One of the best decisions we made for our UK winter trip was to spend a couple of nights and 3 days in Scotland before heading to Birmingham to attend my post-grad ceremonies. From King’s Cross (London) station, we took the Virgin Trains to Waverley station in Edinburgh (capital of Scotland). I enjoyed the 4-hour journey because (a) the first class coach service indeed delivered the value for money (i.e. cleanliness, free and sumptuous breakfast and snacks, spacious, etc.). We would not mind being in the standard coach (as we did in our April trip); however, we opted to consider some of the travelers’ review since it would be our first longest railway ride and it is of course, still relatively cheaper if you book ahead of time; and (b) the scenic views of England to Scotland was delightful.
As we got off from Waverley Station and walked to our bed and breakfast accommodation within the city centre, we were greeted by the Scott Monument (in honor of Sir Walter Scott), Jenners (arguably Scotland’s Harrods), the traditional Scottish music played by the street performer in his kilt (knee length skirt from Scottish Highlands) and splash of Georgian architecture.
Since the length of our stay was very limited and it was winter then which meant that it is dark as early as 4:00 PM, we definitely had to prioritize what we wanted to ‘experience’ and (not just the sightseeing approach). As soon as we got a bit settled in our accommodation, we went to Edinburgh Castle. I must say that this castle made it to my top 3 castle experiences so far. It spoke and showed much of history and geology (i.e. it was built on a volcanic rock).
With the various trivial artifacts it keeps, I took particular interest in the The Stone of Destiny (symbolizing the Scottish pride and honor as they battled through time), The Great Hall (showcasing the weapons and armours), and St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh). It is not surprising that this is the most visited site in Scotland. If you are imaginative enough, you will find yourself transported to the early ages because events indeed happened within and outside this castle.
Edinburgh does not operate modern towers like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, The Shard in London, Top of the Rock in New York, and others as viewing decks. However, from this castle, you can get one of the best possible views of Edinburgh, particularly the New Town. What is with the ‘New’? This town basically was a result of what they have considered more proper city planning which seems to have retained Georgian architecture. On the other hand, the Old Town adopted a medieval street plan (more on this at the latter part of this post). Whether it is fiction or not, it is interesting to note that one of the reasons for constructing the New Town was to prevent the rich citizens from leaving the city for London, since the Old Town became overcrowded which made face-to-face interaction between the poor and rich residents a concern. It is worth noting that both towns are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
While I am not among the bravest persons you would meet, I was keen in visiting one of their many graveyards. We visited St. Cuthberts Kirkyard, that is 1 of the 5 most notable graveyards in Edinburgh. The other 4 historic graveyards are the Greyfriars Kirkyard, Canongate Kirkyard, Old Calton Burial Ground, and New Calton Burial Ground. These graveyards provide a glimpse to the resting place of philosophers, poets, smiths, and other people who were instrumental to the success of the current Edinburgh. It is amusing to know that there is and that the other Charles Darwin (i.e. THE Charles Darwin’s uncle) was buried within St. Cuthbert Church’s compound.
Visiting Princes Street Gardens is a must. I realized that later on after knowing its relevance to the Old and New Towns. We initially took this path because it has a picturesque view of Edinburgh Castle as backdrop, but it was more than that. It houses a beautiful floral clock, the Ross Fountain, statues and monuments, a passage to St. Cuthbert Church’s graveyard (well, the church is surrounded by the graveyard, by the way) and it symbolizes a used to be division between the rich and the poor. Apparently, it was once an artificial mound in connection to the Nor Loch (Nor River) to separate the Old and New Towns. It was then decided to be drained to develop this garden.
It was on our third (last) day in Scotland when we explored the Old Town of Edinburgh. We went up to the beautiful Scottish Highlands on the second day (I will recollect about that in the next post). For some reasons, I appreciated more the Old Town as I tried to view it with flashbacks of the past. Both towns are hilly and reminded me for a split second of San Francisco, but they are very much different at scrutiny. It was amusing to experience The Royal Mile by foot, as well as the other areas such as the Grassmarket (used to be the public hanging venue) , Lawnmarket (several inns and pubs here at first glance), etc.
