Wandering down the Royal Mile.

For me, Edinburgh will always evoke an image of calm and comfort, a cup of fragrant earl grey, and a scone piled high with butter and jam. Steve and I spent almost three days here (July 14-17), walking through very historic streets and scaling its heights to see the surrounding scenery, and braving the occasional showers. We left too soon, but I have hopes that we’ll be back.

We stayed for three nights at an apartment in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and spent most of our time wandering up and down the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is a gently sloping road which bisects Edinburgh, dividing the New Town (not so new, dating from the 1700s) in the north from the Old Town in the South. On the western end is Edinburgh Castle, and after walking by about 45 stores specializing in kilts and cashmeres, on the eastern end is Holyrood Palace, where the Queen keeps her apartments when she comes to Scotland. Just south of the palace is Holyrood Park, a vast inverted green bowl that rises hundreds of meters into the air. It is punctuated by brown rocky craigs and hills, and from street level, you can see people climbing their way up the hill like so many ants. It is an imposing height, but not at all an imposing hike, as we covered the highest peaks of the park within three hours (including a half-hour nap!).

As we began to hike up the side of the mountain on a rocky ramp, the streets and buildings of Edinburgh took on definition and depth, giving us a wonderful view. Near what we thought was the top of the crags, we spread our jackets out on the grass. The warm sunlight was like a soft, firm blanket, and while Steve took a nap, I was enchanted enough just to stay awake and appreciate how good it felt to lie down in the sun.  When the sun went away, we resumed our hike onto the highest hills within Holyrood Park. It began with a number of steep stairs and switchbacks, which eventually flattened out to a gentle upward slope, bringing us to the hill of Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Holyrood Park. A small concrete obelisk informed us we were 250 meters above sea level. The wind was blowing hard by this time, and the sky iron-grey. Despite our shivers, we stayed up there for a few minutes to take a few pictures as well as a good look at the surroundings. The park itself is entirely surrounded by the metropolitan area of Edinburgh, and beyond that on two sides, it is hemmed in by the North Sea. Originally, I had seen maps of the park and thought it rather charitable of Scottish city planners to leave space for such a big public park, easily a third the size of the city, but when we got there, seeing the crags that rose out of the earth, like giant slanted slabs of igneous rock hundreds of feet in the air, I realized it was more of a necessity to avoid building on or around the hills of Holyrood Park. The peak was not a lonely one either. We were surrounded by dozens of other tourists and locals who had successfully hiked up the hill, including some small children and one intrepid dog.

In high spirits after making the climb, we were beginning our way back down when I took a misstep wading through the grass, and twisted my left ankle. It was a pretty bad sprain as these things go, and Steve had to sit with me for five or six minutes before we judged it safe to go back down. The descent was much slower by necessity, and it took us a while to get back. However, after the long hike, I refused to be hobbled by my ankle, and insisted that we go to a nearby café. Steve patiently waited as we passed by two or three cafés that did not seem properly ideal to me, and we finally settled on one called Kilimanjaro Coffee. It proved to be an excellent choice! We settled in a corner table, and ordered tea for me (earl grey, hot, naturally) and a scone with clotted cream and jam, and an Americano with a brownie slice for Steve. After the windy hike, settling down in this café with a book and tea and scones was just the most amazing thing. The scone was studded with apricots and beautifully large and airy. The clotted cream proved to be not much more than whipped butter, but the fig jam was delicious, and the combination of the three was perfect. The earl grey tea was also fortifying, a strong brew of loose tea leaves, spiced by the note of bergamot oil. I added enough cream and sugar to it for an army, and then sipped down three cups. It was so perfect that we came back the next afternoon just to indulge in exactly the same ritual!

The next day, we investigated the opposite end of the Royal Mile, where Edinburgh Castle is perched on a rocky crag. It was much more of a touristy exhibit than I had expected, practically overrun with Chinese visitors as well as the French. The view however was gorgeous. We walked up a long spiraling ramp built in the 15th century to facilitate the moving big cannons, and visited in turn the One Gun Salute tower, the royal apartments, the prisons, and St. Margaret’s Chapel. Each part of the castle had a distinct and interesting historical flavor about it, having played a role in many of the wars between England and Scotland, and subsequent wars. The One Gun Salute is an anachronistic remnant of timekeeping in the late 1800s, where one cannon shot was fired from Edinburgh Castle to mark 1 pm for the surrounding residents, and keep clocks accurate. According to Steve, while many cities marked noon, Edinburgh chose to mark 1 pm instead with one cannon blast instead of twelve to save on expenses! There was nothing about this on the explanatory plaques in the castle, of course. The royal apartments were quite beautiful, and included the crown jewels (called crown honours) of Scotland. We saw the room where Queen Mary of Scots gave birth to James I, the last king of Scotland who also became James VI when he inherited the throne of England as well. We also took a long look at the prisons, which were filled with historically accurate furnishings, like hammocks instead of beds or bunks for all the prisoners. Many prisoners were kept there, including quite a few from the American Revolution, and left their carvings and initials on prison doors from that era. Those doors were well preserved behind glass, and certain carvings were highlighted where they had connected the initials and last names with the identities and stories of the prisoners. Finally, we saw St. Margaret’s Chapel, which dated from the 10th century, and was the oldest building within Edinburgh Castle. It was a very tiny room, but had a few really beautiful stained glass windows. On our way out, I took photos of the dog cemetery, a very small patch on the castle walls where they buried dogs from the Scottish regiments who served at the castle. Finally, we took a look at St. Giles’s Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in Edinburgh. My camera stopped working after about five photos, so we didn’t stay long, but we were both amazed by the number of stained glass windows it had.

On our way back to our place, we stopped briefly at a store called the Scottish Whiskey Experience, since Steve is a strong proponent of Scotch whiskey, especially those from the Isle of Islay. Our original trip to Scotland was to include a whole week of roaming around the highlands and Islay with some friends, visiting distilleries and having Scotch breakfasts all the time. However, our friends had to bow out, so we were keen on trying some sort of whiskey during our time here. However, to our horrified surprise, most of the whiskey that was available in the store was also available in the US and for far less. For example, something called the Laphraoig Three Wood (~50 pounds) sounded like a variant of Laphraoig we could not buy in the US, but after a search on Binny’s, a local Chicago liquor outlet, we found it available for merely $59.99 USD! The same proved to be true of nearly all the prices we took down, so instead of getting whiskey, we instead went for more tea and scones, and then a nice Scotch breakfast the morning that we left Edinburgh.

For breakfast, we both got a large plate with eggs, beans, toast, tomatoes, and potato scones. Steve got a maxi version which also included bacon, sausage, and rounds of both haggis and blood sausage, which we ended up splitting. Combined with some hot tea and coffee, it was very satisfying, and we were both glad to be back in a country where breakfast is really considered a meal! The last decent breakfast we’d gotten was actually in New Delhi, where some restaurants served huge helpings. France and Croatia, on the other hand, is usually content to make do with a pastry and an espresso. We both liked the haggis (basically minced sheep lung) in small increments, and I especially liked the blood sausage. It was a great treat!

We had to leave Scotland far too early… I felt like there was so much more we could have seen and wanted to see, especially in the Highlands and in the islands. The glimpse that we got was of a fairly cool and lonely but beautiful landscape, and I am really excited to see more of it someday.

Next, south to England!


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