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[ 3 Days In ... ]

The largest gothic cathedral north of the Alps, the York Minister was built from 1220 to 1470 and recently completed a major renovation, making it sparkle like new.


A wall around England's York
has kept the town blissfully
trapped in times of yore

region map York is England's finest example of a medieval town, so well preserved that it has become one of the world's most interesting historic cities.

This town is surrounded by high stone walls that protected it from ancient attackers and then from modernization.

The walls, nearly 3 miles long, date to the Middle Ages and are 95 percent intact, making them the nation's longest continuous stretch of medieval fortifications.

A hundred other British towns had fortified walls, but only York's are so grandly preserved.

Moreover, the walls were constructed on top of an earthen mound, making them that much more imposing.

Only a few medieval walled towns still stand in Europe; others are Rhodes in Greece and Carcassonne in France.

The fortified walls played an important role in creating these preservation miracles: The space within the walls was extremely valuable and developed with a dense concentration of buildings and narrow lanes, creating an urban pattern that is fun to explore.

The walls prevented smuggling, enabling the government to tax goods that came through the gateways, generating revenues that enabled the town to prosper. The same walls have kept modern construction out and turned York into a time capsule of the Middle Ages.

A musician in period costume plays the autoharp.

Thanks to the high-speed rail line, it takes only two hours to reach York from London.

Because of the quick access and the size of the town, you might be tempted to treat York as a day trip from London, but there is so much to see you could have fun for several days.

There are 25 trains making the trip per day.

It should be no surprise that rail service is advanced here because this region has a long history of pioneering train travel.

The first station opened in 1839, just 10 years after the British invented the steam locomotive.

Expansion of service required a larger station, which opened in 1877 as the largest in Europe, and this original steel-and-glass structure still functions today.

Day 1 An overview

Take a quick stroll through the heart of town after breakfast but before the crowds arrive to get an overview of the classic lanes within the wall. You'll come back later for a more detailed visit, but for now just soak in these ancient, narrow pedestrian lanes.

Be sure to have a look at the Shambles in this peaceful hour as this narrow, quaint shopping lane becomes crowded during the day. The Shambles is so narrow, they say neighbors can reach out across the street from their second-story homes to shake hands. The best time to get an uncluttered photo of the area is early morning or evening, when shops are closed and the crowd is absent.

The heart of town is one of the few places in Europe dedicated to pedestrians. The area comprises a dozen small lanes you can easily navigate without fear of getting lost. Even more unusual are the many crooked little alleys that run between buildings, connecting streets at midblock. These alleys, called "snickleways," are fun to explore: They are kept quite clean, with much interesting old architecture, and shops and homes interspersed between them. Most visitors overlook these hidden alleys, which are best explored with help from a local tour guide. (See listings.)

It's amusing to compare American English with York English, for they call a street a "gate," a gate a "bar" and a bar a "pub." The terminology stems from the different cultures that occupied the area: Druids, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Viking, Normans and modern British.

Be sure to look for two famous statues in the heart of town: At the corner of Petergate and Minstergate, you'll find the Roman goddess of knowledge, Minerva, looking majestic with her white owl and pile of books. Around the corner on Stonegate, look for the Red Devil, perched above eye level on a building adjacent to an alley called Coffee Yard. It is said to represent a "printer's devil," the term for a young apprentice who often caused mischief in a print shop by messing up the order of type in the trays.

With this reconnaissance you can take note of any appealing items in the windows for a later shopping expedition, but for now, with the crowd rapidly gathering, move along to Exhibition Square, where the official Tourism Office and various tour companies are based.

While York is compact enough to see on foot, you can gain a good overview by taking a tour on the open-top double-decker bus. The upper level of the bus gives you an unobstructed view, and the tour is fully narrated.

If it's rainy, put the tour off, because you want to get the open-view seating. Guide Friday bus tours depart every 15 minutes from Exhibition Square, next to the tourist information office. You can also hop on at any stop and purchase your ticket from the driver.

Walking is definitely the best way to see this old city, so when you have finished your bus tour, continue your explorations on foot. York is a walker's paradise because so many fascinating attractions are packed into an area only 1 square mile. You will get more out of your visit and find hidden gems by joining a few of the many walking tours offered. Some of these walks are organized by themes such as chocolate delights, underground Roman ruins, ghosts at night and, especially, "snickleways."

