Edinburgh

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Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the historic capital of Scotland — though it didn't become the capital until the 15th century. Before that, the capital was Perth. Its attraction to visitors is really twofold: its incomparable geographical setting; the city sits on several strange hills (they are in fact extinct volcanoes) with magnificent views of the River Forth, and its architecture; the city is called the "Scottish Athens" for its wealth of neo-classical buildings. Even though many of the buildings appear dirty and grey, Edinburgh is nevertheless one of the great beautiful cities of Europe. In the British Isles its only rival is Bath. It's a city of history, and a city for walking: many tiny lanes called wynds in the Old Town will give you a rare glimpse of medieval Scotland. They contrast splendidly with the Georgian elegance and grandeur of the New Town. It is also very much a city of culture.

A historic city, Edinburgh has grown with the times. It expanded in the 19th century, though not on the same dramatic scale as Glasgow. In fact, the 19th-century industry produced so much black smoke that the city became known as "Auld Reekie" — it reeked of soot. Natives claim that the soot actually adds character to the older buildings, and are reluctant to have it removed. Besides, the local stone is notoriously difficult to clean, and the process is prone to endanger the fabric of the buildings. At the beginning of the 21st century, Edinburgh is regaining its place as the governmental center of Scotland.

Although the medieval royal capital was Perth, Scottish kings stayed often in Edinburgh (originally called Dunedin), and they lived in the simple hilltop castle that later developed into the great fortress of Edinburgh Castle that can be seen today. Early on, a second favorite royal residence sprang up; Holyrood House, still the Queen's official residence when she is in Edinburgh. Formerly an abbey, Holyrood House's guest quarters were so inviting to Scottish kings that they eventually took it over.

THE OLD TOWN

Edinburgh is clearly divided into two cities: the Old Town and the New Town. The neo-classical architecture is in the New Town, but the best walks (and the spookiest alleys) are in the Old Town. The Old Town is built on a narrow ridge extending from the castle east towards Holyrood House. The street running between them is called the Royal Mile, and is by far the most fascinating street to walk. The street is not called this on maps but only on historic street signs; on maps, the succession of streets are: Lawnmarket, High Street and Cannongate. The writer Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, called it "perhaps the longest, largest and finest street not in Britain only, but in the world."

The houses on the Royal Mile, though very old, are surprisingly tall — sometimes 9, 10 or 12 stories. This is even more apparent if you look up at the Old Town from Princes' Street. Spiral staircases were built inside a tower topped by a cone-shaped roof — you can see these towers in the backs of the houses. These tenement houses are so tall because up until the 18th century and the building of the New Town, Edinburgh was surrounded by a defensive wall. People didn't want to build houses farther down the hill outside the walls because high ground meant protection in time of war. There was nowhere to go but up. As the population grew, houses got taller, and crowding increased. People of all classes lived close to each other. In local taverns, churches and markets, rich and poor jostled together. This may seem fanciful but perhaps this is in part responsible for the development of the Scottish egalitarian tradition. The richer families occupied the lower floors, however, while the poorer ones had to trudge up steps to the upper floors. It is the high density of buildings and the jigsaw-pattern of streets that makes this area so popular today.

The famous story is always told here of the abominable sanitary conditions in medieval Edinburgh. At the cry of "gardy-loo," everybody walking the streets ducked into doorways: this was the one official time when slop-buckets could be emptied out of windows and into the street. The expression comes from gardez l'eau ("watch the water!"), a reminder of Scotland's historic ties with France, and is why in Britain the toilet is generally known as the "loo".

Among the men of history who either lived in or enjoyed the taverns of the Old Town are Sir Walter Scott, James Boswell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and the philosopher David Hume.

With the building of the New Town, the Old Town deteriorated into a slum. In a way, this was to the good, since it meant that the old buildings weren't demolished or "improved." In the 1930s a systematic program of restoration returned the Old Town to its former appearance. In the center of the Old Town is Mercat Cross, where 300 witches were burnt at the stake in the late Middle Ages. In one little enclave nearby, called St. Mary's Close, every single inhabitant died of the plague in the outbreak of 1645. The Close remains today almost exactly the same as it was during that year.

If you walk along the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, the first thing you see on your left is the 18th century Camera Obscura from where you can get excellent panoramas over the city. Immediately opposite is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. The church on the right as the road opens out is now a tourist information center. Soon after on the right is Brodie's Close (home of Deacon Brodie, a town councilor by day and burglar by night, who kept two families in adjoining streets without being found out, and was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), John Knox's house on the left where the great Reformer lived for 11 years, and St. Giles Cathedral opposite, not really a cathedral but the High Kirk of Edinburgh and first church of Scottish Presbyterianism. Its Chapel of the Thistle is the home of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, the highest order of Scottish chivalry. You will also see Parliament House (where the Scottish Parliament met until the Union with England in 1707, now the Scottish Supreme Court), Cannonball House ( so called because a cannonball is embedded right in the wall — it was fired from the castle toward Holyrood House, but missed!), and White Horse Close (one of the nicest 17th-century houses, beautifully restored). The lower part of the street is less dense in places of interest until you reach the end of the Royal Mile and Holyrood House, official home of Queen Elizabeth when she's in Edinburgh.

