09.16.2012 - 09.16.2012 55 °F
We wake up at 9 a.m. after a good night’s sleep and decide that we’ll spend the day visiting the Edinburgh Castle, the most famous attraction in the city.
We have breakfast at a coffee house café on Cockburn called the Southern Cross Café. We grab a table up in the loft area and order a breakfast combo called the “Big Belter,” which includes two fried eggs, steak with sautéed onions, two pieces of rashers bacon, two sausage links, two hash brown cakes, baked beans, black pudding, toast and a fried tomato. We split up the food into the things that Matt can eat (the bacon, sausage, and tomato) and what I can eat (the hash browns, baked beans and toast). And just to try it, we each take a bite of the black pudding, which was sliced into a little black hockey puck that we say looks like a slice of sausage that was lit on fire and charred to a crisp. Just in case you don’t know, black pudding is a blend of seasonings, onions, and pork fat mixed with the main ingredient: coagulated pig’s blood, which is filtered, simmered with the other ingredients, and poured into casings, similar to how sausage is made. The dish has been a staple of Scottish cuisine pretty much since the practice of slaughtering and eating animals has been in existence, yet it is still a national favorite to this day. It is very popular with breakfasts but is also eaten at other meals of the day with various toppings and sauces. We both had a small taste, expecting the worst. But my reaction was some thoughtful chewing followed by a “Not bad, actually.” It comes apart easily when you slice your fork through it and, taste-wise, it is mild but has one indistinct flavor in it, probably from the seasonings. I can’t pinpoint what that flavor is but I’m certain it’s not the blood, thankfully. I suppose I might actually like it if I didn’t know what was in it.
We polish off our hearty breakfast with a breakfast tea for Matt and a cappuccino for me, and then walk west down the Royal Mile toward Edinburgh Castle. The day is noticeably chillier than yesterday; the sun comes out here and there, but when it is behind the clouds, the wind is frigid and light raindrops mist on the streets. I guess this is what they mean when they talk about weather in Scotland. It can be sunny one minute and raining the next (and sometimes even snows during the summer months). The sidewalks are still crowded despite the periodic rain and cold, the passersby huddled in rain jackets or hidden underneath umbrellas.
As we come closer and closer to the castle, the Royal Mile narrows and becomes even more ancient-looking, if that’s possible at all. Just short of the castle the two-way road splits and is very narrow—only wide enough for one car and no parking on the sides of the street—and skirts passed a dark-stoned, very old gothic cathedral.
The castle perches atop a high, rocky cliff above all of Edinburgh, a high stone wall seeming to dip into and emerge out from rocky outcrops, as if the castle was built from the earth itself. The castle has been here as early as the 1100s and was a royal residence until the early 1600s. It was also a military garrison that was used heavily during the Scottish Wars of Independence against England in the 1300s.
Inside the stone walls is not just a single castle, but what I would describe as a campus of old stone buildings, some built more recently than others as the Castle Rock underwent various uses. In addition to the main castle structure, there is also a very small stone chapel, a cathedral-looking building that had been used as both a barracks and a dining hall, several prison areas (one for disgraced soldiers and the other for foreign POWs, each very different from the other. The soldiers were held in a cell house while POWs slept in crowded rooms in hammocks strung from beams), dank cellars where human bones were just recently found, cannon ramparts, and, believe it or not, a dog cemetery where the soldiers’ dogs were buried. There are also many old buildings that were converted into museums or exhibits (such as the crown jewels building, which holds the actual royal crown jewels, sword of state and scepter, as well as the National War Museum). One building was converted into a small café, another a whiskey-tasting shop where we taste a whiskey called Columba Crème, which is blended with cream and honey.
We spend a few hours exploring the castle and taking in the views. The wind is sometimes unbearable when we stand at the panorama platforms that peek over the high castle walls; it blows so strongly in from the Firth of Forth and up over the stone walls that it is actually difficult to hold the camera still to take a picture. The weather continuously vacillates between sunny and overcast and rainy. When our hunger finally gets the best of us, we walk back down toward the Royal Mile and eat at a quaint pub located at the fork in the road we passed before. The pub, the Castle Arms, is a comfortable and popular stop with trendy décor mixed with the traditional pub atmosphere. I order a chicken BLT with fries and Matt orders a smoked salmon salad with a Stowford Press cider, and we watch the heavy rain that had started just when we made it inside.
We originally planned to shop the cool trinket stores on the Royal Mile, but we both are pretty tired and my feet hurt from standing so long, so we run a few necessary errands before our trip back to the apartment. We stop in Waverley Station so I can print off my train tickets and get a feel for where the various platforms are. Once I feel confident enough that I will be able to figure everything out for my first solo train trip, we walk north from Waverly to the bright, modern Princes Street.
