Captivating Cambridge: Market Cake, AirBNB, and a Magical Piece of Cheese

"You had Market Cake without me? That was against the rules!"

I knew all of the nicknames. Market Cake. Bicycle Bakery. Lemonade Guy. Falafel Truck. The list of MJ's favorite purveyors of delicious bites in Cambridge was anything but short, yet she had plans to introduce me to them all during my first visit to the city she's called home for 2 of the last 13 months.

After exploring Cambridge both on my own and on foot to the tune of 9 miles, I just happened to find myself in the city's outdoor market with a ravenous appetite. I scarfed down a hearty fried egg sandwich from one of the vendors and then roamed the stalls in search of something sweet. Soon I stumbled onto a booth serving up a variety of cakes and gooey brownies, with the first bite of the latter releasing every ounce of serotonin in my body.

It wasn't until much later that I realized my egregious error: This was Market Cake.

Should I have clued in that a guy selling cake in the market might actually be the dude affectionately known as Market Cake? Absolutely. Was I sorry? 

Not in the slightest.

Thanks to this introduction, I realized pretty quickly that Cambridge was my kind of place. Any town where a guy pedals the avenues selling sweets from a table strapped to his bicycle is certainly OK by me. But this was just the beginning of the long list of things that I, too, would come to love about this city.

For starters, Cambridge provided me with the first real excuse to try AirBNB. As a self-proclaimed hotel junkie, AirBNB was never really on my "to do" list. That is until I tried to find a hotel in Cambridge on the same weekend that prospective students flock to town to tour the university.

Enter my gracious host, Rikako, and her flat on Orchard Street.

Any trepidation to the notion of crashing in a stranger's guestroom vanished when I told MJ the address of where I'd be staying. As it turned out, Orchard was among her favorite streets in the city, and it was easy to see why. Orchard, it seemed, was the very definition of charming.

The same could be said of Rikako and my home for the first three nights in town. Besides the great location, the room and bath were clean and comfortable and I slept like a log each evening. Most importantly, the experience showed me the beauty of AirBNB, and my pocketbook was certainly thankful. If you're traveling solo and need a place in Cambridge, be sure to look up Rikako. Something tells me that she and I will cross paths again in the future.

The next day's 5 a.m. sunrise brought with it the beginning of my solo expedition of Cambridge. MJ's advice for the day was pretty simple: Go get lost. 

So I did...

As appealing as the idea of wandering the city aimlessly was, there was one place that I knew had to be my first stop. You see, for over a year I'd endured the stories and pictures of the famous Chelsea Buns at Fitzbillies. Given my affection for all things pastry, there was no question what I was having for breakfast. That is until I actually arrived at Fitzbillies and discovered they also served pancakes with Chelsea Bun syrup. Sooo I had both.

Sufficiently fueled by a mixture of sugar and caffeine, I followed a path to the south along the River Cam and soon found myself wandering through a series of fields known as the "fens." Once an expansive marsh, the fens were drained centuries ago to provide more arable farmland for Cambridgeshire and the surrounding counties. Today they make for an interesting green-space in the city, with livestock roaming just as freely as the humans.

After dodging cow patties in the fens, I made my way over to King's Parade where I dodged an even greater abundance of tourists. But enduring the crowds was a small price to pay for the rare opportunity to visit many of the historic colleges that make up Cambridge University. From manuscripts by Sir Issac Newton - and a descendant of his famous apple tree - to the mind-boggling King's Chapel, the colleges are one spectacular sight after another. And yet I came away feeling as if I'd only scratched the surface.

As morning turned to afternoon, the need for both my mid-day iced coffee, and an escape from the busloads of tourists and prospective students, became difficult to ignore. I found both just down the street at Hot Numbers and the Fitzwilliam Museum. The former served a killer cold brew among the best I've ever had, which I later discovered is used for an equally delicious coffee stout. The Fitzwilliam, meanwhile, provided a complimentary and quiet retreat from the crowds with a host of comfy chairs to soak in their Impressionist masterpieces.

Fully relaxed but once again amped with iced coffee, I set off for the Cambridge Botanical Garden. It was here that I finally embraced MJ's advice and got fully lost on the paths that weave their way through this oasis. It was also here that I decided my legs needed some rest, and a random bench next to a fountain and under a tree seemed like just the place. 45 minutes later, I woke up from one of the most epic naps in history.

Although dinner time was fast approaching, it was about now that I made the ill-fated detour that led to the so-greasy-it-soaks-through-the-bag brownies known as Market Cake. But as amazing as the Market Cake and Chelsea Buns might have been, nothing could have prepared me for the amazing-ness which awaited at The Free Press pub.

But first, a word on the pub itself...

The Free Press has been around for roughly 125 years and gets its name from a short stint as a printing house for a local newspaper. While I'm not much on phrases like 'hidden gem' and 'proper pub,' both would aptly apply here. The Press also happens to be an office of sorts for MJ during her sojourns in Cambridge, and during my initial visit to her home away from home she had me try something which made me question everything I knew to be right in the world.

It looked like chicken, tasted like chicken, and had the texture of chicken. Only it wasn't chicken... It was cheese. I quickly learned that this slice of voodoo magic was called Halloumi, prompting me to place an international call to a specialty grocer back home to see if they carried it. They do, not that this news kept me from consuming my body weight in Halloumi over the next week as if I'd never see it again.

The sun was fading over the chimneys of Orchard Street as this marathon day came to a close. I'd explored and ate my way from one end of Cambridge to the other, getting to know a little of this city that is dear to MJ's heart. As I slowly sauntered down the empty street, comfortably stuffed with Halloumi and Greene King IPA, I was pretty sure that I was starting to get it. There would be much more to see and eat in the coming days, but it was already plain to see that Cambridge is a truly special place.

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