Oxford is one of England's most beautiful cities, and also one of its most inaccessible. Sure, you can see its ancient golden spires, tour some of the 38 colleges that make up its university and see books that date to the 1600s chained to the shelves of the historic Bodleian Library. But it's not your city. It belongs to the small army of students you see walking and cycling around with great purpose.
But what if you could join them? University Rooms, which provides bed and breakfast accommodation in colleges and halls, is betting visitors to Britain will be tempted to take a step back in time and stay in student accommodation, experiencing the city "from the inside." For a place like Oxford, which revolves so totally around its university life, it's the equivalent of going to Paris and staying in Notre Dame.
Even if the appeal is just to stay in the heart of a city for the small fraction of the price of a hotel, from as little as $75 a night, the experience offers much more. For many, a mention of their university days brings back memories of either studying hard in the library or dangerous levels of binge drinking. Or both. But it was also a time of nights that could start off boring and end up in a life-transforming experience.
University Rooms hopes to help its visitors recapture that spirit at one of seven colleges that offer rooms in Oxford. I stayed in Keble, one of the newer colleges - established in the 1870s. The student porter doubled as reception and the entrance hall has the names of the current rowing team chalked on the wall. The room itself was immaculate with an en suite shower and high-end toiletries. It was the design hotel version of a dorm room; a far cry from the cramped, smelly bunk beds of the past.
The stone steps were curved by the weight of tens of thousands of students who have used these halls over the years. Breakfast is taken at the long Harry Potter-esque tables in the dining hall. (Dinners there aren't available during term time, nor is an Internet connection because of security concerns.) Several posh young men played croquet on the lawn, Liddon Quad.
This was all too elegant. Was there anything that told you this place was full of students? Just then, a stressed-looking young man, speaking into his phone, said, "I can't tonight, but I'll call you after my exam tomorrow," the weight of the entire world pressed on his shoulders. As he walked away, a group of rugby players in kilts strolled past en route to the college pub.
What's truly wonderful about staying at an Oxford college is that you can experience the real Oxford by just following the kids. They all walked past the engineering school toward the hip Little Clarendon and Walton streets, filled with excellent independent shops.
One is the Freud Café, housed in a converted 19th-century Greek Revival church. You sip coffee and check your mail via free Wi-Fi at tables amid the huge stone columns that mark the entrance. The cavernous inside, with a food counter and more tables, is even more impressive, especially when sipping cocktails there in the evening.
Nearby is the Albion Beatnik bookshop. The manager played Charlie Parker loudly over the speakers, befitting a shop that has a whole wall devoted to jazz histories. There's a huge selection of Beat poets and writers, as well as a few scholarly classics.
If you've had enough of hanging out with kids, walk down Walton Street, past the majestic home of the world's largest university press and the local art-house cinema, the Phoenix Picturehouse, to Brasserie Blanc, a simple, low-key version of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the Michelin-star winning Oxfordshire restaurant of French TV celebrity Raymond Blanc.
The menu is certainly grown-up, with dishes like courgette and wild garlic soup and several different cuts of steak. For the price-conscious, the $33.75 three-course menu is excellent value, and comes with a large glass of wine. The elegant dining room is filled with the proud parents of international students come to visit their children and erudite professors out for the night.
No night out as a student is complete, though, without a pint or three. The Turf Tavern is a favourite with almost everyone who comes to Oxford, an atmospheric pub that goes back to the 19th century with signs warning you about the ancient wooden beams against which so many generations have smacked their heads. Three beer gardens make it the perfect spot in the summer, while the pub also has a fantastic selection of traditional ales. (The Summer Ale was particularly refreshing.)
Now is the time to make conversation with a complete stranger. In Oxford, he or she could start talking back to you, a little drunkenly, on anything from underground Czech poetry to The Simpsons. What matters is less the conversation and more the feeling of being a student again, of recapturing the idea that your whole life is ahead of you and the future is full of infinite possibilities. As much as anything, that is what Oxford is all about and what's worth taking back home.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Pack your bags
Where to stay Keble is one of seven Oxford University colleges that allows paying guests. University Rooms also offers lodging at Cambridge, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester, Kent in Canterbury and Durham universities. Book through www.universityrooms.co.uk.
What to do
The Albion Beatnik Bookstore 34 Walton St., Oxford. 44 (1865) 511 345. The Turf Tavern 7 Bath Place, Oxford. 44 (1865) 243 235; www.theturftavern.co.uk.