The eminence and historic significance of the town is palpable as one navigates the narrow lanes and alleys, surrounded by centuries-old stonewall buildings. From the pub where Watson and Crick famously announced their discovery of DNA, to St. Bene't's church, the oldest building in Cambridge (AD 1000–1050), every turn stirs fascination and intrigue.
The sidewalks are so narrow that single-file is the only safe way to walk in a group. The popular mode of transportation is the bicycle, or simply “cycle” as referred to by street signs. Cyclists are remarkably respectful of rules of the road, stopping diligently at every red light and stop sign, a refeshing change from the rebellious bike riders in California.
The pub is by far the most common restaurant in Cambridge with little variety beyond that. When we consulted Yelp, a Thai restaurant surfaced near our hotel, rated 5-stars by an American who qualified his review by saying he would have awarded them three stars, maybe, had it been in San Francisco, but in the culinary desert that is Cambridge, it warrants the highest rating. There is just one dedicated vegetarian restaurant. Probably the best food we found was at Las Iguanas, a tex-mex like restaurant right on the river. The nachos were finger-licking good.
PuntingThe most recommended activity in Cambridge is a punting tour on the River Cam. The tours are spectacular, especially around sunset. It is one of the few businesses open outside the regular hours of 10am to 5pm.
Of course, one has the option of self-punting, but watching others' first attempts, I concluded that it is probably best to avoid embarrassment and leave it to the experts. Plus, one can learn a lot from their narratives. The locals say that one gets different version of the colleges' sometimes bizarre history depending on who gives the tour, and it is recommended one return often to compare and contrast the guides' stories.
The river also serves as a gym of sorts with many rowers and kayakers practicing and excercising regularly. I imagine the charming college backdrops are a good motivator.
Cambridge Botanical GardenThe other major attraction in Cambridge is the Botanical Garden. The grounds are beautiful and finely manicured. The variety of flowers, however, was less than you might expect. The rose garden was entirely missing, most likely because it was too late in the season. Later, I discovered that many of the flowers on display here were also to be found commonly scattered throughout various parks in London.
LondonWhile Cambridge is peaceful and quaint, London is the fun capital of England. I spent an action packed weekend on the tail end of my trip with Brian and Camélia, who were gracious hosts and knew how to take full advantage of what London has to offer. Not only is there tremendous art (Brian took me to the Courtauld Gallery and the National Gallery, which had impressively huge collections of impressionist paintings) but also excellent entertainment.
We saw a comedy show and a performance of Sequence 8 by Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a talented circus group from Quebec, whose poster caught our eye on the Tube. Sequence 8 is a stunning mix of impossible acrobatics, dance, and dialog, backed by a perfectly chosen soundtrack. Alexandra Royer's jaw-dropping multiple back flips on a pole balanced on the shoulders of two other performers leaves the audience spellbound. Ice cream was sold in the aisles during the intermission, which I learned was a common tradition in British theatres, and almost the entire audience took advantage. It is such a great snack, I feel we should adopt the practice in the U.S. too.
Having visited London several times before, I asked Brian to take me to some of the less frequented tourist spots, and we went up to Greenwich Park, on the outskirts of town. Before visiting the park, we stopped for lunch at the Rivington Grill, a higher-end pub a few blocks away. The food was excellent, especially for a pub, and we discovered an outstanding beer: the Innis and Gunn Oak Aged beer. This amber ale is delicious, but unfortunately does not seem to be available anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Greenwich Park has expansive grounds and a museum at the top that lets visitors “cross” the Greenwich meridean for a few quid, which is almost senseless because walking up the steep hill to the observatory, one crosses the meridean numerous times free of charge.
The other no-so-touristy activity is to explore the many parks spread throughout the city, which we did happily. The flowers of London ended up being more impressive than the exhibits in Cambridge's famous botanical garden. Several parks featured rose gardens that bloomed even this late in the season.