Travelling

EDINBURGH: TARTANS, BAGPIPES AND FRIENDLY PEOPLE

30/05/2014
The Castle dominates the landscape of the city
The Castle dominates the landscape of the city

SATURDAY
Saturday’s 12:30 train from London King’s Cross is uncomfortably overcrowded. Children under 5 travel free but on the assumption that they will sit on your lap, peacefully and contentedly, for the duration of the journey. Oh yes, right. And of course down the carriage there are unoccupied seats, but no fellow passengers in our corner will consider moving and we – my sister and myself - can’t do anything but play pass the parcel for a couple of hours with my fidgety four-year-old.
And it stays like that until York where the two seats opposite ours become free and my four-year-old acquires her own place for the rest of our journey. She immediately spreads her books, blank sheets of paper and felt tips galore. Her peacefulness doesn’t last long as a group of skimpily dressed girls attract her attention. They are proudly and loudly exhibiting shiny high heels, sparkling clutch bags, miniature dresses, colourful long nails and bright lipsticks. All with a drink in their hands - a small bottle of wine, Red Bull, beer or a cider, with two of them sharing a bottle of Champagne; they are obviously heading to a hen or just a good party night. My four year old is besotted with their appearance, their high pitched laughter and their dancing to the rhythm of imagined music.
We left a sunny and warm London with temperatures reaching the almost incredible heights of 24/25 degrees Celsius and are heading to the colder climate of Edinburgh. According to the weather reports, the line between the sunny and the cloudy elements will be the Scottish Border. Sure enough as we reach Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, heavy clouds are stretching over the sky announcing a windier and chillier northern climate; unmistakably different from the one down south. The train is cutting through spruced-up farmland and meadows ornamented with white and black spots of sheep and lamb. The rolling green hills and sharp yellow fields of oilseed rape contrast with the impenetrable shade of grey turning the landscape into an Impressionist painting.
Scotland has always been high on the list of places I wanted to visit and now – a few months before the historic referendum on its independence – it seemed the perfect moment. Not only did I want to visit places of historic and cultural significance and have a weekend away with my sister and my four-year-old, but I also wanted to witness for myself if Scotland feels like another country.
Gusts of sharp Northern wind greet us as we leave the train shortly after five pm. To my big surprise we feel disorientated and get lost on the way to our hotel. We find it very hard to find any logical orientation in this city; maybe because the train station seemed to be in the middle of it and not on one or other side of the town or maybe because our map is only a printed-out and enlarged snip of the very centre…
Our hotel – the Premier Inn in Lauriston place – is close to the castle, but further away from the train station than I originally intended. Maybe I should have got a better map after all, as this is a very important factor with a stroppy, easily bored and I-don’t-like-long-walks four-year-old. Still, it's convenient enough and at the price of £144 for two nights seems an incredibly good deal for the city that has the most expensive tourist accommodation in the UK.
George IV Bridge
George IV Bridge


Our little but inflexible leader dictates pasta for dinner and without much ado we end up in Lucano’s Kitchen (http://www.caffelucano.com/) on George IV Bridge. The pleasant Italian osteria style eatery with red checked tablecloths offers a creative selection of pasta dishes (including coffee-infused ravioli with lamb ragù, if you are brave enough to try that…) and cater enthusiastically for demanding offspring. We order black tagliarini with squid sauce and tagliatelle carbonara with smoked haddock, a quarter of a bottle of red wine and chocolate cake. Our bambina opts for a plate of penne pasta with plenty of cheese, apple juice and a scoop of ice cream. The homemade pasta is truly yummy (the squid sauce contains a few large slices of tomatoes which could be a problem if you are not too keen on them…) and the chocolate cake melts as it reaches our lips, enthralling our taste buds. We pay – £40 (including the tip) – and decide on a quick walk before bedtime. It’s Saturday night and the city is (un)dressing for partying; girls in light outfits with no tights and men in shirtsleeves or T-shirts (and quite a few kilts) are already queuing in front of clubs and bars. In the area of West Port – just around our hotel – flocks of blokes are finishing their fish and chips before entering one of many striptease/lap/pole dancing clubs.
As we don’t have babysitting sorted out, it’s an early night for us. Or at least that’s what we hope for but our four-year-old – uncontrollably excited when we stay in hotels – perks up and gets into a frenzy of jumping from one bed to the other…until gone 11.





