Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Stumbling Across Edinburgh...

On my first visit to Edinburgh almost 17 years ago, I had come armed with a guidebook and a list of ‘Must Do’ attractions that I diligently ticked off.  With the wisdom of age J has come a far more relaxed approach to travel and discovering a city…and so I share with you our ‘stumble across’, DIY approach to 5 days in Edinburgh! 

We have arrived in Edinburgh in the late afternoon after catching the train from Forres.  It was a nice relaxing journey that gave us an appreciation for the wide-open green spaces of the Scottish Highlands.  We were now looking forward to a few days of R&R after a rather busy week at the Findhorn Conference.

After checking in to our guesthouse, we decide to walk (20-minute walk) to the City Centre, stopping on the way for lunch.  After being vegetarian for most of the last two weeks Steven is dying for some meat.  The look of pain and pleasure on his face tell the story.  A simple hamburger had never tasted so good before and we savoured every bite.  

We continue our walk and stumble across our first find - the Jazz Bar.  The exterior is not particularly inviting but a friend in Findhorn had mentioned this was worth a visit and I know the best tips for discovering a city is to listen to the locals!  It’s early in the evening but there is already a bit of a buzz here.  A young man on a guitar is entertaining the crowd with his crooning.  It’s cold outside but we finally start to unwind with the help of some Thistly Cross Ciders and settle in for what turns out to be a great evening’s entertainment!  

It’s a relaxing start to our first day and we stroll the Royal Mile, exploring the mysterious alleyways that lead to courtyards and hidden gems…and so we stumbled across the Printing House where the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as well as the work of famous writers such as Burns were published.  Both Steven and I come from a generation that actually referred to this marvellous resource while in high school.  I still remember how proud my dad was when we got our own Britannica series and how lovingly he arranged the numerous Volumes on a bookcase back home.  They still lie there in the house we grew up, gathering dust, no longer the same source of wonder and excitement to anyone.  

But for us, the discovery of this Printing Press reminds us of the days of our youth, and we reminisce about that sense of wonder we had felt at turning the pages of those volumes and being amazed at the depth of knowledge they revealed on whatever you were researching.  Somehow, I doubt that Wikipedia will ever evoke the same memories in the generations of today.

We uncover many more exciting places as we stroll down the Royal Mile, and make mental notes of things to do tomorrow before walking back to our digs.

We have a good sleep in on Day 2 and almost missed the 9.30 cut off for breakfast.  Thankfully, we raced down in time and felt much better after a hearty cooked brekkie inside us.  We step outside to find it is bucketing down with rain.  On any cold, wet day like this in Sydney I would prefer to curl up with a good book but when I travel I feel compelled to make the most of every day…and so I pile on the layers and bravely step out… 

We had stumbled across the Edinburgh Museum previously and decided it was a good place to start.    The museum was incredibly diverse, housing a collection that spanned millions of years.  We admired the grand galleries filled with fossils and stuffed animals, the artefacts from diverse cultures and learnt a little more about Scottish history as well as the big bang and the origins of life.  Did you know that we have more cells in our body than there are stars in our galaxy?

We are walking along the streets of Edinburgh looking for a café for lunch when we stumble across the Elephant House Café.  Once upon a time a little known author named J.K. Rowling spent hours in this café while writing her first book about the adventures of Harry Potter.  Many myths now abound about this author, once a penniless single mum who dreamt big dreams.  

Did she spend her time at the back rooms here because she couldn’t afford the heating at home…or just because the view of the castle from the big open windows inspired her?  We queue up for a table just as curious as the rest of our fellow travellers about a café that now appears to thrive on the fame of a writer who once sat here in complete anonymity, with the same hopes and dreams of being published that we now harbour.

The ambience this café once had has now been spoilt by the travellers, wannabe writers and other curious folk who come here in their hundreds to pay homage to Rowling, perhaps to say they too have sipped coffee and penned a few lines at the Elephant House Café.  I am disappointed because my hopes of sitting here undisturbed for a few hours blogging about my journey and dreaming of fame and fortune are dashed.  The hustle and bustle and chaos of lunchtime doesn’t really lend itself to serious writing

We still mange to sit in there for hours making use of the WIFI to catch up on our mail.  

When we St Giles Cathedral and quickly find ourselves being ushered in to our seats for a concert performance, after answering yes when asked, are you here for the concert?  Of course we had no idea that the St Michaels Chamber Choir from Luneburg, Germany was visiting and that the concert was free.   The concert titled Dreams all too brief, dreams without grief, included music by composers such as Brahms and was beautiful.  The sound rises up to fill the cathedral ceilings.  No guidebook could have led us here and once again I marvel at the joy of stumbling upon the secrets of a city.   The origins of St Giles dates back to 1130, when during the reign of King David I, a little parish church was built to serve Edinburgh.  I read that the reformation (the storm of change that swept across the Church in Scotland in 1560) was ignited by a sermon preached here by John Knox, who went on to become a minister here.
finally stumble out we are standing on the steps of

Edinburgh is also home to some fabulous libraries.  We stumble across the National Library of Scotland and decide to become members for the week.  This gives us access to a wonderful resource including free WiFi in a splendidly ornate room.  It’s a good place to write and read and we make use of this space during our time here.

