Motoring city breaks don’t come much more relaxing than those around Oxford. Jonathan Crouch reports

Be honest. When was the last time you got away for a break? A ‘break’ isn’t a holiday. Nor is it an overnight stopover – more something in between the two. A long weekend in other words.

The marketers call these sorts of trips ‘mini-breaks’ and every city you can name seems to be promoting itself as a mini-break mecca. You drive or fly in on a Friday, check into the city centre hotel, do shopping, do a show, walk in the park and jet off home on Sunday afternoon. Sounds great doesn’t it? Except that it isn’t. Not after you’ve done one or two anyway.

For one thing, since the itinerary, the shops and the shows are all so similar, one citybreak tends quickly to blur into another. Perhaps more importantly, with all that walking and dashing about, the whole thing can hardly be expected to be relaxing. And isn’t that really why you decided to go in the first place?

But does it have to be like that? Maybe, I decided, I needed to more carefully choose my city. It needed to be somewhere far enough away to be different, yet near enough not to have to spend hours and hours travelling. It needed to be a city with good travel links, yet also one that would allow us to get out of the centre of things during our stay. After a bit of research, I decided that only one city would really fit the bill: Oxford.

I hadn’t properly been before – either to the city itself or to the beautiful country counties that surround it. Oxford is of course renown as a centre of learning but as a mini-break destination, its major appeal is the way it blends medieval charm with the buzz of a modern metropolis. It’s been described as an international city on an intimate scale’ and there’s something in that. One minute you can be in crowded shopping streets. The next, you can find yourself in a quiet cobbled alleyway or stepping through one of the college gatehouses into an enclosed and rather exclusive world.

In some respects, this place has something of lofty, intellectual air but you don’t have to focus on that side of the city’s character if you don’t want to. This places imply bustles with unpretentious small businesses, intriguing cafes and quirky shops. And very interesting restaurants. We opted to try one of the newest ones, the unusual Comptoir Libanais, a Lebanese eatery which is part of the Westgate shopping centre. It serves cuisine that really sums up Oxford’s eclectic side, specialising in tagines, koftas, falafels and spicy mezze salads. It represents a memorable dining experience.

There is no best time to visit this city, as every season has its charms. In early spring the trees of North Oxford drip with blossom, though May is when the city perhaps looks its loveliest. The trees are in full leaf, the students are in celebratory mood and the famous “Bumps” (boat race) is taking place along the river.

In summer the student throngs melt away, leaving the city to residents and tourists, and you can punt and picnic on the rivers Thames (or Isis, as it’s known here) and Cherwell. There’s an air of lazy romance about the city, although it’s also the time when crowds of boisterous foreign students clog the shopping streets. Autumn, when the students return and the trees are burnished bronze, is mournfully beautiful and Christmas, when the streets are eerily quiet and the medieval buildings frosted in snow, can be magical.

So, history, luxury and relaxation. All right, so at the end of the day, a mini-break like this isn’t cheap. All the more reason then, to make sure you really relax and you really enjoy it. Around Oxford, it’s pretty hard not to do both. After all, it’s hard to beat a break with tradition.

Oxford Mini-Breaks - Facts at a Glance

The main point of information? –

Where to eat?: we tried Comptoir Libanais Oxford – 01865-980222 – /