Times Higher Education’s academic holiday guide 2017

With the holiday season upon us, five academics suggest some unique destinations you may want to consider – or perhaps not

July 13, 2017
Santa Monica beach
Source: Getty

Southern California

The eight-hour time difference means no phone calls unless your house burns down or your dog dies

For half a century, I’ve made a habit of summering in the same place: West Hollywood. I know the language and there are people I know in the southern Californian hinterlands. I find comfort in the grooves that I’ve dug over the years.

I tend to splurge and go premium economy. Preferably Virgin; for a modest fee, it gives you a couple of hours in the airline’s new lounge at Heathrow.

Don’t linger at the other end, though. LAX has just been judged the worst airport in the world. Wheels are your first priority. Sixt is currently savagely battling the established Hertz/Avis supremacy. Play your cards right and you’ll get a C-Class Mercedes, or an Audi coupé for a few hundred a week. Check it out.

Cruise down La Cienega (it means “swamp”), past the nodding donkey oil pumps, and take a right (on red, if necessary: this is California) on to Santa Monica Boulevard.

A few blocks down is Astro Burger. It’s where the stars go (supposedly). Hilary Swank (provenly) went there after she got her Oscar for Million Dollar Baby in 2005. The best burger in town will cost the loose change in your pocket.

Then it’s back along the boulevard, up La Cienega again, and right on to Sunset Boulevard. Past the Mondrian Hotel, where I got married (Sister Mary Jane, presiding, wanted to go Hawaii, but reluctantly did my godless version of Anglican service instead; our room, we were told, had been occupied by Leonardo DiCaprio the day before).

Next you pass the House of Blues, now closed. Its corrugated iron roof is even more decrepit than it was before. It’s where Phil Spector had his last happy night on earth, before he murdered actor Lana Clarkson, who he had met there. A faded sign thanks patrons for their custom.

My wife and I stay at the Sunset Tower these days (formerly known as the Argyle). It’s old Hollywood incarnate. Names you know have stayed there for decades. John Wayne, legendarily, kept a cow on a balcony for fresh milk. Across the way is the Andaz, which is cutting-edge high-tech. Down Sunset Strip is the funky Standard, with its upside-down sign, immortalised by William Gibson in his novel Spook Country (2007). If you’re a regular visitor and choose an off-peak season, any of these options is cheaper than you think – at least, if you don’t have kids.

Two things make a holiday in Hollywood relaxing. The first is the peace. The eight-hour time difference to the UK means no phone calls unless your house burns down or your dog dies. The days are long, so you can read and write uninterrupted for hours. Should you be nostalgic for the dusty silences of the quiet mind, it’s an easy trip to the Clark, UCLA and Huntington libraries – although, personally, I don’t go any more; my learned articles are written.

More importantly, Hollywood is located between ocean, desert and mountains. All waiting for you. I used to love the trails of the San Gabriel Mountains. I’ve been up “Baldy”, the highest peak (10,000-plus feet, 3,000 metres), more times than I’ve counted. Leonard Cohen, who lived in the foothills for a few hermit years, said that just looking at Baldy gave him an erection. Strange. All I got was blisters.

Since I shattered my wrist on an easy hike to the ominously named Skull Rock in the Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve accepted that my balance isn’t up to trails any more. Dammit. I just tramp fire roads nowadays – like the one to Mount Wilson, where the world’s first 50-inch lens observatory is still scouring the heavens, looking for God knows what.

Most days it’s early to Santa Monica, satnav weaving us past the jams. My wife surfs. I hire a bike from a companionable hippy under the pier who declines to charge me more than $5 (£3.95) an hour, for old times’ sake. The boardwalk is tens of miles long. I once saw Anjelica Huston pounding the pedals towards me. Noble sight.

Lunch at Chez Jay’s, the restaurant immortalised in the Netflix series, Goliath. In the evening, the movie theatre. Either the Sundance (low-key) or Arclight (high-end).

On my last trip, I went to Universal Studios. I hadn’t been since the 1980s. Nowadays, it’s an extraordinary experience. There are Jurassic, Walking Dead and Harry Potter rides. You go in a small cart, or capsule. Visual effects and some minor jolting create an LSD experience. The thrills are in your brain. An interesting thought.

