Monday, February 23, 2009

A weekend in Edinburgh: Ghosts, towers and singing Scots

Thursday: All aboard...

With the blow of a single whistle the train rolled forward and five friends and I set off to Edinburgh, Scotland for a long weekend. It was the longest train ride I'd ever taken (four-and-a-half hours), but with coconut cookies, the latest Vanity Fair and a good selection on my iPod, the journey sped by. Well, besides the first 45 minutes the ride flew by. Until the stewardess stamped my ticket and assured my friends and I we were in fact en route to Scotland, I sat a little uneasy. Although the stops are posted on the board in front of the train, just walking onto a train from the platform and finding seats makes it a bit too easy to end up four-and-a-half hours in the completely wrong direction.

Out the taxi window, on the way to our hotel from the train station, our first glimpse of Edinburgh was the glowing towers of Edinburgh Castle set high on a hill in the pitch black sky. We dropped our bags and found a posh Italian restaurant, Gusto, right on Princes Street, the city's divide between New Town and Old Town. The restaurant's sleek black and white interior sat next door to a French brasserie and an upscale burger kitchen. Yet, just a block away, cobblestone streets and 500 year old brick buildings lined the street. After that evening, my friends and I spent most of our time in Old Town. The next day, I asked a local what to see in New Town. He couldn't think of much.

Friday: Castles and haunts...

The next morning, we started in the oldest part of Old Town: Edinburgh Castle. Perched on top of the Royal Mile (the street running straight through the heart of Old Town), the castle offers views of the entire city and lots of history. It was the home of Mary Queen of Scots, where she gave birth to James VI (who would later become James I of England). The massive iron gates, three-foot thick stone walls and dark damp prisons remind visitors castles were primarily fortresses -- a pretty view seen from a far-off hill, but probably not so luxurious to live in. To balance the shackles and swords, we also saw Scotland's 500-year-old crown jewels, kept in an inner part of the caslte.

After the castle, we stumbled upon the Elephant House, which (elephant decor aside) could have been any other coffee house had not J.K. Rowling penned bits of the "Harry Potter" series sitting in one of the back tables overlooking a spooky graveyard and the city's castle. Sadly, I had no ounce of inspiration, but I would recommend the scones and tea (by the pot, of course). After refreshment, we wandered the cemetery (Greyfriars Cemetery, said to be haunted by a medium-size black Skye Terrier) and found the graves of Thomas Riddle and William McGonagall (an Edinburgh poet), whom Potter-addicts may recognize.

Although probably nearing our spooky-quota for the day, my friends and I persevered through an underground ghost walk. Despite a deep conviction that paranormal stories have rational explanations, I would not dare admit it on our underground stroll (apparently skeptics leave these walks with the worst stories to tell). Our guide wore all black -- a head scarf, shawl and a long sweeping dress. She carried a flashlight, which she intermittently flicked off, reminding me of the thin hairs on the back of my neck. We toured five vaults beneath Niddry Lane, used as an isolation ward for low-class black plague victims, housing for Edinburgh's murders, practice rooms for 20th century rock bands and currently as a place of wicken gatherings, as well as creepy ghost walks. I clenched my friend's arm for the entire 50 minutes of the tour.

After dinner, we hit Grassmarket for a drink. The pub we chose brought in a mixed crowd of all ages and plenty of dancing. Along with some U.S. hits, we heard Scottish pop and the traditional, Loch Lomand (at which point the ladies in the adjacent booth helped us out of our seats, making sure we sang along, like everyone else in the pub).

Saturday: A lot of climbing...

As we stepped out of our taxi Saturday morning, the driver pointed to a faint path along a steep green hillside, assuring us it was the way up to Arthur's Seat. The climb was steep, but manageable, until the lush grass became slick cobbled stone and then jagged rock. I stopped at a three-foot rock formation, unsure whether to choose the muddy path along the edge of the mountain or the steep red rocks straight ahead. I grasped onto the grooves into the red rock and used my hands to pull myself up, about another six feet up. At the top sits a white stone monument, as legend has it, the seat of the famous King Arthur. I didn't take too close of a look for fear that loosening my grip of the rock would allow one of the gusts of wind to blow me straight down the rocks. But, the view of the city and countryside was unmatched.

Safely at the bottom, my friends and I agreed we felt like we had been run over by a bus (I blame the wind). But, we pressed on. At the foot of the hill, we ran into the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Scottish palace of the crown of Great Britain. Luckily the Queen was not home, so we could take a peek inside. Although a bit smaller than Windsor or Buckingham, the soft green and pink tea rose dining room was by far my favorite royal decorating I have seen.

Determined not to let sore feet get in the way, we continued on the day's agenda and trekked up to Calton Hill, the site of a monument to Lord Nelson and a monument to the Greeks (the start of a Parthenon replica, but never completed because the city supposedly ran low on funds). Over the rest of the afternoon, we stopped for a needed tea break, some shopping, a boy who juggled flaming batons and knives and a traditional Scottish bagpiper.

After dinner, we polished our literary caps on a literary pub crawl led by an Edinburgh author and book researcher. Although about ready to crawl through the tour, we held our heads high and ordered a drink at the favorite hang-outs of Ian Ranking, one of Scotland's bestselling mystery authors, the classic Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. In between drinks, we saw the hall in Edinburgh University where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Barrie and David Hume studied and the home of Scottish poet, Robert Burns. We learned where Barrie came across the name "Wendy" and where the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes comes from. We also figured out why so many thriller ghost stories come from Edinburgh. Once the sun sets, the aging stones, covered in centuries of dirt take on a spooky look.

Sunday: Back home to London...

We dragged ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning in just enough time to devour breakfast and catch our train back to London. With school work to catch up on and tired toes, the four-hour journey felt like stolen time. In the early afternoon sun, we caught a long glimpse of the Firth of Forth, the large bay that empties into the North Sea, rolling green hills and plenty of sheep.

We got back to King's Cross early evening, walked back to our flat and made it home in time for dinner (thank goodness for canned goods).

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