BY SHARON MICHALIK
The trip may be fleeting but the feelings are forever.
Sometimes you make a trip to a new place that, inexplicably, feels like home from the minute your feet hit the ground and your brain registers the unfamiliar dialect. For my husband and me, Edinburgh, Scotland, is such a place. Although we’ve now visited several times, we’ll never grow weary of haggis (well, I won’t, he won’t try it) and we’ll tramp the Royal Mile from end to end and over again without ever feeling tired of climbing the steep hill, because the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of “Auld Reekie” are truly magical. Every time we visit, it feels like a homecoming of sorts and we will never get enough of our favorite European city.
December 2016 was our first visit during Edinburgh’s holiday season—Hogmanay and Christmas. Hogmanay is Scotland’s New Year’s Eve celebration and, in a land where Scotch runs more freely than water, you’d better believe that Hogmanay is a party never to forget (or one not to remember, depending on how much of the Scotch you imbibe).
On any day, Edinburgh is a feast for the eyes and taste buds but, during the holiday season, Scotland’s capital rolls out the red carpet, puts on a pot of tea, and invites everyone to become a friend for some of the best times you’ll ever have with people you’ll never know.
Edinburgh offers a treasure trove of historical buildings and cultural sites. There are a few special spots, however, that we feel we must see whenever we visit.
SIGHTSEEING IN EDINBURGH
Four separate streets in Edinburgh, coined the Royal Mile, offer sightseeing of several historically significant buildings including Real Mary King’s Close, the Museum of Childhood, the Museum of Edinburgh, the People’s Story Museum, and the Canongate Kirkyard.
The approximate length of a “Scottish mile,” which is 107 yards longer than the U.S. mile, takes about 20 minutes to walk. The Royal Mile is also home to the Scottish Parliament, the most anachronistic building you will ever see. Further up, you will find the beautiful 12th Century St. Giles Cathedral and 17th Century Parliament Hall, home to the pre-union parliament.
Edinburgh Castle, situated on Castle Rock, sits majestically at the top of the Royal Mile and offers views of the surrounding city. The view of the town, sandwiched between the Castle at one end and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the foothills of Arthur’s Seat at the other, is breathtaking. Sightseeing highlights of the Castle include the Royal Palace, the Great Hall, the legendary Stone of Destiny, the One O’clock Gun, and the National War Museum. Holyroodhouse, at the other end of the Royal Mile, is the Queen’s home when she visits Edinburgh. You can tour the palace and gardens and learn a bit of history and culture. There is a tour guide in each room who will share the history of the furniture, the artifacts, paintings, and the way in which the rooms were used when the palace was a full-time Royal residence. The home features an extensive art collection and some very delicately-preserved 16th and 17th century furniture and household goods.
Moving from room to room, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen for the palace. The original glass windows offer spectacular views of both the manicured gardens (open for touring in the summer months) and the magnificently mountainous Arthur’s Seat. From a perch on top of one of the many lovingly-restored window seats in the palace, you can see crowds of people making their way to the craggy peak of Arthur’s Seat. If you grow weary while touring, there’s a lovely tearoom on the grounds.
Arthur’s Seat is also worth taking in, although a trip to the top is not for the faint of heart. We have done several half Ironman triathlons and half marathons and consider ourselves fit, but we struggled to reach the summit of this ancient volcano. In fact, we were quite humbled as we huffed and puffed our way up the rocky terrain and were passed by sprightly octogenarians. On a clear day the view from the top, once you recover, offers a magnificent sight of the city and beyond to the Firth of Forth. It’s also worth noting there are some excellent pubs close by after you descend.
No visit to Edinburgh is complete without seeing the city’s famous mascot, Greyfriars Bobby. Legend has it, when longtime Edinburgh police officer John Gray died, his dog Bobby kept watch over his grave for 14 years, until the dog’s own death in 1872. Later, the city erected a statue in his honor in front of a pub—also named in his honor—perhaps an even greater tribute given how the Scottish love their pubs. It’s good luck to rub Bobby’s nose, which is why the little black dog’s nose is just as bright and shiny as it could be. Tourists begin lining up in the morning to get their photos with Bobby, and then traipse across the street to the Greyfriars Kirkyard where he is buried. It’s also good luck to lay a stick on his gravestone, since all pups love to chase a stick or two.
The National Museum of Scotland, with exhibits and galleries about Scottish history, the natural world, science and technology, world culture, and art and design, is built around an open atrium fashioned after London’s famed Victorian-era Crystal Palace. The museum is also home to the Millennium Clock. Built in 1999 to celebrate the new millennium, the clock is a juxtaposition of the best and the worst of the modern world. As the clock strikes and Bach’s music fills the atrium, an Egyptian monkey at the base of the clock begins to turn a wheel which activates other figures representing the successes and failures of our world. It’s fascinating to see. Clock-watchers should arrive early before the crowds gather.
One final place we love to visit is Mary King’s Close, site of an historic subdivision inhabited by poorer members of Edinburgh’s working class. When the government needed more land for building and no more land was to be had, they simply built on top of this neighborhood, essentially making the residents and their livestock unwilling underground dwellers. What remains today for touring are some of their homes and original streets for an interesting look at 17th century life in Edinburgh.
