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  • Devin Gackle

Journals from Across the Pond: 3 Days in Edinburgh, Scotland (Day 1)

When I think of Edinburgh I think of stone: The charming old buildings, the narrow cobblestone streets that curve and slant to the will of the hills, and of course, the castle on the topmost hill.

Edinburgh is a long-historied city that sprawls uphill and down, and makes use of every nook and cranny; you’ll find shops, cafeés, and restaurants ranging from the historic and quaint to the modern and trendy. And yet it has such a village vibe. This is perhaps due to its walkability, and the presence of Old Town (though New Town isn’t actually new, it’s just not as old as Old Town.) There’s always something interesting to see, whether it be something old, something new, or something uncanny. There does seem to be a feeling of magic in the air; it’s no surprise to me J.K. Rowling was so inspired here.

I arrived in the afternoon, meeting my tour group at the airport—after waiting a good long while in the customs line. On our way to the bus that would take us into the city, a Scottish dancing troupe of young girls performed for a crowd in a large courtyard, and the cheery, bellowing tune of their accompanying bagpipes seemed to serenade the start of our journey. What a welcome, indeed.

Half our group had already arrived—including the friend I signed up for the trip with—and were off exploring the city already. We would meet them later, but for now it was time for an introduction to the city.

After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we spent some time walking the city as our EF guide, a travel-loving Irish woman in her twenties, explained some of its history. The farther in and up you go, the more historic the streets and buildings. And above it all, Edinburgh castle sits like a proud but benevolent monarch, looking out through the rainy mists at its people, but without looming. Many of the streets we walked were filled with the music of street musicians, including an accordion player and a three-piece band.

We passed a large park full of elaborate gardens, walking the busy yet quiet Princes Street by its shops and pubs. Our guide stopped out front of the Scottish National Gallery, explaining some of the city’s history to us, then led us up a steep set of stone stairs called the Playfair Steps toward Old Town.

The buildings of Old Town feel like they’re a part of the hills they sit on; they seem to blend in so seamlessly. We crossed Bank Street and headed through a narrow path (up more steps) until we came to a courtyard just outside the Writer’s Museum, which has exhibits about several writers who once lived in Edinburgh. Here our guide told us about how long ago, the people would shout “Gardyloo!” (from a French phrase meaning “watch out for the water”) before they tossed waste out their windows, in accordance with the Nastiness Act of 1749.

Victoria Street

We exited the courtyard through a narrow (like, one-person-at-a-time narrow) passageway between and underneath the surrounding buildings called Lady Stair’s Close, and came out onto the Royal Mile. We didn’t explore the mile at this time, going up it a little ways until we reached a roundabout, and taking a left; we stopped on Victoria Terrace, a neat little balcony overlooking the colorful, curving bend of Victoria Street. We then went down yet another set of steps to Victoria Street, then up Victoria Street until we were in front of the National Library.

After some more historical facts, we were led back all the way down Victoria Street to Grassmarket, where we were then free to explore on our own. Victoria Street and Grassmarket were perhaps my favorite part of the city, though it’s hard to explain why; maybe it was just the connection I felt.

By this time we were all hungry, so we wandered Victoria Street and Grassmarket’s many unique cafes and restaurants; many of us stopped at a juice bar/café called Hula Juice Bar for sandwiches and coffee or juice. I had a basil pesto chicken sandwich and cinnamon latte that hit the spot after a long day of travel.

I got to know a few of my tour-mates, and we walked back up Victoria Street in the direction we had come, taking in the scenery. (Fun fact: there’s a lot of Scottish cashmere shops. Like, almost every other shop is a cashmere shop. And if it’s not cashmere, then it’s probably wool, or tweed.) Though I had my eye on a tweed blazer in a shop window, I knew it would be expensive; we decided to just take in a little more before walking back to the hotel.

Display on Robert Louis Stevenson in the Edinburgh Writer's Museum

Since we were going back the way we came, I expressed an interest in seeing the Writer’s Museum. We only explored the bottom floor, which was entirely dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, but it was really cool to see (and it made me giddy that I currently had my copy of Treasure Island in my bag.) Photographs and artifacts from his life were displayed over a couple rooms, and all the while an audiobook passage from Treasure Island played out over a speaker.

Our entire tour group later met up at the hotel, and were escorted via taxi to a restaurant for a mixer. (Yes, those cool little black taxis! A simple yet interesting experience to put in your pocket.) We enjoyed getting to know each other, and I tried haggis for the first time.

Yes, haggis! If you don’t know, haggis is a sheep’s intestines cooked in its stomach (along with its fat and some oatmeal and spices), and I know it sounds gross. But it’s really good! The form I had it in here was meatball form, and they had it spiced in a really interesting way that reminded me of something, though I couldn’t—still can’t—put my finger on what.

Scottish National Monument

After the mixer, many of us walked up to Calton Hill (an UNESCO World Heritage site), where there are several historic neoclassical structures. There are a few monuments, including the National Monument which appears to be a ruin, but is actually only half-completed. A partial Parthenon replica, it’s dedicated to the Scottish soldiers killed in the Napoleonic Wars; construction began in 1826, but money ran out in 1829 and it was never finished.

Overall it had a pleasantly romantic aura about it, especially since we were there at dusk (which was about 10:00p.m.) It rained (surprise) on the walk back to the hotel, but I considered it part of the experience. Oddly enough, this was really the only time on our trip that it rained at all.

It was certainly a long day, but in a good way; by the end of it I was sure I was going to have a great time.

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