The downside is that a privilege ticket (cuts out the queues) costs $200-plus. And avoid the foot-long Krusty hotdog and 64oz sodas.

Why do I do it? It’s childish – but in more senses than one. In the austere wartime years and deprived 1940s, the picture palace was my wardrobe entrance into wonderland. It is indeed childish to make decisions motivated by those long-ago years, but the old man is twice the child. I’ll keep heading to West Hollywood for as long as there’s life in me and summer keeps rolling round.

John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London. His most recent book is The War on the Old, Biteback Publishing.

Elderly British couple in deckchairs at the seaside

The British seaside

As you keep returning to the beach as the years go by, you make your way through the disciplines. First, you are a scientist...

You don’t need a guide to the British beach, do you? Wherever you are from, you have been coming to the seaside all your life. And for those of us raised on these islands, everything about the resorts – the coin-slot telescopes, the bucket and spade sets, the coloured windmills on sticks – seems to have stayed the same. That singular smell, a sweet bouquet of ozone, salt and seaweed, opens up a wormhole back to childhood.

But did it ever occur to you that the beach is also a training ground for scholars: an outdoor library-cum-laboratory? In his famous “two cultures” lecture, C. P. Snow decried the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the sciences and the humanities. He should have spent more time on the beach. For this is where human culture, nature and dead matter meet: where you learn to be interdisciplinary. And as you keep returning to the beach as the years go by, you make your way through the disciplines.

First, you are a scientist – albeit a clueless eight-year-old one. On every trip you carry your copy of I Spy at the Seaside. The number of points you score depends on the rarity of what you spot: five for a lugworm’s coiled casting, 10 for a razor shell, 30 for a gooseneck barnacle. For even on holiday you are a little high achiever, collecting ticks, marks and gold stars – a perfect apprenticeship for the endless measurement and self-surveillance of academia, it turns out.

A sand grain is your first lesson in non-human scale: infinitesimal in the singular, immeasurably vast in the plural. The horizon over which the sea disappears feels like another kind of infinity, until your dad disappoints you by telling you that it is only three miles away. The rock pools that you study with your shrimping net are a tutorial in biodiversity, life’s gift for enduring and multiplying in uncongenial places. In the sea, as you scream with delight at the oncoming surf, you are a trainee oceanographer. You have an inkling that those weird things, waves, are not things at all but processes: not water so much as energy using water as a medium.

Scientists recently worked out the perfect type of sand for sandcastles. The grains have to be irregular in size to interlock, and fine and wet enough to stick together: ideally, eight-parts sand to one-part water. As an eight-year-old apprentice engineer, you may not know that precise formula. But you do know which type of sand will neither crumble from dryness nor collapse from sogginess. You know just the right dampness of grain so that your castle turrets, moulded inside the indented base of the bucket, stay upright.

The years pass. You are older now, bored with sand and waves. You have turned into a social scientist. You begin to see the beach as a frontier – between the wild and the domestic, between anarchy and social order. For here the riders of sand yachts and kite buggies have to share space with families playing rounders and sunbathers snoozing on towels, in states of proximity and undress that they would never countenance in their normal lives. The beach is a self-policing community, where social rules and hierarchies are put on hold – a great site for sociological fieldwork.

Nowadays, though, the beach has brought you back to your true home: the humanities. “Here I am, before the sea; it is true it bears no message,” wrote Roland Barthes in Mythologies. “But on the beach, what material for semiology!” Now you wander, Monsieur Hulot-like, among the beach-dwellers, all of them performing “fun”, with their picnics and games and self-mockery. You come across many versions of the parents in that Philip Larkin poem, all of them “clumsily undressed” and teaching their children how to live by “a sort of clowning”. And you realise that this fragile search for meaning, this grabbing at happiness on the wing, is all we have, all that separates us from nothingness. Without us meaning-making animals to notice it, the beach is just liquid, sediment and foam.

The beach now seems to you like an accelerated demonstration of the impermanence of all human culture. At the end of each day, everything – deflated beach balls, damp swimming trunks, uneaten sausage rolls – must be packed away. Sandcastles are stamped on before the sea devours them. Names writ in sand with a stick are erased. The crisp footprints of children, running in joyful circles, vanish.

