Monday, June 15, 2015

Sunday in Edinburgh

I spent last week vacationing in Scotland, mostly in Edinburgh. I had been there once before, 40+ years ago, and it had not been on my “must return” places. On that list were Ireland, Paris, and Yugoslavia (as thus it was at the time).

Well, I’ve made good on Ireland about 15 or 20 times. I’ve been back to Paris five or six times. And Yugoslavia – or at least the Dubrovnik piece of it – is on my bucket list.

Scotland was not.

I remembered little of my first time there.

I remembered that Edinburgh was gloomy – dark, dank, rainy, chilly – and that the Castle loomed over the city. I’m sure we stayed in a cheap B&B (we had not yet started hosteling), but I truly have no recall of what my friend Joyce and I did there – not in the same way as I remember other stops in the UK: London, Bath, Lakes Country, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Holyhead (where we caught the night boat to Ireland) - places where I have vivid recollections of what the scenery was like, what touristy things we did, where we stayed, what we ate, people we met.

Other than a mental snapshot of Edinburgh Castle – postcard-clarity recall of that, by the way – I remember nothing else. Maybe we were just passing through. I have firmer memories of Fort William – up the in Highlands. Not far from Fort William, Joyce and I were picked up by a couple of British soldiers, perhaps commandoes, given who I now know trained in this area, and driven (against their orders, it almost goes without saying) to Kyle of Lochalsh, where we took the ferry to Skye, and stayed in a quite nice B&B.

Our other stop in Scotland was a hostel overlooking Loch Lomond, which was quite lovely. The hostel was an old country estate that, during WWII, had been used as a billet for the RAF. Some of the rooms still had the name of the flight lieutenant who’d lived there over the door.

Anyway, I went to Edinburgh because my sister Trish and her family were heading there for a few days after their sale on the Queen Mary. I decided to come over a few days before their arrival and get a bit of solo vacation in before meeting up with them.

My first decision was quite wise: there was a day flight, and I was able to take that. Needless to say, the day flight wasn’t to Edinburgh; it required a layover in Heathrow, putting me in Edinburgh at 11 p.m. And, given the dearth of taxis at the airport at that time, into my hotel by midnight.

I’ve only taken the day flight across the pond once before, and it’s absolutely the best way to avoid jet lag. Too bad there are so few of them.

Lack of jet lag made my first day in Edinburgh a good one.

I was staying at a hotel downtown, a close walk to all the sights.

First up: a monument to Walter Scott.

Say what you might about Walter Scott as a writer – and all I can say I is that I read Ivanhoe freshman year in high school and found it excruciatingly boring - you have to like a country the puts up a major monument to a favorite writer. Even if the monument looks like this. Scott MemorialActually, a lot of monuments in Edinburgh look like this: dark and gloomy. Then again, many of the monuments are dedicated to those who lost their lives in one of many wars. One even included a remembrance of those lost in the War of 1812, where I believe they were on the wrong side.

The Scott monument sits next to a lovely park, the Princes Street Gardens, which are in full rhododendron bloom. And, fortunately, the weather this week – at least by Scot’s standards – is prime.

When I walked out on Sunday, if was sunny but cool (low 50’s) and blustery. I had on a sweater, scarf, and jacket and felt comfortable. Many of the natives were out and about in summer dresses and sandals. I commented to one woman that she was very brave and she replied, “Oh, I just want to take advantage of this gorgeous summer weather.” Later, when I stepped in out of the bluster to have a gelato for myself, the girl at the counter was kvelling (or the Edinburgh equivalent) about how great it was now that summer had arrived.

After my amble in the park, I climbed up about 200 steps, give or take, to get to Old Town, where Edinburgh Castle sits. I walked up to the Castle, but decided that it would be more fun to wait and explore with Trish and family. So I just meandered around Old Town, which was quite crowded on a pleasant “summer” Sunday, and found myself in St. Giles Cathedral –more on that in a later post. A most excellent stop.

My sister Kath had mentioned an article she’d seen on Stockbridge, the Beacon Hill of Edinburgh, so I legged it over there. Quite a nice walk, past more gardens. What struck me there (and elsewhere in Edinburgh) was how many of the stores were second-hand shops run for the benefit of some charity or another: lung, cancer, Oxfam. Far more than you’d ever see in the States anywhere. We do have second hand shops on the Hill, but they’re antique stores or second hand clothing places that are run for the moi charity. One of the shops I saw had a sign that read “What’s given in Scotland, stays in Scotland.” I wouldn’t say that nationalist fervor runs high, but Scotland’s flag – the blue and white saltire – flies proud in most places.

After getting lost once, and only once, I was directed back toward my hotel by a very nice gentleman who noticed me standing dumbstruck on a corner trying to map where I was standing to what was on my map. I’m glad he came over to me. Some of the streets weren’t marked, and I was about the head in the wrong direction.

My overall impression of Edinburgh was that it – not surprisingly– reminded me a lot of cities in Ireland. Not surprising, what with geography and all that, plus given that many of the main buildings (government, bank, and grande dame hotel – the Balmoral) were built out during the Victorian era. Edinburgh is, also not surprising, has a lot more Rule Brittania-style monuments. It’s also darker (more blackish-brown than gray) than Irish cities. And less boisterous, noisy and chaotic. The locals are not the jaywalkers the Irish are either, and stand on corners for what seems an inordinately un-pedestrian friendly amount of time waiting for a walk sign.

That the Scots are more decorous than the Irish is no surprise. Although they are in Scotland, they are also veddy British.

The first time I traveled to Europe, I was struck by how neatly the Brits queued up for buses, how politely they waited their turn at things, how quietly they spoke in shops. When we got off the boat from Wales and landed at Dun Laoghaire outside of Dublin, Joyce and I felt a bit more at home: folks were jostling to get out of the rain and on to a bus, and one old lady was prodding slow-movers in the arse with her umbrella.

Nice dinner to end Sunday in Edinburgh. I decided for the salmon and against haggis, but will try this delight (which involves sheep gut, offal and oats) before I leave. I’m hoping Trish, John, Molly and Julia will share a portion with me. Five forks in will be better than one!

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