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UK - Scotland: Edinburgh, North Berwick
Edinburgh, Scotland: History & Mystery
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
This city is bound to captivate the visitor. More for its deep rooted history, its dark, narrow alleys and its cultural heritage than for the Chloroform Anesthesia that was invented here. Adding to the trance of this pretty city are its warm people and their liking for fried food that extends well beyond deep fried pizza and fried Mars chocolate bar!
I was on a long business trip to London, UK. A weekend in between tempted me to make a 2-day visit to explore Edinburgh. Another motivation was to meet my niece Swasti who was studying graphic arts out there. Moving around with a local gives tourist a distinct advantage… of seeing and doing things that are popular. And not so popular.
Edinburgh is about 350 miles from London. Yes, the FPS (Foot Pound Second) system prevails in UK. Overnight buses are cheap but will take at least 9 hours. Flights are quick and cheap, but the hassles of the airport can’t be ignored. By default, trains are the best option to negotiate the distance and therefore very popular. A return ticket cost me GBP 114. And that’s because I worked out good weekend fares and train timings. Normally, the ticket would have cost over GBP 175. It will be much more for a first class.
If you have time that’s little flexible, departure times can make lot of difference to the fares. Of course, you can book through web, but I preferred to book a couple of days in advance at the booking counter at Kings Cross Station in London. That way, I could seek help and advice at the counter.
I took the East Coast train that left London Kings Cross at 2PM. It reached Edinburgh Waverley station in just 4 hours and 20 minutes. By the way, trains in UK don’t have a number. The departure time is the number! Just look for the time on the platform announcement board and you will see your train’s platform number. Hop on.
Swasti received me at the station. From there we walked to her apartment which was on the Forth Street. It was an easy walk of about 15 minutes and was all downhill (Edinburgh’s topography, its ups and downs reminded me about San Francisco). Which also meant I would need a cab on my return trip especially because I had a heavy bag with me. As soon as we reached home, I dropped my bag, had a cup of tea and was ready to explore Edinburgh with Swasti as my tour guide. Her fee for the service was simple… dinners and lunches at places of her choice. I could understand the plight and cravings of students living away from their hometowns.
It was only 7PM. Being summer, the light would be around till at least 10PM. A short walk from Forth Street got us at the base of Calton Hill. It takes just about 10 minutes to be on top through a flight of stairs or by the walkway.
Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh's main hills, set right in the city centre. It is unmistakable with its Athenian acropolis poking above the skyline. The acropolis is in fact an unfinished monument - originally called the "National Monument". Initiated in 1816, a year after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, it was meant to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens, as a memorial to those who had died in the Napoleonic Wars. Building began in 1822, but funds ran dry and celebrated Edinburgh architect William Playfair only saw a facade of his building completed. It was dubbed "Edinburgh's shame", but it's now a popular landmark.
The top of Calton hill is a usually quiet place to come on any day, with its grassy slopes and panoramic views of the city, including down the length of Princes Street (the main shopping thoroughfare) and Edinburgh Castle. There is a good view north of the cliffs of Salisbury Crags, Arthur's Seat, and the undulating slopes of Holyrood Park. However, on the day of my visit there was an air-show happening as part of Armed Forces Day celebrations. The hilltop was full with people enjoying the air show. I too had a glimpse of a few fighter jet planes.
In August, Calton Hill is a hub for Edinburgh festival shows. It offers excellent views of fireworks displays from the castle during Hogmanay and the grand finale of the Edinburgh Festival - the Festival Fireworks. On the last day of April, Calton Hill is the scene of the Beltane Fire Festival.
There are two observatories on Calton Hill: the Old Observatory House, designed by New Town architect James Craig in 1792; and the City Observatory, built in 1818, which has exhibitions and viewings of the night sky. Also of interest is Nelson's Monument (the British admiral who led his fleet to victory at Trafalgar in 1805), which has a famous time ball mechanism by which ships used to set their chronometers.
After spending an hour atop, we walked down from the other side on to Princes Street, crossed the famous Balmoral Hotel at Andrew’s Square, and walked the Leith Walk to reach our final destination for the evening – Massino, an Italian restaurant. The restaurant has my recommendation. That was it for the day.
