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A modern tour of medieval Cambridge

Tourists enjoy a spectacular views of King's College

Tourists enjoy a spectacular views of King's College on the river in Cambridge. (Aug. 25, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have quite a city for themselves. This university town, which inspired newlyweds Catherine and William's royal titles, is only 50 miles from London -- great for a day trip or overnight stay.

Cambridge is perfect for relaxation, surrounded by medieval buildings and extensive green spaces.

The village-like center is small enough that you can bike everywhere. Indeed, the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets make cycling and walking the most practical ways to get around.

You can go upscale and stay at one of its many four-star hotels, or "rough it" in a student dormitory at 500-year-old Christ College, where scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin as well as actors John Cleese and Emma Thompson studied.

There are glorious concerts and Cam River punting -- the British version of Venetian gondolas. Visitors can take in the art and antiquities of the Fitzwilliam Museum and tour renowned King's College. Go atmospheric and indulge in scones at Auntie's Tea Shop or hoist a few at pubs such as the oldest one in town, the Eagle.


PUNTING

If your time is brief, nothing says Cambridge like a punt on the Backs. Punts are wooden boats that ply this narrow river, only 30 feet wide and 3 feet deep. The Backs are just that -- the back side of the imposing medieval buildings that surround the 31 colleges that comprise Cambridge. It's an easy, relaxing way to learn about the university, particularly if someone else is doing the punting. Developed over the centuries, several bridges now span the Cam. The most unusual is the covered Bridge of Sighs.

You can rent your own punt ($25 an hour) or pay for a chauffeur-guide ($20 a person), a wise alternative unless you've got college-age musculature. With a guide, you can be both amused and educated about Cambridge in a very short time. Boats pass, filled with tipplers lifting glasses, while their punter does the heavy lifting. You may see a cow on the riverbank and hear a mash of Italian, Hindi and English, coming from boats named Steps to Heaven. Hat Trick, and -- no surprise -- Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Scudamore's, like most large operators, provides cushions, blankets and brollies (umbrellas), just in case.


AROUND TOWN

The nearby Galleria Restaurant has two protected terraces overlooking the Cam. You can watch the punts glide . . . or collide . . . while you dine on roast lamb and portobellos with quinoa. Entrees range from $17 to $26.50 (galleriacambridge.co.uk).

More informal and historic is the Eagle Pub, which dates from 1525. It's up to date with dishes like butternut squash risotto along with high-quality pub grub that's inexpensive (less than $12). Outdoor dining and a pretty No Smoking room take it into the 21st century.

Another daytime option is Auntie's Tea Shop, near Market Square. It serves tea the traditional way, with two scones, jam and cream plus a sandwich for $12 (auntiesteashop.co.uk).

For picnic provisions: Cambridge Cheese Co., in All Saint's Passage, sells local cheeses and accompaniments. One good place to take your spread is on the Backs by Queens College. Large greens such as Pakers Pieces, Jesus Green or Christ's Pieces welcome picnickers -- you might catch a cricket game, too.


THE CAMPUSES

How does it feel to be in the same spaces as DNA discoverers Francis Crick and James D. Watson, economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E.M. Forster and actor Dudley Moore, who are all Cambridge grads? Energizing, actually.

All around are stately buildings from the Middle Ages on. The great stone edifices that comprise the 31 colleges have elaborate, carved wooden doorways that grace entrances. Everything is landscaped in an English garden way with hydrangeas, daisies and fuchsias bordering the buildings. Lush grass flourishes in the courtyards -- often the size of football fields or tennis courts -- that surround the buildings. Beware! Visitors are forbidden to walk on the grass -- this is a privilege reserved for students.

Yes, you can walk -- on stepping stones -- around the colleges. Some charge a nominal fee ($3-$10). You may prefer a guided tour, which includes admittance to a few colleges. The Cambridge Tourist Office runs daily tours that cost $23 (visitcambridge.org).

In a constellation of star-power buildings, King's College glitters prominently. Founded in the 15th century, its late English Gothic structures are imposing. King's crowning glory is the chapel commissioned by the Crown: several King Henrys planned it; Henry VIII saw it through to completion.


CONCERTS

Choral and organ music are part of the Cambridge experience in several of its colleges: King's, St. John's, Trinity, Clare and Trinity Hall. Usually, free concerts are held in the early evening, when school is in session. The music is both secular and religious, with many varied musical events. King's is renowned for concerts Easter Week, the Cambridge Summer Music Festival and its Christmas Eve concert. Broadcast worldwide, that concert "is" Christmas for many Britons.

St. John's College, which resembles a wedding cake, has offered Evensong concerts as well as jazz sessions. Turn to individual college websites to find out what's happening and when. You also can check free magazines and the posters found on buildings around town.


MUSEUMS

To see first-rate works of art in a grand building, walk to the Fitzwilliam Museum. This free museum is filled with treasures and is itself a treasure. Magnificently outfitted with marble, wood and elaborate ceilings, the rooms feel intimate yet elegant. The museum offers easy-to-read explanations of culture and history, which gives the exhibits real meaning. Fitzwilliam's collection encompasses oil paintings from old masters Gainsborough and Breughel, and Impressionists Degas and Corot, to art by Picasso and America's Larry Rivers. Gaze at Italian etchings plus fine furniture (fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).

If the natural world holds your interest, try the University Museum of Zoology. It is free of charge, as are seven other university museums. Here you can scrutinize specimens donated by Charles Darwin from his voyage on the Beagle. There are skeletons, fossils, shells, and animals preserved by taxidermy -- stuffed but not stuffy. You'll know the museum by the large boned "creature" outside that looks like the remains of a dinosaur or some sort of abstract sculpture (it's actually a finback whale skeleton).

Speaking of Darwin, you may get to see his digs if you are staying at Christ College, dating from 1450. "C. Darwin" remains written on the entrance of his three-story dormitory. Farther into the squares and buildings of Christ College grows the famous mulberry tree that John Milton wrote about.

This garden's plants resemble those Darwin found during his historic voyage of discovery. The garden holds a life-size sculpture of Darwin as a student sitting on a bench. Visitors are welcome to walk the grounds and climb the stairs to Darwin's room, but go between 9:30 a.m. and noon on weekdays to avoid restrictions.

Beyond the colleges lay other historic sites with contemporary joys. A rare, round church known as St. Sepulchre dates from the 11th century. Near the tourist office, on the town square, is an open-air market that has been operating for centuries. It's filled with local produce and foodstuffs along with witty British souvenirs. All this makes up Cambridge -- full of culture, flowers and cricket fields.


IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE Trains leave London's Kings Cross Station every half-hour (tickets from $30). Buses go all day. Stanstead Airport is closest, a half-hour away. All airports offer bus and taxi service.

WHERE TO STAY

Cambridge Dormitories

cambridgerooms.co.uk

RATES $150

You'll have to carry your own luggage and forgo TV and room phone, but the price, character, convenience and historic setting make up for it. Rates include a full English breakfast. Rooms available when school is not in session (Easter, Christmas, summers) -- book three months in advance.

For more traditional lodging, Cambridge has several four-star hotels, including the Crowne Plaza Cambridge (from $210, crowneplaza.com/cambridgeuk).

MORE INFO visitcambridge.org

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