Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 1: Hello, Old Friend

Last week, if you'd have asked me what my favorite city was, I'd have told you there was a tie between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Edinburgh, Scotland. But today I'm in Edinburgh, for the first time in five years and for only the second time ever, and if you asked me that same question now, I'd have to vote in favor of the Scottish city.

I showed up in Edinburgh feeling tired and cranky, but by the end of the day I was in high spirits. Thanks, Edinburgh. I was feeling so irritable because my husband and I had spent the previous night in the motel at the Exeter Services, 10 minutes from the Exeter airport, from which we were due to depart at 6:50 AM. We did this to spare ourselves getting up at 3:30 AM prior to the flight, as we had done for our Germany trip. While it was nice to have a bit of a lie-in (5 AM--how decadent!), the motel itself was pretty dire, and to say that I "slept" would be quite a generous overstatement. The bed had a dent in the middle, towards which I kept rolling all night, and the blankets were made of something synthetic that loudly went "swish swish" every time one of us even thought of moving. I awoke feeling more tired than I had been at bedtime.

Nevertheless, we made it to Edinburgh without incident. On the bus from the airport to the city center, we sat several rows away from an American student (from my recent home state of Virginia, no less) who sounded as though she had come over a few months early before starting her study abroad. I cannot help but be sensitive to the actions of other Americans I encounter here in the UK. I try not to be judgmental, but American tourists who come over for a couple of weeks and behave rudely or insensitively or just awkwardly can really make my life miserable. They go home none the wiser; I am left here to deal with the Brits who have had annoying run-ins with these people, and therefore think that all Americans are obnoxious and deserve punishment. This girl was sitting at the opposite end of the bus from us, but was speaking so loudly and shrilly that we could hear everything she said--about life in the US, about saying goodbye to her mom at the airport, about upcoming class projects, about the city around her, etc. *sigh* The one interesting bit of all this was, despite the relative innocuousness of her accent, it was really noticeable to me after all this time in England. It has made me wonder what it is going to feel like to be surrounded by those accents when I visit home over the holidays--will they sound weird? Will *I* sound weird? Anyway, we also sat behind some Americans during the bus trip, in this case a middle-aged couple who were obviously well-off and behaved in a pretty low-key manner. *whew* I found myself a bit fascinated by the things they photographed--through the bus window--as we drove through the city. For instance, they snapped a picture of an auto-body shop that contained several high-end and/or antique cars; they snapped another photo of...a cafe? The street corner? I have no idea. I guess things look more different and noteworthy when you have never been to a place before, and/or are not used to it. Needless to say, I was quite happy to finally get off that bus.

Unfortunately, by the time we did, it was just past breakfast time, but we'd still had no breakfast. Keep in mind that we had been awake since 5 AM, and you can imagine how hungry I was. There had been nothing at the airport, and now my only option was a McDonald's. Generally, I can be very laid back about things most of the time, except when I am a) really tired, and b) really hungry, and here I was both of these things simultaneously. Things were not shaping up well. But, thanks to my trusty iPhone, we located an Upper Crust, my favorite British chain. Upper Crust is a bakery/cafe/deli that you find especially in train stations, and they sell freshly-made baguettes all day. The last time I came to the UK, I more or less lived on Upper Crust baguette sandwiches (bacon and cheese or ham and cheese) because they were tasty and within my limited budget. Once I had replenished my energy with a little baguette, things started looking up.

We couldn't check in to our hotel until after midday, so we dropped off the suitcase and went off to wander the city. I was amazed by how much I remembered from my first visit here. We traipsed up to the castle in order to look out over the city, then wandered down to the national museums. Along the way, I was amazed at how many foreign accents we encountered. Edinburgh is positively swarming with American tourists this time of year (including yet another family from, judging by the Virginia Tech gear, Virginia), but there was quite a lot of variety--Indians, Scandinavians, Italians, Germans, was quite a happening place up there on the Mile.

On the way to the museum, we stopped by the statue of Greyfriars Bobby:

(Me and Greyfriars Bobby--I even love animals that are made of metal.)

Now, there are two interesting stories to be told about Greyfriars Bobby. The first is the original. Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier belonging to John Gray. John died in 1858, leaving little Bobby behind. So devoted was this little dog that he sat and guarded the grave of his master, at Greyfriars Kirkyard (hence the name "Greyfriars Bobby") for 14 years until he died in 1872. Or so the story goes; even though this sounds very Disneyfied (and there are, in fact, two movies made about this, including one as recently as 2006), there are quite a few documented details that indicate this probably did really happen. Regardless of the exact facts, this tale captured public sentiment quite effectively, and Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned this monument to be erected at the end of the George IV Bridge.

