March 21, 2012 – Given the choice of getting a quick breakfast to go and taking the bus, or having a full breakfast and taking a taxi, we chose the taxi. Yesterday we’d called and made a reservation so we knew we’d be able to enjoy breakfast, and even had a chance to take a short walk to the cash machine beforehand. The taxi was just a small private car, but it did the job, and after a 30 minute ride we were at the train station with time to spare. Even better, our driver grew up in Edinburgh, and was more than happy to tell us about his hometown.
The train ride was nice but uneventful, and in a few hours we had left the lovely mountains of the Lake District and were ready to explore Edinburgh. First we had to get out of the train station (they’re doing quite a bit of construction), then walked about a mile (mostly downhill) to our B&B in the new section of town. The B&B was in a row house in Leith, built around 1900. Our host offered us tea and biscuits (quite good!) and offered to take our bags to our room when it was ready.
Of course this meant we were going to be to be trekking back up the hill into town (little did we know we’d do this walk 5 times throughout our stay), but the going was much quicker and easier without our large packs. So back up the hill we went. Then over a bridge, and up another hill. The destination? Edinburgh castle. Built on an extince volcano. Never taken by force (though they did surrender – once – after a prolongued seige). And very imposing. The castle is visible from just about anywhere in town, and the views from the castle of the town are definitely great. Visitors approach the castle by walking up the broad esplanade. The esplanade is lined with statues and plaques, and like elsewhere inside the castle, offers panoramic views of Edinburgh and the coast.
After crossing the esplanade you pass through several gates, and eventually enter the castle. You can certainly wander around on your own, but we recommend taking a guided tour. They run for approximately an hour, and the guides provide a good overview of the castle and its history. Of course, the guide also had a fantastic Scottish accent, and Tony immediately decided that he’d like one too. Maybe if we spend more time in the country, dear.
Anyway, the tour began with a brief history of the castle and its fortifications, including about 8 gates that would have to be breached if someone was crazy enough to try to assault it. All 8 gates were never breached, which is little wonder since some were literally only a few feet apart (think: solid gate, barred gate, solid gate, in the space of six feet). After the brief overview of the history of the castle we were off, heading up a hill to the inner part of the castle. We passed St. Margaret’s Chapel (closed due to renovations), modern-day barracks, and heard a quick overview of how the castle has been changed and converted to the structure that we see today.
After the tour we hurried up the steps to see Scotland’s crown jewels (this exhibit gets crowded, so make sure to beat the tour groups!). The jewels are displayed next to the recently-returned Stone of Scone (pronounced “scoon”). The Scottish kings sat on the large stone when they were crowned; England took it and kept it for a few hundred years, going to far as to build the coronation chair so the stone would fit securely under it. Scotland can keep the stone, only giving it back when a new British monarch is crowned. The jewels are beautiful, and the originals, carefully hidden while Cromwell was busy destroying England’s crown jewels.
Next up was a stroll through the Great Hall, which was finished in 1511. The hall is quite large and imposing, painted a bold red. We also had the chance to view several museums, including the National War Museum Scotland, the Royal Scots Regimental Museum, and the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. None of the museums were huge, but all contained a lot of information, from artifacts, clothing, weapons, to the newest advances in prosthetics.
The Scottish National War Memorial is (at least to these Americans) pretty unique. This was the first time we’d encountered a Roll of Honour, in this case the list of dead from WWI, kept in a large chest in the chapel. Other smaller books (some still inches thick) contain name after name of the honoured dead from later wars, often listing town of birth and sometimes date of death. These are all hand written in clear calligraphy. The chapel is still, silent, and sacred.
We walk hand in hand back through the gates, pausing to look out on the town. Down the Royal Mile, past narrow pedestrian alley ways to St. Giles’ Cathedral, preaching grounds for John Knox. We bypassed the main part of the cathedral and headed down to the crypt for a late afternoon tea. We sampled a (delicious if slightly dry) maple walnut cake with wonderful maple icing and an iced donut twist (called a yum yum). We also split a good pot of tea. This little cafe is worth a visit, much of the food is home made and the people working there are welcoming (even if you’re obviously a tourist). Now that we were fortified we wandered back up the stairs to the church. St. Giles’ is beautiful inside – soaring ceilings, stained glass, huge carved blocks of stone.
After admiring the cathedral we went back to the B&B. When we left it was nice and warm, and we we had just walked a mile with our bags. Now it was getting on towards sunset and the wind was picking up to the point we couldn’t ignore it if we wanted to stay out on the town. After that 2 mile side trip we thought it would be a good idea to walk up Calton Hill. This hill, situated between Arthur’s seat and the castle, has some very nice views, particularly around dusk. It also contains some interesting architecture, from a Nelson monument, to an observatory, and the not-quite-finished National Monument. The hill also affords a nice view of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, with Aruthur’s Seat rising in the distance.
After exploring for a bit we were ready for some dinner. World’s End Pub fit the bill, and was just a short walk away. Many years ago the pub was situated at the end of the town wall; the peoples’ world was self-contained in Edinburgh, so the wall was literally the end of the world. Louisa had a craving for the seafood chowder with bread, and Tony went with the (what did you have?). Both dishes were excellent; the chowder was rich and creamy with a generous amount of seafood (and you can’t go wrong with good bread!). The (other dish) was also very well done. We couldn’t pass up the ales; as usual, these didn’t disappoint.
Since we were in Scotland for one night we knew we wanted to try some whisky; our destination of choice was Bow Bar. Bow Bar is a lovely, narrow (and not too long) bar in Edinburgh. Fortunately we were able to find space at the bar (most bars we’ve seen, like this one, don’t have stools, allowing customers to stand and chat or order a drink and sit down with friends). One of the bartenders gave us a quick rundown of their whisky selection, while the other bartender asked us which state we were from. She explained that our Nalgene bottle helped give us away as Americans. (She may also have said to her boyfriend, “Look honey, Americans!” We had a new best friend for the rest of the night.;-))
The first bartender uncapped a few bottles and let us smell them. Tony really liked the strong, smokey (very strong, very smokey) ones, while Louisa preferred the lighter, fruitier smells. We each tried one of our preferred whiskies (adding a bit of water as needed), and then split a medium (lighter) one. After returning to the B&B we were still amazed at the size of the room. We were in the basement, but the room was as big as a studio apartment; Tony also appreciated the bold colors and modern decoration.