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Edinburgh: A tourist's notebook

From haggis to deep fried Mars bars,

there's something for every taste!

Short of braving the unfamiliar rigors of the exotic, do you think you’ve run out of interesting cities to explore? Been to Rome? Loved New York? Seen Paris in the spring? Cheer up, lads and lassies. If you have yet to see Edinburgh, be assured of a treat! Although Scotland’s Capital may not rank first among popular tourist spots, it is one of the most fascinating, rewarding and hassle-free urban destinations that one could choose to visit.

Imagine a city steeped in history and tradition, but as up-to-date as this morning’s news. Think of a place where fine art rubs noses with schlock; where music ranges from pipe bands to classical to punk rock; where the adventurous gourmet can dine on traditional Scottish haggis, Indian curry, or -- gulp! -- a chocolate Mars® bar deep fried in batter.

The flip side of the Scottish reputation for thrift is the commendable desire to render customers good value for the money they spend. Honoring this tradition, Edinburgh offers her visitors two cities for the price of one: an Old Town and a “New” Town which was considered a wonder of modern urban planning during its development from the middle of the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The two halves of this city are divided by a wide, deep ravine. Presiding over all is the romantic-looking Edinburgh Castle, perched on a high promontory of volcanic rock. Geography dictates an intriguingly split civic personality, where the two parts of this unusual urban landscape cohabit under the watchful eyes of a highly photogenic fortress festooned with antique cannon that have never fired a shot in anger.

New Town is home to large department stores, chic specialty shops, and every other convenience expected of a contemporary, European city. While some of the older buildings in the New Town have interesting characters, the more recent crop of architecture on this side of the ravine is, to speak charitably, uninspiring. The functional style favored since the end of World War II has been decried by its critics as totally lacking in artistic merit; but in fairness it must be said that modern Edinburgh’s overall appearance is no more objectionable than that of most cities. Indeed, it is far cleaner and more prosperous-looking than many other places you may have visited. One point in its favor is the absence of skyscrapers. In general, the tallest structures on Edinburgh’s skyline are church spires.

In any case, the visitor who seeks historic atmosphere will find it in abundance just across the valley in the Old Town, where antique shops, restaurants, purveyors of distilled spirits, Highland outfitters, and schlocketerias hawking tartan bric-a-brac vie for the attention of passing tourists. On a summer afternoon, crowds of visitors throng up and down the Royal Mile, the broad avenue that connects the fortress high on the castle rock to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s Edinburgh residence, at the foot of the long hill. Aficionados of Scottish music will make a pilgrimage to Bagpipes Galore, an emporium near the Palace that specializes in (what else?) bagpipes and associated paraphernalia.

If strolling up the Royal Mile towards the castle rock makes you thirsty, you will find an historic pub to furnish “a wee dram” on every second street corner, including one establishment named after an infamous denizen of eighteenth century Edinburgh, William Brodie. Brodie was Edinburgh’s respectable Deacon of Wrights and Masons by day, but by cover of darkness he was a notorious thief and a murderer. The errant Deacon led a clandestine double life until it was terminated abruptly at the end of a hangman’s rope. However, his memory survived his criminal career, inspiring not just the name of a well-known watering hole, but a world-famous story by a far more respectable son of Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson. It was no mere coincidence that the split city of Edinburgh served as the backdrop for Stevenson’s macabre tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The great author himself was clearly impressed by the schizophrenic nature of his home town, observing even in his day that, “Few places, if any, offer a more barbaric display of contrasts to the eye.”

Just as old legends survive in the narrow lanes and broad high streets of present day Edinburgh, so do old buildings. Edinburgh was built to last. Most buildings in the Old Town -- and many in the newer parts of the city -- are constructed of stone. In one of relatively few places on earth where the art of the stone mason still thrives, both Edinburgh’s newer buildings and restorations of older edifices strive to maintain the appearance and quality of the solid handicraft that preceded them. Edinburgh is a city of landmarks, monuments and statues. The ornate, gothic memorial to Sir Walter Scot stares disapprovingly at the modern architecture of the New Town along Princes Street. In a churchyard in Old Town is a small, bronze statue commemorating a wee Skye terrier, Greyfriar’s Bobby, a dog who faithfully visited his master’s grave daily for many years.

The city bears spectacular evidence that such Scottish sentimentality has occasionally run afoul of Scottish thrift. A few neoclassical columns of the Parthenon National Monument, originally intended as an heroic shrine to the memory of soldiers killed in the Napoleonic Wars, stand unfinished to this day on Calton Hill. Though regarded by generations of locals as “Edinburgh’s Disgrace,” to modern sensibilities this useless ruin seems a fitting and poignant tribute to the waste and futility of war.

A completed neoclassical structure is the Gallery of Scotland, well worth an unhurried look, not only for the beautiful stone work outside, but for the artistic treasures contained within. In the biggest permanent collection of Old Masters outside of London, the Gallery is home to works by the likes of Raphael, Titian and El Greco among many others. The famous Dutch masters and French impressionists are well-represented. As you might expect, the Gallery’s Scottish collection is unequaled, featuring masterpieces that help to illustrate and explain the Scots’ perceptions of themselves through several centuries.

High on the castle rock, military tradition lives. The Castle and its regimental museums are open to the public throughout the summer, giving a spectacular, panoramic view of the city in all directions.

Every year in August, actors, classical musicians, jugglers, bagpipers, clowns, pantomimes, stand-up comedians and theatrical “wannabees” of every description invade the city for the Edinburgh International Festival, an event modestly billed as the biggest annual arts festival in the world. Towards the end of the month the city’s population swells even more with the influx of visitors to the world-famous Edinburgh Tattoo, a uniquely Scottish martial panorama of swinging kilts, skirling bagpipes, and precision marching bands. Book early. Tickets and accommodations for these popular events are sold out many months in advance.

Dour Scots? Such beings are rumored to exist; but they seem mighty scarce in Edinburgh. Tourists will seldom encounter more courteous folks than Edinburgh’s shopkeepers, most of whom seem perfectly content to maintain an interesting conversation, even after it becomes apparent that the visitor is unlikely to be making a big purchase.

There are many good reasons to visit Edinburgh, the city of contrasts. Quaint and modern at the same time, common and cultured, old and new, sublime in some ways and ridiculous in others, the city offers tourists a touch of the exotic while retaining all the familiar amenities of home. High season for tourism is the summer. If you go, be prepared for crowds, especially during August. Although autumn weather can be fickle in this northern clime, the first part of September may be ideal for visitors who prefer to take in the many sights and sounds of Edinburgh at a more leisurely pace.



Music: The Scugog Reel comp. & arr. By Neil Harding McAlister, © 1999

©1997 - 2004, Neil Harding McAlister