Back To Scotland: Edinburgh

In May of 2004 we went back to the UK to see the descendants again. We'd been missing Scotland since last fall, and wishing we'd spent more time there; and so, after about a week in London visiting the offspring and helping spoil the grandchildren, we took the train to Edinburgh.

(Train travel in the UK can be dicey, but the Great North Eastern line between London and Edinburgh is an outstanding exception; the Flying Scotsman will stand comparison with any train I've ridden in France and the service is impeccable.)

We arrived in Edinburgh early in the afternoon and got a room quickly, with the help of an efficient little room-finder service at the railway station. Very odd hotel, built into the side of a steep slope; the ground floor was the top floor - you had to go downstairs to get to the rooms. We tossed our bags on the bed and went out to see Edinburgh.

It quickly developed that Edinburgh, like everywhere else in Scotland, is very up and down. Wherever you want to go, you have to climb a damn mountain to get to it. The spectacular views, however, make it worth the toil and the sore ankles.

Working our way up the slope toward the castle, we found ourselves passing the Scottish Parliament buildings. At least that was what it said on the sign, though the map didn't say anything about it.

John Knox stood in the courtyard, stony-faced as ever. You get the impression they actually admire the loony old bastard around there.

Much of Edinburgh seemed to me to have a European look about it. I know, I know, the UK is in Europe, but only technically; London certainly doesn't look remotely European, it just looks like London. There were places in Edinburgh, though, where it wouldn't have been hard to convince yourself you were in Belgium or northwest Germany or even northern France. It wasn't just the look of the old buildings, either. Edinburgh is much farther from the Continent than London, yet somehow it has a more Continental look and feel. Don't ask me.

We didn't see all that much that afternoon; by the time we got oriented - Edinburgh is laid out in a very confusing way (maybe that's one reason for the European feel) - and did a bit of damn-near-straight-up climbing, it was getting late and we were hungry. We went into a restaurant which I cannot recommend, had a mediocre and overpriced meal, and then drifted back toward the hotel.

Despite the disappointing dinner, we were feeling pretty good about coming here. Edinburgh really is a beautiful city and we'd already taken a liking to it.

Next morning we yomped up the big hill again to Edinburgh Castle. (Following the principle that you head for the highest spot first, then everything else is downhill.) The parking lot was full of vehicles and there was a line at the gate. Or rather a queue.

(Doesn't that look as if it ought to be pronounced "kweewee"? Or else "kyooeeooee." How the hell do they get "Q" out of that? Why don't they just spell it "Q"? But I digress.)

There was also a whopping admission fee. All in all it didn't look promising. Even so, Phyllis wanted to go in; her castle fetish was kicking in. "Look at the size of the place," I told her. "We go in, we'll be up here half the day just touring the damn castle and there won't be time to see anything else." Reluctantly she agreed; we didn't go in.

You could see quite a bit from the outside, anyway, and it was one impressive old pile.

I wished I knew more about the local history. Clearly there was a hell of a lot of it lying around here. And just in case you didn't notice it, they pushed it at you with a certain relentlessness.

Castlehill Street runs roughly eastward from the castle, becoming Lawnmarket and then High Street and then Cannongate (one of those streets) before smacking into the Holyrood Palace grounds. The whole thing is called the Royal Mile, maybe because they make a royal effort to sell you something damn near every inch of the way...oh, hell, I'm exaggerating; only a few blocks, at the upper end, are really super-touristy.

This is St. Giles Cathedral. That's all I know about it. I don't know how old it is; I don't even know who St. Giles was or what he did to make saint. Impressive structure, though. It must be an important sight, because Asian people kept coming up and taking each other's pictures in front of it. (Oh my. Are we turning into the jaded world travelers then?)

One thing I really liked was the narrow old alleyways that led off on either side, leading down to courtyards or other mysterious destinations. Closes, they call them, and you can hardly argue with that. I could cheerfully have spent a day exploring them, if I'd had a day to spare.

I have no idea who this bloke is, or what his act is supposed to be, but I thought he looked neat.

As you work your way downhill the Royal Mile turns gradually into something closer to a real street in a real city; the Highland-hokum shops thin out and there are stretches where people are going about their business. As we passed a small pub or tavern we saw a man sitting on the steps singing. He wasn't busking or begging or anything like that; his clothes were good and he was clean and healthy-looking. Evidently he was just singing because he felt like it - and an open bottle on the step beside him suggested the reason. He was singing "On Highland Hills" in a fine tenor and doing it very well. We applauded when he finished; he looked surprised and said, "Thank you," as if he hadn't noticed he had an audience.

At the bottom end of the street sits the Palace of Holyrood House. You can go in and have a look around for a fee. We didn't; it didn't look all that interesting. Instead we doubled back up Calton Road, passing through a rough construction zone and under the railroad tracks and up an incredibly steep climb toward Princes Street.

Don't know what this is, either; we just looked up and saw it, and it looked cool. We were really getting into not knowing what things were. It made a refreshing change from the usual guidebook stuff.

It was a fine day and the parks along Princes Street were alive with people enjoying the sun and the warmth. Somehow I'd always had a mental image of Edinburgh as a rather grim, dour sort of place - maybe the John Knox thing, I don't know - but it turned out to be a bright, cheerful city with big lovely green parks and trees and flowers. One of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen, in fact...the structure in the background, if you're wondering, is the Scott Monument. Sir Walter, not Robert.

This guy was really good. I couldn't believe someone with his ability was playing on the street for spare change.

At the far end of the string of parks we wandered through a gate beside an old church and found ourselves in a very old graveyard. I suppose it was rather beautiful in a way - Edgar Poe would have loved it - but I admit I was just as glad to find the exit. As Huckleberry Finn said, I don't take no stock in dead people.

With a last look up at the castle - it dominates the scene no matter where you are; I suppose that was the idea - we started back toward the hotel to clean up for dinner. In the evening we found an excellent and thoroughly non-touristy pub on High Street and tucked into a first-class dinner.

Next morning we hiked up another hill to the bus station and headed off for Oban. We left with a touch of regret, but nothing too poignant. It had been a splendid visit and we'd both liked Edinburgh a great deal, and yet there was nothing of the pain you get leaving some places. Heading out of Paris, you feel like crying; you know you have to get back there again some time and you're going to have an empty spot inside until you do. At least I do..but there was nothing like that leaving Edinburgh. I liked it, but I didn't fall blind-and-stupid in love with it as I did Paris.

Still it would be nice to come back again some day. There was so much we didn't see. I think you could spend a week wandering around Edinburgh without ever getting bored. Truly an amazing city.

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