Friday, March 7, 2014

Escape to Edinburgh

Carnival season is over in Maastricht! The Vrijthof square beside our apartment was festooned with yellow, red, and green as Carnival music competed with the cacophony of revelers singing, screaming, and breaking empty bottles of beer on every surface imaginable. The revelry lasted well into the night from Friday until Tuesday. Mornings were eerily quiet, the remnants of the celebration of the night before left scattered throughout the cobblestones. At around noon, costumed merrymakers began to emerge from their hangover cocoons to begin the party once more. I'm impressed. I don't know how they did it but the Dutch certainly can't be accused of being party poopers.

We decided to trade the red, yellow, and green for blue and white. We exchanged the Carnival costumes for kilts. We swapped the Prince of Carnival for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And we communicated in English rather than Dutch for two glorious days. 

Edinburgh, Scotland is just a short flight from here. We were lucky to arrive early on our Ryanair flight. Oh, I have a quick but wonderful side note about Ryanair. If you haven't heard already, they are attempting to transition to a normal airline! This means you can bring one piece of carry-on luggage AND *gasp* another small bag. Ladies, no more stuffing your purses and handbags into your suitcase at the last minute. Gents, no more stuffing your man purses into your suitcase at the last minute! Also, they are assigning seats. That means you don't have to jump up and rush to stand in line as soon as you see a surly Ryanair employee walk behind the desk only to avoid eye contact with you for 45 minutes while he or she periodically announces, "Your Ryanair flight will begin boarding... soon." These improvements began in February so you will be able to enjoy them on your next "on-time" Ryanair flight. I could really go on and on about how wonderful this is and how amazing it felt to be treated like people instead of cattle but I'll save the poetry for Auld Reekie.

We arrived at around 9 Friday morning and quickly found an Airlink bus for an easy half-hour ride right into the city center. We went with Airbnb this time and our studio apartment was on Blair Street, a very short walk away from just about everything. It was so nice to have the full day ahead of us. We immediately dropped our luggage and began our tourist route.

First stop was The Real Mary King's Close. Closes are all over Edinburgh. A close is generally an alleyway or lane sloping off High Street. 17th-century Edinburgh was not a particularly pleasant place to live. Sanitation was non-existent; waste was thrown directly into the streets. Buildings grew upwards and society was also organized this way, with the most wealthy living close to the top and the poor residing down in the filth and waste. A close was often descriptively named for its business. For example, you could find a lawyer in Advocate's Close and buy bread in Bakehouse Close. Other closes, including Mary King's, were named after prominent residents.

Not much is known about Mary Close. She was a merchant and a widow with four children. After her husband's death she moved her family to the close. She rented a house near the top and also had a shop on High Street. 

Entrance to Another Close
The Real Mary King's Close is one of those tours designed to frighten you with ghost stories. Our tour guide was dedicated but faltering. Much of her storytelling fell flat and I don't think she achieved the "spooky" atmosphere with our group. With that said, it was still incredibly interesting to be able to walk through the old, intact close. It's easy to envision the meager living conditions, especially for those at the bottom of the close. We learned that many of the people in Mary King's Close were victims of the plague. It wasn't difficult to imagine the scuttling of infested rats as we passed through low, dark rooms with shadowed corners. We made our way through several homes. Many of the original features still exist, including walls, doorways, fireplaces, and remnants of foliage decoration in place of wallpaper. 

Despite the soap opera-ish tone of the tour, I would still recommend taking it only for the unique experience of traveling back in time. I'm glad we did this first because it shed an entirely different light upon the Old Town. Every time I passed a close, I imagined the centuries just under our feet.

We emerged from the depths of Edinburgh in front of St. Giles' Cathedral. It's the City Church of Edinburgh and the Mother Church of Presbyterianism. Its 15th-century spire hovers grandly over the Royal Mile. One of the church's biggest moments happened in 1637 when a local woman, Jenny Geddes, threw her stool at the Dean giving the service. She was opposing the imposition by the King of London of a new prayer book. Her actions began a riot that eventually led to the signing of the National Covenant the next year. Sometimes all it takes to get things moving is the fury of a woman. And something to throw.

St. Giles' Cathedral

I recently read 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith for my book club. I thought it would be fun to go to Scotland Street and take a photo in front of number 44 to share at our next meeting. My ever-humoring husband found Scotland Street on the map and warned that it would be a long walk. "It doesn't matter," I replied. "This is in the name of literature." 25 minutes later we found ourselves at the beginning of Scotland Street, a long, beautiful boulevard sloping down toward a park. I began to get more excited as we neared the 20s. I could just see all of McCall's characters walking up and down this street, strolling to the park. Finally we made it to the end and Scotland street curved slightly... into another street.

Scotland Street

"This is impossible," I said. 
"Maybe it's on the other side of the street," suggested my husband.

