Edinburgh

November 24-27, 2016

Easyjet has a hub at Basel, also known as the Euroairport, which is a short 15 minute bus ride from home. This means that catching a plane is very easy for us, and is an attractive way to explore Europe. When Dan got an email from the airline about some special deals coming up, Dan decided that “we should go somewhere”. “Somewhere” turned out to be Edinburgh, Scotland, and we chose a random, empty weekend near the end of November. Perfect: a four-day weekend to break up the monotony of the winter months.

But who travels to Scotland in the dead of winter? I prepared myself for a weekend of bitter, cold rain and dark skies. I countered the “bad weather” argument with “we’ll be in museums and looking at shops anyway, so the weather doesn’t matter”. The day before our departure I checked the weather report: the forecast was for clear skies and low temperatures. I can handle this kind of weather! We packed accordingly, boarded a full plane and relaxed for the two hour journey.

Islands in the clouds, with the Alps in the background

Dan got the window seat, but I could still see the snow-capped tops of Snowdonia and the Lake District. Patchwork farms and pastures covered the landscape, with dark blotches of forest and tidy villages were interspersed throughout. And then below us was a city: Edinburgh.

Snowy hills of the UK

Edinburgh

It was a great landing and we were soon in line for Passport control. Dan moved over to the longer European passport line while I stood in the nearly empty “US/All other” passport line. I handed my Passport over at the desk and the Immigration guard scanned it in. He asked me if I’ve ever been denied entry to the UK. I said no. He then rephrased his question: Have I ever had any difficulty entering the UK? I sighed and told him that yes, once at Calais there was an issue. He invited me to explain, which I did and as I described the UK border guard calling me stupid for half an hour, his eyes rolled in shared exasperation. He smiled and said that he would be back shortly. He closed the window and the people, who were now lined up behind me, were shuttled over to other windows. Dan, already through his line, stood on the far side, looking at me quizzically. He wondered what the holdup was and if I would need his support. I just laughed at him as he stood directly under the sign that gravely warned “No Standing”. I did not expect any real problems with getting a stamp in my passport and the freedom to enter Scotland.

Eventually the Scottish official came back and said that he made a note to remove the comment on my passport so that I would have no problems in the future. I mentioned that this is what the nice woman at the Aberdeen airport also said when we flew in there after the Calais fiasco, to which he replied “We´ll see if it works this time”. Unfortunately, I won’t know if it worked until I once again try to enter the UK.

We made our way out of the airport and to the shuttle bus that would take us into Edinburgh proper. It was a beautiful day: the sun was shining in a blue sky and the frost from the previous evening still clung to the shadows. Half an hour later, Dan and I got off the bus and tried to figure out where we were in relation to our AirBnB. Thank goodness for his phone´s ability to navigate us around foreign cities!

Our room was in the Tollcross neighborhood – a very busy and lively place. We climbed the steps and met our host and were shown our room. It was a great little place, decorated with artsy wall paper, artwork and peppered with really interesting books. We dropped off our bags and headed out to see a little bit of the city as we made our way to our first planned event: dinner at The Kitchin Restaurant.

But first, a couple of shots from our fun apartment:
Wallpaper and books in the bedroom

Stairwell, with hats as light shades

Hallway wallpaper

Bathroom wallpaper and art

Ok, now let’s go outside!

Buildings near the University of Edinburgh campus

The sun was already setting by the time we left the apartment, the northern latitude giving us a shorter day than we were used to. We watched the sunset in the park behind our apartment (“The Meadows”) and admired the buildings of the University of Edinburgh. I found it amusing to be here, having graduated from the US distant cousin of this college, spelled in a much more American way: Edinboro University. The Scottish campus buildings were much more beautiful, without a doubt. We didn’t focus on where, exactly, the main campus was located, but considering that it was founded in 1582, I’m sure that it was beautiful. Sometimes I regret not making better use of my time when traveling, only finding about “things to see” once I am home.

Scottish sunset

Our walk eventually took us to The Royal Mile, the road that leads up to the Edinburgh Castle. The road was lined with shops that sold local goods (mostly wool) and cozy restaurants. Through a side street we caught a glimpse of Princess Park, a large, central park in the heart of the city. It was decked out for the holidays and shined bright with colorful rides. We would have to check it out later.