St. Mary's Abbey, a picturesque gothic ruin, is in the Museum Gardens, two blocks from the Minster. The pointed arches have managed to survive.

>> The Minster: After your bus tour, head to the most imposing sight in town, the York Minster, one of Europe's grandest gothic cathedrals. Three soaring towers make it easy to find. Built on the site of the first Roman settlement, the church was begun in the 1220s and took 250 years to finish.

The stained glass is especially important, with 128 windows making up the largest collection of medieval glass in the world, containing a total of 2 million pieces. The window on the east end contains 100,000 pieces of glass, making it the world's largest stained glass from the Middle Ages, covering an area the size of a tennis court. Below the central tower is a window with five long sections of glass, built in 1405 and later named the "Five Sisters" by Charles Dickens.

The Minster is an awesome cathedral that requires 1,000 people to keep it maintained.

>> The Walls: A stroll along the entire span of the walls would take two hours, or 1,900 years, depending on how you see it, for the walk brings you past many of York's historical sites. The complete walk provides lovely views, but if you are pressed for time, the best section to cover is the half-mile from Bootham Bar to Monk Bar, which takes 15 minutes.

If you walk the entire wall, you will pass through the four original gateways, once gatehouses comprising several floors where people lived until as recently as 1970. One of them, the Walmgate Bar on the east side, still has its original "barbican," a fortified extension that enabled the town's defenders to trap and kill -- sometimes by pouring hot oil -- any invaders trying to squeeze through. Most gates would have had similar extensions, but this is the country's only surviving example and provides a dramatic picture medieval warfare and defense.

Monkgate Bar is the tallest gateway, at 63 feet high with four floors containing a Richard III museum. The main gate was Mickelgate Bar, on the south side where London travelers arrived. This was the showcase where heads of criminals and traitors were displayed on spikes as a warning to all. The heads were boiled and pickled to preserve them, and sometimes stayed on display for many years, despite being pecked by crows and magpies.

Romans were the first to build a wall here, but the massive walls we see today were constructed primarily in the 13th and 14th centuries. Modifications were made during the Victorian era to make the walls more attractive, with crenellations along the top to look like gun slots, and with several large gates. Most of the streets just outside the walls have a more recent appearance. Gillygate, destroyed during the Civil War in 1644, looks like a typical village shopping street.

>> Castle Museum: Having walked the walls, you will be ready for lunch and a brief rest while making afternoon plans. There are two major museums and several smaller museums to cover, so start with the best, the Castle Museum. But phone ahead now for tickets to the Jorvik Viking Centre tomorrow. Otherwise, lines can be long.

The Castle Museum is on the south edge of the old town. Located in two large buildings that had been the debtors' prison and the women's prison, it contains a remarkable assortment of items with a focus on the late 19th century, the dawn of the modern age when technology went through rapid changes. Entering the museum is like stepping into a time machine, especially in the street reconstructed to look like it's 1890, with cobbled paving, gaslights, original shop-fronts and merchandise from that period.

The Castle Museum was founded by country doctor John Kirk, who had the foresight to realize that many common items being discarded would have great historical value someday. He began acquiring ordinary objects, sometimes in exchange for his medical services, to put together a collection that he donated to the city in 1935.

You can compare the typical kitchen of 1890 with that of 1950, or examine the evolution of toilets, showers, jewelry, vacuum cleaners, lighting, washing machines, clothing, cameras and thousands of other items. More highlights include horse carriages, a hand-pump fire wagon, a Victorian parlor, a Georgian dining room, an apothecary, a tobacconist and old-fashioned sweet shop with ice cream and snacks.

An array of home entertainment begins with magic lantern shows and hand-cranked Victrolas and continues through radio and the first TVs of the 1930s. The presentation rivals those of the great museums.

Adjacent to the museum, you will see Clifford's Tower, a large earth mound with a stone fort on top. The original fort was built by William the Conqueror just two years after his famous 1066 victory and featured a man-made dirt hill with a wooden palisade on top. This was the typical style of fortress built throughout the land.

The wooden fort was destroyed several times in various rebellions, and the existing stone castle was built between 1245 and 1265 in the quatrefoil shape, with rounded corners to repel invaders. It is the only clover-shaped, fortified tower left standing in England. Open for a small admission fee, this is something special. Walk up a narrow spiral stone staircase in the gatehouse into the small chapel and along the upper wall, which gives a nice view across the city.

