Monday, 22 February 2010

A tale of two cities

Yorkshire is often referred to with somewhat mystical expressions. This much-loved land of rolling hills, warm hospitality and above all, fantastic tea, instills an indomitable sense of pride in its countrymen and a keen desire to return in its visitors. I've always slightly wondered why.

On my most recent visit, I spent my first ever night in Leeds. All I really knew about the city beforehand was that it had a university that lots of my, shall we say fun-loving?, friends had been to - the student union did, after all, have the longest bar in Europe before St Pancras stole the crown.

What I wasn't aware of was its fantastic Victorian architecture. Walking around the city I couldn't stop looking up. Every building seems to have an ornate brick facade, complete with stately arched windows and well-preserved period features such as chimney stacks or domed turrets. The Victoria Quarter may be primarily a cathedral of retail but there's much more here for the architecture enthusiast than just a few traditional shopfronts. The high-end stores which populate this glassed-in arcade network are all a uniform style, with gold-on-black name signs and clear uncluttered windows. It all smacks of rules and regulations somewhat but the overall effect is beautiful and there's surely no better place in Yorkshire for a coffee than the Harvey Nichols cafe in the County Arcade where customers sit at small round tables under the vast domed glass ceiling.

My purpose in the city was to take a cocktail masterclass at The Rock Bar (more to come in the Guardian on this next month) and this gave me a taste for that infamous nightlife I'd heard so much about. The Rock Bar is an Ibiza-inspired chilled out space where drinkers of all ages come to relax under the indoor tree, in the Bedouin tent or on the terrace. I'd have felt just as at home with a coffee as with my mojito here.

Back at my hotel, the City Inn, I had a fabulous fillet steak teriyaki overlooking the city lights from the thirteenth-floor Skylounge. I was really impressed with the standard of this hotel and not just because it wowed me with technology (there were two, two!, iMacs in the room) but also because the service was good, the room very modern without compromising on comfort, and I had great views over the Tower Works. Perfect.

Things went slightly wrong in York, where I stayed at the extremely disappointing Golden Fleece. Service here was offhand and the room more ramshackle than characterful. Fortunately I wasn't here to stay in the room and spent many a happy hour wandering the city's lovely historic centre instead. I was here to encounter some ghosts (again, more on that to come in the Guardian soon) but also found a great restaurant - the Blue Bicycle. This used to be a brothel but instead of playing let's pretend and ignoring its rather colourful history, the Blue Bicycle wears it proudly, even using an image of a topless girl as its logo - something which they acknowledge presents certain marketing problems! Downstairs here are the booths where the girls' business was carried out, today making charming little nooks for romantic dinners. Valentines Day, I'm told, was booked out months in advance.

On this visit, Yorkshire continued to worm its way under my skin. There really is something a bit magical about this part of the UK - and I've never had as many people be jealous of a work trip as when I said the magic word York!

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