Perfection can bring out the worst in people. Face-to-face with a dazzler, everybody's a critic -- duty-bound to point up the teeniest flaw. Few travelers overcome this tendency merely by leaving home, yet the beauty of some destinations proves so affecting that it disarms even those who've raised niggling to high art. On that score, the old city of Bath -- one of the only sites in England utterly devoid of military history -- is the scene of constant surrender.
The charming assault begins early, on the way into town. Bath tucks into some of the coziest hillsides in the entire green, rumpled expanse of England. The city lies 100 miles west of London, at a sudden, sharp twist in the meandering course of the River Avon.
Through the frequent mists, random shafts of sunlight pick out row upon orderly row of tall Georgian houses -- with 500 years' worth of church spires tossed in for added interest. Every building in sight is made of the same local stone, which (depending on how recently it's been cleaned) ranges in color from sooty black through soft gray to unabashedly golden. In all directions, intricate, harmonious vistas compose themselves as though purely for the visitor's satisfaction.
*Word of Bath's beauty has gotten around, so many travelers arrive with their guard up. Fabled good looks constitute a kind of forewarning, after all, promising major opportunities for fault-finding. Still, first impressions of the place give little ground for carping.
Bath dates to the Roman Empire, so the city has had a bit of time to practice its winning ways. In fact, local history amounts to little more than a casual chronicle of 10 centuries of changing notions about what constitutes the good life. As a result, Bath can magnanimously offer the visitor diversions drawn from ancient times, from a few hundred years ago and from the present.
For better or worse, our own age has transformed shopping and eating from lowly tasks into ways of having fun. Downtown, along narrow streets leading off at quirky, alluring angles, Bath serves up a handsome array of merchandise as well as a sampling of some of the most ambitious cooking in the land.
From the 18th century comes most of the city we see today -- a place whose long, matched rows of big houses reveal a profound fondness for money and an equally deep desire to show it off only in the most decorous fashion.
Today's traveler also gets an illuminating look at the cushier side of life long ago. The Romans came to Bath to cavort at England's only thermal spring and, like later visitors, found the neighborhood to their liking. Attributing curative properties to the waters, they set up the self-indulgent, moneyed brand of resort that the city remains to this day.
Much physical evidence of Roman rule and everyday routine has been unearthed over the last hundred years. Housed in the Roman Baths Museum, those remnants of the ancient past are a primary object of tourist attention. The hypercritical traveler might dread this as a dutiful trudge into the past. Instead, it's a fascinating, often spooky venture into a world very different from the Bath of today -- except for the sybaritic city's enduring devotion to having a good time.
Because the Roman ruins have emerged only with prodigious digging -- in fact, the excavation continues today -- it should come as no surprise that exploring the museum requires a downward journey. But this trip feels unexpectedly distant and steep, the path takes tricky turns. There's certainly plenty of atmosphere: In a descending series of darkish rooms, the ancient artifacts look moody and dramatic -- like objects on a stage set. Mosaic fragments, a bronze bust of Minerva (as depicted in Bath, definitely a goddess in the looks department), venerable stone arches and columns all put in an appearance.
The sound of rushing water steadily builds as the visitor nears the source of the thermal spring. So does the water's potent sulfurous smell, and its warmth. More and more, there's the sight of the steamy stuff -- tumbling over little dams, pouring down channels; it's as though the Tunnel of Love had been tastefully done up as a backdrop for the Last Days of Pompeii. The downward progress ends at a smoldering pool surrounded by long arcades and -- a refreshing brightness -- open wide to the sky. Just the spot in olden times for lolling about, as one present-day guide put it, "to have a good gossip."
Such chatty asides issue regularly from the museum's tour leaders, who, like their counterparts all across England, do a most helpful job. At the very worst, the English guide is an amusingly red-faced hack with a booming voice and acting ambitions of similar proportion. Governessy tendencies, too, it must be admitted. "As you surely must know," one guide confided, "the Roman Empire eventually fell -- in 476, to be precise."
Happily for Bath, the 18th century brought a revival of faith in the health-giving properties of the waters there. So a new crowd of swells pulled into town -- rich English this time, the Romans having long since withdrawn. The intervening shifts in time and taste make themselves apparent at the end of the climb back up from the Roman Baths' lower depths; the visit concludes amid the gilded glories of the Pump Room, a blue-and-cream-colored fantasy dreamt up in the 1790s and fitted out with big pillars, tall windows, immense chandeliers. Here the management offers Bath water for drinking -- it's only faintly icky -- and provides other treats more delectable to contemporary appetites.
