Edinburgh, Scotland. Part 1: “Summer Surprise”
When I woke up on the morning of July 28, 2011, I had no clue or warning about the magical portal that would soon be opening before my eyes. I had just returned to London from a very relaxing vacation in Barcelona, and was looking forward to spending the next few days lounging and writing at home. Well you can call it procrastination if you want, but I prefer to see it as listening to the repeating inner voice that kept screaming, “Jeff, dude, you really need to check out Edinburgh.” I didn’t feel like seeing a doctor about this voice-thing, and thankfully still had four more days before prison security would be making me return to my work desk, Monday morning. And so just a few short hours later, I found myself standing in London’s, Euston Station, buying a train ticket to a city I’ve never even thought of before. In the past, spontaneously following intuition has led to some of my life’s most joyous moments. I can now happily say, choosing to listen on that day has given similar results. It led me to a place on this planet that, for some reason, makes me feel like there is nothing wrong with anything, anywhere. For me, Edinburgh, Scotland has definitely become that kind of place.
The journey through the portal was a four hour train ride from London to Edinburgh’s city centre. It was peaceful in there, spending my time reading a book, sipping coffee, and watching the English countryside whiz by at over 100mph. To us Americans, there’s definitely something romantic about traveling somewhere on a train, especially a European one. I can’t explain it, but it’s completely true. So maybe it’s understandable that by the time my train arrived in Scotland, I was in a meditative state of bliss, possibly slanting my feelings of Edinburgh in its favor. This was tested instantly, as I stepped off the train and left Waverely Station. I was greeted with cloudy skies, drizzling rain, and a light fog, while the temperature was at least ten degrees cooler on that side as well. But none of this mattered. I was instantly infatuated when, in the distance, I noticed the fog-covered Edinburgh Castle resting on top of steep, gray cliffs, with the lush, green Princes Street Gardens resting below it. There was also an overcoat of drizzling rain which gave the whole scene a sparkling look, creating one of those rare moments in life where standing in the rain is a complete act of joy. Very clearly, Scotland doesn’t need the sun to know its own beauty. It appears that she doesn’t always have to have a bright spotlight shining on her, constantly letting the world know that she’s amazing. This is an interesting life-metaphor to think about indeed, however, I am still choosing to show a photo of the above scene under bright lights. So much for meaningful insights…
Because this was a spontaneous trip, I had researched and planned nothing. So I carried on, going through the motions of checking into my hotel on George Street, and shortly afterwards finding an establishment that brings food to your table if you ask for it. Cool. But the rest of this first day was spent just walking the streets, learning my way around, and slowly realizing that I knew nothing about this city. To my complete surprise, for example, when the sun sets, Edinburgh can really, truly party. I’m not talking about people drinking too much beer at the pub, or tourists getting carried away in the Scotch Museum (which can definitely all happen). I’m talking about nightclubs with Dr. Testosterone holding a clipboard list at the entrance, girls in short skirts, dudes in tight shirts, and the boom-boom, pulsing thunder of the music scene. My Scotland-inexperienced belief system had me expecting that I would simply be arriving in a town full of medieval buildings, and a castle that everyone raves about. Well, the bars and clubs are everywhere there, and I soon discovered that my hotel was located in the middle of one of these nightclub party zones. Streets that were quiet by day, had turned loud by night. I wasn’t ready for any of it, and so I decided to simply poke my head in a few places, and then felt content to find other, calmer choices. After interviewing a few nightclub bouncers about other fun locales, I decided to listen to the unanimous opinion and head on over to the Grassmarket District. If you are a pub person and like staying in one neighborhood, this is one of the main neighborhoods to be in. It was there that I found myself sitting in a small, crowded room, listening to live Scottish folk music. One man playing a fiddle, another a guitar, and a crowd of twenty, singing along with them. Pubs are everywhere back in London, and are definitely not a new experience for me. However, I get profoundly moved whenever I think back to that first night, with crowds of strangers singing together as one. There’s no doubt the folk music of the past is important in Scotland, but the public celebration of this fact only added to my feeling of wonder and bliss. And with that, day one had come to a close. What began in my quiet Victorian home in London, ended in the medieval party town of Edinburgh.
