I recently came back to Cambridge from a weekend away and in that short time, Cambridge had been transformed into an illuminated city.  For the following week, Cambridge hosted the e-Luminate Festival where every major building became an art installation. The e-Luminate Festival sums up the contrasted personality of Cambridge—the mix of modern technology and conceptual design, set against the traditional architecture of the city.  This juxtaposition, and the city’s desire to keep up both worlds, is what makes Cambridge such a unique place to live and study.

Cambridge is an expansively growing city with many different activities and lifestyles beyond that of the University.  Construction is booming—in addition the Judge’s site expansion, there is a new North West district with schools and housing to be completed in 2017, and construction of a new train station.  Coined Silicon Fen, Cambridge has a thriving entrepreneurial scene and a large technology and bio-medical community.  Much of this growth is supported by the University and connected to the University’s research.

Like the e-Luminate festival, Cambridge is constantly hosting major week or weekend long events including the Cambridge Beer Festival, Thai Festival, Rock Festival, or Dragon Boat Festival.  The Mill Road Trader’s Association, a street lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops, a bit south of the town centre was recently shortlisted for a digital award by the Association of Town and City Management.

And so, in this modern and growing environment it’s an odd juxtaposition when the formality of an 800 year old university still stands out.  Professors and undergraduates wear robes when taking exams.  To be a University of Cambridge student you must live within a certain mileage of St. Mary’s church, and only Masters of Colleges are permitted to walk on a college’s grass.  Formal Halls is perhaps the epitome of a Cambridge experience.  Everyone wears gowns, the meal commences with a gong, a prayer is said in Latin, and in some colleges, the Head Porter may bow to the students if they have been on good behavior during the meal.

As a city, Cambridge is too complicated to label.  What Cambridge you experience is all about what you want to get out of your time here.  There’s no one Cambridge experience and there’s no one Cambridge era.  In one weekend you can span 800 years of tradition: a Friday night at evensong, a Saturday morning rowing on the Cam, Saturday afternoon at an event such as Cambridge’s upcoming TedxOxbridge, and Sunday night at Formal.  There aren’t many places as unique and as juxtaposed as Cambridge.

(Picture copyright Dave Amann.)