July 1 we set off from Boston to Edinburgh on the first leg of a month-long tour around Europe. Even though we had some awfully big plans to prepare for on the home front, our dear friends Eamon and Lucy had invited us to their wedding party in England, and we wanted to be there. The airfare costs enough that it made sense to make a longer trip of it and see some new places. Mike had never been to Europe and I’d only seen a little bit, so it was pretty much all new to us. We took some time to hunt for multi-stop airline tickets so we could visit a few different places on a dime, and we found a good deal: Boston -> Edinburgh -> Whittrigg -> Barcelona -> Amsterdam -> Dublin -> Boston! Why did we start in Edinburgh? The wedding destination was in the north of England, within sight of Scotland. Mike always wanted to visit Scotland, and it sounded nice to me. We both love some good scotch and medieval history, and we’d found this cheap flight into Glasgow. So we took a bus straight on from Glasgow down to Edinburgh and hung out for a few days.
It’s a pretty city, nice for strolling around and being a tourist. In our first minutes there we had a bit of a struggle hauling my clumsy wheeled suitcase up this maze of steep, twisting crowded cobblestone alleyways from the bus stop up over castle hill and down the other side to our hostel, completely silly – why didn’t I just bring a backpack? I always hated those wheeled suitcases. Anyway, we had a room in a hostel in the old town, right by the Grassmarket (a low-lying part of the old city that was previously one of Edinburgh’s main markets for horse and cattle, and also former site of the city’s public gibbet) and Greyfriars Kirk. Next time we visit Edinburgh, I would a) not stay in this exact location on the weekend, as there are a lot of bars and we were treated to a few late-night hen do’s outside the windows, and b) not stay in a hostel, as we’ve since discovered airbnb. But it wasn’t such a bad spot, and it was cool to be right in the medieval city and close to the castle.
After our overnight flight we were feeling a little foggy, but excited to be somewhere new, and we dropped our stuff and set off to explore. We got a spicy lunch of Indian food at this nearby mosque that serves cheap and tasty homemade Indian buffet lunch in their back courtyard. Seemed like a bunch of our fellow lunchers were students from the University of Edinburgh, right around the corner. Then we wandered around town for a while, stopped for a beer at the Royal Oak Tavern on Infirmary Row, which we didn’t realize is a famous folk music place. It was a little quiet and gloomy at first, and then some jovial guy wandered in and started singing some rousing folk song and everyone in the bar joined in and sang along at top voice! I also overheard locals talking about Inspector Rebus at the bar! I feel like kind of a nerd admitting that I just started reading all of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus stories a few months earlier, excited about visiting Edinburgh. And there were lots of things around town that I recognized from reading the Rebus mysteries, and I caught lots of small mentions of the fictitious detective and saw fliers around town for “Inspector Rebus” themed tours of the town.
Then we walked along the Royal Mile a ways and looked at all the intense medieval buildings and seas of cobblestones, walked through a maze of tiny closes and vennels and alleys, and ended up tasting some single malts at the Bow Bar. The serious whisky bars in Edinburgh have some very long whisky lists and the bartenders would sit with us for a moment and chat about which ones were good, what kind of whiskies we like and which ones we might want to try. Most places also seem to have a “malt of the moment,” which is a less common whisky that you can only buy by the glass while the bottle’s open, and when that one runs out then there’s a new malt of the moment. So we got to taste some nice scotches that we wouldn’t get at home. Then I think we poked around Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (a famous churchyard and home to Greyfriars Bobby), ate some fish & chips with a cask ale, and probably slept very soundly after so much traveling, wandering and whisky-drinking.
We were both pretty excited about seeing the castle on Saturday morning. It was really big! like a city within a city, and had a lot of military history and memorabilia, which I suppose is to be expected. I kind of wanted to know more about life in medieval Edinburgh, both inside and outside of the castle, but most of the material was more about political and military history. We were treated to a story-telling time by someone in period costume, who told us all about Robert The Bruce and then we all had to join hands and did some kind of ancient song and dance together! Then at the top of the castle I met a few Argentines who asked me to take their picture and we chatted in Spanish for a minute. The views from the top of the castle, over the ramparts and across the city, were about the best part of the castle visit. And the weather was sunny and lovely, which meant that most of the locals thought it was terribly hot and complained about global warming, but I was happy in the sun.
After we descended from the castle, we walked across Princes Streets Gardens to explore New Town. Compared to the narrow, convoluted medieval streets around the castle, the New Town is strikingly geometric and orderly, with wide streets and mostly neo-classical and Georgian style buildings.
We wandered for a while and then picked a destination, another recommended bar called Kay’s, once a Georgian carriage house, then home to a wine & spirits merchant for 150 years, and then in the 1970’s converted to a public house with lots of original Victorian interior details. They specialize in cask ales (which is a kind of small-batch beer that’s not very fizzy) and had lots of interesting whisky too. It was quiet on a Sunday afternoon; we sat and played a few lazy games of cards.
Next day I wanted to visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and we set off on foot through New Town in search of the museum beyond. It got kind of confusing and hilly and twisty and then we felt like we’d left the city entirely and it seemed we were completely lost, but eventually we ended up at the museum. It’s an imposing place with an enormous front lawn and I gather there are sculpture gardens on the other side too. There was a room that recreated the London studio of Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi, who was one of my very favorite artists in college (I always really loved his silkscreen prints) and I had forgotten he was from Scotland so it was a good surprise to find him there.
With only a few hours left before our train to Carlisle, we spent a nice hour at The Guildford, a spectacular Victorian pub, had some spicy noodles at a funny Japanese ramen shop, and then while Mike went back to pack up his suitcase, I had a cup of tea at The Elephant House, a coffee shop where J. K. Rowling supposedly wrote some of the first Harry Potter novels (hence their Harry Potter-themed bathrooms). More Edinburgh pictures here.