When morning came on my second day, the sun finally decided it was time to make its presence felt. At this point, my opening feelings of infatuation had morphed into an all-out crush, once I saw Edinburgh lit with bright light and strong shadows. I moved into explore-mode again, and spent the majority of my second day roaming the streets, slowly concluding that I was actually walking the halls of a Scottish museum instead. The musical sound of bag pipes echoed around cobblestone streets. Tourists bought kilts they will never wear from small, quaint shops. Pubs vibrated from the chatter of beer-drinking men. And the air; the air was clean, crisp, and pure. On a brightly lit day, I do believe there is no better place to be on this planet than the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. In fact, I recently learned that the Queen of England agrees with me as well. Every summer she leaves London’s urban jungle for an extended stay at the “Buckingham Palace of Edinburgh”: The Holyrood Palace. It is the home of past Scottish royalty, current British monarchy, and the estate she calls her second home. The palace is easy to find as well. Just walk along the Royal Mile, and eventually you will see crowds of people gathered together, hoping to see Prince William, Princess Kate, or the Queen herself. I do have questions about British royalty trolling around Scottish historical lodgings. To me, it’s a bit like raiding a small village, and then deciding to stay the night in the victims’ tents, while swapping campfire stories with the wounded locals on whose beer tastes better. Honestly, I’m using comedy here to mask my simplistic, naive understanding of Scotland and Britain’s relationship with one another. The blood lines are completely mixed, the true story is vastly difficult, and at this point, Britain is definitely a dynamic and important part of Scottish history. So it’s not that simple. In fact, the last I checked, their Facebook relationship status read, “It’s complicated.”
Back to the streets, happy exploratory accidents kept on coming my way. It was as if every new corner revealed a new and favorite area for me to settle in for the day. If I had to share just one neighborhood or street, however, I do believe I would pick Victoria Street and the surrounding Old Town area. I loved walking the narrow, curved layout of this street, and then visiting its locally owned shops. They are quite a welcome departure from the many tourist-trap stores on the the Royal Mile. You’ll find antique book stores, old scotch stores, vintage clothing shops, and of course, a few small restaurants and bars. But the entire Old Town neighborhood itself is the place I would return to time and again to relax in a restaurant or cafe. Author and creator of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has chosen similar patterns as well. She is known for writing her Harry Potter books in various cafes around Edinburgh; her original favorite place being The Elephant House on George IV Bridge Street. It has now been nicknamed the “the birthplace of Harry Potter” by its management, and is the cafe where she spent countless hours writing the first book in the series, “The Philosopher’s Stone.” They definitely bash you over the head with this information too, as there are signs, pictures, posters, newspaper articles, and magazine articles posted everywhere. And just in case you miss those, the tourists taking photos every three minutes, repeatedly remind you of the room you are sitting in. I went back at night, finding it quieter, very relaxing, and much more conducive to getting some writing done (something I like to do on vacations). So it’s funny that I’ve spent this much time talking about The Elephant House, when, actually, my absolute favorite cafe of choice is around the corner and down yonder: the St. Giles Cafe. Still in Old Town, its located across from the St. Giles Cathedral, and next to the dude playing the bag pipes. I spent every morning there, eating amazing Belgium waffles before continuing on with my day. In the future, when I’m in the mood to spend long amounts of time reading or writing in Edinburgh, this is the cafe I will return to time and again; that is, until someone else writes and publishes a famous novel there.
I do apologize for the J.K. Rowling-thing taking over my journey here, but I’m a fan of hers, and am not done with her story yet. If you are a Harry Potter fan, and also find yourself in Edinburgh, you need to know about these things. It’s time to talk about the luxurious Balmoral Hotel. This building doesn’t have to be all about the Potters, as one can definitely visit the Beverly Hills of Edinburgh for afternoon tea or lunch. Since its re-opening in 1902, the hotel has also been a haven for the rich and famous. Royalty, presidents, rock stars, and millionaire business executives dine there, and stay there while visiting Edinburgh. Concerning J.K. Rowling, she may have started her franchise in the commoner’s room at The Elephant House cafe, but 17 years later, she finished the seventh and final Harry Potter book in a luxury suite at the prestigious Balmoral Hotel. And, by the way, in celebration of this important, historical, literary moment, she completely trashed the place by ripping up pillows, throwing empty wine glasses on to shattered mirrors, and then vandalizing a marble bust of the Greek God Hermes with the declaration: “J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007.” Alright, the pillows and shattered glass are completely false, but the marble bust is true. When the hotel staff noticed her handiwork, they immediately noted its value, and quickly put it in a display case, returning it to the room where it remains today. The room has been renamed “The J.K. Rowling Suite” and the decorations and furniture arrangements remain unchanged, years later. You can stay in the room as well, but you will have to hand over £965 ($1,500 USD) every night to some dude behind the front desk. Then you can say goodnight to both the display case itself, and to the last time I mention Harry Potter in this blog.