Did you know that the secret of how to make a deep fried mars bar lies buried here in Scotland?  We find the secret recipe while window shopping but not being partial to mars bars or deep fried anything I am not particularly excited by this find.  But in case you are, I am now in possession of this recipe!!

Day 3 dawns and the city is awash with bright sunlight.  When you live in these northern parts of the world, you really appreciate and make the most of days such as this.  We feel there is a different vibe to the city and take a different route and so we stumbled across the graduation celebration of hundreds of young students at the Edinburgh University.  We are once more transported back to the days of our youth, when full of hopes and dreams and a sense of achievement we had ourselves walked up the stage to thankfully receive our graduation certificates that entitled us to fstart life as an adult.  Each graduate is flanked by at least one parent if not two, and I can see the sense of pride or is it relief (?) written across their faces.  Their babies are ready to face the world.  I am struck by how many foreign students have come to Edinburgh University and the high volume of students from Asia – mostly China or Taiwan (?) I imagine.  Kilts, suits and colourful dresses lend a festive air.  We make use of this unusual opportunity to peek inside the University Hall, which is impressive and reminds me of Stanford with a similar feel of grandeur and history. 

We continue walking and it isn’t long before we stumble across the Grey Friars Church in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.   Built in 1610, it is one of the oldest buildings around but what catches my eye is a poster about the Grassmarket Community Project.

Throughout the week, various workshops aimed at developing people’s self worth, social networks and skills are offered by this project, aimed at individuals facing deep social exclusion.  The project also encourages members of the local community to work side by side with these individuals, inviting true integration.  The projects range from GRoW wood workshop, the Plough to Plate cookery and a gardening program, the Grassroots Art workshop, Greyfriars Herb Garden and many other arts and education initiatives.

It is a beautiful day and we walk up to Edinburgh Castle.   The castle dominates the city and sits atop a giant rock outcrop.  You can’t miss stumbling across it as it looks down at you at many vantage points around the city.  This is one of those must do sites I had ticked off when I first visited.  The castle has been home to many monarchs, battles were fought over it and countless tourists visit each year.  I am happy to revisit but Steve decides against doing the one ‘must do’ in Edinburgh, so we wander around, take photos and leave.     

Wandering down Lady Stair’s Close we stumble across the Writer’s Museum.  Lady Stair’s House has been converted to a a museum to honour 3 of Scotland’s most famed writers, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.  The walls are lined with portraits and the museum is home to many rare books and personal belongings and a printing press in which some of Scott’s novels
were first published.  It’s a beautiful place and we wonder if perhaps it is the rather wet and cold Scottish weather that has produced such prolific writers here.  I mean…what else do you do on a cold wet day besides curl up with a good book or better still write one?

It’s time for tea and where better to sit awhile and reflect on our journey than the Story Telling Café.  It has been another wonderful day of discovery. 

Day 4 and we are back to rain and wet weather.  We walk to the newer part of Edinburgh and stumble across the Scott Monument.  The monument is a Victorian Gothic construction to honour Sir Walter Scott.  It is about 200 feet high and has a series of platforms that you reach by climbing a winding and narrow staircase that seem to get smaller the higher you get.  The views from the top are spectacular and we are glad we made the effort. 

While up here I spot the Scottish National Gallery and we spend the rest of the morning admiring the amazing collection of medieval, renaissance and impressionist art here.  It is a reasonably small collection but houses an incredible collection of art including names such as Picasso, Rodin, Monet, Degas, Da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Van Gogh, and the list goes on.  Rodin’s magnificent marble sculpture, The Kiss, has come here for a year and is on loan from the Tate in Britain.  We leave, blown away by this collection, the likes of which somehow I hadn’t expected to stumble across in Edinburgh.

Lunch at the Gallery Café is a work of art in itself.  We tuck into a smorgasbord of local cheeses, hams, chutneys, smoked salmon, dips and salad.  Sometimes the simplest of meals just tastes so delicious when it is so wholesome and fresh. 

While walking home on our last night in Edinburgh we stumble on an exhibition of the life and work of Dr. David Livingstone.  I’d always thought of Livingstone as English and was surprised to learn that he was actually a Scottish pioneer medical missionary who worked with the London Missionary Society and spent much of his life exploring Africa.  Of course, we have all heard snippets of the mythic status afforded this man and the famous quote attributed to Stanley, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”  It was however, quite incredible to see the extent of his work and the sketches painstakingly documenting many of the rivers and landforms of Africa that had been largely undiscovered until then and led to the subsequent obsession of discovering the source of the Nile.

Day 5 and our time in Edinburgh has come to an end.  We don’t leave till later on that evening but we have a quiet day of writing and reflecting on some of the wonderful spontaneous discoveries we have stumbled upon…!

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