Clifford's Tower, a large earth mound with a stone fort on top, was built by William the Conqueror, who invaded the country in 1066.

After a full day of touring, your main focus now should be taking in dinner and a show. The historic Theatre Royal, in business for 260 years, has been drastically altered over the years, most recently in the early 1990s, when a thorough overhaul renewed the facilities with new seats, lighting, ventilation and other improvements. In the 1960s a dramatic addition was made to the building when a modern glass-walled cafe and shop were attached to the outside in a prize-winning design that transformed the rustic stone exterior wall into a stunning interior surface for the restaurant. Many sculpted stone heads on the wall represent Shakespearean characters. The theater is on St. Leonard's Crescent, a graceful stretch of road built in the Regency style.

Day 2 Museums and shopping

Once again, it would be opportune to stroll through the quiet streets in the town center just after breakfast before the crowds show up. Then begin your organized touring with a visit to the Jorvik Viking Centre, which opens at 10 a.m. If you neglected to call ahead for tickets, it's best to get in line at least 15 minutes before opening to beat the main crowd. The museum offers one of the most dramatic archaeological displays ever created.

The private museum is built on top of an actual Viking settlement and displays many excavation finds in their original positions: The homes and artifacts were carefully excavated and restored to present a dramatic look at life in the past. Comfortable automated cars carry the visitor past houses and workshops still containing furniture, utensils and tools left behind a millennium ago.

It's as entertaining as a Disney ride, with the vivid sights, sounds and smells brought to life, including trips through some houses and rooms of the Viking town. The museum has been open since 1984, receiving more than 12 million visitors. Three years ago they rebuilt the ride and displays to make the visit even more enjoyable.

Seafaring invaders from Denmark conquered this part of England in 866 and set up main headquarters in York. They lived here for about 100 years before they were defeated and expelled, but left a noticeable impact on the society.

While Vikings have an image as helmeted barbarians who burned and trashed their way through Europe, in reality they were civilized people who helped to improve the economy with progressive farming techniques and extensive trade networks that reached all the way to the Mediterranean.

After the Viking experience, take a breather for lunch and some street theater before plunging into more history in the afternoon. The plaza in front of the Jorvik Centre is usually bustling with activity and buskers performing for the crowds. Singers, jugglers, jesters, pantomimes, street dancers or jazz combos -- who knows what might show up?

A street performer known as a fire busker regales a curbside crowd.

If you want to do some shopping in the heart of town, this afternoon is a good time, especially along Stonegate and Petergate, the two most stylish streets. When you finish wandering through the crooked lanes, head north toward the city's next major historic treasure house, the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens, a few blocks from the Minster.

>> Yorkshire Museum: The Yorkshire Museum was founded in 1830, making it one of the oldest in the country. Its vivid, modern displays take you from prehistoric times up through the 16th century. Start your visit with the intriguing Roman period. The ancient Romans conquered England and established what later became the major cities, including London, Bath, Chester and York, which they founded in 71 A.D.

Several emperors lived in York, including one of the greatest of them all, Constantine. He was a young man when his father, emperor Constantius Chlorus, died here in 306 A.D. Constantine, of course, went on to great accomplishments, including the legalization of Christianity and the founding of Constantinople, now Istanbul.

Although the Romans ruled for 339 years, there are few visible remains of their occupation: The Multangular Tower still stands 27 feet high in the Museum Gardens; one column has been restored in front of the Minster; fragmentary remains of a bathhouse can be viewed in the basement of the Roman Bath pub; and there is a short length of the original Roman wall, about 20 feet long and 3 feet high, in a parking lot across from Bootham Bar. The original Roman wall and most of their early buildings were made of wood that has not survived, but much of their later stone wall is still buried under the town, including the foundations of a massive fortress that housed nearly 6,000 soldiers, on the site of the Minster.

When the Romans left in 410 A.D., Anglo-Saxon invasions by Germanic tribes began and plunged the region into a dark period that is little understood today. It is believed the abrupt withdrawal of the highly organized Roman system of government left a chaotic situation, with no central control for a couple of centuries until the Saxon kings asserted themselves and introduced Christianity and a new society. King Edwin's conversion to Christianity in 627 is an especially important historical landmark.

