Scotland Travel: Edinburgh

I never thought I would have ended up in Scotland. Only a few years ago, it would have been completely off my radar in terms of potential places in the world that I’d want to visit. But after meeting a student from the University of Edinburgh in Richmond, I decided to give it a shot. Prior to the trip, my extent of knowledge about the country stemmed from little more than my repeat watching of Braveheart— God, I love that movie. What a soundtrack! Anyway, luckily I was more or less pleasantly surprised by what I found. The capital city of Edinburgh was especially a nice surprise– a beautiful, medieval, quiet city located on Scotland’s east coast. Here I explored grand castles, walked snow-covered city streets, climbed mountains, met Dolly the Sheep, and learned to correctly pronounce the city’s name (no, it is not “burg”, the rest of you Americans. It’s pronounced like “burrow.” Or “burrah”, if you want to get really technical).

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First off, it’s important to mention that Edinburgh is old. Yes, I know. London is probably just as old. But Edinburgh feels much older. In fact, the city is divided in half, between it’s medieval-era “Old Town” and it’s modern day “New Town” (complete with lots of shopping centers!) Most conventional cities are typically split along some body of water, like a river. But not Edinburgh. Its Old Town and New Town are more or less divided by a giant hill that sits in the middle of the city. Walking the hilly city streets was almost something of challenge, so be forewarned: the city commands a certain amount of physical stress just to navigate by foot. And I kind of liked that.

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Old Town contained most of Edinburgh’s charm. A section of this piece of the city, in a local churchyard, is shown above (circa March 2013). And boy, is it beautiful– there’s a reason Edinburgh is sometimes dubbed “the Athens of the North.” Walking the city streets feels like a transportation back in time. Sure, it was cold. And did it snow? Quite a bit, actually. But it was totally worthwhile. I guess that’s just the Scotland experience.

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One of my first trips in the city was actually right outside of the hostel: The Edinburgh Castle. (As a side-note, the Castle Rock Hostel is pretty phenomenal, my best experience in Europe! Fantastic location, price, and quality staff. A hundred thumbs up for this place!) The Edinburgh Castle is literally plopped on a massive hill in the center of the city– so you really can’t miss it. From the top, one can see a commanding view of the rest of the city below (and the mountains in the distance). I suppose this is an ideal location for a castle: hard to storm, easy to defend with a good vantage of the city. The only time the castle has been stormed in recent memory, though, was a few years back when some (most likely intoxicated) American college students scaled the rocky hill and climbed atop the castle. How they did this is beyond me.

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I had mixed feelings on the interior of the castle itself. On one hand, it was marvelous to be able to explore such a grand, famous castle. The canons, the dungeons, even the American prisons during the Revolutionary War were fascinating (although, the latter was a bit unnerving). There were swords, suits of armor, the Scottish crown jewels, and memorials to Scotland’s military. All of these things were captivating. And there were even some free samples of Scottish whiskey! But the admissions price was a bit steep, and overall the experience seemed to lack something. Perhaps I felt rushed through by my company, which wouldn’t really be the castle’s fault.

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Pictured above is a view of a typical Edinburgh cobbled street, this one in particular on the way down from the castle (it was quite hazardous during this time of year– lots of ice!) The towering building on the right hand side is simply known as The Hub, and is an administrative building rather than a religious one. Its iconic tower pops up in quite a few of my photographs. The remainder of Old Town was just as enchanting. I found myself wandering its streets for hours, even though it wasn’t all that big. The Royal Mile cuts through Old Town’s center. As the name suggests, the Royal Mile is a major road stretching one mile from the Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament building, passing a number of sites along the way (such as St. Giles’ Cathedral). A piece of the Royal Mile is shown below, near the Tron Kirk (the church on the right hand side). One of the things I liked best? The view of the sea in the distance.

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The end of the Royal Mile was pretty lame. The Scottish Parliament building, at least from the outside, is not anything interesting (although I may have spotted a Scottish MP asleep in his office). The Old Town had plenty to offer aside from the Royal Mile, however. On an early morning during my stay, I visited The Elephant House— the small eatery in which J.K. Rowling “allegedly” began writing her Harry Potter series. The walls of the cafe are covered in J.K. Rowling memorabilia. While I did not realize this at the time, apparently the bathrooms are covered in graffiti thanking the British author for the impact she made on their lives with the Harry Potter book series.

