Oxford and Cambridge, university towns eternal

I'm inching through the crowds for a front-row view of the frothy, chocolate-colored River Thames, near London's handsome old Hammersmith Bridge. With takeout beer and wine flowing freely, there's a party atmosphere despite the wind-whipped chill. The stretch of riverbank, which rarely sees more than a few dog walkers, today is filled with spectators decked out in light and dark blue scarves representing a centuries-old rivalry.

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race has been hotly contested almost every year since 1829. And as today's spectators cheer the two blade-slender vessels slicing past, it's a reminder that England's top ivory-tower institutions remain deeply competitive. The contest soon over -- Oxford triumphs -- I hit the road to discover which city wins in the equally intense visitor appeal stakes. Although I'm a graduate of a far less glamorous British school, I'm keeping an open mind about the outcome.

Timeless Cambridge

Mist adds a ghostly air to early morning Cambridge as I stroll the granite-paved streets with a map that's as useful as a wet paper bag. But getting lost turns out to be a bonus: Ducking through labyrinthine alleys reveals hidden Tudor pubs, tomb-quiet medieval churches and entrances to the 31 colleges of the 800-year-old university. With castellated walls and weighty wooden gates, King's, Trinity, St. John's and the other colleges are reminders of a time when schools were fortresses.

Dodging determined student cyclists -- bowling over a tourist must be worth 50 points -- I duck into the courtyard of Emmanuel College. Feeling like a trespasser as I tiptoe along its shaded sandstone cloisters, I furtively try a few doorknobs. The only one that relents opens into a tiny Baroque chapel with a spun-sugar ceiling and checkerboard marble floor. A hidden musician is practicing the pipe organ as if the Phantom of the Opera were studying for his midterms.

Back outside, sunshine bathes the gabled storefronts as I stumble on a bustling market square and the tea and coffee stall of Michael Matthew. Twinkle-eyed and soft-spoken, the tradesman has watched the relationship between Cambridge and Oxford -- still called "the other place" by some prickly locals -- evolve. "The two towns are now much more supportive of each other," he says. "But the universities are a bit different, and they're still as competitive as ever: They both think they're better than the other," he says, rolling his eyes.

Armed with Matthew's tips for a perfect Cambridge afternoon, I check out the Round Church, a tiny Norman structure with a Knights Templar provenance; cross the ornate Bridge of Sighs over the River Cam; and hit the excellent Fitzwilliam Museum, with its Egyptian sarcophagi and French Impressionist paintings. At Fort St. George, reputedly the city's oldest pub, I sit outside and savor an amber ale while watching the sun dissolve over the Midsummer Common.

Meandering back to the city center, a sign outside King's College announces a choral service. From the manicured grass courtyard, I'm ushered into the candlelighted interior of one of England's most celebrated church buildings, a masterpiece of Tudor stonemasonry with a high ceiling patterned like a vast spider's web. The organ chords soon reverberate through my chest as the velvet voices of dozens of young choristers lift the roof.

Plucky Oxford

It's hard to imagine anything surpassing this spine-tingling Cambridge finale. In fact, the contest's outcome seems a fait accompli after my trip through the hedgerow-striped countryside ends in Oxford, choked with rush-hour traffic and awash in gray rain. Staring forlornly from my room window at the roiling storm, I decide that my first night in Oxford should be an early one.

Next morning, the city feels colder than a dead poet's handshake. The mist that made Cambridge magically atmospheric has become a blanket of impenetrable gloom, with disembodied turrets and crenulated roofs peaking through the fog. Bigger than its warm rival, Oxford is similarly crisscrossed with confusing streets, as I discover when I head out mapless after breakfast.

Before any Cambridge favoritism takes hold, the sun emerges to level the playing field. Wandering into the bustling city center, I squeeze up the narrow stone staircase of 14th century Carfax Tower, catching my breath at the top while surveying the wedding cake skyline. It's dominated by the spires and domed bell tower of Christ Church College.

My next stop decided, I'm soon following my curiosity to the most famous of Oxford's 38 university colleges. Nearly 1,300 years old, Christ Church was a monastery before becoming a seat of learning under Henry VIII. Its residents have included Albert Einstein, 13 British prime ministers and Lewis Carroll, whose "Alice in Wonderland" characters fill the stained-glass windows in the multi-beamed College Hall, the model for Hogwarts' spellbinding dining room in the "Harry Potter" movies, some of which were shot here.

With more highlights up his sleeve, bowler-hatted Tony Fox -- head custodian of the college porters who wander the grounds -- stops by when he sees me waving my camera. Pointing out the Christopher Wren clock tower, Norman-era cloisters and fan-vaulted ceiling of the cathedral, he's proudly partisan when asked how Oxford compares with Cambridge. "They're a little more stuffy than us," he says. "We are a bit more open to visitors, and we have more to offer. This place is infectious and it keeps people coming back."

Following Fox's recommendations for an ideal Oxford visit, I head to what may be England's most eccentric museum. The Pitt Rivers shows ethnographic artifacts from around the world, many collected during the pith-helmeted Victorian era. During a giddy hour among the glass cases, I come face-to-face with shrunken heads, ornate opium pipes and a frightening array of unfriendly surgical implements.

The rest of my afternoon is spent wandering through the Radcliffe Camera, a landmark stonework rotunda that's on every other Oxford postcard; the Bodleian Library, a stunning Jacobean edifice decorated with detailed statuary; and New College, a misnamed 14th century school where I check out the gardens. I even stumble on the city's version of the Bridge of Sighs -- not quite as striking as its Cambridge equivalent -- before stopping at the Covered Market for a foot-resting coffee break.

Toward the end of the afternoon, I find one of Fox's top pub tips. Reputedly Oxford's oldest, the Bear is a crooked-floored inn colonized by chin-stroking students and ancient regulars who may have been here since opening day in 1242. Quaffing a pint at the bar, I notice that the walls are lined with fragments of thousands of neckties, mementos of an unusual tradition in which a club or college tie can be snipped off and exchanged for a beer.

I scratch my head and focus on the question my trek was intended to resolve. I've developed an easy crush on charming and cozy Cambridge, but Oxford has slowly won me over with its abundant attractions and self-confident buzz.

Perhaps the boat race, with Cambridge currently leading Oxford by 79 wins to 75, really is the only way to decide which is best. Or maybe I just need another beer to make up my mind.