The Castle at night

Winter Festival

Close to the castle we saw a sign for The Whisky Experience, a combination museum/gift shop/bar. Dan has a growing affinity for whisky so we went inside to see what we could find. Amber bottles lined the shelves and people milled around the displays. After looking around, we decided to go downstairs to the bar where Dan could taste some of the whisky we had seen in the shop. He chose one that I had randomly picked out upstairs, a nice 21 year old, and much to our dismay, he really liked it. It was not the cheapest beverage on the shelf.

Downstairs at the bar

Dan had chosen a Fancy Restaurant (the previously mentioned The Kitchin Restaurant) for our first meal in Edinburgh. Dan likes his fancy meals with exotic foods served in a unique way. While I am generally happy with simple fish n chips, I do admit that eating at a Michelin Star rated restaurant once in a while can be interesting. The hostess sat us in a corner where we could watch the activities in the kitchen through large windows. I chose the Classic Surprise Menu and Dan chose the Seasonal Surprise Menu; we would both be surprised by whatever was brought to our table! We were given a vague idea of what might be coming when one of our servers dropped off a small map of Scotland at our table, showing us the source of most of the ingredients in the upcoming offerings. Plate after plate arrived at our table, each one accompanied by a description of the ingredients and how it was prepared. I found myself eating things that I normally would have avoided eating, but everything was delicious. By the time the 5th plate arrived, I was stuffed and barely touched the sweet “pre-dessert.” The actual dessert followed shortly thereafter, but most of it remained on the plate. We waddled out of the restaurant into the darkness and caught a bus back to our apartment. It had been a good first introduction to Scotland.

Kitchin kitchen view

Friday

The sun was bright by the time we got up, but the frost on the rooftops indicated that it was cold outside. We did not have any real plans, save one more meal reservation, this time for lunch. We bundled up and set out to explore the city in daylight. We began by retracing some of yesterday’s steps, just to see things in a different light (literally!)

View from our room

In the neighborhood

Cold morning sun

We did not have a firm plan for the morning other than to walk around. I thought it would be interesting to hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat, an easily-recognizable landmark at the southwest corner of the city. By climbing to the top of the hill, we’d get a great view of the waterfront and the city itself. We meandered in the general direction, not really knowing how exactly to get to the paths. Due to my excellent sense of direction, we were soon there – or at least close. And then much to my surprise, once we were within sight of it, Dan had no interest in hiking to the top. What??? Who is this man and what has he done with my husband? Truth be told, it looked a lot higher than I expected so I didn’t put up an argument when Dan pointed out that the Palace of Holyroodhouse was just down the road.

Arthur’s Seat

Scottish Parliament Building

We bought our tickets to tour the Palace and, after walking under a stone arch, found ourselves in a frost-covered courtyard. The sun was just barely peaking over the hill and starting to melt the ice from the grass. We hurried inside, hoping to catch the talk about Scottish weaponry that was scheduled to start in a couple of minutes. We opened the big doors to the main entrance and looked around: no one was there except for a single employee. We had the guide to ourselves as he described and explained the many swords displayed on the wall behind him. When the talk was over, Dan and I continued on our tour of the Palace. Which, of course, did not allow photos.

Inside the courtyard

Holyrood Abbey

Overall, I was unimpressed with the tour of the Palace, We had the audio tour information with us, which was great in describing the rooms and what we were looking at. And the rooms and appointments were beautiful and luxurious, but when we walked out into the sunshine I just felt a sense of “that was it?”. And in reflecting, I don’t what else I should have expected from the tour. Maybe it was the building itself: large square room after large square room, leading finally to some small, interesting rooms where the tour ended.

Our lunch reservation was approaching so we made our way back towards the center of the city to find the restaurant. The day was warming up slightly and while I was enjoying the sunshine, I admit that it was making it hard to get well-balanced photos. Really, I am not complaining about the weather!

Edinburgh street scene – the beginning of the Royal Mile

Historic buildings and statues are everywhere

Our restaurant’s front door, The Colonnades at the Signet Library

This was to another fancy, multi-course meal, and interestingly enough, it really was in a library! Tucked behind St Giles’ Cathedral, the library was attached to Parliament House and we could see robed justices strolling the halls. Our hostess sat us in a cozy nook, the walls lined with books from the past half century that listed court cases. Not exactly exciting stuff, but it made for a great atmosphere.

Fancy platings

And a really fancy bathroom

We had once again eaten more than we should have. We left the restaurant stuffed beyond contentment and were happy to have The Royal Mile at our feet to “walk it off”. We decided that a tour of the castle would be appropriate and headed in that direction.

