Edinburgh: the captivating city

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Sunset from North Bridge. / Z.L.C.

I set foot in the capital of Scotland seven years ago when I decided, as so many other Spaniards, to go for a language immersion. And what better way to do it than by attending a course in an English-speaking city, although in my case it was only for as short a period as three weeks. In my view, that is truly the only way to understand the spoken language in a “natural” context and being able to let go, forget about your insecurities and boost your confidence. Even though my stay was so brief, after only a week of being there, completely assimilated into the Edinburgensian (Edinburger? It’s not that clear… ) life, I started to notice improvements. I could understand people much better: overhearing conversations in the street, at the supermarket or at some shops.

After the usual uneasiness of the trip, I arrived in the airport  and after waiting more than normal for my suitcase, there it was, mutilated, missing a wheel. The rest of the route to my accommodation finished it off. With the excitement of my arrival I didn’t even think on filing a complaint. Fortunately, I don’t believe in first impressions that much. That experience could’ve played against my fond memory of Edinburgh but obviously it didn’t mean anything, it was just an anecdote. As a good friend told me back then, “a broken suitcase is like that bottle of champagne that they break against a ship during an inauguration, it’s the ‘christening’ for good luck”. I found her observation more than reasonable (it made sense, coming from a great optimist), and I took it that way. Moreover, afterwards, I met a taxi driver who was very friendly and who made the way to the flat, where my hostess awaited, very pleasant. When you run into someone like that, so cheerful and sociable, the twenty-one pounds that you have to pay for the fare, hurt slightly less. Only slightly.

The owner of my accommodation in Edinburgh, native of the city, was a girl my age who lived in a tiny but cosy flat of a minimalist and simple style, which I really loved. As I generally do, I adapted quickly to the change and I felt, like they say, in my own home. I even had the chance to enjoy the flat to myself for a few days while she was on holiday. That gave me the opportunity of experiencing living alone. Something that, for someone who went from her parents’, to briefly a house share and then to live with her boyfriend of the time, was unusual and refreshing. Upon my arrival, the hostess in my temporary home, showed her hospitality and attention by offering me food and later taking me for a walk to the centre of the capital.

WHEN I SAW EDINBURGH FOR THE

FIRST TIME, THE BROKEN SUITCASE

TURNED INTO A SIMPLE ANECDOTE

We walked quite a while and the route was like rapidly browsing a newspaper or magazine to read it in depth later on. I held great expectations as in all forums, blogs and other online content I had read about Edinburgh, everyone spoke very affectionately of the Scottish capital. Plus, the chatty taxi driver spared no compliments to his beloved city. I remember I told him that I already knew the famous Tesco supermarkets (it was my first time in the UK!) because I had a friend who had spent short periods of time in London. “In England?! You’ve chosen the right place!”, he replied sarcastically but jokily. It must had been the sense of humour of a people that still looks with certain resentment to its southern neighbour, who, historically has caused the Scots so much humiliation. Nowadays, maybe that superior self-perception the Scots – along with the Welsh, the always forgotten – reproach to England is justified by the news coverage, offered by the BBC, whose contents are centred mainly in England. My short-term flatmate confirmed it to me: “Almost all newscasts are focused on London or England in general”, she remarked.

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The hilly Victoria Street, full of lovely shops that you’ll want to visit. / Z.L.C.

During my first stroll over the quiet and welcoming city, filled with hills, the first thing my hostess and personal guide showed me, was the route from the flat to the language school and the street where it was located. Over the rest of our walk we passed by the emblematic and picturesque Victoria Street. It’s a tiny, curvy and hilly street with colourful small independent and alternative shops selling from clothes to antique or second hand books. One can also find a shop dedicated exclusively to Christmas (something I found peculiar at the time), small art galleries and a beautiful shop for the little ones, with the name of that kid whose nose grew when he told lies. An establishment selling traditional and educational toys, made of wood, puppets, stuffed animals and cloth dolls. Victoria Street leads to, on one side, the Grassmarket, one of the most iconic spots in Edinburgh. Full of shops, restaurants and hotels and, of course, pubs that help to light up the street so much at nightfall. Besides having worked, as indicated by its name, as a market location for centuries, it’s also known for being the site for public executions. On the other side of Victoria Street there’s George IV Bridge, built between 1829 and 1832 and where the National Library of Scotland is situated, which I now regret not having explored.

I had my first coffee at Elephant House, now known worldwide for being one of the spaces chosen by J.K. Rowling to write some of the adventures of Harry Potter. And the woman chose right, the décor of the café gives off warmth and a welcoming atmosphere. What better place to find the needed inspiration to create the story of a teenage wizard that is going to take you from living on the dole to being a millionaire. If nothing’s changed, I highly recommend the cappuccino with the “death by chocolate” cake (they deserve each other). And if you have a melancholic afternoon, get yourself a book you had previously bought in Victoria Street.