SUNDAY



Prince Edward and wife Sophie arriving to St Giles
Prince Edward and wife Sophie arriving to St Giles

Sunday morning greets us with sharp winds and impenetrable grey skies. We have our breakfast of pastries in Caffè Nero on the Royal Mile; a friendly little place where locals seem to be greeting staff by their first names and leaving flat keys for friends.
A largish crowd outside St Giles Cathedral slows our ascend to the castle and triggers our curiosity. The Church of Scotland General Assembly is about to start and the gathering is waiting for a glance of the Queen’s representatives; Prince Edward and his wife Sophie. Within minutes the two of them step out of a black car and are surrounded by a large entourage of security personnel. Prince Edward takes a short walk of acknowledgement around the welcoming circle – a boys’ choir in blue outfits and group of bagpipe players – salutes the welcoming committee at the doors and then Edward and Sophie disappear inside the church without a wave or even a glance at the curious masses.
As we climb up the Royal Mile towards the castle the wind is increasing in strength and speed, messing with our hair and pushing under our scarves and coats. The cityscape is dominated by its most famous landmark, Edinburgh Castle, perched high above the city on the remnants of an extinct volcano. The massive grey stones indicate not only the roughness of the climate but also the instability and turbulence of its long history. The rock has been occupied from as early as the 2nd century AD and during its long history it has witnessed plots, assassinations, murders, sieges and liberations.
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

This castle is the most visited Scottish attraction and not surprisingly the queue is very long and slow-moving. The entry ticket is a pricey £16 but it’s well worth it as you can easily spend 2-3 hours wandering around the massive place. There is so much to see and my four-year-old entertains herself with the story that there is a real princess hidden somewhere in the castle and we might even see her.
We randomly visit parts of the enormous fortress; from St Margaret's Chapel, regarded as the oldest building in Edinburgh (apparently dating back as early as the 12 century) to the National War Museum of Scotland. Apart from the obvious royal uses early on in its history, Edinburgh Castle was also used as a garrison and prison. My four-year-old is particularly fascinated by the Great Hall with the performer re-enacting parts of the castle’s history, as well as the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, including the room where she gave birth to James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) in June 1566. That’s when her patience melts into the windy air and the disappointment of not being able to find a real princess (Rapunzel) – coupled with uncontrollable hunger - manifests itself in the form of pre-tantrum frustration and impatience. And admittedly, at five to one it’s definitely time for lunch.
St Margaret Chapel within The Edinburgh Castle
St Margaret Chapel within The Edinburgh Castle

Pub-restaurant The Castle Arms (http://www.thecastlearmsbistro.com/), in Johnston Terrace, less than five minute walk from the castle, is to our big surprise almost empty. We pick the table in the corner in case the complaints of our young travel companion get louder and more noticeable. Writing a postcard to her daddy keeps her occupied until she gets her order; a children’s portion of fish and chips and peas. The two of us adults order a mixed grill to share (pieces of chicken, steak of Scottish beef, prawns), chips and a large salad. Together with three non-alcoholic drinks the bill is a mere £30. By the time we leave, the place is full; with tourists descending from the Castle, two girlfriends at the neighbouring table catching up on their shopping and men over a couple of burgers and pints, and locals coming in for a quick drink and a chat with the bartender. A very welcoming place indeed…
Travelling with a child/children is like being stuck in slow moving traffic; it’s all about starting and stopping, three steps forward and two back and that’s exactly how our descent down the Royal Mile and towards the Museum of Childhood feels. On one side, my four-year-old cannot wait to get there while on the other the transfer from point A to point B is boring her and taking too long.
The Museum of Childhood encapsulates the nostalgic magic of one's early years through five galleries with various exhibits. From bicycles and other children’s vehicles in the first gallery, through rooms with all sorts of dolls (made of wax, china, plastic and other materials), dolls' houses and miniature furniture. My four year old gets very excited playing with glove puppets on the mini stage, over an ancient game of snakes and ladders and in the gallery dedicated to parties and fancy dresses.
We rush her out, calming her protests with the promise to buy her a souvenir in the Museum shop. Appropriately, she chooses Katie Morag and the dance class (one of her favourite children’s shows, set in Scotland) and happily follows us to the National Museum of Scotland.
View from the roof of the National Museum of Scotland
View from the roof of the National Museum of Scotland

The modern building in Chambers Street on the intersection with George IV Bridge is home to what used to be two museums – the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and The Royal Scottish Museum. The afternoon is swishing past at almost the speed of light and all of a sudden there is not long left before closing time. We have just about time for a quick stroll through the galleries representing the past, present and future of Scotland. Starting with the Kingdom of Scots on the ground floor, we climb up through the history of tartan, the whisky still and Scottish locomotives ending up on the terrace with Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures. After five minutes of the views, the steward announces the imminent closure of the building. Leaving the museum we feel disappointment; our visit was too rushed and too superficial.
The building of the Scottish Parliament
The building of the Scottish Parliament