The castle looked much more impressive in the daylight and we approached its front gates. Unfortunately, I appeared to not have taken any photos of it. I will blame it on “shooting into the sun” and getting poor results. The thing that I find interesting about castles is that you never know what you’ll find when you go inside. I’ve been to castles that look like someone still lives there and I’ve been to castles that aren’t much more than ruins; and of course everything in between. Edinburgh Castle was about to reveal its secrets to me, as soon as we paid for our entry and walked through the gate.

Entering Edinburgh Castle

I’ll say one thing: the view from the castle walls was worth the price of admission. From every side there were views to be enjoyed and the brilliant sunshine made the city glow.

Within the castle walls were more buildings than I expected. We took advantage of the audio tour, so many of the buildings were described and explained to us, including their origins and uses over the years.

Looking back at the inner gate

Just inside the gate

St Margaret’s Chapel from medieval times (1130)

The Scottish National War Memorial

Whoops. I wasn’t suppose to take photos in here

Some of the buildings were museums and housed displays of artifacts, and some were left in their original state to give us an indication of “daily life”. The Royal Palace was primarily dedicated to the story of the Crown Jewels (The Honours of Scotland) and the Stone of Destiny. It was a well-laid out display and kept me interested as I made my way through.

Musical instrument demonstration in one of the halls

Fantastic ceiling work

The setting sun comes in

The days are short in November at this latitude and we had whiled the last remaining daylight hours at the castle. And besides, they closed at 5 o’clock anyway. So we did a mad dash through a couple of the museums, begrudging that our entry was only for one day, and then headed for the exit.

Now it was time to investigate the Winter Festival that was going on in Princess Park. It is nice that the Old Town area of Edinburgh is so small and easy to walk around. We left the castle gate, wandered through a couple of side streets and then joined the mass of humanity that surged through the park.

The Scott Monument set as a backdrop to a modern ride

There were a lot of people enjoying the festival. We did our best to go with the flow and still see the shops and vendors that lined the paths. There were the typical vendors that seem to populate every Christmas Market in Europe, and then there were the specialty stalls that provided a more local flavor – often literally. We didn’t try any of the edible goodies, although the massive cotton candy cones were tempting. And I was surprised by the sheer number of “German Wurst” type stands. Who knew that it would be so popular on the British Isles? I did expect to see more curry stands, but perhaps that isn’t a good “market food”.

Mmmmm – cotton candy

We made our way through a few of the aisles of market stalls, trying our best to not get caught in the thickest of congestion, and eventually exited out the eastern end of the park. More side streets were explored as we made our way back to The Royal Mile and – magically – back to the Whisky Experience. There was another whisky that Dan wanted to try.

We went directly downstairs to the bar and took a seat in the corner. Dan perused the drink menu but did not see the drink he wanted to try listed there, so he tried something else. While we waited, we decided to order the cheese plate – our extravagant lunch was a few hours ago and one shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach, right?

Dan drank the whisky put before him, but was not impressed. Me, wanting Dan to have his heart’s desires, went up to the hostess and asked if they had a 21 year old Macallan on hand. She said that she would check, but came back with a negative. She did offer, however, to ask her manager if they could get one in. About twenty minutes later I see someone come into the bar with a brown paper bag. A very nice wooden box was removed from it, and inside the box was a bottle of 21 year old Macallan. The manager himself brought over the bottle to confirm that Dan would like to try it. Why yes sir, yes he would.

After all of that fuss, Dan enjoyed the whisky but was not impressed enough to buy his own bottle. We wandered back out onto the darkened streets of Edinburgh and took a scenic, meandering route back to our apartment. It had been a good first full day in this historic city.

Saturday

It was our second and last full day in Edinburgh. The sun once again was bright in the pale blue sky and we had nothing firm planned. Dan had scoped out “the best fish n chips in Edinburgh!” for lunch, so we decided to work around that.

One of our favorite ways of exploring a city is to take public transit to a distant neighborhood and then either walk around there, or take another transit to another area. This lets us see something other than the touristy centers, and offers us a glimpse into what “normal life” might look like to those who live here. We chose a bus that would take us out to the water´s edge where we would see a few ships, the shoreline and whatever else might be there, and then work our way back to New Town, where lunch awaited us!

We skipped breakfast, thinking that we´d pick up something along the way. Plus, we were still feeling the effects of overeating for the past two days. The bus ride was comfortable and quiet and we spent some time trying to ascertain just where we were in relation to the transit map. I will say that Edinburgh did not do a very good job with their map, as most stops are not listed and pinpointing an exact location was not easy. So we rode the bus to the end of the line: no chance of getting lost that way!