There are many walking tours in Edinburgh, both free and paid, and many of them have themes: for writers, for history buffs, for musicians and so on. By far our favorite, however, is the free Harry Potter tour that meets a couple times a week at the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. Local drama students and other Potter aficionados lead the tour, taking walkers to many of the spots favored by author J.K. Rowling and to some of the buildings and landmarks that inspired scenes and events in the novels. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Harry Potter series, and it ends, of course, with a magic trick performed on Victoria Street, a narrow, curvy street with uniquely built retail establishments that is said to have served as inspiration for the famed Diagon Alley.
Don’t believe a soul who tells you the Scottish don’t know how to cook! There’s no shortage of amazing places to eat in Edinburgh. If you’re brave, of course, there’s haggis, a savory pudding made of sheep’s organs ground up with oatmeal and encased in the lining of a sheep’s stomach. If you’re game, you can have it on a bison burger, on a sandwich, with your eggs, and—one of my personal favorites—on a pizza.
One of our new favorite places to stop for dinner is The World’s End pub on the Royal Mile. The food is impeccable and the atmosphere historic. The menu ranges from burgers to fish pie to “Cullen skink,” a local delicacy made with smoked haddock, potatoes, and cream. Haggis can be had here, of course, served with locally-farmed Balmoral chicken wrapped in bacon and swimming in a creamy whisky sauce.
As in any small European eating establishment, reservations are suggested, but early diners and parties of two can often get a table fairly quickly. Dinner in Europe typically doesn’t begin until after 8 p.m. and often lasts until 10 p.m. Be patient while waiting for your meals in Edinburgh – or anywhere in Europe. The kitchens are tiny and the food is freshly prepared. Oftentimes, the kitchens are in basements and outbuildings that weren’t designed to be restaurants. Inherent logistical challenges can lead to serving delays. Just breathe, soak in the ambiance, and have another beer. On the other hand, you won’t have a waiter pestering you with a check. Contrary to an urban legend, there’s plenty of cold beer to be had and an American accent prompts the waiters to bring you a glass of iced water these days.
If a decadent afternoon tea is more to your liking, run, don’t walk, to the Georgian Tea Room at The Dome. Reservations are required. Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the tearoom fills up quickly during the holidays but is well worth the wait and the calories. Housed inside an old, lovingly-restored bank, The Dome offers fine dining in The Grill Room and The Club Room and drinks in the Front Bar downstairs, but upstairs houses the exquisitely decorated Georgian Tea Room. The service is flawless and the tea choices include a variety of black teas and herbal infusions. Besides the regular menu—featuring finger sandwiches, scones served with jam and clotted cream, and a variety of cakes, the petit fours, sandwiches, and tiny hand-shaped gateaux were sublime.
On December 30, the entire city stops what it is doing for the torchlight parade. More than 10,000 people gather on the Royal Mile and various tributaries and, led by pipe and drum, carry their torches through the streets and across the bridge to Princes Street. Traveling up Calton Hill, the parade ends in a massive bonfire. While that sounds impressive enough, now imagine the parade being led first by the most well-trained pipe and drum musicians you’ve ever seen and trailed by literally hundreds of men, women, and children dressed as, and behaving as, torch-bearing Vikings. Ticket-bearing volunteers make up the rest of the torch bearers and, although we didn’t have tickets this year, participating in this parade is definitely on our “must do” list for next time. Simply experiencing this procession was truly electrifying and really set the tone for the remainder of the festivities.
For Hogmanay itself, the Royal Mile closes and the party subdivides into ticketed events. There’s the Concert in the Gardens for those who prefer a musical evening, the Ceilidh Under the Castle for those looking for a night of traditional Scottish participatory dancing and music and the Street Party for those just looking to celebrate New Year’s Eve with the best view of the amazing fireworks over the Castle.
We mistakenly selected the Street Party. As we rounded the corner after passing security, my husband turned to me with a panicked look and said, “These are not our people,” realizing we were the geriatrics of the crowd. We survived, and it was amazing, but next time we’re going for the Ceilidh Under the Castle, which promises to be something slightly tamer and less “nightclubbish.” I do have to say that the street party offered amazing musical talent, with at least four giant stages featuring constant live music and so many opportunities for people-watching that we were constantly entertained.
We’ve been many places to celebrate New Year’s Eve, but nothing we have done thus far compares to watching the night sky light up above Edinburgh Castle, with thousands of other revelers breaking into rounds of Auld Lang Syne in more languages, dialects, and accents than I could ever count. In a newspaper article the next day, the group was said to have been comprised of more than 75,000 people from more than 80 countries. It felt like we were ringing in the New Year with the whole world.
In her journal, Queen Victoria described Edinburgh as “fairy like” and said it was a place “you would only imagine as a thing to dream of, or to see in a picture.” Fortunately, you don’t have to simply dream about it or see it in pictures, because Edinburgh’s magic is just one transatlantic flight away and tickets are already available for Hogmanay 2017/2018.
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