The second interesting story involves me. The first time that I visited Edinburgh, in 2005, I arrived via train after a 7-hour train ride. Not surprisingly, I was eager to stretch my legs, and so I went out for a walk after checking in to my hostel. It was about 5 PM and already growing dusky, but I had a good map and I was told it was safe, and I had to go get dinner anyway, so I headed out. I knew that Greyfriars Bobby was near my hostel and easy to find, so I thought I might check that little task off my list before picking up some food. Well, you probably can already see where this story is going. In the gloom, I managed to walk right by the dark statue, and instead found myself poking around Greyfriars Kirkyard, thinking that the statue would be nearby. At some point, people began showing up to the adjoining church for some sort of evening service, and it occurred to me that I maybe looked a little odd poking around a cemetery in the dark. Feeling unsatisfied and irritated, I left after a good 45 minutes of searching around, and headed back towards the main street. You can imagine my surprise when, in the glow of street lamps and headlights, I saw the dog statue, clear as day, right along the sidewalk where I had passed many minutes earlier. Luckily, it was much easier for us to find this second time around, though not at all easy for me to convince my husband to take a photograph of me, in broad daylight, along a major street.

Actually, this attitude deserves a bit of an aside. My husband really hates seeming touristy, which I can sympathize with; I, also, prefer to blend in, and I especially hate whipping out my camera in public, because it's just so trite and embarrassing. However, if you're interested in seeing cultural things, and documenting it for yourself or others, you just have to get over these things. Normally, my husband is willing to sigh and grumble and do what I want, but he was feeling a bit edgy about being in Edinburgh, because he tends to have bad luck here. The first, and only other time, he was here, he and his then-girlfriend, Katie, were attacked, for absolutely no reason, by a couple of hooligans. They were just stopping by the ATM (or "cash point," if you prefer), when some sketchy-looking people made a beeline their way. After quickly sizing up the situation, my husband handed his glasses to his girlfriend and told her to call the cops. He subdued the male attacker, pinning him down and sitting on him until the police could arrive to do the rest. Unexpectedly, the attacker's girlfriend walked up to Katie and head-butted her in the face. Naturally, Katie and my husband did not feel very welcome in this city. I was willing to shrug all this off as an unfortunate one-time occurrence, until, on our way across the bridge to visit little Greyfriars Bobby, a large Scottish man actively tried to provoke a fight with my husband for absolutely no reason other than we happened to be walking down the same sidewalk, in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon. I would like to think that I was looking particularly beautiful and desirable, and that it was a fight over me, but I think it's more likely that my husband looks English or, more generally, foreign, and our would-be pugilist was not a fan of outsiders. Oh, well--you can't win everyone over.

We sought refuge (well, not really--we were going there anyway) in the National Museums Scotland. These are quite amazing facilities, and much can be learned here. I had gone through the history portion previously, and I was hoping to revisit some of the fascinating Pictish artifacts that so captured my interest last time I was there. Unfortunately, there was a very large school group wandering around making the sort of high-pitched shrieks that only small children can make and only bats and dogs can hear, so we headed up to the third floor to see the special visiting exhibition, "Lewis Chessmen Unmasked." The Lewis Chessmen are a bunch of--you guessed it--chess pieces:
(Some of the 30-odd Lewis Chessmen on display at the museum. There are actually 78 total, and they are carved from walrus ivory.)

They were originally found on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides) in the mid-19th century, but were originally made in Scandinavia in the late 12th or early 13th century. There is still some uncertainty as to how, exactly, they got to Scotland, why they were hoarded so carefully, and whether they are part of a larger, as-yet-undiscovered, cache of Viking goodies in the vicinity. They are quite nifty little piece of handiwork, and definitely worth seeing in person in order to examine the unique expressions on each character's face. It was all I could do to keep myself from purchasing a replica to sit next to my Buddha collection, but I am already sick of having to dust around my many copies of the Enlightened One, and I don't need one more butt to lift off the shelf.

What I did want, however, was a copy of the Viking game called "hnefatafl," which my husband and I learned about for the first time after discovering a little setup in the museum explaining the rules of chess and chess-like games:

(Hnefatafl. In case you are curious, it's pronounced "Nhev-eh-TAH-full.")