At last you tire of parsing everything for meaning. You are on holiday, for heaven’s sake. Life is too short to waste time explaining it all. As Shakespeare wrote – although somehow it’s hard to picture him at the seaside – “like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,/So do our minutes hasten to their end.”

And so you stand, as mute and unthinking as one of Antony Gormley’s iron men on Crosby beach, watching the sun sink below the sea as the waves break on the sand.

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. 

View of Eiffel Tower in Paris


In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the view I know most intimately in the city is that of a 56th-floor carpet

The exuberant vitality of Paris even extends to the memorialising of its dead. The Paris I love is a sensual palimpsest of a city, and my perfect day there takes me on a six-mile flâneuse-style stroll northeast, from the 14th to the 20th arrondissements, along what the French should probably name La Route des Cimetières.

Recommending a journey that starts with a trip to the Catacombs isn’t as saturnine as it may at first appear – although if you have even a whisper of a suggestion of a ghost of claustrophobia, find a street cafe instead and wait for any more valiant companions to join you afterwards. Get there for its opening (about 10am, and never on Mondays, when Paris is mostly fermée) so that, at the bottom of the five-storey deep staircase, there are few other living beings to distract you from the human bones that line wall after wall – and sometimes ceilings, too – of the mile-long network of tunnels.

In 1785, workers began the gruesome task of shifting thousands of skeletons from the overcrowded Saints-Innocents Cemetery into the vast network of quarries under the city. Over the next decade, other local graveyards followed suit, filling what are now known as the Catacombs with the remains of about 6 million Parisians. Wandering – and wondering – around in the silence of what equate to the labyrinthine streets of a dark, musty buried city is a remarkable experience.

You emerge into the fresh air and warm sunshine not far from Montparnasse Cemetery, where the above-ground city’s frenetic hubbub is newly reassuring. In the graveyard itself, Métro tickets litter Serge Gainsbourg’s grave. The singer, known as much for his apparently indiscriminate libidinal profligacy as for his music, had what I’d argue was surely an unexpected hit with Le Poinçonneur des Lilas. The tickets are left by visitors recalling this inappropriately jaunty song about a train conductor haunted by the myriad “petits trous”, or little holes that he punches in tickets every day – until he shoots himself in the head.

Just by the main entrance, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre are buried side by side. I also make a point of seeking out “le chat de Ricardo”, the enormous, garish mosaic cat by the remarkable late-20th-century sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle erected at the cemetery’s heart, to try to decide whether or not I find it aesthetically pleasing. I still don’t know.

Next, visit Montparnasse Tower, to get as far from the grave as it is possible to get in Paris unless you’re prepared to brave the melee of the Eiffel Tower. Travel 56 floors up in what’s billed as Europe’s fastest lift (I haven’t yet got round to googling where the second fastest is) to the viewing deck, where floor-to-ceiling windows give a remarkable view of the city. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the view I know most intimately here is that of the 56th-floor carpet. Paralysed by a fear of heights, I’ll sit on the floor by the lift, occasionally looking up to go “Ah! Notre Dame!” before gluing my sweaty palms and my dizzy gaze to the patterned nylon again.)

Back on street level, head for the Seine, stopping off for a restorative coffee at Shakespeare and Co, the English language bookshop staffed mainly by volunteers in return for board and lodging. It’s a quirky, unashamedly erudite place. Buy at least one book just to get its flyleaf stamped with the iconic shop logo.

Then cross the river to the Marais, where you should pick up bread (fluffy challah with a golden crust), cheese, fruit and beer for a picnic at the celebrated Père Lachaise Cemetery. When you get there, pay your dues at Jim Morrison’s ever-morphing tomb. Over-exuberant fans are often determined to add to it – or take from it; the last time I was there some tortured soul had overwritten the word “singer” with “poète”.

Oscar Wilde’s stunning monument, crafted by Jacob Epstein, is another highlight, but there are numerous interesting tombs to examine as you wind your way through the tree-shaded little boulevards. That of the 19th-century poet Georges Rodenbach is another one that I always try to visit. The best spot to end your tour and have your picnic is the Communards’ Wall, an incongruously tranquil spot where 147 “fédérés” fighting for the Paris Commune were brutally murdered in 1871.