Edinburgh, Scotland. Part 2: “Winter Wonderland”
One of the cool things about portals to other dimensions is that magic happens in there. For instance, I’ve been to Edinburgh twice in the last six months. The first was obviously in the 65-degree Fahrenheit warmth of this July trip, as stated above. But through the magic of creative writing, and dimensional travel, I now have the ability to make the third day of my trip happen six months later in the crisp, cold, Christmas-season air of 30-something. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, speak to the man dressed as Braveheart, standing outside the Edinburgh castle with a bucket of money. He said this would be alright for me to do.
I already had a major crush on Edinburgh after my first visit during the summer, but it was on my second visit in December when I discovered that I had possibly fallen in love. Experiencing Edinburgh during the Christmas season had finally convinced me that I had actually been stepping into a fantasy novel this whole time. Complete with white, sparkling, fairy dust that passed as falling snow to unobserving eyes, my heart melted. As luck would have it, every December, Edinburgh sets up a large German Christmas market in the Princes Street Gardens. It is here you will find an infinite supply of handcrafted gifts, plenty of food for everyone in sight, and a great opportunity to try German mulled wine (a hot, cinnamon-spiced wine, traditionally only drunk during the holidays). An outdoor ice skating rink, ferris wheels, and small rides only added to the scene. But it was the nighttime walk under falling snow, surrounded by tents filled with warm glows of yellow light that made the experience feel like a scene from a fantasy novel, or a Hollywood soundstage. The name of the event is called Winter Wonderland, and it runs for several weeks at the end of every year. I definitely know that I will go on living the rest of my life, trying to both remember and completely feel the experience of that winter, movie scene night. I’m not intentionally trying to be overly dramatic here. These were, and still are, my actual authentic emotions that would eventually lead my friend to give me the label, “Lady Kasunic” on this trip. Not too cool if you’re me, but the main character in this story can get a little sensitive at times. I promise you, for as long as I am living in England, I will always visit Edinburgh during the Christmas season. And for that matter, it looks like I need to spend some time in Germany now as well.
On “day 4” of this journey, I finally took care of the number one, must-see thing to do: visit the Edinburgh Castle. Embarrassingly, I chose to skip this site during my July visit because I wasn’t in the mood to see “yet another castle.” (It’s amazing how wrong and silly the human mind can be sometimes.) Already charged from the previous night’s Winter Wonderland experience, it was time to see what all the hype was about. Like all historic buildings in Europe, this building is quite old. Built almost 900 years ago, around 1130 A.D., the castle sits on top of what is now an extinct volcano. If you happen to suffer from volcan-a-phobia, don’t worry about it. The volcano has been inactive for 350 million years, long before Scottish humans started settling there in the 9th century B.C.E. While here, you’re definitely going to want to find the Crown Room, and stare at the Honours of Scotland for a few minutes. They are the oldest regalia in the United Kingdom, and actually have an interesting story attached to them. In 1707, the Treaty of Union happened, which means the Kingdom of Scotland merged with the Kingdom of England, resulting, on paper, in some sort of a united kingdom. (But please don’t make the mistake of telling someone from Scotland they are British. That conversation will end both swiftly and unhappily). The merger made the regalia redundant since the king back in London already had a crown full of jewels. So away these items were locked, forgotten, and eventually lost. It wasn’t until over a hundred years later that the famous Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott, pressured authorities to search the castle for their whereabouts. In 1818, they were found in a box on the castle grounds, and shortly thereafter put on display for you to gaze upon. (There, see, I did do a little historical research this time around. A lot can happen in six months.) Even if you don’t care about the castle’s historical significance or forgotten expensive hats, trust me on this. The views of Edinburgh alone are worth the £15 admission fee. Every turn, angle, and corner reveals yet another new and beautiful view of the city, its rolling hills, and the North Sea.
Visiting Edinburgh has become a therapeutic experience for me. When work gets tough from too many long, dark hours, or I’m stuck on an overcrowded, red bus, I just close my eyes for a few minutes and have my own Edinburgh Experience, right there. I’m very thankful Scotland is not a fabricated Hollywood movie set, or even a parallel dimension with magical portals to access it. Edinburgh actually, physically exists right here and now for all to see. She is truly an amazing city, and I have blinders on that prevent me from seeing her any other way. After all, that’s what love does…