The next day we were ready to explore more. Thankfully, the weather was little kind. It had been raining heavily the past few days and I was worried if rain would play spoilsport. It was cloudy, which was bad news for photographers shooting landscapes, but more desirable than rains I guess.
Our walk for the day was: From home on Forth Street to North Bridge to Royal Mile (also known as The High Street) to Victoria Street to Grass Market to Edinburgh College of Art to George Heriot School to Meadows to Bruntsfield to Morningside to Edinburgh Quay to Lothian Road to Princes Street to George Street for a Mexican dinner at Chiquito and back home. It was fun day but tiring. Swasti did her maths with Google maps to announce that we had walked for just over 14 kms. Yes, this is in metric system.
Here are some highlights from the day’s journey.
The Royal Mile runs down the East shoulder of this once active volcano and this is what gives the Royal mile its distinguishable geographical location. It was 325 million years ago during the ice age that the immense pressure of moving glaciers carved out its profile. People have been living on the hill for the last 7000 years. The castle area has been a hill fort for over 2000 years. The name Edinburgh comes from the ancient Gaelic "Dun Eidyn" which means 'hill fort on the sloping ridge'. The Royal Mile is actually more than a mile by 107 yards (3 feet to an yard; 1760 yards to a mile). It starts at the Castle entrance to the gates of Holyrood Palace. From the Castle esplanade which leads into the Royal Mile as you walk down the hill travelling East there are several streets which connect to make up the Royal Mile. Major streets include Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street, Cannongate, and Abbey Strand.
It was in 1124 when King David I saw the hill fort on the crag and the clachan or village which supplied goods to the noblemen, soldiers, and monks in the fort. David I was immediately inspired to remodel what had become by 1128 the Burgh of Eiden. He granted trading rights to the township and the Lawnmarket became an open air trading market. He then went about setting out the High Street which even then was referred to as Via Regis which means the Way of the King. It is possible that this is where the name Royal Mile originates.
Grand timber buildings were constructed and named after the landowners and this tradition can still be seen today on the present Royal Mile. The gaps between the buildings are called closes after the 'dividing enclosures'. The enclosures had large gardens which housed livestock. This medieval garden city was destroyed, its houses burned in 1544 by the English, during the period called the Rough Wooing. Henry VIII of England ordered its destruction because he was trying to force the Scots to allow his son to marry the infant Mary (Queen of Scots). By 1591 the houses were mostly made of stone but the overcrowding conditions were becoming increasingly unsanitary, although within the Cannongate the nobility were living in grand mansions with lovely gardens.
By 1645 things were far worse with as many as 70,000 people living within the Royal Mile. Some buildings were fourteen stories high and there could be three hundred people living in one block with up to ten people sharing a single room. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century that street cleaning was organised. Since we are on the subject, you may want to know that the 'closes' is where the residents dropped their poo right from their windows. Sure must have been smelly and slippery!
Thankfully, today the Royal Mile, is one great road for tourists as well as locals (the city's population stands at 500,000). No visit to Edinburgh would be complete without exploring this wonderful mile. On the day of my visit, the Royal Mile wore a festive look – in preparation of the Armed Forces Day parade.
The Grassmarket is located centrally just south of Edinburgh Castle. The area was originally designed to accommodate the horse and cattle markets held here weekly from 1477-1911. Cattle would be driven from the surrounding fields through The Cowgate in the east and West Port gate to the West. The area was also used to conduct public hangings, notably those of the Covenanters in the late 17th Century. However, Captain John Porteous and Maggie Dickson miraculously survived the noose. There's a pub named Maggie Dickson. Also adjoining is a pub named The Last Drop. As the name suggests, the condemned were offered a drink of their choice before being hanged! Today The Grassmarket serves as a convenient meeting point for locals and visitors alike who enjoy fashionable shops, bars and restaurants whilst soaking up the medieval atmosphere of the ancient marketplace with splendid views of the nearby castle.
