are bodacious: the largest medieval Gothic church in northern Europe, the largest medieval building in England, and one of the largest medieval stained glass windows in the world. York Minster was completed in 1472, after 250 years of construction, but the site goes back to Roman times. In addition to the interior, visitors can visit the undercroft, treasury, and crypt, which has Norman and Roman remains, or climb the 275 spiraling stone steps to take in the view from Central Tower.
1:30 p.m. Although Bettys Café Tea Rooms at St. Helen’s Square is more famous, revive yourself with a cuppa at its cozy offspring, Little Bettys. On cold, gray days (any month of the year in England) fires warm the hearths of this upstairs tearoom. Little Bettys offers full tea service, plus soups, salads, and sandwiches or simply order a pot of tea from the 11 varieties, and a scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
2:30 p.m. York has several museums to choose from. The Jorvik Viking Centre, especially popular with children, is built on the site of a 10th-century Viking village. The tour begins with a video in which two winsome youths progress backward in time — represented by costume and hairstyle changes — until they reach the 10th century. Visitors then board a narrated ride that carries them through a reconstruction of the village as it looked, sounded, and smelled in 975.
The York Castle Museum, housed in two former prisons, has a diverse collection of household objects dating to 1600. Be sure to notice nearby Clifford’s Tower; the 13th-century keep is all that remains of York’s medieval castle.
The Yorkshire Museum is closed until August for renovation, but on the grounds you’ll find the fabulous ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, at one point the most powerful Benedictine monastery in England. Before Benedictines, though, there were Romans. A corner of a Roman fortress, the Multangular Tower, is also on the garden grounds.
7 p.m. For tasty modern British cuisine that uses local ingredients and won’t empty your wallet, book a table at 31 Castlegate. Located in an elegant Georgian-era house, the restaurant has an early-bird dinner menu with set-price two- and three-course meals. The offerings change to reflect seasonal produce, but standout dishes include a creamy cauliflower and Gruyere soup, roast venison with bubble and squeak, and a delectable sampling of fruit-based desserts.
10 p.m. Head up Stonegate, the original Roman highway, to mingle at the bohemian Evil Eye Lounge, a shop, bar, and Internet cafe. Enter through the shop and make your way to the bar where you can get a variety of beverages including lavish cocktails and smoothies. Upstairs are antique beds where you can lounge in cushioned comfort.
SUNDAY 11 a.m. If you’ve ever ridden first class on a British train and thought first class was OK, but wondered if there was something even better, the National Railway Museum has the answer for you: British Royal Trains. Beginning with Queen Victoria, British Royal Trains have been kitted out to resemble luxurious (albeit quite narrow) hotel suites. The Royal Trains are just a teensy fraction of the award-winning museum’s enormous holdings, and non-train lovers can find much of interest in the diverse exhibits.
1:30 p.m. The eclectically furnished Café Concerto — mismatched wooden chairs and tables, vintage sheet music wallpaper — makes a great final stop. The menu features housemade soups, salads, hot and cold sandwiches, and an interesting collection of hot “solos,’’ including a delicious butternut squash lasagna. A housemade dessert and a double cappuccino should help fuel the journey to your next destination.
Lisa Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.