My adventures of blindly following the advice of strangers continued the next day in Bath. Why Bath? I didn’t know. What’s there? I also didn’t know that. My entire knowledge base going in was that people think it’s beautiful there, and it’s like stepping back in time. That all sounded good to me, so off to Bath I went!

I asked at the hostel about the cheapest way to Bath (because “cheapest” is the key here, not “most efficient” or “easiest”), and I was surprised when the girl told me I should take the train. It was only 8 pounds round trip which was LESS than taking a bus (when does that ever happen??), and it took 10 minutes instead of close to an hour. Woo! Off to a good start.

Bath streets

My first move when I made it to the city was to make a beeline for the visitors’ center because I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing there. That ended up being my best decision of the day because after I grabbed a map of the city and walked outside, I saw a man holding a “Free Jane Austen Walking Tour” sign. You may not know this about me, but I am a MASSIVE Jane Austen fan. Like huge. I think she’s brilliant and funny and knows how to write a darn good story.

Okay, maybe it’s not right to describe myself as a massive fan of HER because I basically knew nothing about her actual life. I’m just a huge fan of her work. I’ve read all of her books, some of them multiple times, and each time I think they get better (probably because each time I understand them a bit better… between the British English and the fact that they were written in a different time period, it can be a challenge to catch all of the humor).

I wrote a separate post about the intimate details I learned about Jane’s life, but the tour was cool because the guide (dressed as Mr. Knightley from Emma) didn’t only explain places that directly related to that; he also talked about major sights in town.

First, let me give you a little background on the city of Bath. Bath is located at the site of the only natural hot springs in the UK. It was originally settled by Celtic tribes who thought that the springs were a gift from the gods, specifically their goddess Sulis. When the area was conquered by the Romans in the first century AD, the city and the baths were Romanized. I’ll talk more about the baths later, but for now just appreciate the incredibly creative naming of the city… It all makes sense now, eh?

Back to the tour. We walked past the Bath Abbey (the main cathedral), and Mr. Knightley explained that none of the aristocratic class used to go there because it was considered smelly and touristy and at least the latter is still true today. Apparently, they used to put the corpses of the rich in the crypt underneath the church instead of properly burying them, so it literally smelled like rotting bodies. EW. Due to this, the shops that were directly against the walls of the church didn’t have to pay taxes. CAN YOU IMAGINE?? That’s disgusting. At some point after that, they decided that maybe it was kind of gross to leave bodies out to smell up the place, and they were buried.

Front of the Abbey

There has been a church on the site of the current abbey since the 700s AD, but this building has been there since about the 1500s with major restorations done in the late 1800s. It’s built in the Gothic style, and one of the major features is these angels climbing up “ladders to heaven” on the front façade. Mr. Knightly told us that there’s a story that the Puritans shot off their heads and wings because they were anti-ornamentation, and who knows what’s true except for the fact that some of them are definitely missing heads and wings…

Bath Abbey

The Roman Baths are right near the abbey, and next to those, there’s the Pump House which was a fashionable place for people to hang out in Jane’s day. You could drink water from the spring which supposedly has healing properties, and I learned later in the day that this water was piped up directly from the bath pools… which means people were basically drinking dirty bathwater.

Next to the Pump House is the King’s and Queen’s Baths which was one of the most popular places to “take the waters”. It also contained a book where, during Jane’s time (the early 1800s), you would write when you arrived in town so that everyone would know you were there. It was a time of people knowing everyone else’s business, including how much everyone was worth.

The Pump House

Architecturally, the city is primarily built in the Georgian style. In 1814, the entire city was rebuilt with one main architect, John Wood the Elder. Important buildings were reconstructed in this style, and less important/older ones were simply refaced with a proper façade.

Townhouses called “the circus”. They form a circle with three gaps for roads.
The middle of the circus

One of the interesting features in town is called the Royal Crescent. This was built by John Wood the Younger, and actually, he only designed the curving façade. People purchased a certain length of the façade and then could build whatever they wanted behind it! So, something may look like two houses from the front but actually be only one. Mr. Knightley said that this was the typical Bath way… it was all about having the appearance of high society. The actual substance was less important.

The Royal Crescent
The backs of some of the Royal Crescent houses. See how icky the back looks compared to the uniformity of the front?

In the center of the city, the three primary streets are Quiet Street, John Street, and Wood Street. He told a story about the meeting to name the streets of the new city of Bath. The architect, John Wood, wouldn’t shut up, so the guy in charge of the meeting yelled, “QUIET, John Wood!” and so, they had their first three street names.

