A European Holiday, Part 1: Oxford

Between my birthday and Christmas December has always been a festive month. But Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday, since I saw it as the “opening” to the holiday season. We always built up to Christmas with decorations, planning a nice dinner, and seeing the lights in the city.

But this year, my parents and I decided to add something new to the holiday season: a trip to Europe.

The first stop was Oxford. My mom and I have been before, for a day trip when we visited London several years ago. This time, with my dad in tow, we decided to stay there for a few days to soak in more of the town. And, since it would be almost Christmas, we could explore in the midst of holiday cheer and twinkling lights.

Our first night there was spent with leisurely exploring and some food, obviously. We were able to catch the waning light in the blue skies before dusk settled on Oxford.

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Our first dinner at Oxford was at Quod. They do a very reasonable and very good set lunch menu from 12 noon to 6pm.

Papa Teng went for the set menu selections of confit duck leg (starter) and pheasant (main), while Mama Teng had seared mackerel with pickled beetroot (starter) and pasta with brown crab (main).

All the selections were quite good. The confit duck was flavorful and tender, and the pheasant was rich without being too gamey. Mama Teng loved the mackerel, and the pasta tasted so sumptuously of crab, without being too overpowering.

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I went for the daily specials, rather than the set menu. I chose the risotto with cod, salmon, and fennel for my starter. I do love risotto, with its creaminess. The salmon was incredibly fresh as well.

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My main was beer-battered haddock with chips. It was my first time having fish and chips, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to have it in England. It was very good. The batter was tasty and surprisingly light. The chips were special — something about those potatoes gave these fries an exceptionally delicious taste. Even the mashed potatoes that came with Papa Teng’s pheasant tasted different (in a good way).

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By the time we finished our lunch, it was 4:30pm…but so dark outside. Lunch felt more like dinner. But we weren’t going to let the darkness stop us from doing our share of exploring. We saw the gothic colleges dimly lit, which gave it an ethereal effect. The grounds were still, which made for a very tranquil scenes (just not good pictures).

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The next day, we set out earlier in the day and saw more of the university. We started with a tour of the Divinity School and Bodleian Library.

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The architecture of the Divinity School is incredibly detailed and full of history. The decorations are ornate, and the motifs are rich with meaning. It was also fascinating to note the differences in the decorations of the pillars, reflecting the change in architects and the fact that the building was going vastly over-budget.

The Bodleian Library doesn’t allow for photos inside. The place smells heavenly of old books (all of which are chained to the shelves). We were also fortunate enough to see inside Radcliffe Camera. While not as gothic as Bodleian, it was nonetheless awe-inspiring. It’s a wonder how people manage to stay focused with their beautiful domed ceilings and murals.

(You’d think I’d get used to staying focused while studying in beautiful libraries, given the Michigan Law Library and Hatcher ref room…but stunning architecture never fails to amaze me. I guess it’s a good thing NYU’s Law Library isn’t particularly beautiful!)

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Across from the Divinity School is the Sheldonian Theater. Our tour guide informed us that graduating students gather at the Divinity School to put on their robes and prep, before proceeding to the Sheldonian for the ceremonies and awards. I’d imagine that walking through those storied doors in your robes would be quite the experience!

The attic of the Sheldonian offers breathtaking views of Oxford.

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Outside, we toured a bit more. No matter where you looked, there was something beautiful and historic to behold.

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We perused Blackwell’s (it took a lot of restraint to not buy too many books) and the Oxford Covered Market (where we saw the marzipan rendition of the Sheldonian).

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We didn’t get pictures within the Covered Market, but it is a wonder to behold. All sorts of food, from Thai to cakes to raw meat, as well as other goods (beautiful leather bags, delicate rings, etc.). The thing is sprawling, crowded, and full of things to taste and marvel at.

We stopped by the Ashmolean Museum (the world’s first university museum!). I will admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect from it; I knew the Ashmolean was famous, but I wanted to temper my predictions since it was a university museum. I also was burned in the past with the disconnect between museum expectation and reality (I thought the British Museum would be much grander than it actually was).

Boy, was I wrong. The Ashmolean was a great museum. So many artifacts. The special exhibit that was on was about King Alfred’s coins, which I happy to see. I was also very happy to see a few references to Thomas Becket (the subject of my undergraduate honors history thesis).

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We finished the night with a final walk through the Christmas market that set up right by Trinity. After browsing stalls selling licorice, carved wooden sculptures, mulled wine, hot cocoa, chestnuts, and candles, my parents and I shared a cone of six fresh-made hot churros, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with chocolate sauce for dunking. We ate them on a bench right outside the market, enjoying the deliciousness.

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Oxford was a beautiful way to start our holiday in Europe. A few days worth of gothic architecture and history — what more can you ask for?


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