Holyrood House was founded originally as an abbey, and according to legend as a result of a miracle. King David I went hunting once and was attacked by a stag. Grasping its horns, he found himself holding on to a cross, which came off in his hand. That night in a dream, he heard a voice commanding him to establish an abbey on the spot. He did so, and from that time on, Scottish royalty would use the abbey's guest rooms when they were in Edinburgh. Eventually the house became so popular that the king moved in for good. Additions were made over the years. Its present Jacobean appearance comes from the 17th century. In Holyrood House, Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, clashed repeatedly with John Knox, the Protestant Reformer. Lord Darnley, Mary's husband, was murdered by Scottish nobles and is buried here. The name "Holyrood" comes from the Holy Rood (Holy Cross — from the miracle of the cross in the stag's horns).

NEW TOWN

This is the name given to the section of the city stretching north from the Royal Mile. The difference is instantly obvious. Instead of tiny streets running in no particular order, there are broad avenues laid out at neat right angles. Fortunately for Edinburgh, this major expansion (beginning around 1770) occurred at a time when architectural standards were high. The famous Adam brothers (Robert, John, James and William) were the leading architects. The New Town is a well-planned network of streets and squares with elegant Georgian houses built in the characteristic Edinburgh stone. The finest set piece is Charlotte Square, with its central key garden, wrought-iron railings and houses with decorated doorways and ornate balconies.

Among the places to visit in the New Town is Robert Louis Stevenson's house. This is where the author spent his childhood and youth. Across the street from the house are the Queen Street Gardens, and in the pond of the gardens is an island on which Stevenson is said to have based Treasure Island. Mainly, the New Town is for strolling to enjoy the classical facades, the regularly patterned streets and some quaint 18th century shops.

EDINBURGH CASTLE

Edinburgh Castle is the city's most famous monument. It is spectacularly sited on the edge of a craggy rock at the top of the Royal Mile. Though the castle began in the 11th century, little or nothing survives from those times. Randolph, Earl of Moray and a nephew of Robert the Bruce, scaled the walls one night in 1313, surprised the English guard, and took the castle for Bruce. To make sure the English couldn't use it again, he destroyed all the buildings except St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest extant part of the castle today. Thus, the rest of the castle dates from later times, which is why it looks relatively modern. In the wars between the English and the Scots, the castle was attacked (sometimes captured) several times; the last siege was in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie tried unsuccessfully to take it. In the mid 15th century, King James II of Scotland moved his Parliament to Edinburgh and it became the capital.

Inside the castle the greatest treasures are the "Honours of Scotland" — the Scottish Crown Jewels, rediscovered in 1818. These include the scepter, the sword-in-state and the crown, crafted from gold mined in Scotland. Also popular are the apartments used by Mary Queen of Scots, including the room where she gave birth to James, the future King of England. Over the doorway leading to the apartments are the initials "H" and "M": Henry Lord Darnley, and Mary. The castle is also famous for its sweeping view of the whole city and the River Forth beyond. The 18th century esplanade is the site of the famous Military Tattoo.

PRINCES' STREET

Princes' Street and Princes' Gardens roughly divide the Old and New Towns. Princes' Street is Edinburgh's most famous. On the other side of the street are Princes' Gardens, often decorated with lovely floral displays. Princes' Street is probably more popular for its view than for anything else: you can look up at Edinburgh Castle on its rocky mount, and see the row of historic old buildings running along the Royal Mile. At one end of Princes Street is the Sir Walter Scott Monument, a huge Victorian Gothic spire 200 feet high. (If you have time and energy, you can climb its 287 inside steps for a view of the whole city.) Halfway along the street is a street branching off at right angles, called The Mound. This is Edinburgh's "Speaker's Corner," where opinions of all shades are expressed (usually on Sunday evenings).

PRACTICAL STUFF

Weather here is generally impossible to predict. This is Scotland, northerly land of hills and lochs; it rains a lot, and coastal Edinburgh is subject to sea mists or haars. Fall is mild or fairly cold with crisp, frosty mornings, and by December daylight is but a memory after 4pm. Winter brings cold easterly winds and some snow, though more often wet; but it can surprise you with clear and sunny days while other places freeze. Spring is blustery and streets are awash with blossom; summer changes rapidly from boiling hot to light showers, so don't forget to bring an umbrella.