Another random street in town… As you can see, they all look kind of similar,
This was the door handle on one of the churches… I thought it was funny

After the tour, I walked to the Botanical Gardens. It was the PERFECT time of year to go because the flowers were blooming, and things were actually green!

Enjoy these pretty spring pictures!

I continued roaming before finally making my way to the baths. Admission was a bit expensive, but it was totally worth it! There’s a museum portion and then the actual baths. For the museum, there was a free audio guide, and when I got to the bath part, I was just in time for the last guided tour of the day which ended up being fantastic!

The temple in the center was dedicated to Sulis (the Celtic goddess) and the Roman goddess Minerva who they considered the same goddess by a different name. These baths are particularly interesting because of the style mixing between the Roman and local tribal cultures. Archaeologists guess that the Romans probably saw parallels between some of the gods that the locals worshipped and their gods, so they didn’t want to run the risk of offending one of them, hence the mixed styles.

The side of the temple with what they guess is a gorgon head, but it’s unlike anything anywhere else, so no one actually has a clue where the design came from

The baths are fed by 10,000-year-old rainwater that goes 3km underground and comes up at 37 degrees C. The local tribes, and later the Romans, thought it had healing properties, so the bathhouse was one of the first things to be built by the Roman conquerors. The land around the springs was dried, and the temple was built.

In classic Roman form, the design pushed the engineering boundaries of the time. The main bath pool originally had a 20m high roof. The first iteration was made of wood, but that rotted quickly because of the heat and moisture. It was replaced with a roof made of hollow bricks.

Curse tablets

One of my favorite things were curse tablets. If someone was wronged, for example if something was stolen from them, they would buy these little lead tablets and write what was stolen, who took it (or a list of suspects if they didn’t know for sure), and a request for Minerva to curse them in whatever way they saw fit. They would roll these up and then throw them into the main spring pool. If the tablet floated, it was said that the curse would come back on the curser, so people were sure to make them heavy and fold them up really well.

More curse tablets. They had some of the texts written out, and I thought they were hilarious. Here are a couple examples:
“May the person who has stolen Vilbia (possibly a slave) from me become as liquid as water… who has stolen it: [list of names of people the author suspects]”
“I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that the goddess Sulis inflict death upon… and not allow him to sleep or have children now or in the future.”
That second one seems like a bit of an extreme curse for stealing a cloak, but hey, what do I know?
We walked through the different rooms of the baths, and the guide explained what each was used for. First was the changing room where people would prepare for the bath process. The baths were affordable, so people of all social classes used them. The rich came more often and had servants to help them and to guard their belongings. The poorer people undressed themselves and didn’t have anyone to watch over their stuff which often led to thefts (and people asking Minerva for curses).

The changing room. They had these funny projections to help you visualize the happenings in each room.

After undressing, bathers moved into the tepidarium, the warm heat room, for cleaning and hair removal. People removed all of their body hair from the neck down. If you were rich, you could afford a blade to shave it. Otherwise, you were stuck with plucking… EEK! When your hair was all removed, you were massaged with oil (to clean you, obviously) and then sent to the next room, the caldarium.

Inside the tepidarium. You can see the simulation people getting massages.

This was the hot room and was like a sauna. It had a raised floor that contained an underfloor heating system. In this room, people sweated, and the oil was scraped off. What was done with this sweaty oil? Glad you asked. If it was used by someone important, sometimes it was sold by enterprising Romans as a face cream so that you could absorb some of the essence of the person who used it. Otherwise, it was probably sent back to the tepidarium and reused. Hygienic, huh?

Caldarium. The stacks of bricks are called the hypocaust. Those are what held up the raised floor.
Lead pipes for carrying water

After being “cleaned”, people moved to the main pool which was a big social hub. You could buy wine, and to sweeten it, they would often add lead powder. The main pool was also lined with lead sheets for waterproofing purposes. Lead pipes carry water throughout the compound… so it’s probably safe to say that literally everyone had lead poisoning.

Main bathing pool
Standing on ancient ground

The waters in Bath were believed to have healing properties, so this bath has a special immersion pool for healing. Rather than being healed, people probably just ended up passing on their skin conditions to other people in the baths.

The “healing” immersion pool

In the early 5th century, the Roman Empire started struggling, and skilled workers were recalled to Rome. No one who was left knew how to maintain the facilities, so the roof started to collapse. By the 12th century, all evidence of the Roman Empire in Bath was gone. The floor level of the baths is six meters below the modern-day street level!

