You were probably wonder how I was going to handle a tricky letter like X, but don’t worry, I fully admit that I’m going to cheat here.
Oxford, England In my first visit here back in (scratches head and thinks hard) 1997, I was sure you could still stick your head into the colleges and wander relatively freely around the city. On my second visit (20 years later), the colleges were all fenced off, and admission was only granted with the purchase of a ticket for a guided tour. Some college tours (the most picturesque ones, or the ones which served as a foundation for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies) were all booked out, so feeling disgruntled, we chose instead to walk around the city and take in what we could for free.
Here are my three tips on free things to do in Oxford: (1) walk by the canal and enjoy some peaceful countryside (2) visit the overgrown Holywell cemetery and (3) attend evensong in one of the college chapels – this has a combined bonus of getting you into a college for free, getting a chance to sit down for 30-40 minutes, and getting a choir performance (although some kind of donation may be requested as part of the service).
One thing we did pay for was the tour of the Bodleian library. It’s one of Europe’s oldest working libraries and it was one of the few attractions in Oxford that wasn’t fully booked on a sunny Saturday. What’s not to like about a library full of old books? (And yes, the Bodleian also served as an inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.)
Aix en Provence, France We visited Aix for two things – to see the Fondation Vasarely on the outskirts of town and to eat.
The Fondation occupied our morning as we admired the large geometric and sometimes trippy works of Victor Vasarely. The out-of-town location was apparently preferred by the artist himself, who wanted the museum to be something you see from a motorway. (No idea why, artists are peculiar like that).
There’s nothing quite like a morning of art admiration to work up a hunger and as we were in France, a country with strong food culture, and in Provence, a region of France famous for its good food, and in the town of Aix, which is one of the most famous places to eat in a region known for its good food, we had high hopes. And our lunch meal was simple but beautifully executed. A kind of dumpling (this word doesn’t convey the light grace of the dish – the French word is boulette, much nicer) in broth. It sounds quite unappealing, but the dumpling filling was wonderfully seasoned and tasty, and the broth was a kind of consomme, light and vegetal, and perfectly complementing the boulette. Husband still remembers this dish as one of the best things he’s ever eaten, and giving praise to the French is not something he would do lightly.
Xi’an, China – one end of the Silk Road, one of the oldest cities in China, and home to the Terracotta army. That’s enough reasons to want to visit.