A town that still retains its romantic charmAppropriately enough, I found dashing Mr. Darcy at Bath. Standing right outside the Jane Austen museum, in an elegantly cut coat and cunningly tied cravat, he was surrounded by simpering girls.Obviously, not much has changed in the charming town, known for its high-society life and glamorous balls, which young women flocked to in the hope of snaring eligible bachelors.So what if this particular Mr. Darcy turned out to be an 18-year-old actor called Ed, famous for executing a step called the `funky chicken' at parties rather than the gorgeously moody hero of Pride and Prejudice. And so what if the town now draws more middle-aged tourists in `I love London' T-shirts than delicate English roses, with eighteen-inch waists and billowing ball gowns.Bath still has plenty of character.The graceful town, with its cobbled roads and charming honey-coloured Georgian houses, looks like a watercolour painted by a particularly content artist. At the town centre, there's an old fashioned band playing, and the local fudge shop does roaring business as people line up for thick slabs of their sticky chocolate.The first stop, of course, for any visitor to Bath — whether it's a Nikon-toting tourist or a blushing beauty accompanied by her chaperone dowager aunt — is the actual Roman Baths. The heart of the town, this is one of the world's best preserved Roman sites. Built around Britain's only hot spring, the baths were always the centre of the town's social life. In a majestic enclosure, the water bubbles tirelessly, steaming into the wintry air.
The place to be seenIn Bath's hey day, in the 18th Century, the pump room at the Baths became the place to see and be seen. Featuring in Jane Austen's novels, where heroines headed to the Bath ("Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?" asks one, "the honest relish of balls and plays, and every-day sights...") to dance, socialise, gossip, preen and parade their latest gowns and bonnets, it was where the legendary dandy Beau Nash, playing Master of Ceremonies, set out his famous `code of conduct for acceptable behaviour.' Coming from a man who wore a black wig with "bejewelled cream, beaver-trimmed hat worn at a raffish angle," it's not surprising that this included vital rules such as "the adornment of shoes and stockings for men... at balls and other social functions." You can still `take the waters' here. Bath spa water contains 43 minerals, and has its own distinctive flavour. Just remember that `distinctive' in this case means you'll have to hold your breath, and concentrate really hard on an appropriate distraction (Mr. Darcy perhaps?) if you want to swallow more than a pungent mouthful.A much nicer way to pretend to be a Jane Austen heroine — once you're done with investigating the museum dedicated to her and set on the same street she once lived — is to dine regally at the popular Sally Lunn's, famous for its buns. Sally Lunn, as the story goes, was a young French refugee who arrived in Bath more than 300 years ago and started baking a distinctive type of bun. Her salon, which was quite the rage in fashionable Bath, is still irresistible, though it's more endearing than stylish now with its creaky uneven floors, old-fashioned tea sets and gangly young waiters in cute costumes. The bun, baked with the same centuries-old secret recipe, is still fabulous, light, crusty and artfully arranged with everything from finely sliced salmon and rich cream cheese, to dollops of thick jam.
Cathedral callingFrom there, it's just a short ramble (in tiny Bath, everything's a short ramble) to the stunning Bath Abbey, a site where people have worshipped for the past 1,000 years. Now called one of the last great medieval churches of England, the abbey was built in 1499, when its founder, Bishop Oliver King, brought down the ruins of a Norman Cathedral that stood in the same place to raise the present church. Before the cathedral, an Anglo-Saxon abbey dating from 757 stood there. Clearly Bath has been around for a long time, even if it did take Beau Nash and co to make it fashionable. Even its post office was distinctive: the penny black stamp (the first adhesive postage stamp) was posted from Bath in 1840 by Thomas Moore Musgrave, postmaster of Bath, a few days before stamps became official.And today, not surprisingly perhaps, one of the ways Bath's tourism authority tries to sell the town is by underlining how romantic it is. They even have a list of places to propose. One, of course, is the buzzing pump room. Then there are the various gardens. They also list the terrace of the American Museum, stating that it "overlooks the Limpley Stoke Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Sitting on the terrace, sipping tea and savouring the superb view will melt any woman's heart."Evidently, some things never change.SHONALI MUTHALALY