More than a thousand years stretch between the ancient sauna and those Georgian confections -- like the Pump Room -- that make Bath so easy on the eyes. Still, the chronologically-minded visitor will find at least a couple of pleasurable stopping places on the way. The principal relic of this "middle period" -- the Abbey -- stands close to the Roman Baths and itself forms a strong, stony link between old times and new.
Begun in the 15th century, the Abbey includes major sections that went up as recently as the Victorian period. The resulting jumble of styles comes together quite nicely, however, with the tall, almost spindly vaults of the Victorian nave neatly balancing the heavier medieval arches at the crossing. In fact, long history has worked a likable brand of magic both in the Abbey and throughout the surrounding streets: Past joins with present to endow church and city alike with charms so diverse as to forge a well-nigh irresistible attack on the most resistant traveler.
A pair of examples: Looking down the long nave of the Abbey yields a view quietly stirring enough to silence the prissiest of architectural purists. And, high in that same noble space, stained glass forms entire walls of fragmentary color -- the sort of display that manages to suggest that human artistry occasionally rivals the best products of any divine hand.
Winning though they be, such delights barely hold their own against the more abundant (and more abundantly beautiful) creations of the 18th century, which constitute the glowing heart of the city. A good bit of what today's visitor encounters in Bath -- the buildings, the streets, the fun-loving feel -- was the work of three men. Even in the sprawling Georgian era, they distinguished themselves by their enterprise and their ability to think big.
First was Beau Nash, a world-class bon vivant and city booster known hereabouts (and without any irony intended) as the Master of Ceremonies -- for his confidence in deciding not only who counted in his day but also how they needed to behave to remain among the elect. Incidentally, that same confidence -- when applied to the gambling so fashionable in Nash's set -- eventually ruined him.
Then there was the canny Ralph Allen. In a time marked by solid building and a lot of it, he had the good sense to own the local quarry. You can't take a step in Bath without, literally, bumping into the product of his labors. Likewise for John Wood, the third member of the trio. As with other gifted architects down through the ages, Wood had a knack for making the most out of what money could do with masonry. From the look of Bath, he had both talent and cash aplenty.
Guides all over town desperately want to let you in on juicy (apocryphal?) details of the lives and personalities of these three men. In any case, they created a place where rich -- and occasionally royal -- Londoners could feel at home away from home. Given the current fondness for British life, or at least its upper-crust version, this serves as quite a draw for travelers today. Moreover, the city looks as good and works as well now as it did two centuries ago. Maybe better.
For instance, houses preserved from times gone by usually come on strong. Straining to impress, they achieve a grandeur that puts them impossibly out of reach. Not so with houses of Bath. Though far from modest, they leave folks today relatively under-awed. By way of example, there's a place with a most distinguished address -- No. 1 Royal Crescent -- open to the public. Right after the visitors' initial oohs and aahs come more down-to-earth conversations about exactly where their own furniture would go -- not a likely development at, say, ostentatious Chatsworth House.
What makes houses in Bath feel so intimate and accessible is that they lack the look-at-me isolation of most rich people's digs; they fit together into a larger, harmonious whole. terraces) of almost identical units, the houses give the entire city a remarkably cohesive look. Of course, some of these groups of houses are more equal than others; No. 1 Royal Crescent is but the opening act for what turns out to be the biggest show in town.
The approach involves an arduous climb up from the city center, taking the visitor onto Brock Street. A short distance ahead lies an opening, a promising patch of sky. Past the plaque at No. 1 Royal Crescent, that opening widens as the road takes a sharp turn to the right.
At this point, every visitor capable of registering a pulse experiences a sudden intake of breath and begins hearing the loveliest mental music -- private tunes all one's own. Given the setting, the music is inevitably quite grand. For what comes suddenly, stunningly into view across a broad green lawn is a bold, concave sweep of columned houses; 30 of them stand linked in a graceful, rhythmic curve hundreds of feet long. Whatever its dimensions, the Royal Crescent strikes the most jaded traveler as immeasurably beautiful.
The houses form a half-circle. The columns, quite hefty, stand in a sinuous lineup along the facades, rising a couple of stories to support an understated cornice. The march of those columns along the Crescent has a good bit of the force and drama of the colonnade at St. Peter's Square, and it can summon similarly lofty sentiments. But people get to live here. That is, a few lucky families do. And temporarily, so do guests at the city's swankest hotel (called, conveniently enough, the Royal Crescent), which is discreetly hidden away within two houses near the center of the curve.
