Chicester - sitting pretty under the South Downs

Costa Rica

This attractive little Georgian city at the foot of the South Downs is the perfect short-break destination. A list of easily-walked-to delights include a theatre where megastars perform, a 900 year old cathedral and some of the best traditional shopping streets round. And, not too far away, there's a palatial Roman floor and a coast to please birdwatchers and boaters. Here are six very good reasons to visit Chichester. (Photo, right - Chichester Cathedral, by the writer.)

Ancient grace

West Sussex''s only city retains a ''much as it always was'' centre, complete with sections of original Roman walls. From the Tudor Market Cross, erected in 1501, four old pedestrianised streets point east, west, north and south, interlinked with smaller Georgian terraces, or ''pallants''. The Internet may be a quick and comfortable place to buy, but show me a computer screen that offers shopping as agreeable as this. One place drew us in like a magnet. Montezuma is a small, British chain of chocolate shops now squaring up to upmarket Belgian chocolatiers as they bid to capture our sweet teeth. The East Street shop is so narrow we only had to stretch out an arm to pick up something enticing. Now let me about Moondance - dark chocolate almond praline truffles.

Ancient glory

Other places have allowed shopping malls and office blocks to hijack the view. Down the centuries in Chichester they have kept the city''s buildings low, so that nothing competes with the glorious cathedral, which celebrated its 900th birthday in 2008. Old it may be, but this cathedral is moving with the times, with an imaginative policy of displaying contemporary art. A window by Marc Chagall, a tapestry by John Piper and a painting by Graham Sutherland stand alongside some very old features. Finest of all are the unique 12th century Lazarus Reliefs, two carved stone panels depicting the raising of Lazarus. It’s worth flipping up the choir stalls to reveal 38 misericords from 1330. There’s a fascinating account of the day the spire collapsed in 1861. It was restored by Gilbert Scott.

Mosaic marvels

Add this to the ''So what exactly did the Romans do for us?'' list. At Fishbourne Roman Palace they left us one of Britain''s finest collections of mosaics, including the famous Cupid on a Dolphin study. These were the big brag in this palace from around 100 AD. Then Roman civilisation collapsed and and the crumbling remnants were covered over, until the chance discovery in 1960 as workmen dug a water main. In 2006 they opened new Lottery-funded quarters housing the mosaics, with improved lighting. A computer graphics display shows the palace as it was. They replanted part of the garden to its original plan, and reconstructed a Roman potting shed. Fishbourne is just west of the city. The magnificent Pagham harbour nature reserve is also worth a visit.

Winning displays

Pallant House scooped the 2007 Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries. The judges loved the flair and sensitivity with which the new beautifully-lit £8.6m gallery extension was integrated with the original Grade 1 Queen Anne townhouse. It''s a small and easily managed gallery, perfect for a leisurely but stimulating afternoon browse after a good lunch. There’s a fine collection of modern British art, from Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash to Sir Peter Blake (who designed the Sgt Pepper album). In his ''The Beatles 1962'' there are white spaces above each of the Fab Four, where their signatures should have been. They refused to sign because Blake did them with pudding basin haircuts instead of their new hippy coiffeur.

Ship Ahoy

Every room in this convenient town centre hotel, a former Georgian townhouse, with refined Robert Adam-designed interiors, is named after an admiral. Most of them, even if they didn’t stay here, would at least have sailed past in the nearby Channel on their way to some famous battle or another. We made a point of walking up the splendid central staircase, rather than take the lift. At the top is a photograph of General Eisenhower, who dined here just before the Normandy landings. They had been busy refurbishing, and there''s a smart new lounge and bar, with honey-coloured oak flooring and photographs of local scenes for sale, and a good, unfussy, restaurant. There''s free wifi.
Other eating-out options include French restaurant Comme Ca, and Purchases.

Curtain call

The Chichester Festival Theatre has had many big nights since it opened in 1962 with Laurence Olivier as its first artistic director (the first National Theatre company was formed here). How about Patrick Stewart playing Macbeth, for example? For a small city, Chichester has a theatrical tradition places five times its size would envy. You could build a short break here around a night, or a matinee, in the theatre. The two week Chichester Festival runs from late June to early July. ‘Glorious Goodwod’, one of England’s most fashionable racing events, is at Goodwood Park, just to the north, with the beautiful downs as backdrop.

The writer travelled by train with Southern.

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