In 1066 the British were able to defeat the last remnants of Scandinavian occupiers farther north, but a few weeks later, William of Normandy conquered King Harold's weakened army, changing society. The medieval period is defined as that time between 1066 and 1485, the dawn of the Renaissance. In those Middle Ages the city was surrounded by wild countryside, with a forest sheltering bandits ready to rob travelers passing through, so the city offered armed guards to escort those leaving town. The city depended on trade and commerce, so it was important to protect visitors. During this feudal era, when "knights were bold," competing kingdoms often waged war on each other, but the defensive walls were strengthened and enemies were kept out.

A stroll along the 3-mile circumference of the walls takes two hours and passes many of York's historical sites. The best section is the half-mile from Bootham to Monk bars.

York prospered and became the second-largest city in England, with a diverse economy involving 100 different trade unions, or "guilds." Trading and wool production were the economy's foundations. England had a great farming advantage because its fields were fertile, and sheep could thrive with the absence of wolves. Typically, wool was shipped to France and Belgium for processing into fabric, but York was unique as the only British community that both produced and wove wool into fabrics. The well-defended town enabled the wool guilds to have a secure place for manufacturing.

The fortunes of York bounced up and down during centuries of royal rule, suffering a setback when Henry VIII dissolved the church and seized the clergy's property and wealth. As the largest church in the land, the Minster had a lot to lose, but the situation improved as the local aristocracy reasserted control. The 18th century saw another period of development with York becoming a fashionable residential alternative to London for the aristocracy, who built many fine Georgian-style townhouses that still survive. Throughout these changes and in moving into the modern industrial era, the old buildings in the heart of town have been preserved, providing a pleasant historic experience for visitors.

All this history is on display at the Yorkshire Museum. Later, you can take a breather strolling through the 10 acres of gardens, which includes the ruins of medieval St. Mary's Abbey and several other impressive historic buildings, like the Hospitium and St. Mary's Lodge, two "hotels" for pilgrims that date to the 15th century.

Day 3 The historic buildings

For those interested in visiting more of York's historic buildings, there are many fine choices: King's Manor, St. William's College, Mansion House, Guildhall, Assembly Rooms, Merchant Adventurers' Guild, Barley Hall, Herbert House, Fairfax House, Lady Row and Treasurer's House. And don't forget the York City Art Gallery with its fine collection of Old Masters. The world's largest railway museum is adjacent to the station, featuring 103 locomotives among its many free exhibits, including a replica of "Stephenson's Rocket," the first steam engine. Or, tour the York Brewery and enjoy a tasting.

Architecture and church enthusiasts would enjoy a survey of York's old churches, acknowledged as England's finest medieval collection, with 19 original structures standing.

The list of fascinating places could expand to cover a few more days -- or, you could leave town for a day trip into the nearby countryside.

>> Yorkshire Dales: Yorkshire is the largest county in England, famous for the scenic beauty of its moors and dales, the broad green valleys and gentle hills dotted with farms and little villages. There are so many choices for day trips, you might end up staying a few days longer than planned. York makes a convenient base because the tours all depart from town and bring you back the same day. Eddie Brown is the major operator of bus tours into the countryside. The company's most popular excursions, which typically begin at 10:30 a.m. in York and return about 5:45 p.m., are:

>> North Yorkshire Moors Railway: The bus brings you to this old steam train line that runs for 18 miles through the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, past magnificent wooded valleys, heather-clad moors and picturesque streams. Harry Potter fans can have a look at "Hogsmeade Railway Station" in Goathland, featured in the second movie.

>> Castle Howard: Yorkshire's most famous stately home, featured in the "Brideshead Revisited" TV series, makes another delightful excursion. The tour includes a visit inside the mansion and a walk through the extensive grounds, featuring a lake, formal gardens, stables, statues and tranquility.

>> Yorkshire Moors and Coast: A ride through the Howardian Hills to Pickering for a brief stop in this quaint market village, followed by a journey through picturesque Thornton Dale and along the coast to Whitby, a pretty fishing village that was the home of Capt. James Cook, whose house is open to visitors.

>> Newby Hall and Fountains Abbey: This is a delightful combination for architecture enthusiasts, encompassing the Cistercian Abbey, which dates to 1132, and the beautifully restored Robert Adams house, decorated with Chippendale furniture, Gobelins tapestries and classical statuary.

