You'll fall in love with historic York
GETTING gooey-fingered in York Cocoa House has to be a highlight of the year so far.
This delightful 'home' for true chocolate lovers sits on Blake Street, right in the beautiful centre of the city, serving as a testament to all of the delights derived from cacao.
We're making truffles, ganache truffles to be precise, in one of the chocolate workshops run at the premises by director, Sophie Jewett, and her team of warm-smiled staff.
"I've always loved chocolate," quips Sophie, as she welcomes hoards of quizzical people through the large Georgian door into her quintessentially British and perfectly informal premises.
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"I don't know when my love of chocolate started, but looking back, it has always been there," she adds.
The customers are drawn through the door by a shared love for chocolate and a desire to sample the endless products on the menu: from savoury chocolate tasting platters with savoury chocolate sauces, white chocolate topped soup, chocolate pizza and Yorkshire blue cheese and chocolate tart; to York cobbled gate (the Yorkshire take on rocky road); praline croissants; and hot or cold drinking chocolates with a hint of orange, caramel, peppermint or peanut butter, to name a few — this 'house' is more of a palatial chocolate fountain or a sophisticated shrine to this natural food resource.
Licking the delicious mixture of double cream, melted milk chocolate buttons and butter from my fingers, I'm in heaven.
In fact, I have been ever since arriving in this walled city on the banks of the River Ouse.
Hailed as 'Britain's most beautiful city' in an independent survey by Bing, and 'Britain's Favourite Small City' in the 2011 Rough Guide to Britain, there really isn't room for argument here — this is one of England's finest and most attractive cities.
"I have a great fondness for York, with its winding, cobbled streets and beautiful architecture," said Dame Judi Dench, who was born and grew up here.
One of the most famous of these cobbled streets, or 'ginnels' (alleyways), is The Shambles with overhanging timber buildings, some of which date back to the 1300s — this is said to be the oldest shopping street in Europe — it's even mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Drenched in history and a jam-packed annual calendar of events, there is a never-ending array of things to do here and a good way of getting about is with a York Pass which, from £34 for an adult and £18 for a child, gives a day's entry to more than 30 different attractions, including the popular Jorvik Viking Centre, York Minster (the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe); the notorious Richard III Museum; and the medieval Barley Hall, currently housing a new exhibition, A Royal Celebration, showing a range of film costumes, including Keira Knightley's wedding dress, as seen in The Duchess (of Devonshire); and Colin Firth's costumes as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and from The King's Speech.
These attractions help give an insight into the historic, fascinating and turbulent goings on both within and outside the city walls.
The Romans knew it as Eboracum and there are remnants of their settlement here everywhere, including in the basement of a pub, the Roman Bath (www.romanbathsyork.co.uk) with its Roman soldiers' caldardium (ancient hot room) in its former cellar.
Then came the Saxons, who named it Eoforwick and the Vikings, who arrived in 866AD, calling it Jorvik.
The city's Viking heritage is brought to life at the Jorvik centre, aptly named as it reveals the remains of 1,000-year-old houses beneath your feet, along with the chance to travel around the Viking-age city in a state-of-the-art 'time capsule', complete with authentic sounds and smells, witnessing the Old Norse speaking citizens at work and play.
It's a dynamic attraction like no other and one not to be missed.
Today, the city is a thriving, quirky and fascinating place to be with throngs of independent shops lining the cobbled streets, each with its own, unique identity — every corner you turn around, you'll make a new discovery.
"There are enough pubs to choose a different one every year," says a local, when I ask if there's anywhere he can recommend. I laugh, but find it's actually true. There are enough public houses here, stocking enough locally brewed booze to sink a Viking vessel. The city even has its own brewery, The York Brewery (www.york-brewery.co.uk), producing 46,000 pints of real ale each week.
The Hansom Cab is popular with students (remember, York has a booming university population) and serves independently brewed ales and ciders in a traditional pub environment.
If you're looking for somewhere to dine, be it for a nibble or a full-blown meal there's an equal number of eateries on offer —York wasn't crowned the 'best gastro destination in the UK' by Trip Advisor for nothing.
Ranging from Cafe Concerto, a 'truly independent cafe by day and bistro by night', which sits just around the corner from the jaw-dropping York Minster; to the exquisite Grill Room at the five-star Cedar Court Grand Hotel where the melt-in-your-mouth cuisine and ambience would be tough-matched at any upscale establishment.
If you simply can't decide where to feast, try experiencing four restaurants in one evening with the new Dine About York venture (www.dineabout.co.uk).
The 107-bedroom, £20 million Cedar Court Grand Hotel and Spa is York's first five-star hotel and the flagship property in the Cedar Court Portfolio, boasting stunning views of the Minster and the city's ancient walls.
Built in 1906 as one of the great railway buildings, the hotel's graceful Edwardian architecture is complemented with fine dining and luxurious spa complex, which features an indoor pool and treatment rooms.
The rooms are comfortable, spacious and have plump bath robes and Molton Brown goodies on tap.
Whether you're planning an ad-hoc romantic break, or want to treat your mum this Mother's Day, York will have you both falling head over heels.