The Meadows is a large park in Edinburgh which is lined with trees and covered in well-kept green lawn. It surely is the largest of the green patches in the city. Generally speaking, Edinburgh does not have many gardens and trees simply because the city is cramped with buildings built centuries ago. Meadows is split into several parts, but is chiefly divided into two halves by a road. On the upper half is an open golf course, free to anyone who happens to own their own set of clubs, and on the lower half you'll often find people playing football, tennis or croquet. There is also a playground for kids and it's a great place for walking, jogging, cycling and rollerblading as there are footpaths everywhere.
Bruntsfield is an upmarket neighbourhood. Its main road is lined with restaurants, shops and boutique stores. On the far side is Morningside. That’s where we had our brunch – at Rocket. If you happen to be in the area, do try their soups, salads and sandwiches.
There are 3 main roads parallel to each other in Edinburgh. The Royal Mile, Princes Street and George Street. Princes Street is Edinburgh's main shopping street. It is the southernmost street of Edinburgh's New Town, stretching around 1 mile from Lothian Road in the west to Leith Street in the east. One side of Princes Street are shops and malls while on the other there are no buildings thus offering great views of the Old Town as well as of the Edinburgh Castle. Running parallel to Princes Street is the Princes Garden that is home to Ross Fountain, Scott's Monument, Gallery of Scotland and Waverley Station.
Since most of the city was explored, the next morning I decided to be on my own to make a half day visit to a nearby sea-side town of North Berwick (pronounced Berik).
I reached Edinburgh at 2PM. Swasti was waiting for me at the Waverley station. That afternoon we decided to visit the Edinburgh Castle, St Giles Cathedral and walk the other side of Royal Mile all the way up to Queen’s Gallery and Holyrood Palace. The walk commenced only after enjoying our lunch of baked potatoes. The best ones in town are served at The Baked Potato Shop in one of the by lanes of Royal Mile. Grab a potato with choice of fillings and find a place on many of Royal Mile’s historic buildings’ steps to enjoy the massive portion… a medium will suffice for two.
Standing high above the city, Edinburgh Castle is a magnificent sight. Not only is it a historic monument but also a working military establishment where the Scottish Division headquarters are based. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers on this volcanic hill, then surrounded by forest, were Bronze Age around 1000BC. Even these early settlers recognised the strategic significance of this commanding and defendable site. By the middle ages this had developed into a mighty fortification and royal residency. Throughout the ages the castle was continually besieged, held by the English as well as the Scottish, but always to rise again. Badly damaged many times this is why the castle now hosts such a mix of architectural styles. Well, I avoided going into the castle since I had visited that many years ago. The entrance fee is GBP14 per person.
The Palace of Holyrood has played a central role in Scotland’s history ever since its foundation as a Augustian monastery by King David I of Scotland nearly 900 years ago. Rebuilt by James V of Scotland to include a large tower and a new west front. The palace was to become the home of his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the scene for many of the most dramatic and tragic events of her reign, culminating in the murder in the palace of her secretary, David Rizzio in 1566.
Rebuilt again by Charles II after the Civil War, the palace became a showplace of baroque architecture and interior decoration. It was the Edinburgh headquarters of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, a refuge after the French Revolution of 1789 for the future Charles X of France, and from the time of the State Visit of George IV in 1822, one of the foremost attractions for visitors to the Scottish capital, drawn to it as much for its associations with Scotland’s past as for the role it plays today as The Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. The palace now also houses a significant part of the Royal Collection, with paintings and works of art on display both within the palace itself and in adjacent The Queen’s Gallery.
It was 5PM. Since the return trip was uphill, it made sense to take a cab to reach Princes Street Garden. As compared to London, taxis in Edinburgh are quite reasonably priced. Another hour’s walk on the garden lawns and the Princes Street, we were ready for dinner. Tonight, my last night in Edinburgh, we enjoyed a Spanish dinner at La Tasca.
The next morning, I took the East Coast that left Waverley at 7:30AM. At 11:55 I was at Kings Cross ready to do business for the next couple of days in London.
Edinburgh Image Gallery Photo viewer
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