The sacred spring where the curse tablets and other sacrifices were thrown
A recovered sacrifice. I love how delicate it is!

In the late 1800s, people’s basements started filling up with water which led to an investigation to understand why. In this process, they discovered the hot springs and started buying up people’s properties to investigate. This process was delayed by 10 years because one person kept holding out and refusing to sell, so they had to wait for him to die (who wants a basement filled with water??). Since then, the Roman Baths have become one of the major tourist attractions in town… and rightfully so because they’re awesome.

The mineral water that you’re allowed to drink. Ew.

I absolutely loved my time at the baths. I thought it was so freaking cool. At the end, you can drink some of the (cleaned) water. It’s disgusting. There are so many minerals and stuff in it that it tastes repulsive. The guide said that they would bottle and sell it, but legally, you need to have the bottling plant at the site of the spring, and they don’t have the space for that. My question is, would people seriously buy it despite the taste just because it’s supposedly good for you? Not me!

Ready for more walking? How about more rain, some ruins, and a little bit of everything else? I left off my last post at St. George Maronite Cathedral in downtown Beirut. Directly next to the church and Al-Amin Mosque, there’s a large area filled with ruins! At the moment, it doesn’t look like much besides a grass-covered pile of rocks. There are a few columns standing, but besides that, it’s hard to tell what exactly is there. Supposedly though, the ruins date back to the Hellenistic period (around 320BC – 30BC) and have layers from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman times as well.

Future Garden of Forgiveness

The site was discovered during the post-civil war excavations. There’s a procedure to follow when ancient ruins are found during construction: construction halts, the authorities are notified, and archaeological excavations are undertaken until they are considered complete. Then, a decision is made about what will happen, based on the findings and secretly probably the level of influence of the developer. The ruins are either left in place, moved, or demolished to make way for the construction.

These particular ruins have been set aside in the Beirut master plan as an area to be left unbuilt. The intersection of the Roman city’s two major streets was found there, and archaeologists also think that the famous Roman law school was located nearby. They haven’t found the school, but they know it was next to a church whose ruins have been located. There was a competition to decide what to do with the land, and a plan for creating a “Garden of Forgiveness” was selected. The project hopes to be “a step towards social harmony in Beirut by raising awareness about the need to resolve historical grievances”. The plan integrates the ruins and also includes lots of trees and water features and other things that I guess are supposed to suggest peacefulness and harmony. The construction is currently on hold though, so for the time being, the overgrown pile of rocks is here to stay.

The ruins with St. George in the background
Outside of St. George

There’s ANOTHER St. George church on the other side of the ruins, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It was originally built in the 1760s, but there had already been churches on the same site for hundreds of years by then. The first known church there was built in the 5th century AD, and that’s the one I mentioned that they know was located next to the Roman law school. That church was destroyed along with the law school in the 6th-century earthquake, and a new church was built in the 12th century. Another earthquake in the 18th century destroyed that one as well, and another new church was built. During the civil war, the church was shelled and left in ruins. Geez. Talk about bad luck.

When they decided to rebuild the church in the 1990s, they used the opportunity that the ruined church presented to conduct some archaeological excavations before reconstruction. Over about a year and a half, archaeologists worked to uncover and decode the layers of history underneath the church. They found the ancient cathedral, plus evidence of other churches built on the site. There are also graves, remains of a paved street, and columns that used to line the colonnaded streets of the Roman city.

St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I just think this is the coolest picture ever with the lights and the frescoes visible through the windows.
Excuse this picture of a picture, but I thought it was really cool because it shows the church with the floor all opened up during the excavations.

After the excavations were finished, they turned them into a museum and restored the church above. Badveli and went to visit the church first, and it was AWESOME!!!! I love frescoed churches, and literally every surface in this church was covered in frescoes. There were magnificently done, and they actually had them lit so that you could see everything! I wish I’d had all day to scrutinize each fresco, but it would have taken hours to do anything more than quickly glance at them while walking a loop through the church. The frescoes obviously all had to be restored after the war, but a few bullet holes were left as a reminder. I like when they do that… It’s like saying, “We’re rebuilding and moving on because that’s what we have to do, but we also can’t forget about the past or pretend that it never happened.”

Inside St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral
I have no words… except for HOW FREAKING COOL IS THIS???
EVERYTHING was painted.
It’s a little creepy looking up at the church from the museum!
Material timeline!