The Royal Crescent owes part of its magnificence to its site, high above the city and fronting on a sea of grass. Further, when the aim is to amaze, size doesn't hurt. And the Crescent certainly is big. But in a town so uniformly fetching, simple superiority does a lot to distinguish the Royal Crescent. Calling that first glimpse of the place a surprise is an understatement; it's more aptly described as a jolting dose of beauty.
A sight every bit as gorgeous but more subtle unfolds nearby. Called the Circus, it takes its name not from any aspect of frivolity or excess but from its perfectly round shape. Three sets of 11 houses, the color of honey at the bottom of a white teacup, encircle a patch of lawn shaded by the spreading limbs of five huge plane trees. From under those trees, the roundabout view suggests ease, order, civility. And at night, the hub of this one-ring Circus can be the most serene place in town. Each house looks luxurious and sober -- without that tight-lipped English astringency that can make Americans self-conscious. This is partly because the Circus has an expansiveness that is imperial in scale.
That expansiveness characterizes much of Bath and probably derives from the fact that the city makes no pretense of having serious work to do. Rather, it continues to devote its principal energies to whatever the current notion of fun embraces. These days, that tends to mean poking about in shops -- with frequent, leisurely breaks for lunch, tea and dinner. Fancy woolens and cottons abound. Bargain books can be had by the stack. Whatever better-quality goods you want, Bath tries to offer them -- often at prices a touch lower than in London and in surroundings invariably less hectic. And those willing to spend freely on food will get a fine return on their investment. Even food grabbed from corner markets and storefront bakeries tastes fine, if somewhat stridently healthy.
Occasional anomalies crop up -- Chicago deep-dish pizza, of all things, is the rage just now. And Bath's local leaders have blocked cars from one or two streets, inadvertently creating weird little twilight zones with the same lost air that pervades similar efforts in so many American downtowns. Of course, only in these few blocks -- where urban improvers have beavered away to rein in the town's lively native impulses -- does Bath risk the wrath of the fault-finding wanderer. Everywhere else in town, those who thrill to shopping will find ample entertainment. Besides, in how many other places could the casual shopper walk along a narrow street lined with tiny shops, only to have the whole arrangement turn out to be a notably pretty bridge? Designed in 1771 by Robert Adam, the Pulteney Bridge rests on three arches. They span the River Avon in a fashion sufficiently graceful as to make the mere act of getting from here to there take on the importance of an artistic event.
In Bath, the most pessimistic visitor sooner or later learns to expect such happy surprises. That lawn spread out in front of the Royal Crescent is actually just a stray end of the well-tended realm known as Royal Victoria Park -- heavenly for strollers and, with its rolling landscape, a challenge to the more fleet of foot. At river's edge, the Royal Parade Ground serves as the staging area for a summer-long floral riot. It also features prime examples of the pruned landscape oddities many English love: One recent display included a four-foot-long locomotive (with a smiling bear as its engineer), mysteriously assembled from an array of succulents and other growing things.
Then, too, nightfall need not bring on the psychic slump so common in provincial towns. The Theatre Royal programs ambitiously -- but sells out well in advance. And since 1947, the Bath International Festival of Music has livened up every May and June.
The surrounding region doesn't lack for diversions, either. Easy day trips include Cotswold villages of almost aching charm. Nearby Castle Combe, for instance, bears up well under the weight of its reputation as the prettiest village in all England. Among the country houses close at hand are the Tudor extravaganza called Longleat as well as Stourhead, with its extensive gardens. To the southwest lies Wells and its famous cathedral. And there's lots more.
Still, when it comes to Bath, side trips end up being side issues. For Bath manages to confound the most typical (and most destructive) habit among travelers. Ostensibly off in search of the ideal, they -- we -- view the world through unforgiving eyes. Is it any wonder when the world's marvels tend to disappoint?
But Bath is a clever opponent. It will switch tactics -- first emphasizing a visual harmony that could verge on the tedious if special places such as the Royal Crescent didn't emerge with such refreshing clarity. It will combine efforts -- bringing together the best elements of its long history, simultaneously keeping very much up to date. And its beauty is so multifaceted as to operate all-out on all fronts.
That's why, in Bath -- the sybaritic little city in central England -- the sharpest eyes meet their match. Gladly. After all, who really wants to go home with tales of anything other than the perfect vacation?