I practically ran to the other side and saw the number 43 poking out at the end. 
"43!" I exclaimed.
As close as you'll get to
44 Scotland Street
Both of us circled around in front of 43, the last house on the row. "But why!" I whined.
"Well, maybe the author chose that address precisely because it doesn't exist. I mean, can you imagine how many tourists would be tramping through here all the time?" he logically replied.
"It's just us! There aren't any other tourists here! It's just where people live and all I wanted to do was stand in front of the door and take a photo for book club." I complained.
"Sorry, babe," he said sympathetically.

We still took a gander at the park and it's good we stretched our legs a little because that pleasant downhill walk was now an uphill climb.

Since I'd dragged us all the way through Edinburgh for no specific reason, it was time for lunch when we reached the Old Town again. We decided against haggis and black pudding and chose instead some light Mediterranean fare at Laila's Bistro. We feasted on falafel and dolmades. The food was excellent, service was great, and the price was fair. 

Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
Fortified, we began our next uphill battle: Calton Hill. There are different schools of thought regarding the best view in Edinburgh. Some prefer Arthur's Seat, a 251m hike up an old volcano. We chose the less strenuous option of Calton Hill. It also offers one of the best panoramas of Edinburgh-- you can even look up at Arthur's Seat from here and feel a.) Guilty for climbing the easier hill, or b.) Secure with your choice because you're on vacation and you have nothing to prove. 

Calton Hill is interesting for more than just the views. Like Arthur's Seat, it was also formed by volcanic activity about 340 million years ago. It may have been used 4,000 years ago by Scotland's earliest people from the Bronze Age, and it's one of Britain's first public parks.

Several monuments are also perched at the top. The Nelson Monument commemorates the naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. He died leading his fleet to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The 30 meters-high monument is topped with a mechanized time ball synchronized with the 1pm gun fired from Edinburgh Castle. 

Calton Hill Monuments

The National Monument was built between 1822-29. It commemorates the Scottish soldiers who died during the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815. The National Monument is based on the Parthenon in Athens. Interestingly, it remains unfinished due to a lack of funding. Finished or not, the buildings on Calton Hill were instrumental in gaining the city the title 'The Athens of the North.'


Old Calton Burial Ground
We descended Calton Hill and came upon the Old Calton Burial Ground. It originally opened in 1718 for the burial of tradesmen and merchants. The main attraction is the tall black obelisk of the Political Martyrs' Monument commemorating those who suffered in the fight for electoral reform in the 1790s. It's also the final resting place of Scotland's most famous philosopher, David Hume. The cemetery was both peaceful and spooky and we enjoyed exploring the old tombstones so much that we decided to visit another cemetery before the sun faded.

Greyfriars Kirk
Back in the Old Town, we walked to Greyfriars Kirk and Kirkyard. Greyfriars is where the National Covenant was signed in 1638. It was closed by the time we reached it so we weren't able to go inside but we did spend a lot of time in the graveyard. The Greyfriars Kirkyard is said to be one of Edinburgh's creepiest spots. We were certainly there at the right time for the imagination to run wild. The sun was going down and night was creeping upon us as a light rain fell, chilling us to the bones. Or was that the poltergeist? 

Covenanter's Prison
The MacKenzie Poltergeist is the best-documented case of poltergeist activity ever studied. Sir George MacKenzie, also known as Bloody Mackenzie, was an attorney who persecuted the Covenanters. They opposed the king to maintain the Presbyterian doctrine as the sole form of religion of Scotland. Because of their beliefs, they were imprisoned inside the graveyard in what is now called the Covenanter's Prison. Many died due to exposure to the elements and harsh treatment. Ironically, their prison is right around the corner from Bloody Mackenzie's mausoleum.

The gates to the Covenanter's Prison are locked but you can gain access by taking a ghost tour. Countless incidents have been reported regarding paranormal activity during those tours. Some people come out with bruises and scratches, complaints of being pushed by unseen hands, and experiencing cold spots in certain places. My husband looked into the grimy window of MacKenzie's tomb and told me he saw a well beside the casket. We thought that was strange and later learned that it's actually an old pit containing the remains of plague victims! 

Greyfriars Kirkyard and Edinburgh Castle

An added bonus of exploring the kirkyard is seeing the Flodden Wall. It's the remains of the town wall that was built around medieval Edinburgh as protection against a feared English invasion. 

Flodden Wall

I don't know if I would be up for the Covenanter's Prison tour. Just walking around the graveyard was disturbing enough for me. I suppose I generally believe that when a gate is locked, there's a good reason. Whether you take the tour or not, don't miss a stroll through the Greyfriars Kirkyard. It's one of the most interesting cemeteries I've ever been in, regardless of the poltergeist stories and plague pit.

After a long day of sightseeing, it was time to kick up our heels for dinner. We had reservations for Saturday night and definitely should have had the foresight to reserve for Friday as well. Most places were booked but we managed to find a nice one just below Edinburgh Castle called Maxie's Bistro. The menu was diverse, and the ambience cozy and warm. 

Day 1 in Edinburgh was complete. From closes to crypts, and from Scotland Street to Calton's Hill, we'd seen a lot.

After a good night's sleep, Edinburgh Castle is the next stop!