Edinburgh conjures only the best of adjectives. When I say Edinburgh is foggy, I don’t mean foggy in that dense, gloomy state of weather but rather that it has slipped into that obscure, hazy, dreamlike state that awakens into some romanticized fairytale. This, of course, is purely a fiction cast in my memory of the place; the reality is that it will rain for days and the fog will lift only to descend again. And yet, it is perfect.
I haven’t been everywhere in the world and my favorite cities are likely to change again and again, but I can say with certainty that Edinburgh will always remain in my top five, right up there with Prague and San Francisco. The thing that I enjoy most about all three cities – even though they are wildly different – is their layout. They are all placed near or on a mountainous landscape that causes the streets to wind and twist with varying degrees of elevation; they all share stunning views of a major waterway (ocean, rivers, bay); and they all have a specific and storied architecture that they are committed to maintaining.
Edinburgh’s grey and sand stones, its permanent castle-like appearance, and its inclusion of nature into nearly every possible space (gardens and trees, flowers on every balcony, moss dotting each stone fence) gives it an old world, lived-in feel that makes one feel cozy. It’s comfortable and welcoming, so very unlike some modern architecture that tends to feel sparse or cold.
A concrete staircase with a lion-headed handrail leads to the top of Calton Hill with views of the city below or the slopes of Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat to the North. Monuments, an observatory, and a few ancient cannons dot the rugged green landscape, but it is the Athenian acropolis that demands immediate attention. The structure, started in 1822, was never finished as the national monument it was meant to be, but the ruins – with their enormous stairs and oversize columns – are striking. The grounds nearby are littered with bottles and vibrantly colored trash that signal a well-used space for locals to relax and enjoy their evenings.
I climbed onto the structure and relaxed under the brilliant round sun, taking photographs of some of the best views of the city in intervals. I leaned against one of the columns wishing I had brought a book to read for hours into the afternoon. There are other gardens and green spaces throughout the city, but for me, nothing beats reading a book in a slight breeze with views of an architecturally appealing city.
Edinburgh Castle stands at one edge of Old Town where the Royal Mile ends. The cafés, pubs, and wool shops* along the Mile (but more so off the main street) are worth a look as many of them are local artisans with reasonably-priced goods. There are also several bookstores with ancient copies of Sir Walter Scott and antique maps that any fan of literature or history would fancy. Cathedrals, complete with intricate sculptural detail and stained glass windows, are interspersed with the brightly-painted shops and the brick apartment buildings above them. I immensely enjoyed the walk, more so because J and I meandered through off-streets (and closes such as “Worlds End Close” or “Bakehouse Close”) as well as other well-known streets such as Victoria Street and Princes Street. This city is ideal for slow travel.
Finally, you’ll reach the Edinburgh Castle (there is ample signage guiding the way). The historic fortress demands attention on the city’s skyline and grants views of the city you would expect from a structure meant to defend. Every gated window, notched wall, and protected inner wall has a clear birds-eye view of the surrounding area so that guards would have been able to see any sort of danger before it approached. Inside, the rooms have been renovated to look as they did when the castle was still in use (1600s) and there is a display of the crown jewels and the bone china.
*Beware of the more touristy shops as they are more expensive and some of their goods are produced in bulk in other countries (China, for example).
We woke early on the third day and slipped into proper tennis shoes, ready for an almost-three-mile hike up to Arthur’s Seat. The dormant volcano rests in the middle of the city and is the highest peak in Holyrood Park. The Park lies next to Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace and is easily reached by public bus.
The sun gleamed through a thick layer of clouds as we began our ascent, a not terribly difficult jaunt from the base to the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel where we took a few pictures of the swans in St. Margaret’s Loch below us. We then continued our way up the Dry Dam path with little obstacle. The climb becomes a bit more difficult, especially in slippery weather, once you reach the rocky peak. However, dozens of locals were running the paths (and off the paths) getting in their exercise for the day so as long as you’re in proper footwear the trek should be fairly easy and safe.
We reached the top in under an hour and after taking dozens of photographs of the surrounding landscape, we set out to eat our breakfast at the summit. The fog rolled over us in a dampened mist and the temperature was near 40 (Fahrenheit), but Arthur’s Seat was nothing less than peaceful. We sat in silence, eating our pastries and sipping tea with views of Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, and Scott Monument stretching before us.
We climbed down a different way than we came up, this time choosing a rockier (read: more difficult and slippery) path from the summit down until we met up with the Volunteer’s Walk. We passed Hunter’s Bog and the Salisbury Crags, finishing back at St. Margaret’s Well where we had begun. The trek, though not incredibly difficult, is for those who enjoy hiking, enjoy the outdoors, and don’t mind getting a little dirty (you may end up having to slide down some of the rocks and abrupt “cliffs”).
Check back Thursday for more on Edinburgh, Aberfoyle, and the hairy coos.
-M. Ray Hall