The English city of Leicester has waited 2,000 years for this. Against improbable odds — 5,000 to one, according to local bookmakers — the Leicester City Football Club won this year’s English Premier League, the most competitive national derby on the Continent.
It was essentially the equivalent of your local high school team winning the Super Bowl, so for the next year or so, Leicester is going to be throwing one heck of a party.
A fixture in central England since classical times, Leicester has literally never gotten so much attention. Now that it’s in the limelight, visitors will have an opportunity to explore a hotbed of British vegetarianism in an Anglo corner of Ancient Rome — complete with ruins, medieval walls, and a mysterious Jewish history.
The mysterious part might be Leicester’s star attraction: the Jewry Wall, an imposing hilltop edifice with granite and limestone walls that are eight feet thick. According to the Jewry Wall Museum, the name — which dates at least as far back as the 1600s — likely comes from a local tradition of associating mysterious ruins with Jews, rather than referring to Leicester’s ancient Jewish community, a modest presence that was expelled in the 13th century.
Jewish or not, the Jewry Wall is a stunning example of Roman civil architecture — and it anchors one of the most complete excavations of an ancient Roman town to be found in Northern Europe, including the remains of public baths and a classical aqueduct. The Jewry Wall Museum offers free entry, along with a colorful array of Roman tile mosaics on walls and floors, frescoes of daily life and artifacts from Leicester’s Iron Age, Roman era and medieval settlements.
Impressive in any context, this heritage is also a reminder that Leicester has always been ethnically diverse. Tucked into the verdant meadows and forests of Leicestershire, a county in the English Midlands, the city where Romans ruled is today a vibrant mix of cultures; half the population is non-white, with sizable communities of Muslims and South Asians, and a smaller but stable presence of Jews.
A revival of Jewish life in the mid-19th century led to the 1866 founding of the Leicester Hebrew Congregation, an Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue that remains the hub of Jewish life in this small, close-knit community. Travelers can arrange to visit the circa-1895 brick temple, whose elegant, royal-red sanctuary is typical of that period.
Leicester’s Jewish presence is enhanced by a revolving influx of Jewish professors and students at the local university, and the city also supports a liberal synagogue, the Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation. Also known as Neve Shalom, that shul takes pride in its outreach activities with other Leicester communities, emphasizing social action and multifaith affairs.
Vegetarianism and veganism are popular among both Jews and South Asians, whose Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities here – together with a burgeoning farm to table foodie movement – have contributed to an explosion of meat-free (and gluten-free, and organic) dining options. Indeed, Leicester is known as the hotbed of English vegetarianism, boasting more than 60 veggie restaurants and cafés, many of them quite upscale. Shoppers and picnickers will love the Leicester Market, the largest outdoor covered market in Europe.
I’d include a link to the official tourism office list of vegetarian eateries — but a simple Google search turns up at least a dozen such lists, opinionated and passionate, revealing the degree to which locavore, veggie-centric dining has taken (ahem) root in the Midlands. Many of the most popular spots are Asian, serving up curries and other spicy specialties. Others are crunchy, Moosewood-inspired cafés, and all revel in the bounty of local farms and artisans; this is the home of the world-famous Stilton and Red Leicester cheeses.
But it’s beer, not parsnips, that is the consumption of choice this spring, as Leicester residents of all backgrounds unite to celebrate their soccer team’s unlikely glory. It seemed a fitting conclusion to last year’s festivities, in which the remains of King Richard III — unearthed by Leicester University researchers in 2012 — were reburied with great fanfare in the local cathedral … along with a Leicester City football scarf. Local lore holds that the demise of King Richard in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 kicked off the city’s long decline, mirrored in the perpetual tribulations of its soccer team.
You can explore the king’s legacy and draw your own conclusions at the King Richard III Visitor Centre, a museum with appealing modern exhibitions – including a glass-floored space over Richard’s 500-year-old burial spot and dramatic medieval battle scenes on the walls. Then, after walking through 2,000 years of fraught and frustrated European history, raise a glass of local stout to Richard’s — and Leicester’s — reversal of fortune.