I use Paris – especially the Catacombs – a good deal in my teaching. I evoke its strangeness when discussing Hamlet or The Revenger’s Tragedy, trying to convey why “the skull beneath the skin” is such a powerfully democratising and, therefore, oddly comforting image. I refer to it when I want to convey a sense of the sheer urgency of life. I want my students to see the world as bigger than their own experiences: to understand what the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust – or 5,000 refugees in the Mediterranean in 2016 alone – really means. Above all, I want them to remember that, as the “poète” of Père Lachaise wrote: “No one here gets out alive.”

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.

Bums out in Magaluf

Magaluf, Majorca

This 24-7 resort will offer you all those ‘s’ words you crave: sun, sea, sand, sangria and, of course, sociology

Magaluf is one of Europe’s top party destinations, with a great deal to offer academics. This lively, 24-7 Majorcan resort will offer you all those “s” words you crave: sun, sea, sand, sangria and, of course, sociology. And it doesn’t have the nickname Shagaluf for nothing, either; remember that, as the T-shirt says: “What happens in Magaluf stays in Magaluf”.

After you have dumped your suitcases in your room and draped your national flag from your balcony, come back down to the lobby for a “free” drink at the welcome meeting organised by the lively representative from your tour operator. Learn about the rich cultural activities on offer (for a fee, naturally). You could be introduced to Magaluf’s renowned nocturnal rituals through a chaperoned bar crawl. You could get to know your fellow tourists by way of some drink-fuelled games that may also allow you to showcase your research on human sexual positions. Those interested in taking in a bit of history could get themselves a ticket for one of the “pirates” night-time entertainment shows that re-live great British military defeats of continental European neighbours – especially the French. Anatomists may also be interested in the audience games at such events, during which women are routinely invited to “get your tits out for the boys”.

For the foodies, there is a wide variety of hearty local fayre on offer. This includes pizzas, burgers, fried chicken, curry and Chinese pork ribs. For the Brits, keep to the restaurants with the Union flag or “cooking like mum” signs outside. Start your day with a full English breakfast, go for a giant Yorkshire pudding or Sunday roast for lunch (every day is Sunday in Magaluf), and line your stomach for the evening’s chemistry with a fish supper specially flown in from the North Sea. As you dine, you can also deconstruct the latest events in EastEnders and The X Factor with your new-found friends.

Between meals, keep up with your reading on a sunbed, under a parasol. Beach or hotel poolside: it doesn’t really matter which. The Sun is always readily available wherever you are. Or, if you want a break from textual analysis, there are many physical activities on offer. Oceanographers – why not check out the marine life from a crocodile-shaped lilo? Geologists – why not survey the lay of the land from a giant inflatable shaped like a banana, towed out into the bay behind a speedboat? And, anthropologists – you’ll be intrigued by the penis-shaped bottle openers widely available in the gift shops.

While there, you may also want to pick up a postcard, on which to chronicle your observations for posterity. Choose from a wide range of Majorcan landscapes and women’s vulvas, buy yourself a well-earned pint (yes, it’s all imperial here) and take yourself and your biro to one of Magaluf’s many cafe-bars.

After dinner, you can head further into town for cocktail tasting (£2 a go), and witness a remarkable experiment in economic incentives: inebriated young women volunteering to give blow jobs to equally inebriated young men in front of a large, heckling, camera-wielding crowd in the hope of winning another trip to Magaluf later in the year.

Then you can dance the night away to a whole host of novel and musicologically intriguing sounds, before accepting an invitation to two complete strangers’ apartment for a hearty sandwich (you are the corned beef). Just be careful not to step in any of the puddles of vomit or trip over the prone bodies of your colleagues in merriment as you wend your way through the streets.

Or, if you would rather, you could try a bit of historical ethnography, experiencing the Majorcan pirate’s ultimate fate by hanging yourself from the bar. It only costs £5 and you can win £50 if you endure it for two minutes without either dying or losing the will to live.

Hazel Andrews is reader in tourism, culture and society at Liverpool John Moores University. She researched Magaluf for her PhD and is author of the 2011 book The British on Holiday: Charter Tourism, Identity and Consumption.