AT ELEPHANT HOUSE,

A WARM AND COSY CAFE, THE WRITER

J.K.ROWLING CREATED PART OF

THE ADVENTURES OF HARRY POTTER

Edinburgh has nothing to do with London (setting aside the size), it’s a totally different concept of a city. I wouldn’t agree at all with someone who said that it’s the second best to the British capital, as it could seemed from the outside. That person couldn’t be more wrong. Perhaps Edinburgh is a kind of London’s “younger sister” (cities are normally feminine in Spanish!) if we talk about popularity and tourist demand. To the readers drawn to visit the Scottish capital, I would say that, given that it’s a small city with a population not yet reaching half a million inhabitants (2015 data), the out-of-towner doesn’t have that feeling of distance from the residents as it can happen in the metropolis. The visitors, far from feeling apart, will see how the locals receive them with open arms and, at the same time, will feel as if (I admit here I’m being biased by my own positive experience) they’ve been living there their whole lives. Another crucial factor to consider is money (except for the luckiest ones). Being such a manageable city, you don’t need to spend a fortune on public transport when you can easily walk or cycle to almost everywhere.

Going back to the purpose of this trip, my language school was situated in the New Town, the north side of the city, over the Princess Street Gardens, which can be found in the city centre. The new part of the city was built between the 18th and 19th centuries. The location of the school was perfect, close to the most attractive parts. The vibe of the class –and the academy in general- was excellent. As it wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how skilled Spaniards are in general with the English language, most students were Spanish, except one or two people, depending on the newcomers every week. And this didn’t happen exclusively in my group, the school was taken by a colony of compatriots… Alright, yes, a few Italians, some German, a Pakistani and a Japanese, very polite, eager to get to know everyone. The funny thing is I don’t know what got into us Spaniards with Edinburgh. The first evening I spent there and went out on the streets I heard a few people speaking Spanish. Let’s face it, we’re everywhere. For better or for worse, that’s us, guys. And we take our unpunctuality with us. But isn’t it endearing? I think, at this point, it’s widely known that for a Spaniard eleven o’clock means a quarter past. Nonetheless, we’re not the only ones. My teacher was Irish and he told us that our sense of punctuality was the same as theirs. Amusing. I might have been right when I had the impression that the Irish seem the most similar to the Latin of this part of Europe.

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An example of the beauty that the visitor can enjoy at the Royal Botanic Garden. / Z.L.C.

The first place I visited in Edinburgh on my own was the gorgeous Royal Botanic Garden. You definitely have to visit it, it doesn´t disappoint. Even if you don’t have such an “interest in botany” as Dorian Gray on Penny Dreadful.  During my exploration of the place I could see some interesting trees, loads of playful squirrels, water lily ponds that seemed taken from a painting by Monet, striking flowers and plants that catch your eyes immediately. The different areas were very well maintained and tidy. The final touch came from the views of the city at which I could gaze from the upper part of the botanical garden.

The next stop of my itinerary was the Old Town, the medieval and oldest part of the city, crowned by the castle. The latter is situated in the middle of town, which is incredibly convenient, and makes Edinburgh an unforgettable city. Try to imagine it in a period such as Christmas, covered in lights and snow. From the Big Wheel that is set up every year in December, if you look up, there it is, the castle, looking to the people in the eye and reminding them of the thrilling history that it has witnessed over the centuries. Exploring the inside of the building might not have such an appealing (at least it didn’t for me) as to observe the amazing views from the outside or its majesty from Princess Street. Or from the Royal Mile, precisely a mile long, which is “royal” as on the 16th century the king, passing over it, walked all the way from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (today, official residence in Scotland of the Royal Family), that belonged to the Stuarts. The palace is mainly known for having been the home of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Her life was fascinating and you can learn about it –as well as about the history of this enchanting land – in the National Museum of Scotland, whose entry is free and, in my view, a must-see if you like history and learning about the places where you travel.

THE CASTLE LOOKS AT PEOPLE

IN THE EYE REMINDING THEM

OF THE THRILLING HISTORY

 IT HAS WITNESSED

OVER CENTURIES

No matter where you’re staying and where you want to go, any walk throughout the city is a pleasure. In my case, I was accommodated in the Canonmills area, in the north, close to the Royal Botanic Gardens. That allowed me to walk a route that went through one of my favourite spots in Edinburgh, North Bridge, which you have to cross to get to the Royal Mile and blend into the crowd. Since you’re there, you can buy the typical Scottish scarf, made out of lamb wool, in one of the many souvenir shops in sight. Once the Palace of Holyroodhouse was reached, I could see the Scottish Parliament, set in a new location in 2004. The building was designed by the Catalonian architect Enric Miralles, who died in 2000 before the project was finished, not without controversy. Not only it was inaugurated three years later than planned, it was commissioned to a foreign architect, they didn’t use local supplies and the ‘joke’ (as we say in Spain) ascended to £431 million. Not to mention its extravagant style by which Scots are not exactly overjoyed.

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The castle from Princess Street, surrounded by the gardens with the same name. / Z.L.C.

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The Royal Mile on a Saturday afternoon. / Z.L.C.

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George Street is unmissable on a walk across the New Town. / Z.L.C.