March  Temperature 33ºF to 48ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 5
Monthly Rainfall 2"

July  Temperature 50ºF to 70ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 8
Monthly Rainfall 2.3"

October  Temperature 42ºF to 57ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 4.4
Monthly Rainfall 2.5"

January  Temperature 33ºF to 42ºF
Daily Hours Sunshine 2.2
Monthly Rainfall 2.3"

Synchronize your watches  Great Britain is 5 hours ahead of E.S.T. If it's 8am in Boston, it's 1pm in Edinburgh. Great Britain is one hour ahead of its continental cousins (France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany) but in the same time zone as the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

Money, money, money  As all over The United Kingdom, the best way to get Pounds Sterling is to withdraw money from a bank using your ATM card. Paying wherever you can with a credit or a debit card is, of course, a pleasure. When it comes to changing money, banks are just as expensive as Bureaux de Change and can take forever. In general, with the exception of some shops devoted solely to the tourist trade, traveler's checks in Europe cannot be used as a substitute for cash. There is no advantage in buying traverler's checks in Pounds Sterling. You will still have to change them. Remember also that exchange rates may be no better for traveler's checks than for cash.

The joy of servitude  Restaurant checks almost always include a 10% to 15% service charge. If a service charge has not been included, it is customary to leave a few additional pounds behind based on the level of service you have received.

The mailman cometh  Mail service to and from Edinburg is reliable and inexpensive, however, sending a parcel abroad will be expensive. You can purchase postage stamps at many newsagents or petrol stations. The main post office in Edinburgh is located close to the main bus station in the St. James Centre, EH1. Post offices are usually open from 9am-5:30pm Monday through Friday and 9am-12:30pm on Saturdays.

Please wait while we try to connect you  As usual, the golden rule is never call home from your hotel. It will cost a fortune. Public telephones are easy to find and easy to use. They accept telephone cards that can be bought in at any newsagent.

The access code to put you through to an ATT operator from Great Britian is 0800 89 0011. For MCI it is 0800 89 0222.

SCOTTISH WHISKY

The brew is spelled "whisky" in Scotland and "whiskey" (with an "e") only if it's made in Ireland. The name comes from the Gaelic words wisge-beatha, meaning water of life. In the Middle Ages, whisky was officially called aquavita, water of life in Latin. There are many distilleries in the Highlands and Islands, with a much greater variety of whiskies available there than are to be found down in England. Brands in England will go up to 70º proof; in Scotland you will find whiskies up to 100º proof. There are three types of whisky: malts, grains and blends. Malt is the oldest type, distilled from fermented barley, and generally considered the best. It varies immensely in taste according to the peat content in the soil and the characteristics of the stream water. Grain whisky is distilled from unmalted barley and is popular because of the large quantities it can yield in a short period of time, but lacks the quality of pure malt whisky. Most brands of whisky are blends of grain and malt. Blended whiskies are made from a mixture of up to 50 different malts. The only other ingredients should be yeast and water from streams. Specifics of the manufacturing process differ slightly but in general whisky takes about three weeks to make. The barley is malted (ie. left in water to germinate); dried; mashed; fermented with the addition of yeast, and distilled. The whisky is then left, normally in oak barrels, for a period of at least three years to mature. Et voilà. (Incidentally, the word "Scotch" applies only to whisky. Otherwise the word is "Scottish.")

Single malt scotch whiskies, considered to be the best of all, are traditionally divided into three regions of production: Lowlands (smoother, easier to drink and more feminine), Highland (strong and herby, with great personality) and Islands (with a very strong iodine flavor due to the presence of it in the peat from the islands of Northern Scotland).

FOOD

Haggis is widely considered to be the Scottish national dish and is made of spiced sheep's intestines mixed with oatmeal. Perhaps not appealing to American people, in certain circumstances, it tastes surprisingly good and is generally accompanied with turnips ('neeps') and potatoes ('tatties'). For the faint of heart there is such a thing as vegetarian haggis.

For those who are not as prone to this kind of culinary adventure, other traditional favorites are available. Such dishes include salmon, kippers, angus steak, scotch broth, venison and stovies. End your meal with a typical dessert of Scotch pancakes served warm with butter and honey, syrup or jam or a sweet butterscotch tart. Sugar consumption in Scotland is higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. "When in Rome..."

SHOPPING

When shopping in Edinburgh, you will come across typical Scottish items, such as delicately- designed glassware, handmade jewelry, tartan kilts and Arran or Shetland knit sweaters (jumpers). The prime shopping street in Edinburgh is on Princes Street. Formerly, it was lined on one side with quaint shops; but now modern department stores stand there. The Royal Mile is where you will find offbeat souvenir shops and nearby Grassmarket is the place to explore bookshops, craft boutiques and specialty food stores. Most shops are open from 9:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday.

FESTIVALS

Every August the Edinburgh Festival attracts performers in all fields of the arts, as well as many thousands of visitors. The festival is primarily a music festival, though there are others too, and the Festival Fringe has grown to be the biggest in the world. At the same time, Edinburgh Castle is decked out for one of the most spectacular military displays you can see: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

HOLIDAYS

January 1 & 2 (New Year)
Late March/early April (Good Friday)
First Monday in May (May Day)
Last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday)
First Monday in August (Summer Bank Holiday)
December 25 (Christmas Day)
December 26 (Boxing Day)

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