Princes Street is a far cry from the streets of Old Town. Since it is the first street you would encounter when walking into New Town, the newness of it (new, meaning 1800s) and modern fashion stores like you might see in a mall are punctuated by the lines of city buses in traffic. Immediately south of Princes Street is the famous Princes Street Gardens, with splashes of colorful flowers and carefully manicured grass that looks like a perfect putting green. Rising up from the middle of the gardens is the imposing Scott Monument, which looks a little like remnants of abbey ruins or an ancient stone rocket ship.
We grab some groceries to take back to the apartment, but the exchange rate prevents my frugal self from buying more than the 12 pounds ($19) I ended up spending on just a few items. We carry our groceries back into Old Town and relax for awhile, resting our exhausted feet. We eventually both fall asleep at a little before 5 p.m. and don’t wake up until it is dark outside, a little after 8 p.m. Groggily we get dressed for dinner and go out into the cold night. Cockburn seems quieter, emptier than it did yesterday, probably because it is a Sunday night and not a Saturday night of drinking and cheers.
We grab a table at a tasteful pub/restaurant on the corner of Cockburn and the Royal Mile called The Albanach. In the bar area, the patrons are rowdy and ordering pints and whisky. A group of young Scots sit a few tables over, yelling excitedly at one another in an accent so thick I can’t understand what they are saying. Eventually we move into the back restaurant area, the tall windows looking out onto Cockburn. Matt orders a lamb shank with vegetables and mint jus and I pick out a steak burger with the works: English cheddar, bacon, lettuce and tomato, plus fries and slaw on the side. After dinner Matt carefully reads through a menu of 250 whiskies and selects one called Aberlour A’bunadh; it’s described as having honey and custard aromas, with flavors of apples, pears and plums plus a cinnamon nutmeg spice. You can certainly smell the honey and custard (the trick, we learn, is to smell the whisky from farther away than you would smell wine, as in down by your chest. Otherwise you just smell the strong alcohol). When Matt takes his first sip, he does a little cringe and is taken aback by the “burniness” of it. I take a sip as well and notice that, compared to the whisky that my dad sometimes makes me try, this burns the throat much more and lingers. The aftertaste is fruity; when Matt talks, I faintly smell apples.
The whisky menu itself is pretty fascinating. All the whiskies are accompanied by a detailed description of the fragrance and tasting notes, and some of the flavors that are infused in them are downright bizarre. Here are some of my favorite whisky flavor descriptions and flavors: peat smoke; polished wood; pine; dry Christmas cake with slightly burnt edges; “rather waxy”; “oily mouth feel”; fresh-mown hay; mint sauce; baked banana; Christmas pudding; “sea-laced flavors”; cereal bar; marshmallow; beeswax; coconut; “spicy sea spray”; bread and butter; “sea meeting the land”; medicinal seaweed; briny beach; grass; tobacco and leather; “sweet peach stone nuttiness”; coffee; toasted almonds; cookie dough; charcoal; and burnt caramel. But my ultimate favorite oddball: toothpaste.
After dinner, we walk to a small, lively pub on Cockburn called the Scotsman’s Lounge. There is live entertainment every night and tonight’s is a comical guy playing guitar and singing popular songs. He has three huge stacks of sheet music in laminated covers, which he flips through ceremoniously in between songs. He jokes with the crowd, and the crowd goes wild for him. Like the Albanach, this pub is full of rowdy Scotsmen, but even more so. A table of four completely wasted guys get up and dance with each other, putting their arms around each other, slow dancing, jokingly grinding at times. Next to them, a middle-aged blond woman from California does what I can only describe as that that Russian dance where you squat down almost to the floor and then pop up, kicking your legs. The drunk guys love her enthusiasm and they all dance in a circle together, wiggling their hips and singing along to the music.
The singer plays an impressively wide range of music. A few songs we don’t recognize, but he also sings Elvis “Jailhouse Rock,” the theme song to Scrubs (Lazlo Bane “Superman”), and Faces “Ooh la la” which I recognize as the opening credits song in “Without a Paddle.” And, in a fun twist, in the middle of Edinburgh and in a sea of drunken Scots, he plays Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire,” playing the trumpet part with what sounds like a funny little kazoo. The whole place erupts in singing, fist pumping and dancing. We sing along happily, amazed that these Scots are so excited about one of our most iconic American songs.
No matter where we go, it seems like there are little slices of home everywhere.