Rome skyline


When you find that you have hit peak Pope’s-face-on-a-lolly, I suggest that it’s time for the Janiculum

You’re in Rome. On the one hand, you’re dazzled by the antiquities everywhere, and the beauties of the Vatican museums; on the other, you’re hot, it’s crowded, the souvenirs are tacky and, as an anglophone tourist in Italy, you can’t help feeling like a walking stereotype. This paradox is unavoidable and even necessary – why should you overturn centuries of Grand Tourism? – but when you find that you have hit peak Pope’s-face-on-a-lolly, I suggest that it’s time for the Janiculum.

The Janiculum Hill is not actually one of Rome’s seven. It gazes down grandly across the city, rising so high that, from only halfway up, the chariots on the giant Vittorio Emanuele monument in central Rome look a bit like ducklings in a frothy lake. But it is easily reached by a series of hairpin roads or, as I prefer, a series of hidden staircases carved into the hillside just behind the Trastevere district. The merit of the Janiculum, to me, is that it gently reveals to you two of the greatest moments of Roman glory without asking much of you in return – besides walking.

On the way up, you pass structures that encapsulate Rome’s late renaissance and baroque periods: the tiny gem of a church San Pietro in Montorio can namecheck many of the city’s great artists – and, with links to both Spanish and Irish interests in Rome, reminds us how international Rome has always been. Just above it is the monumental fountain known as Acqua Paola, a testament to papal grandeur and Roman engineering in one.

But, breathtaking as these and other nearby sites are, my favourite is still the vast park in the grounds of Villa Doria Pamphilj. If you were to imagine the Platonic ideal of an Italian noble garden of the era, this one would tick every box: winding paths, formal gardens, groves of cypresses, fountains, classical-esque statuary, a Byzantine-esque chapel, an aqueduct and a lake with swans. The grounds stretch up to the very top of the Janiculum, illustrating the reach of Rome’s powerful old nobility. On Sundays, you’ll find them filled with dog-walkers, families and joggers in spandex. Remnants of other villas can still be found nearby, or smaller ones whose mysterious gates lead to delightful walled gardens, but Villa Doria Pamphilj is the only Janiculum villa of this scale to have survived the 19th-century Risorgimento : the movement for Italian unity.

In the fight for Rome’s independence from the papacy, the Janiculum at last took centre stage, instead of overlooking the action. As described with pathos in Corrado Augias’ 2014 history of the city, The Secrets 
of Rome: Love and Death in the Eternal City, the Janiculum hosted the final battles between defenders of the short-lived but much-admired Roman Republic (which gave a political home to Risorgimento heroes Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi) and the French army loyal to the Pope. Much of the hill commemorates the greats of Italian unification: the ossuary below the Acqua Paola; the long series of commemorative busts in the tree-lined Janiculum promenade; and the equestrian Garibaldi statue next to the cannon that has been fired every day at noon since 1904.

But as a non-specialist in 19th-century history, what I actually find most revealing are the bilingual signs explaining the roles of particular buildings and sites around the hillside. I really noticed them for the first time during a trip last winter. They may give only one view of a contentious history, but they worked: reading them, I felt that I could finally see the battle for modern Italy superimposed over the sleepy, twisting streets, shaded with some very old trees. Most of these streets are, in fact, named after the fallen greats of the Risorgimento, and they feel more human to me now.

For academics, the last great draw of the Janiculum is the presence of two academies: the Spanish and especially the American. Both are mainstays of academic rigour and creativity, emblems of glorious architecture and strong promoters of the arts and humanities alike – often combined in inspiring ways. It’s worth checking their schedules for public events.

The upper slopes of the hill are home to the comfortable residential – and still undeniably Roman – neighbourhoods of Monteverde Vecchio and Monteverde Nuovo, full of window boxes, boutiques and bakeries – with not a camera-wielder, kitsch kiosk or insistent waiter in sight. You are reminded that despite all the foreigners who have marched over it, neither the hill nor the wider city below has ever stopped living on its own terms.

A few years ago, I took a group of students on a whirlwind trip to Rome. Exhausted after walking all day, we leaned on the parapet above the Spanish academy, Acqua Paola behind us, all of Rome below us. It was dusk, and none of us had ever seen so many starlings with so much space to swoop and dance. Nothing could have topped that moment. Nowhere else could have brought Rome to them so clearly. 

Emily Michelson is a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of St Andrews.


Print headline: Five have plenty of fun

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