A Travellerspoint blog

To the top of Edinburgh

sunny 57 °F

I’ve always wanted to be a world traveler. After a trip to Costa Rica two years ago, Matt and I planned a long trip to Chile for this November, not realizing that another adventure was also about to fall into our laps.

Through a series of interesting circumstances, Matt and I have ended up with a deal for a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, which we absolutely could not turn down.

To get to Scotland from the States, a layover in New York-Newark is likely before the tedious, neck-stiffening ride over the Atlantic. A long night of travel (a two-hour flight from Columbus to Newark, a two-hour layover, and a six hour flight across the pond to Edinburgh) turns us groggy messes when we finally arrive. There were some highlights of the flight though—especially the beautiful nighttime flight over New York City and the Statue of Liberty. Plus, the international flight has free TV shows and movies on the personal screens on the back of each seat, which always makes for a more interesting and bearable flight. I jump around from some of my favorite TV shows before settling in for the movie “Brave,” the new Disney/Pixar movie set in Scotland. It seems appropriate.

Of course I do attempt to sleep on the way over and manage to cat nap a few times, but I’ve never had much luck sleeping on planes. Matt, however, ends up getting about the equivalent of a full night’s sleep thanks to his narcolepsy.

When we finally arrive in Edinburgh, it obviously is going to be one of those rare sunny days that Scotland gets far too infrequently. We rush through immigration and I say a little prayer of thanks when I see that both of our checked bags arrived safely. Outside, we climb aboard a double-decker bus with comfortable leather seats and Scottish music playing softly over the speakers. Despite the frenzy of cars buzzing about through the streets and the heavy traffic, the huge bus careens through impossibly narrow streets, around tight turns and up, down through the hilly neighborhoods without trouble.

Through the glass we watch the Edinburgh landmarks as we sail past them: the gothic Scott Monument, its stone flanks and spires a dark, age-worn salute to Sir Walter Scott; and, of course, the imposing and fairytale-like Edinburgh castle, squatting upon a high bluff just on the other side of the Princes Street Gardens. We hop off the bus outside the bustling Waverly Station and drag our luggage up the steep, cobblestone Cockburn Street. Cockburn twists and curls uphill from Waverley Station and ends at the intersection of the Royal Mile. It’s lined with vibrant storefronts, robin’s egg blue and tiger lily orange and sea foam green, with flower boxes on the sills and curtains fluttering in the flats above; people obviously reside in these. Tourists and locals brush by us in a bevy of languages and accents. We find the door to our apartment about halfway up the short street but have to wait about an hour for the landlord to check us in, so we sit at a small café across the street to pass the time.


The large wall-to-wall picture windows of Café Cockburn give us a front-row seat for people-watching the scene outside. Across the street from us is an eclectic mix of shops: an antiques shop, a Scottish souvenir shop, a tattoo and body piercing parlor, and a Mexican restaurant. Visitors flit in and out of the shops, sometimes snapping photos of the street or shop windows as the shopkeepers and bartenders take their smoke breaks.


After Jack the landlord meets us on the street and takes us up the tight spiral staircase to our apartment on the third floor, we exhaustedly drop our bags on the floor and explore our new abode. There are two apartments per floor in this particular building, three floors of apartments total; upon entering our apartment, you can walk down a hallway with two rooms on each side—a bathroom and bedroom on the left and a kitchen and living space on the right. The windows in the kitchen and living room look right out onto Cockburn, and you can hear laughter drifting up from the street and even, once in awhile, bagpipes. I have no idea where these bagpipes are coming from, but the music is so subtle at times that I start to wonder if I’m just hearing it in my head.


With the beautiful sunny afternoon ahead of us, we decide to take advantage of the good weather and do the complete opposite of what anyone else who just traveled through the night without sleep would do: climb Arthur’s Seat.

Robert Louis Stevenson described Arthur’s Seat as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.” Located at the eastern end of the Royal Mile, it is the highest peak in the hilly Holyrood Park and has paths and trails cross-crossing all across the park. It is clear that this place is a main destination not just for tourists, but also for local health nuts and dog owners.


