Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Notes from Edinburgh

The drive to Edinburgh was much shorter than I expected. Scotland really isn't that wide. We didn't want to mess around with having a car in the city, so we'd arranged to drop it off at the airport upon our arrival. Then we took a super-convenient airport bus into the city - it stops all over, runs every ten minutes or so, and only cost 3.50 GBP!

We got out at the Haymarket stop which was only 2-3 blocks from our hotel, the Ballantrae West End. The hotel is on a quiet, completely residential crescent-shaped street. At check-in, they upgraded our room for free! We went from a 'junior double', whatever that is, to a double with a leather couch, fake fireplace, and jacuzzi. It was in the basement which is a little weird, but it was as bright as any hotel room. And, the sink had a mixer tap! These are a little too hard to come by in the UK. :)

We left the hotel and wandered up to the castle via about three million stairs from the back side. We were immediately struck by the sheer numbers of tourists, and secondly by how many of them were American! Up until this point, we had been around tourists, but not hordes of them - and we'd only run into one other group of Americans the whole time. Most of the other tourists we saw were English. There were also plenty of other Europeans, especially French.

The castle was pretty impressive. It's more like a big fort with lots of different buildings inside, much like Prague but without the big cathedral. There's only a tiny chapel, and also a relatively modern war memorial. The view from the perimeter is amazing on all sides. You can also wind your way through a maze of murals to see the Stone of Destiny and the crown, scepter, and sword of Scotland.

Edinburgh May 2009

After taking in the castle, we wandered down the famous Royal Mile, a stretch of road that goes down the spine of the giant rock on which Edinburgh's Old Town sits, leading from the castle to the Palace of Holyrood. The density of tourist shops is completely overwhelming. We have never seen anything like it in any other city we've visited. Even seeing the throngs of tourists, I still cannot understand how this one city can support so many whisky, kilt, crap-with-your-clan-name-on-it, mug, fudge, bagpipe music, and t-shirt shops. It's truly amazing.

After eating dinner at some pub along the Royal Mile, which was surprisingly cheap, we went to the Waverly train station to buy tickets for our return to Manchester the following day. The train station sits at the foot of the giant rock, under a bridge leading from the Old Town to the New Town. It cost 51.50 GBP each for the tickets! So, the trains there are no cheaper than Germany! But, at the desk they did say if we'd arrived before 6pm we might have been able to get a cheaper rate. So, if you plan to buy train tickets in the UK, get them in advance.

We then wandered into the New Town and walked along Princes Street. It's famous for its shopping and its truly striking view of the Old Town. Right now, it's all torn up as a tram is being installed (cool!!) but this doesn't hurt the views at all.

[Later, back in our hotel room, we found The Village playing on TV. Wow, it really is as bad as they say. That plot could have been so much better handled.]

On Wednesday morning we had continental breakfast at our hotel. Only cold breakfast is included in the price of the room; hot breakfast can be ordered for a pretty steep price. We were able to store our luggage at the hotel to avoid paying to store it at a train station.

We wandered over to Blair Street to book a tour of the South Bridge Vaults with Mercat Tours. South Bridge was built to connect the giant rock with the outlying university neighborhood. After it was built, buildings were built right up against it, and the spaces (vaults) under the bridge were completely enclosed (with the exception of one, which a road goes under) and used for various purposes over the years. They were excavated in the 1980s and now are parts of clubs and restaurants. The part we toured belongs to the tour company and is mostly empty. There wasn't much to see down there, but the tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history of Edinburgh so it was interesting. The same company does a lot of "spooky" tours of the vaults as well, if you're into that kind of thing. We went for the straight-up ghost-free historical tour.

For lunch we went to an Indian buffet near the university, Suruchi, for only 6 GBP each! Not bad, at least right now while there's not a big difference between the pound and the Euro. We then walked down the Royal Mile to Holyrood (we hadn't made it that far the previous day). It was closed, but some kind of changing of the guard was going on, so we hung around to watch it before going back into the Old Town to wander around some side streets and little alleys. Edinburgh is full of tiny alleys called closes, which are really just little passageways with the buildings right over them. It reminded me a lot of Lyon!

Not long after we needed to head back to the hotel to pick up our stuff before taking the train to Manchester. I think one day was plenty to just get the gist of Edinburgh, but of course city tourism is always much better when you have extra time for museums and outlying neighborhoods, and best if you know someone who lives there and can show you some of the really cool things they've learned about the place. City tourism can be sort of unpleasant without that insider to help you out - city dwellers are usually a lot less fond of the people traipsing all around their place and getting in the way than people in smaller towns. I guess I know because I've lived in a tourist city myself - Boston. And, I didn't find Edinburgh to be so friendly. I even got flipped off taking a photo. It's just that it's a regular city, not a place where you want to have a naive tourist air about yourself, you know? Still, I liked it a lot. Cities are better when you live there and aren't a photo-snapping dork from somewhere else. I would go again. I would already did encourage my husband to try to find a job there.

The train ride back to Manchester was uneventful. I actually slept through most of it. Our hotel at the airport, Bewley's, was much nicer than I was expecting, given the price relative to the other airport hotels. It was completely pleasant. A hotel shuttle with an especially jolly driver picked us up right from the train station. It was perfect for our needs - getting in late, and getting out early (7am flight!).

The airport was terrible, though. They now have these giant dispensers selling plastic bags for your liquids/gels/pastes/whatevers for one pound per bag. Please! Someone was telling us even lipsticks and glosses have to go in a baggie. A woman in front of me asked about the lipsticks in her purse, and they told her to buy a bag. I have a lip gloss in my purse all the time and always take it on planes. I decided it wasn't worth a pound to me, so I didn't get a baggie and just went right through security. They never checked and I still have my gloss and didn't lose a pound. What a freaking racket. Then after security, we had to walk directly through a giant duty free shop to get to the gates. Some lady tried to offer me a spritz of perfume. At 6am? Please, I can't stand that stuff at a good time of day. Gah!! Another damn racket. Like Heathrow, they don't announce your gates until right before boarding so you'll hang around the shops and maybe buy something. Oh, how I hate airports. Our Lufthansa flight was just lovely as always, though. :)

Whew. Finally, two weeks later, done with all the grisly Scotland details. A summary post to follow then we can get on with whatever other topics come to mind. :)


  1. Yeah, that whole not announcing your gate until right before departure thing annoyed us when we had a layover in Heathrow too. Bah.

    Aren't travel posts the hardest to get finished? They are for me at least. I still haven't finsihed posting about Paris...

  2. They so are...I feel compelled to write them even if I don't feel like it, and I can't write about anything else until they are finished, yet they are the posts no one comments on, so I don't know why I feel they are so necessary!

  3. My thoughts exactly. I just hope somewhere down the road I appreciate the detailed accounts of our travels!

  4. sounds like a lovely trip, thanks for the report! Must put it on my to-visit list....


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