Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 7

As we left Liverpool the morning of day 7, the cab driver ferrying us to the train station was appalled that we had stayed such a short time and had neglected the museums, cathedrals, and marinas for The Beatles hype.

“You Americans and The Beatles!” he said with great exasperation. “I can’t understand it! I don’t even think they can sing!”

That may be so, I thought to myself, but inadvertently, they are probably responsible for some of your incoming cab fare as the tourists come in and out of Lime Street Station. I mean, let’s face it—much of Liverpool’s charm comes from its affiliation with the band. But in all honesty, we really did like the city and would definitely visit it again to stay longer and see more sights.

The train ride from Liverpool to Edinburgh, Scotland, was the longest of our train journeys, and some of the most scenic. The transition from north England into Scotland was breathtaking—sweeping hills with grazing sheep and the stone fence lines dating back to who-knows-what-century! Our journey to the north was peaceful and uneventful, and we arrived in Edinburgh Waverley Station around 2:30 in the afternoon.

Fortuitously (and just as it had happened in Wales), the station was just across the street from our hotel, The Jury’s Inn. I should also state that our visit coincided with Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival—an annual, month-long performance gala, where every type of theatrical and musical performance takes place in every possible venue. They might perform right on the street, in a Cathedral, in a pub, or even in a hotel. At any given moment of the day, there are performances ongoing. This also meant that every hotel was full, and the streets were overflowing with tourists. Basically, we were very fortunate to get a hotel. Yay for early booking!

Therefore, my heart stopped arrested suddenly when the woman at the check-in counter told me that there was no booking under my name. Immediately, my mind rolled with images of desperate and expensive international phone calls to Virgin Vacations and potentially pounding the pavement looking for hostels that might have a twin bed that we could share. I also found that I could not understand a word that she was saying. I got that there was “noa booking unda tha’ name.” But everything else she said (accompanied by giggles and smiles) was completely lost to me.
Mercifully, once she took a look at my reservation number, all was well. The booked room was simply under my middle name—Clarke. Thank heavens I had the reservation printed out, because never in a million years would I have thought to check under a long-forgotten middle name that I no longer use (but it is still on my passport!).

After dropping off our things, we immediately headed for The Royal Mile, and I have to say that this was one of the best moments of the trip (for me, at least). As we transitioned from the alley (they call them closes in Scotland) into the main street, Stephen’s face was afire with excitement. Not only is The Royal Mile lined with one ancient building after another leading up to the epitome of it all—The Edinburgh Castle, but on this afternoon—well into the Fringe Festival season—the street was buzzing with activity! Street performers were everywhere, walking on stilts, juggling, eating fire, doing ridiculous street skits, and shoving flyers into tourist’s hands—advertisements for plays happening elsewhere in the city. We swam through the excitement, happy that this section of the street had been blocked to traffic. The Edinburgh castle seemed the best place to begin our three days in Scotland, so we purchased our tickets, and joined a tour that had just started at 3:00 (or 15:00 hours as they like to say over there).

After showing the cannon that fires every day at 1:00, the tour guide, a diminutive, freckled, spunky Scot, led us to a lookout where she pointed out a stretch of land in the distance just across the water. Because it was so overcast and foggy, we could just make out the blue outline of the terrain’s expanse.

With a smirk, she said wryly: “You won’t believe this, but I have been asked if that is Norway or France. I have even been asked if that is the United States.”

The crowd roared with hilarity at such a ridiculous notion; however, I felt sure that some person in our gathering was ever so happy that he or she didn’t open his or her mouth to ask this very question just as our guide assured us that the island was, in fact, part of Scotland. (And that the United States was not accessible by row boat).

Oh, what shall I say about the castle? There are so many components to it! I could write chapters about it! But I won’t.  Nevertheless, you probably should know that the castle is so old that there is evidence of some sort of building residing on this spot as far back as 900 BC! It seems to me, however, that much of the real history began around 1018 and beyond, as Scottish kings started taking the throne. (Nowadays they do recognize the English queen, and there is no king or queen sitting on the thrones of Scotland). If anyone has seen Braveheart, this cannot fail to excite them. Many of the displays walk through the lineage of royalty, including Robert the Bruce, and the tour guides are always quick to point out any and all connections to William Wallace’s freedom fighting. The Scots are proud of their heritage and their hard-won fight to win their independence from England.

Some of the truly touching and wonderful sites to see at the castle include: The National War Memorial; the Scottish crown jewels; and the Prison of War dungeon—recreated to look as it did in the 1700s. It was interesting to me to discover as we toured the dungeon and read the informational plaques, that during the 1700s, the French and Spanish prisoners were often given generous rations (even two pints of beer a day!) and they were the first to be released, whereas the American prisoners were treated as “pirates” and given half-rations (and not released until absolutely necessary). 
I must also mention that the castle also boasts a dog cemetery on site (instated by Queen Victoria to remember the soldier’s dogs). I love that!

We left the castle and wandered through many of the wonderful tourist shops along The Royal Mile. I really have to give the Scots some props here. I think their tourist shops are the least kitschy of any I’ve seen, and the mementos within are quality merchandise! This is the place to buy Tartans of your family clan, Walker’s Shortbread, and tea towels emblazoned with the official Scottish plant—the thistle.

By this time, it was late afternoon, and the skies grayed and threatened rain. We hurried into Deacon Brodies Tavern. I had been to this pub years ago with my good friend, Michelle, and it was so much fun to return to it now and see it teeming with people, all trying to avoid the rain. Stephen was in search of genuine Scottish ale, and sadly—he never really found what he was looking for (McEwan’s Scotch Ale). We sat down at a table to enjoy our spoils and ended up striking up a conversation with an unlikely bunch of lads beside us. It turns out that these gentlemen were all dairy farmers who had turned up in Edinburgh for a Dairy Farmer’s Convention! (Who knew?) We talked to them for ages, and I learned a lot about dairy cattle. For instance, I didn’t know that “small” farmers house around 250 cows that are milked daily. They warned me to stay away from buying dairy that comes from farmers with over 2,000 cows! They said that’s where you run into the abuse, poor dairy ethics, and bad practices. More than ever, I am now convinced that I want to buy my dairy from small, local farmers.

After leaving Deacon Brodies Tavern, we were in search of food. The farmers had given us a local recommendation of a restaurant known for its steak called The Outsider. Well, apparently we were the outsiders to this establishment, as we could not step over the threshold without a booking! They were completely full all night!

As we left that restaurant, it was suddenly pouring down rain outside, and rushing along the street, Stephen paused to take a picture of a Scotsman in full Scottish regalia standing in a doorway (only to find that he was  smoking a bad sort of cigarette…)

We ended up ducking into a small two-tiered restaurant called The Cellar Door. What a gem! We both had marvelous food and even better service! It was quaint and charming and the ambiance was low-lit and romantic. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful first day in Edinburgh. Afterwards, we strolled arm in arm back to our hotel, talking of the glories of Edinburgh and how both of us could easily live in this wonderful city! Huzzah!

But back at our hotel, we were cruelly thrust into the realities of Scottish plumbing… 

1 comment:

  1. I have a picture I took of the dog cemetery too! WHat a wonderful castle and city. Loved the name - The Jurys Inn. :)