The hill, which is actually an extinct volcano, rises to a height of 823 feet above Edinburgh. After walking about half a mile down the Royal Mile to reach Holyrood Park, we stand at the edge of the park next to the Scottish Parliament building, wondering if we would even be able to make it to the top. We examine one path that winds around the city-side of the park toward a sharp vertical bluff and see that it is extraordinarily steep and rocky. We decide to save that one for another day and take the “summit path” through the center of the park and hike upwards through grassy hills dotted with purple and yellow wildflowers and thistles. The path quickly turns from an easy paved trail to a narrow, rocky and surprisingly steep hike. There are no switchbacks up THIS mountain!


Along the way we pass countless dogs, probably about half of them border collies, running happily around their owners and sniffing the grass. We stop several times to rest and take in the expansive panoramas, snap pictures and rest our tired muscles. Finally, we reach the summit, which is not at all grassy like the land surrounding it but rather rough, volcanic-looking rocks forming craggy peaks. The sheer force of the wind shocks us immediately. We brace ourselves against it and find ourselves having to yell over it, at times losing our balance as we try to navigate our way across the rough rocks.


But those views… oh, those views. To the west, Edinburgh spreads out far below us, the bustling curving streets now just a tightly packed canvas of spires and stone. To the east, the port town of Leith hugs the Firth of Forth, and north along the coastline is the Forth Bridge jutting across the water into Fife. I’m not sure I will ever forget those magnificent views and the way they made me feel so small up on that mountain.


The hike back down through the park is relatively quick and easy. By the time we make it back to street level, we are exhausted and hungry. We stop into a small pub along the Royal Mile called the White Horse Bar; the bar window proclaims in scrolling letters that it was established in 1742, and the inside is quaint and pretty much what you would expect from a small pub in the middle of Scotland’s capital: buzzing and full of lively people. We talk to the bartender about our climb up Arthur’s Seat and meet some Pennsylvanians sitting at the bar. With our fellow Midwesterners who are Penn State fans, we lament our football teams’ issues this season and the penalties both OSU and PSU face.

We settle into the corner table with two pints of Olde English cider and order what I call our “victors' meal.” Matt chooses stovies (a meat and potato stew) and oatcakes, while I order cottage pie (traditional minced beef over mashed potatoes with bread). We happily rest our sore legs and enjoy the animated conversations around us. The White Horse is the smallest pub along the Royal Mile and arguably the most authentically Scottish. It caters mostly to locals and thankfully hasn’t prettified itself or its menu for the tourists. I find it warm, charming and very welcoming, as well as true to its Scottish roots.


The walk back to the apartment is chilly; the clouds have covered the sun, which later reappears as we make it back to Cockburn. We curl up on the two couches and nap for a couple hours, until our appetites return with a vengeance at about 8 p.m.

The streets of Old Town would be eerie at night if there weren’t couples still eating dinner in the many restaurants and open-air seating, live music and drunken chatter from the pubs, shops lit up with their doors open, and people milling about in the Royal Mile. I’ve never seen buildings as ancient as these or as full of history. But the people who are out and about, enjoying the night make it youthful and vibrant.


We settle down for dinner at a burger and pizza restaurant called the Filling Station. Though it looks like your typical pub-type restaurant from the outside, we realize shortly after being seated that, comically, it is an American-style restaurant. The menu is expansive with every type of food you could want, from steak and burgers to flatbreads and fajitas. The walls are covered in ‘junk,’ just as any TGI Fridays or Applebees is, and Motown and popular American rock is playing over the speakers; the tracks switch from the Supremes to Soul Asylum to the Temptations. For awhile, we feel like we had never left the States. Matt orders a sirloin steak with steak fries, slaw and salad garnish, and I order a “Californian Classic” pizza with goat cheese, mozzarella, mixed peppers, onions and tomato slices with a tomato pesto sauce. We top off our late dinner off with a cappuccino for me and an espresso for Matt.

The night air is chilly and clean. Ohio feels about a million miles away; this place, with its meandering cobbled streets and endless walls of stone, is a sharp contrast to the endless grids of new home constructions and suburbia. There is so much to see, so many places to explore in this lively labyrinth that the next two weeks are sure to be an adventure.

Posted by GoWander 15:47 Archived in Scotland Tagged edinburgh old_town arthurs_seat cockburn royal_mile

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