The bus route followed some very small roads, made even smaller by the sheer number of cars backed up in traffic. We rolled over a few curbs that morning as we neared the end of the line. Eventually the bus pulled around a cul-de-sac, rolled up to the bus stop and cut its engines. Dan and I looked around from our warm seats and were unimpressed. A cold wind swept across grassy fields and ungainly-looking apartment towers sat isolated along the water´s edge. Other than a couple of ships in a nearby harbor, there was nothing of beauty or interest here. We decided to stay on the bus and ride back towards town.

It was just a few stops later that we finally got off our bus to transfer to a different line. A quick stop at a corner shop supplied us with something to drink and a Reese´s Cups. God, I love Reese´s Cups! We crossed the street and stood by our bus stop. We watched the traffic line the narrow road and wondered how our bus would make it through. I studied the house across the street and let my mind wander as to how old it was, the history of who might have lived there and how the neighborhood must have changed over the years. Still no bus.

Dan suggested that we walk to the next bus stop and I agreed. The bus was late and who knew how it would get through the tight streets. The walk to the next stop was not interesting. The neighborhood did not have much charm and there wasn’t anything noteworthy about the buildings. We were about a block from the bus stop when the bus blew by us – it looks like we missed our chance. But then Dan really disappointed me when he said that the next bus didn’t come for half an hour!

On the walk to the fish n chips shop

The day was beautiful and even though I was getting very hungry, we were at least on the track for lunch, so I agreed that we should just walk to the restaurant. It was about an hour before we got there, right at noon, and I was looking forward to tasting Edinburgh´s best fish n chips. Dan crossed the street ahead of me and reached the restaurant door – the closed restaurant door. The information in the window promised that the shop would open at 5 p.m. My stomach growled in displeasure and I rolled my eyes. Of course, Dan was just as surprised as I was, as he certainly didn’t expect it to be closed for lunch. There were no other appetizing restaurants in the area, so we started up the long hill to New Town, the fancy neighborhood on the north side of Princess Park.

It was another half hour before we came across Fishers in the City, another highly-recommended fish n chips restaurant. We were fortunate that there were free seats in the bar area, as the tables were all reserved. My stomach was so hungry by now that it was acting up, so I sought to calm it with the ice water that had been served. I drank down my glass quickly and had a pang of regret: the ice water reacted poorly with my already tortured stomach. The longer I sat there waiting for my lunch to arrive, the less I wanted it to actually arrive. The waitress eventually put our plates down in front of us and I immediately felt sick. I tried to convince myself that I just had to take a couple of bites and my hunger cells would kick in and I then I wouldn’t be able to eat it fast enough.

No, I was wrong: I had two bites and gave up. The food was fantastic, I could tell: I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. Dan benefited from my weird malady by eating my lunch in addition to his own. I seriously don´t know where he put it all!

The crowded streets of New Town

We left the restaurant and hoped to finally see the National Museum of Scotland – it had been on our list, but now we were finally going to get around to it. Dan wisely checked the hours before we headed out but was disappointed to see that the museum closed at 5 p.m. It was already after 2 p.m., and by the time we got there and started, it would have left us with just over two hours to visit. This would not be enough time (as proven by our visit to the Castle) and it was disappointing. On the other hand, as we walked out of the restaurant I wondered if I would even be able to do anything more than get back to the apartment and lay in bed. I said as much to Dan and we decided to find a bus to get us “home” as smoothly as possible – with a quick detour at an outdoor store that we happened to be walking past. Getting new jackets was on our list of things to do and since we were right here, I agreed that we should stop. Dan bounded up the stairs while I struggled up each step – it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Our shopping trip was brief and unproductive and we went back outside to find a bus. I felt terrible (literally and figuratively) for ruining our last day in Scotland, but Dan was a good sport about it.

I wasn’t able to leave the room for the rest of the day. We had talked about going out to see a movie at a nearby theatre, but I just wasn’t up to it. Fortunately, the room we had rented had interesting books and extra blankets, so we settled in for a cozy evening of enforced relaxation.

Sunday

I woke up to a much happier stomach, but it still was not 100%. Our flight was perfectly timed so that we did not have to get up early, but had time to pack up our purchases and arrange for a nice walk to the nearest Airport Express bus stop. It had been a great trip, despite the rocky ending, and I would be happy to return. Maybe next time we’ll even get to the Scottish Museum.

Parting shot of the city

Tell me what you think! I want to know!