Our only full day in the Scottish capital is coming to its end but we still want to squeeze in two more sites – the Scottish Parliament building and The Palace of Holyrood House. They are both at the other end of the Royal Mile and we take the slow descent for the second time in the space of one afternoon. This time we are also taking in the narrow passages sprouting on both sides of the road, as well as the display windows of old-fashioned shops and cafés. The Scottish Parliament building was opened in 2004 after years of controversy (and serious overbudgeting) and by all accounts it is an amazing complex of modern architecture. So modern in fact that it doesn't seem to me to fit into the surrounding area. It almost feels like a spacecraft parked at the edge of an antiquated town. Again – maybe I just need a little longer to get used to it. Across the road is the Palace of Holyrood House, where the Queen spends one week every summer, and which was the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scots from the 16th century. We peek through the gate, take a photo or two and head back to one of the café we spotted on the way down. A snack, a cake and we are ready to wave goodnight to the town. It’s Sunday night and the city is calm and deserted and apart from sporadic groups of tourists everyone else seems to have opted for an early night.

The Holyrood Palace
The Holyrood Palace








MONDAY

Monday morning wakes us with a completely different climate – sunny, warm and bright. We stroll down the Grassmarket, populated with charming cafés, pubs and restaurant, including The Fiddler’s Arms – where we will return for lunch – and then take a steep and round rise up to the Royal Mile, the central vein of Edinburgh where we seem to start and finish every itinerary. First on our list is St Giles' Cathedral. The central building of the Church of Scotland impresses us with its voluminous interior of somehow irregular shape (later on I find out that the lay-out is the result of various additions and enlargements during history) and its stained glass windows depicting Scottish saints (Andrew, David). Unlike in other churches I’ve visited, the altar of the St Giles Cathedral is in the very centre of the structure – not the far end (which is what I’m used to) – and all the pews and seats are turned towards it as the focal point.

Sunny morning (on Monday)
Sunny morning (on Monday)


The over-demanding taste buds of my four-year-old decide that there is nothing good enough in St Giles' Cathedral’s Café and demands the same pastry as the morning before in the Caffè Nero behind the church. Her stubbornness is rewarded with pain au chocolat fresh from the oven.
The last thing on our list for the three-day break in the Scottish capital is the visit to The Writers' Museum in Lady’s Stair’s Close. The place is a little bit of a disappointment as the lives of the three most famous Scottish writers – Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson – are just touched upon through portraits, notes and very few objects. The highlight for my four-year-old is the children’s corner where she digs out the book on Pinocchio and discovers the connection between lying and the long nose.
As the visit to the Writers' Museum took less time than expected, we have plenty of time for buying souvenirs. All the shops lined around the Royal Mile sell shortbreads, whiskies, kilts, bagpipes, tartan designs in all forms and shapes and other Scottish paraphernalia. I opt for red tartan shoes and matching bag (could it be more Scottish?). Yes – I was also temped to buy a miniskirt-kilt in the same design; but that would just be over the top. The cashmere scarves, blankets and other garments are beautifully made but out of our price range.
In the Scottish pub The Fiddlers Arms (http://www.thefiddlersarms.com/) we grab a lunch of grilled Scottish Salmon and fish and chips for the little one. As usual we seem to be the earliest people to come for lunch as at 1pm the pub is empty but by the time we leave is full. And again, the food was tasty, the service good and the atmosphere friendly and relaxed.
Yummy Scottish Salmon in the pub Fiddler's Arms
Yummy Scottish Salmon in the pub Fiddler's Arms


The soft soundtrack of the pipes' melody coming from one of many street musicians covers every corner of the city centre. Almost every shop has the demonym ‘Scottish’ incorporated in its official name, showing the immense pride in belonging to this place, its rich history and promising future. The friendliness, openness and helpfulness of its people is just wonderful. And what I was particularly impressed by is the way the pub and restaurant people talk to my four-year-old; as if she were their most important customer. They ask her directly for the order and discuss her preferences and dislikes with her, not her mummy. And nothing is too difficult to them. Another fork? Yes of course! Peas all over the floor? Don’t worry about that! And when I am buying my Scottish tartan shoes and am unsure of the size, the assistant runs to another shop to get the other size…
As we leave Edinburgh on the 3.30 train we are overwhelmed with the feeling that we needed longer to enjoy this city; a few more days just to relax and chat to the Edinburgians (is this the right word for natives or residents of Edinburgh?) And yes – whatever the outcome of the referendum for independence in September – this does feel like another country…

Bagpipe player in front of the National Gallery of Scotland
Bagpipe player in front of the National Gallery of Scotland