We explored Royal Mile from end to end which is basically equal to… a mile. That could mean the shortest or longest walk of your life depending on your stamina, how properly clothed you were during winter (the season), and how much fun you find in wandering. In our case, we thoroughly enjoyed it albeit the freeze. Do not miss the Edinburgh Museum at the end of the mile. Childhood Museum may be skipped if you are buying time, although it was interesting and creepy enough.
Among the many buildings at Royal Mile, I was most interested in St. Giles Cathedral (otherwise known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh), named after the patron saint of Edinburgh, cripples and lepers. There is a photo taking fee of GBP 2 though. I thought that it is more reasonable if you will consider it as donation and if compared with the fee to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. While I was tempted to take a number of photos for cost recovery (just kidding), I found myself clicking the camera (phone) not too frequently and finally opted to invest more time in appreciating the details particularly the Thistle Chapel, statues, memorials, etc.
With the colorful history of Edinburgh, particularly if you will consider the spiritual history of Royal Mile, it is not surprising that the use of stained glass windows was once prohibited and was looked into with great suspicion. During the reformation, these were gradually allowed as long as they are Bible stories derived illustrations to help in teaching, otherwise these will be viewed as idolatry. One of my regrets before visiting (which applies in general when I travel) is when I did not read enough or cautioned myself of what not to miss particularly in terms of validating the tiny details. I am a fan of Do It Yourself approach and would not really want a tour guide all the time unless it would be more efficient and value adding. In this case, I missed taking a closer look at the details of Thistle Chapel as antsy as possible. My approach though is always to look at the brighter side — that I will have a chance to re-visit and/ or because I gained it anyway in the next destination or reaped it in the same destination but in another form.
The Old Town is a combination of sorts and is always picturesque due to its architecture. (You might want to see the 2010 film, Burke and Hare to better visualize it.) It is a learning channel to any layman, too. The adoption of high rise buildings due to overcrowding was expected. The above photo was taken randomly as we navigate our way to Marshall Street. You would know why. Soon.
The alleys are stunning, however, may tend to give a tear of lemon. I was reminded of the Burke and Hare murders. Edinburgh was once very and still popular in the study of field of medicine. The executed criminals (by public hanging at the Grassmarket) used to be the source of cadaver for anatomy subjects. Due to diminished supply and increased demand that time, Burke and Hare murders surfaced. Reminded me of 2011 movie, From Hell (Johnny Depp). The huge difference, however, these murders were real.
We could have hiked to Arthur’s seat and other tourist spots which are viewable in Edinburgh, however, if you are a Potterhead like us, you probably would have wanted to invest more time in The Elephant House, too. Apparently, JK Rowling wrote the very first Harry Potter book in this cafe. I did not know that it is co-owned by a Filipina (married to a Scottish). There is a small Chinese touch on the interiors and in the menu though. We had Scottish pancakes and hot drinks which are all delicious. That is a happy fact. Of course, it would be disappointing to dine in there just because of #anythingharrypotter.
There are photos and news clips about JK Rowling on the sort of bulletin board. The cafe itself is decent and you would of course find yourself imagining how the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone were drafted then. The most amusing part and realization of a visit to this cafe will happen once you go in the washroom. It is full of (beautiful, funny and witty) vandals and reputably, the toilet bowl is the ‘way to the Ministry’. If you love Harry Potter books and films, you probably would add to the writings on the wall over there. Do not be surprised that the person in the washroom takes ages to pee or whatever. You know why. Here is an interview of JK Rowling in this cafe.
If sky is the limit (i.e. no luggage consideration, budget concern, etc.), I would have definitely bought at least 5 books from this store at Victoria Street. The books are the type that smells like history and that a spirit or genie would come out when you flip the pages because they are soooo old and probably the remaining copies (hard to find ones)… and with the thought that ‘oh, I got this from the very rich in history Old Town of Edinburgh’ (the bragging right adds up to the price, of course)!
I would definitely be delighted to visit Edinburgh again. Albeit its dark past, as the other nations had, too, at a varying extent — these all make it beautiful and unique. Next time I am there, I would eat a lot courage to take those underground tours (but not the ghost tours) as those Edinburgh vaults are really interesting. And of course, I will eat Haggis again. Every day.