Monday, April 28, 2008

A Wee Bit of Edinburgh

Before this past weekend, I knew relatively little about Edinburgh, and what I did know came mostly from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. The crime-filled, alcohol-drenched Edinburgh of Inspector Rebus is probably not the picture the local tourist board would choose to paint, but to my mind the books, and particularly the recent TV adaptations of them starring Ken Stott, added a level of film noir appeal that was one of my main inspirations for visiting in the first place. Apart from Inspector Rebus, nearly everyone we talked to before going seemed to love Edinburgh and wanted to go back.

Edinburgh sits on a series of sharply steep hills, remnants of ancient volcanoes, overlooking the sea. With its famous castle perched high on a cliff overlooking the city, spindly gothic spires, neoclassical memorials, towering obelisks, iron bridges crisscrossing the hills, and elegant Victorian parks, Edinburgh is a bit of an architectural hodgepodge, but it all works nicely together somehow.

A view of Edinburgh Castle from New Town

Emerging from Waverley Station, one of the first things you’re likely to notice (other than Marks & Spencer and all of the other stores that follow you everywhere you go in the UK) is the towering Scott Monument, a monument to the author Sir Walter Scott. The Scott Monument, despite being gothic in design, has a shape and ornate intricacy of design that is reminiscent of a Thai temple.

What most tourists probably fail to notice is that you can actually climb all the way to the top of the Scott Monument. From the outside, there doesn’t appear to be room for a staircase at all, but somehow there is the narrowest of narrow spiral staircases with 287 steps going up to the top. Without actually doing this yourself, it is nearly impossible to understand just how claustrophobic and scary the experience of climbing the Scott Monument is. At the very top, the staircase is so narrow, the ceiling so low, and the twist of the staircase so tight, that I could barely fit myself through crawling on my side. Even Maggie had trouble squeezing herself up this last bit.

One of the wider parts of the staircase in the Scott Monument

After the harrowing experience of getting yourself to the top, and paying £3 for the privilege, you emerge (if you're skinny enough) onto the tip of a 200-foot spire on a platform that could probably fit 5 small, and hopefully fearless, people. I hugged the stone wall for dear life for about 10 seconds, decided I had seen enough, and wedged myself back into the relative security of the stairway. Luckily we were probably the second group of people of the day to climb the monument, and there was only one group behind us, so we didn’t get into any traffic jams on the stairway. Emerging back on solid ground made us both extremely happy, and we were so dizzy from the stairs and our knees were so shaky that we had to go sit on a bench for a while to recover. Robert Louis Stevenson called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”; Ian Rankin said that “vertigo is in the nature of the place” -- after the experience in the Scott Monument, I couldn’t agree more.

Part of the way up the Scott Monument

We were hoping for Edinburgh to be somehow notably ‘Scottish’, whatever that means, yet it didn’t really strike us that way. My Scottish ancestors may disown me for even thinking this, but to a large degree Edinburgh felt like an English city but with more hills, an incurable plaid addiction, and a remarkable tolerance for bagpipes. Perhaps that is what makes it Scottish, but we were hoping for it to feel more like another country. Oddly, we were both reminded several times of San Francisco. The views from Calton Hill over the Firth of Forth were strongly reminiscent of San Francisco Bay, there was lots of seafood and ocean breezes, and sometimes the light Edinburgh accent would sound almost American.

Edinburgh or San Francisco?

Just a blink n' you might walk right by this memorial in Calton Hill Cemetery

We both really enjoyed wandering Edinburgh and loved the mellow pace of the city. Compared to London, Edinburgh is slow and comfortable with a bit of a small town feel, and the bus system is cheap and reliable (and the bus seats are, you guessed it, plaid). While I can't say that I connected with my Scottish roots or anything like that, Edinburgh was a fun and easy trip from London and I too would love to go back.

Calton Hill at sunset

1 comment:

cab said...

Song begging for a bagpipe rendition:
"Hit Me Baby, One More Time" by Britney Spears