The New Town offered me another perspective of the city. Along with the Old Town, it is Unesco’s World Heritage site from 1995. Much more modern, it looks like a different city although both sides embrace you the same way and reveal that essence that characterises Edinburgh as a friendly city to foreigners and all outsiders. The New Town is full of Georgian buildings and is considered a masterpiece of urban planning. George Street is the most elegant one and ends up in a quiet square in the centric St. Andrew Square. There, I shared some picnics with my classmates from the language school, when the weather allowed. The weather, that handy conversation topic among Edinburgians, who often use the word dreich, of Gaelic origin used to refer to those grey, freezing, rainy and cloudy days.

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St. John’s Church graveyard it’s a refuge of tranquility in day of non-stop walking. / Z.L.C.

Whenever I went out for a walk in the afternoons up to Princess Street, my feet decided many times to take a look over Shandwick Place or Lothian Road, to the other side. At the beginning of the latter is located St. John’s Church which holds a beautiful graveyard. I love that in the UK cemeteries are part of the urban landscape. For a Spaniard this can be shocking and I remember that to me it was a wonderful surprise as cemeteries fascinate me. In this country graveyards are thought not only for the ‘eternal rest’ and remembrance of the departed but also for enjoyment of the living. It’s worth finding a moment of peace in some of them and unwind by disconnecting from the city hassle. Churches are much more fun in Britain! They are certainly not as dull as most of the ones in Spain (at least as far as I know), with their obvious purpose. On the contrary, you can also find little markets, shops and even, as in the case of St. John’s Church, a charming café –which I believe is closed now… – to make a stop for tea and cake.

AS IT’S USUAL ALL OVER THE UK,

CEMETERIES ARE PART OF

THE URBAN LANDSCAPE

I admit that I couldn’t bring myself to try Scotland’s signature dish, whose passion for which is equivalent to the one we Spaniards feel for our beloved tortilla. There, everyone loves haggis, which is also the star of a charming tradition, the Burns Night, dedicated to the life and work of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It’s officially celebrated the 25th of January, date of his birth, although it can also be organised any night of the year. A whole ritual takes place in which people eat food, bagpipes are played, they recite poetry, read speeches, make toasts and dance. Haggis is pretty similar to our Spanish morcilla, although less bloody. A mix of lamb’s heart, liver and lungs, along with oats flour and onion, all stuffed inside the stomach of the same animal. No, not too tempting for me as much as those who tried it say it’s delicious. For those preferring something lighter, I was going to say they can go to Sea Dogs in Rose Street, but as it turns out, as I write this I’ve just found out they closed too, in 2012! That’s a real shame as it was such a great place specialized in sea food and vegetarian dishes. I was given complimentary yummy bread (served with its butter) and a jug of tap water, of very good quality in Edinburgh. With a cosy ambiance, and very friendly staff, the prices were more than reasonable, suitable for all pocket sizes. Here was where I tried my favourite Scottish dish, the tasty Cullen skink, a haddock soup with potato, onion, milk, butter, pepper and occasionally parsley.

shandwick-place

Walk across Shandwick Place, in the west extreme of Princess Street and blend with the crowd. / Z.L.C.

lothian-road

Lothian Road is for film lovers, with the most interesting independent cinemas of the city. / Z.L.C.

The end of my trip was getting close and I had a pending activity: climbing up to Calton Hill on a Sunday morning. A hundred meters above sea level rises this volcanic hill, of same origin as its older brother Arthur’s Seat, the highest spot of the city, and the castle itself. The inhabitants of Edinburgh often go there on the weekends for a walk or a picnic on (improbable) sunny days. Minutes away from the city centre, Calton Hill gives you a chance of moving to the countryside without even leaving the city, following the different routes or seeing its monuments. It’s a perfect place to marvel at the contrast between the Old and the New Town and the views of the Firth of Forth estuary that bathes the northern side of the city. A few people are aware of that, but Edinburgh has a coast. I don’t think one can ask for much more for it to be the perfect city. Calton Hill is also a place to bring a book and escape reality while you feel like the king or queen of Scotland for a moment as the panoramic view at your feet will definitely make you feel.

THE SCOTTISH CAPITAL IS VERY

RECEPTIVE TO TOURISTS.

IT GIVES YOU A HOME FEELING

THAT A METROPOLI CAN’T

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Relax and contemplate the stunning views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. / Z.L.C.

Edinburgh wraps you up warm in spite of that damn cold that pierces your bones. Even if it’s always freezing, it’s so worth to walk its beautiful streets and rejoice in its fantastic architecture. To feel its captivating history, dark and frightening, as if you were before a suspense novel. Edinburgh is an enigma. When you go all over its corners, its little hidden streets that seem to be keeping a secret, you believe to be in Sherlock Holmes’ shoes, the famous character created by the Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The best of all to say goodbye is taking advantage of the extraordinary and varied night life the city has to offer and going off the beaten track. Climbing down the stairs that lead to the Whistle Binkie’s, where you can mingle with the Edinburgians and listen to great live music. While you taste a good pint, you can read some philosophical reflections that hang very appropriately on the walls. Perhaps you can find the clues that will help you solve the mystery.

 

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