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While The Elephant House satisfied my inner Harry Potter nerd, my science geek reached new levels when I entered the National Museum of Scotland. In addition to dinosaur bones, a multitude of sections on Scottish history (including a small section detailing the lives of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, of Braveheart fame!), the Scottish museum held Dolly the Sheep: the world’s first ever cloned organism. She was cloned at the University of Edinburgh, and named after Dolly Parton (she was cloned from one of her mother’s mammary cells, hence, the scientist who did the naming obviously had a sense of humor). And here she was, on display (well, her remains at least). Yay science!

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The other side of the city, much of which comprised the “New Town”, contained more cobbled streets, restaurants and shops to escape Edinburgh’s cold, and the Scottish National Gallery (which was actually quite nice). In addition, the lower side of the hill featured Edinburgh’s main Princes Street, which cuts past a number of important landmarks– the Scott Monument, a towering Gothic spire, Waverley Station and the Balmoral Hotel, an old cemetery containing the remains of philosopher Desmond Hume (that was pretty cool to stumble upon), and Calton Hill, a hill on which most of the street can be viewed.

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Pictured above is the base of the hill separating Old Town and New Town, with the Scott Monument on the left, the Bank of Scotland building near the right, and the train station in the middle. Circa March 2013. And while the views from Calton Hill were impressive, they had nothing on Arthur’s Seat. The best aspect of my trip to Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat is literally a mountain placed right outside of the city walls. From my hostel, which was more or less the city center, it was only about a 15 minute walk to the base of the mountain. One of the views during my ascent is shown below, most notably the Hub and Edinburgh Castle.

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When you’re hiking Arthur’s Seat, you have a surreal feeling of being in the mountains, far from any city– yet with an entire city below you. The terrain was a bit challenging at times. I slipped into a puddle of mud once (thanks, Scottish weather) and braced myself as a brief snowstorm passed overhead. It’s certainly not a short hike, either. But hiking at sunset was completely worth it.

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The views were positively breathtaking near the stop. Such vivid colors! It was the kind of experience that made me sit and contemplate how lucky I was to be blessed with such opportunity. Never did I think a city in Scotland would be such a beautiful place. My entire Scotland experience was not the best, not due to the country but more personal travel reasons. And on top of that, I missed out on an opportunity to go to the Scottish Highlands. But climbing Arthur’s Peak– twice, actually– made me content enough with my trip. Getting to the top, which took some time, felt so triumphant.

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And cold. Very, very cold. It was pretty chilly and windy on top of a mountain in Scotland after a snowstorm in March. With the end of my second Arthur’s Peak hike, my time in Edinburgh was coming to a close. As for some final thoughts on the city, during my stay I also made a few other short trips. I visited the University of Edinburgh, one of the most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom. It was alright, it fit the rest of the city’s old architecture well but was a bit scattered. I got to briefly see Edinburgh’s Medical School, where Charles Darwin originally attended, and that was pretty cool. On a more underwhelming note, I took a “haunted tour” of the “Vaults of Edinburgh.”Not worth the time or money. They shared some interesting ghost stories, but not much I hadn’t heard before. And it certainly wasn’t all that scary,

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One more shot of the Hub, my favorite building in Edinburgh, circa March 2013. Edinburgh provided me with my first real experience travelling primarily alone to a new country, and that in itself was a hard but worthwhile adventure. It gave me my first– and only– glimpse of snow during my time in Europe. And, I was able to try some fine Scottish whiskey. Oh, and there were many men in kilts. That was pretty great, too.

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Of all of my memories in Scotland, my favorite might just be my train ride out of Edinburgh towards London. I had a great conversation with two Scottish gentlemen about, well, pretty much everything. American and Scottish sport, American and Scottish politics. And best of all? They absolutely ripped into Braveheart. It may be one of my favorite movies, but seeing two Scottish men tear apart the historical accuracy and current political impact of the film made me smile.

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