There are many excellent independent tour operators who work with individuals and small, customized groups. Personalized tours of the region can be arranged with a variety of tour operators, such as the Yorkshire Explorer, or with Discovery Tours. The most ambitious tour you could attempt for a day is a visit to the Lake District, which takes about 10 hours and brings you into some of England's most beautiful countryside, returning the same evening to York.

>> Hiking: Dozens of trails range from a two-hour stroll to a week-long ramble. Walking is one of the best ways to see the countryside, and because this is such a popular activity, logistics will be no problem. With just a little bit of planning, so you can relax and not worry about getting lost or finding accommodations late in the day.

This region was made famous by the life and writings of country veterinarian James Herriot, so for more information about hiking or escorted motor coach tours, do a Google Internet search under "James Herriot Tours," and you will be swamped with information.

Dennis Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series airing 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States, and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday of each month, explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places.


If you go ...

If you arrive in York without hotel reservations (not recommended), check with Tourist Information at the train station for their list of available space, including many excellent bed-and-breakfasts. Less expensive accommodations can be found outside the city walls, still within easy walking distance. Here is a list of hotels in or near the historic center, along with restaurants and Web sites. Except where noted, the prefix for calls is 011-44-1904.


Bootham Guest House: 56 Bootham Crescent, call 672123 or fax 672123;

Dean Court Hotel: Duncombe Place, call 625082 or fax 620305;

Hilton York: 1 Tower St., call 6481111 or fax 610317;

Hudson's Hotel: 60 Booth a.m., call 621267 or fax 654719

Monkbar Hotel: St. Maurice's Road, call 638086;

Novotel York: Fishergate, call 611660 or fax 610925;

Royal York Meridien Hotel: Station Road, call 800-543-4300;

York Moat House: North St., call 459988 or fax 641793;


Black Swan, Peaseholme Green

Golden Fleece, Pavement

Old White Swan, Goodramgate

Roman Bath, St. Sampson's Square

Snickleway Inn, Goodramgate


Use phone prefix 01904

Ask Restaurant: 4 Blake St., call 637254

Blue Bicycle: 34 Fossgate, call 673990

Cafˇ Concerto: 21 High Petergate, call 610478

De:Altos: St. Martin's Court Yard, call 635331

Meltons: 7 Scarcroft Road, call 634341

Rish: 7 Fossgate, call 622688

A trendy neighborhood has developed along Grape Lane, Little Stonegate and Swinegate, with several fine eateries, including El Piano, Kites, Oscar's Wine Bar and Bistro. You'll find street parties and dancing as part of the Festival of Food and Drink, England's largest food festival, Sept. 12-21.

Museums and tours

Jorvik Viking Centre: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $11 admission; reservations highly recommended. Call 543403.

Mickelgate Bar Museum: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $3

National Railway Museum: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; free

York Castle Museum: Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $9

York City Art Gallery: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; free

York Dungeon: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; $15

Yorkshire Museum and Gardens: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $6


Yorkwalk: Meet at the Museum Gardens Gate, on Museum Street, at 10:30 a.m. or 2:15 p.m. daily. Check the Web site for walk titles; costs $7.50 per person. Reservations optional.

Association of Voluntary Guides: Free walking tour departs from Exhibition Square at 10:15 a.m., 2:15 and 6:45 p.m. daily, and 10:15 a.m. in winter.

Viking Walk: Departs from Exhibition Square 8:15 p.m. nightly except Sunday.

Ghost Walks: York is believed to be the most haunted city in Europe. Each walk costs 3 pounds ($4.50). Just show up, and be scared to death at the following times: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, from the bottom of Clifford's Tower; 7:30 p.m. nightly from the bottom of the Shambles or the Minster's west end; 8 p.m. nightly from Exhibition Square or from the Kings Arms Pub, Ouse Bridge.

Castle Howard: Open from 10 a.m. daily. Get there by bus with Yorkshire Coastliner (01653 692556), the Moorbus Network (08970 608 2608) and during the summer months with Eddie Brown Tours (01904 640760).

Bolton Abbey: Open from 9 a.m. daily. Admission is $6 per automobile. The estate covers 30,000 acres of beautiful countryside in the Yorkshire Dales. There are medieval buildings to explore and 80 miles of moorland, woodland and riverside footpaths.

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