From there, we went to the crypt museum to check out the ruins. Badveli had never been before, and I was glad that we were doing something new for him so that the whole day wasn’t just him playing tour guide for a bunch of things he’d already seen a million times (most of the day was that, but thanks to this museum, it wasn’t the WHOLE day).

The museum is small, but it’s one of the coolest archaeology museums I’ve ever been to. Since the museum IS the excavation, things are mostly left where they found them. You can see the layers of churches and their different mosaic floors. You can see exactly where graves were found, and a bunch of them still have the skeletons inside. When you first enter, there’s a wall that shows what is basically a vertical timeline of the site. The different material layers in the soil are identified and dated so you can see the various civilizations all stacked on top of one another. The Ottoman layer has a skeleton sticking out, so that’s fun too (eek!). They also have cases with various things in them, but it’s so much cooler knowing that those things were found right next to where they’re now displayed.

A grave… creepy. The last year has made me VERY certain that I want to be cremated because as cool as skeletons are, do I really want people from hundreds or thousands of years in the future digging up my bones? Nooo thank you!
The floor of the medieval church!

It also gives you an idea of how archaeologists piece things together. Since you’re looking at exactly what they were looking at, you can see what columns they used to determine the orientation of the medieval church or the fragment of fresco that was the basis for their assumption that the entire church was painted. The museum has a path for you to follow with numbered stations. At each, you press a button on the information panel, and lights turn on to direct your attention to the places it’s talking about. It was very well done! I felt like I was an archaeologist too, uncovering the secrets of the site as we went from station to station. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, but it was awesome.

You can see the walkways and information panels

Doesn’t it just look like a cool museum? (I ran around and hit like 5 buttons to turn the lights on for this picture.)

You can see two layers of mosaic floors!
Fresco remnant from the medieval church.
Archaeologists in training!

From there, we walked out into the central square of Beirut. There’s a clock tower in the middle (that escaped damage during the civil war because was disassembled and hidden until it was over) and the Parliament building. It’s a bit eerie because the car traffic is incredibly limited there, so it’s practically a ghost town. Fun because you can walk in the middle of the street, but still just a little weird.

Clocktower! This was taken on a sunny day later in the week, and even with the nice weather, you can still see that there are barely any people out.
The baths on a sunny day when I went back later

Another area of ruins in the city is the Roman baths. They were discovered originally in the late 1960s, were further excavated in the 90s, and are designated as land to remain “unbuilt” in the city. They aren’t the best-preserved baths I’ve ever seen, but they’re definitely still impressive, especially when you think about the fact that they were buried under the city for hundreds of years! The floors are almost completely gone, but they’ve re-set many pieces of the little pillars that held up the floor in the hot room so that the warm air could go underneath. I need to brush up on my Roman bath knowledge again because I didn’t remember too much beyond that, but it was still cool to look at while not knowing anything.

The Roman baths! And you can see the tower of Saint Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the background.
The baths from above

Right near there is the Grand Serail which is the headquarters of the Prime Minister. Badveli said that they can get pretty defensive if you try to take pictures…  even if you only want a picture of the Armenian church Surp Nishan that happens to be right next to it. I’m not interested in getting on the wrong side of someone with an assault rifle, so I didn’t try to take one from any closer than from the Roman baths.

Grand Serail to the left
Surp Nishan from an angle where no one will yell at you for taking a picture.
Inside St. Louis Cathedral

From there, we walked over to ANOTHER church, St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral. It was originally built by Capuchin missionaries and is named after the French King Louis IX. By the time we got there, it was getting dark outside which made it extra dark inside. We couldn’t see much of the interior, but luckily, the stained glass windows were still bright! I went back later on during the day, and I got to enjoy the stained glass again and see the pretty paintings on the ceiling above the altar. No matter how many churches I see, I’m still amazed by how each of them has something that makes it different from the rest. I haven’t gotten sick of them yet! That’s saying something, too, because I’ve been to Rome and I’ve been to Armenia, and they both have more than enough churches to keep you busy.

We saw a couple more things after that, but I’m going to save those for later. When we were both about ready to collapse, we decided to walk the 40ish minutes back to the apartment because it was rush hour. That means walking is probably close to as fast as driving, and I wanted to see the nighttime street life anyway. The walk was nice, though it would have been even nicer with functional sidewalks. I know, I know. I expect too much sometimes.

Check out those paintings!
St Louis Cathedral
Louis from the front