We couldn’t very well go to Bath without actually seeing the baths themselves. The entrance ticket comes with a free audio guide, with some of the narration provided by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, so I was already predisposed to like this place. Once we entered the museum complex, we liked it even more. The set-up is superb. Once you enter, they almost immediately pop you right back outside again, this time on an upper terrace area, where you have the Roman baths below you and the Abbey rising above you. You can walk around the top and peer down at the green depths below. This immediate gratification gets everyone’s impatience out of their system. Most people will have already taken several excellent photos to show their relations, they’ve already seen the baths (at least from afar), and everyone has already posted their selfies to Instagram.
Now after all of that frenzied photo-taking, you enter a museum, where people actually linger and read the plaques, instead of just rushing to the end to see the Roman Baths. After all, been there, done that, got the photo. The museum has everything you could ever wish to know about the Roman town of Bath, which was called Aquae Sulis. The collection of artifacts they have uncovered is huge: tombstones, pottery, hairpins, lead pipes, statues of goddesses, writing implements, jewelry, military equipment, coins- you name it. At one point you even get to walk on a raised platform through the ancient remains of a courtyard and an actual temple dedicated to the Celtic-Roman goddess Sulis Minerva, to whom the baths were dedicated.
My favorite bit of the entire museum is the display of artifacts they recovered from the water. Ancient Romans used to throw coins inside for luck, just lik we do today with our pennies and loose change. Even more interesting, they would also throw curses, written on little sheets of lead. The curses usually involved people stealing their belongings while they were having a swim, which is something every modern-day pool-goer can relate to. The museum also has a huge number of precious stones and rings that slipped off fingers or escaped their settings. Some things never change, do they?
After all of this history, you then proceed to the Baths themselves, but not without first making a quick stop at the source, which has a very strategically-placed gift shop nearby. The water gushes out at an unbelievable rate of 3 gallons a second! If only the bathtub at home could fill up that fast! And now: on to the main event: the Baths! The humidity and heat hit you like a ton of bricks as soon as your step outside. I’ve been to the baths in summer, in winter, in rain, in sunshine, it doesn’t matter: it always feels like you’re stepping into a sauna. The water is a warm 46° C (115° F), and you can see the steam rising off the surface, which gives the whole place an other-worldly vibe. It’s no wonder the Romans thought it was a sacred place with healing properties.
The urge to dip a finger in is almost irresistible, but touching the water is prohibited on account of the brain-eating amoebas. Well, the plumbing still uses the original 1500-year-old lead pipes, so that’s an issue, too, but I think it’s mostly the brain-eating amoeba thing. Either way, you’re not allowed to touch it. I mean, you technically could because security was lax, and I saw several people dip a hand in. So you could probably get away with it as long as you were stealthy about it, but it was still against the rules, and we would never break the rules. If someone hypothetically did touch it, she would tell you that the water felt pleasantly warm, like bath water, but it made your fingers smell like minerals and algae afterwards, which was unpleasant. This is all conjecture, of course. That someone obviously wouldn’t be me because I would never be so disrespectful and irresponsible as to touch lead-and-amoeba-filled, completely-off-limits spa water, even if it was in an ancient Roman pool. And there is no way Stephen would, either. Uh, uh. Nope.
In Roman times, the pool would have been completely covered, and the water would have been a normal blue/clear color. The warm water with its high mineral content and its exposure to the outside air is the perfect environment for algae to grow, which gives the bath its green tinge.
On our first trip to Bath, it was the first time we had ever been in a place with so much history. We had just moved over from the States, and we hadn’t yet taken any international trips. It was amazing to us that we were breathing in the same humid fumes and walking on the same stone tiles as ancient Romans. To boggle the mind even further, the water pouring out of the Roman lead pipes would have been ancient even to the Romans. The water once fell as rain water around 10,000 BC and has been percolating through stone and rock for thousands of years, to emerge, finally, right here, right now, right in front of us.
Of course, Bath really hit its stride during the Regency period, when it became the destination for everyone who was anybody. It must have been such a curious mix of customers! Older women with arthritis, men with gout, and children with as-yet-bewildering illnesses, all soaking in the medicinal waters and trying to find some relief for their pain and disease. Meanwhile, next door, young women and men in their prime flirted over their glasses of water in the Pump Room, and their relations planned, gossiped, and made marriage alliances behind the scenes.
The Pump Room today is more of a place to take tea than water, although they do have a lovely fountain spouting out a lead-free version of the famous liquid and its 43 minerals, if you dare to taste it. Stephen and I both had a few sips. The best that can be said about it is that it’s certainly invigorating. It took several minutes for the metallic tang of copper pennies and rusty iron to fade from our mouths.
After the baths, we walked to two of the most-photographed spots in Bath, the Circus and the Royal Crescent, then, as in now, one of the most exclusive addresses in the city. Nicolas Cage used to have a flat there, until he went bankrupt and had to start doing those low-budget movies like Season of the Witch.
The whole next day was spent exploring Jane Austen’s connections to Bath. The city has two free audioguides you can download to use on your tour around the city. One is a World Heritage Site and another is a Jane Austen Historical Walk. We did (of course) the Jane Austen Walk. The walk took us to the three different houses Jane lived in while she was in Bath, discussed about her feelings towards the city (long story short: not a fan), and traced the path of some of her characters. We looked into shop windows on the posh Milsom Street, passed the Assembly Rooms, and took a leisurely stroll along the Grand Parade while listening to a reading of the final scene in Persuasion. We topped off the day with a visit to the Jane Austen Center, a museum specializing in Jane’s life and works. I have some very embarrassing photos of me dressed up in Regency costume, which I won’t inflict on you.
We paused the tour to duck into the Assembly Rooms, where dances and events used to be held. They now have a fashion museum on the lower floor, and we walked through that a bit, although Stephen wasn’t too interested, so I didn’t spend as much time in the museum as I could have. But they had a special Downton Abbey fashion display, so you better believe I walked around that and read every. single. plaque.
After our first trip to Bath, I’ve been back three more times. Each time, I expect my memories to be exaggerated and prepare myself for disappointment when the real thing can’t live up to my expectations. But each time, it is even better than I remembered it. I don’t know if it is the architecture, the literary associations, the ancient history, the great restaurants, the shopping, the museums, or most likely, some combination of all of those, but Bath never disappoints. I think I could go back a dozen more times, and never once get bored. Even though we’ve been to many wonderful places since we’ve moved abroad, I still can’t help but rank Bath as one of my favorite destinations.