Monday, November 3, 2008

Edinburgh, Scotland

We’ve just returned from Edinburgh. The kids had a week off of school and it is within driving distance so the six of us decided to pack up and drive north to Scotland’s capital city.

I had asked friends if they had been there—all who had loved it. As soon as we arrived in the city center, we could see why Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-burra) was so beloved.

The castle and virtually all of the buildings in the city are made from the same khaki colored volcanic rock. The continuity of the tan/gray buildings is unique and so very special to Edinburgh. That many of the apartments were built a few hundred years ago in stately, Georgian urban style townhouses, and that they have lasted this long (through a few world wars and times of social dereliction) is amazing.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: So many great world cities have amazing parts but likewise have some rather rough edges. Not necessarily dangerous places just areas that were rebuilt in the ‘60s and ‘70s and whose architecture looks rather sad and dated now.

Edinburgh doesn’t have much of that. It’s all good.

The city is small, easily walkable, (even with children) and dominated by the impossibly huge and rugged castle (some of its buildings dating from the 12th century).

There are sort of two main tourist sections; the Old Town and the New Town (literal as the names may be, they are apt). Parts of the Old Town can be dated back to Roman times, while the New Town was built beginning in the late 1700’s.

Cool things to do:
New Town- Shop and do lunch or dinner. The New Town is full of boutiques and fine department stores; Harvey Nichols being one—even if you don’t get a chance to shop there, take the elevator up to the 4th floor and have a tea, lunch or a drink in the evening—the view over the castle and city is fantastic). There are loads of chic bars, quaint pubs and very good restaurants in the New Town. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is here, too.

Old Town- Here is where we found there to be the most to do. The castle, museums, fun ghostly ‘experiences’, ancient buildings, children’s activities—most were here in the Old Town and Canongate sections of Edinburgh. The main street of the Old Town is called, the Royal Mile, because it runs from the Edinburgh Castle straight down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Queen Elizabeth’s official residence when she is in Scotland). The walk from one castle to the other is pleasant. There are plenty of gorgeous old buildings to look at that now house souvenir shops, pubs, free museums and small stores.

Branching off of the Royal Mile are ‘closes’, very tight alleys. There used to be hundreds bof these alleyways, crammed with people living and working in the buildings that formed them. Because of the squalled, cramped conditions, it was in these closes that the plague hit the hardest. Rich and poor, the plague killed half the population of Edinburgh.

To get a real feel for those very stifling conditions, we took a tour of the Real Mary King’s Close. This is a walking tour that took us underground to the dank closes. It was like walking through a creepy uncle’s haunted cellars. Although the tour was factual and we learned a lot, this was truly a haunted place. A mysterious ‘knock’ on a closed door gave even our tour guide the willies—seriously, she was spooked, I talked to her after the tour and the knock was not a special effect...

Later that evening the big girls and I took a ghost-walking tour. I tried to choose the most child-friendly one, because there are a lot of tour companies in Edinburgh and some looked downright terrifying. I chose the Cadies and Witchery Tour because its website looked the goofiest, rather than scariest. It was indeed goofy—a good laugh, great for kids and scardy-cat grown-ups (like myself).

There were so many other fabulous things to do in Edinburgh that we didn’t have time to do (in four days of our visit). Here are a few links:

Dynamic Earth—Great for children and those who would like to learn about how the earth has evolved.

Royal Yacht Britannia—Queen Elizabeth’s former yacht.

Camera Obscura—150 year old observatory with 360 degree views of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh’s Museums and Galleries—large and small from classical art to the museum of childhood, there is something for everyone.

On the sunniest day of our vacation, we drove out to the Kingdom of Fife, a gorgeous stretch of coastland just across from Edinburgh (about a 45 minute drive to the start of the coast). Dotted with fishing villages the coast stretches back into rolling hills of farmland. It is truly breathtaking scenery.

At the tip of the coast lies St. Andrews, of course, the birthplace of golf. Now, I am not a golf fan, nor does the Mister play the game, but my in-laws are fanatical about it, so we had to make the trek out there to at least get a picture of their grandchildren standing in the St. Andrew’s gift shop. We were pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the town of St. Andrews. A glorious place to meander and wander, making our way for the town down to the historic (and public) golf course and the wide, pristine beach on the North Sea.

None of us felt ready for our trip to Edinburgh to end. As we drove away we were already planning our next trip back—the sooner the better. Haggis, black pudding and oat cakes aside it is a wonderful city to visit. The mister and I rank it right up there with Paris and Prague in beauty... even higher for the friendliness of the people.

We headed back home down south to England, taking the scenic route along the north-eastern coast. We stopped at Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, in the most north easterly part of England. Only 160 people live on this tidal island. By tidal I mean that visitors must watch the tides closely, because it is only accessible at low tide. When the tide comes in, the causeway is washed under water and impassable.

There is an ancient fort on the island called Lindisfarne Castle. The setting is something out of a movie, almost surreal in its beauty. The island itself is like a miniature Nantucket. There are even a few B and Bs on island—both the Mister and I wondered aloud if we shouldn’t try and get back up there without the children for a night.

We arrived home late and hungry for dinner but still buzzing with the adventure that discovering a new place gives us.

Tonight it is Cullen Skink Soup for supper. The recipe will follow.

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