I had read about this game before in a pair of novels about the Viking invasion of the Scottish Isles, but it was called an alternative version of the name, "King's Table." It seemed quite interesting, and I have been trying to track down a version to play. Unfortunately, the museum was out, and the Internet is not very forthcoming. Physical boards seem quite difficult to come by, but there do appear to be some fanatics who have set up online versions of the game. I believe I will try it and see if I am any less awful at hnefatafl that I am at its cousins, chess, checkers, and backgammon. Given my track record, I'd say that's unlikely, but hope springs eternal.

While viewing the exhibit, we received a phone call from the hotel saying that we could come check in and, at last, have a nap (the receptionist only suggested the first part--the second was our idea). At this point I should probably mention that we are staying at the Balmoral Hotel, a "five-star property" (what does that really mean?) right in the middle of town, on Princes Street:
(Balmoral Hotel and Day Spa. I believe this is the first hotel I've stayed in that has a doorman, and certainly the first hotel with a doorman dressed in a kilt.)

We are not paying for this ourselves, of course. Rather, my husband is an invited guest to a conference on human behavior, and the conference sponsors are paying for his entire trip. Incidentally, the conference sponsors are one of the branches of the US military, so in case you were wondering where your tax dollars go, now you know. The hotel has one of the highest-ranked "urban day-spas" (again, what is with all the qualifiers in these descriptions?) in the UK, and, in fact, in Europe, though of course that costs extra and as much as I would like to go enjoy a back rub and facial and scalp massage, I have better ways to spend $130. Our room is fairly nice--my husband thinks it's nicer than the room we had at the 4-star Budock Vean resort, where we went for our "honeymoon" (really just an overnight trip). The funny thing is, though, I am never all that impressed by these supposedly world-class places, because I think they seem a little fake. Also, there are, in fact, truly fake things in our room, which, in a "five-star property," I would expect to be real--the "leather" headboard and bedskirt (vinyl!), the matching "leather" chair (still vinyl!), the "marble" tiling in the bathroom (regular tiling with a marble pattern!). Also, our television, while wide-screen, is not exceptionally big, is not a flat-screen, and is certainly not HD. This is actually quite unfortunate, since we are in the middle of the World Cup and have already watched two games here in our room. We have an extensive mini-bar but no coffee/tea-making facilities, which even our crummy motel in Exeter had. However, we are in an excellent location, and have this marvelous view of the hotel's clock tower right outside our window:

(The Balmoral clock tower. Notice the time, and the brightness of the sky. You might be surprised to know that it is 9:30 PM, not AM--one of the benefits of living far north during the summer months.)

Also, housekeeping knocked on our door last night at 8 PM to offer turn-down service, which was a little embarrassing because I had to answer the door while wearing the hotel's complimentary bathrobe (several times too large for me). When I said "no" to the service, I was asked whether I needed anything else, such as towels or water. The funny thing about "water" was that she wasn't asking about topping up my mini bar, but running me a bath. Who are the people who normally stay in this hotel, and are they really so incompetent and/or spoiled that they need someone to fold back their sheets and pour their bath water? Goodness. In any case, regardless of what our room may or may not be lacking, it offered a bed with four fluffy pillows and an even fluffier duvet, and I cannot tell you how nice it was to take a nap after our early morning. It was like sleeping in clouds--or, at least, I think it was, but I was out before my head hit the pillow, so I could be wrong.

After waking, watching some World Cup, and having a nice shower (this place does have good shower pressure, unlike most of the rest of Britain), I headed out for a walk. My husband had to go attend the meet-and-greet portion of the conference, but I wanted to reacquaint myself with Edinburgh. I walked down the Royal Mile (in the other direction this time), and eventually came to the Palace of Holyrood. This was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, but is now used for various functions by Queen Elizabeth II. I had already seen and photographed it during my previous trip, but the evening sun was striking in quite a lovely way, so I had to stop and take this picture:

(Doorway to the Queen's Gallery at the Palace of Holyrood. If that's what's on the outside, think about what it must look like inside! Actually, right now there is an exhibition of Dutch landscapes, which I think is probably a bit less flashy than this.)

That's a rampant unicorn on the left, and a rampant lion on the right. Quite striking, but not as striking as the sight of Arthur's Seat just around the corner:

(Cliffs in front of Arthur's Seat. I admit I poached this picture because mine incorporated the car park, which makes for a slightly less striking image.)

When I was in Edinburgh before, I was on "Spring Break," but actually it was intensely cold and mostly cloudy, rainy, and/or windy. I spent my entire train trip there crocheting a scarf and hat to keep me warm while wandering through the city. There was snow on all the mountains in the distance, and climbing around in the Arthur's Seat area was absolutely not an option, regardless of how wonderful my newly-completed cold weather wear was. However, this time around, it was in the low- to mid-70's, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and it was the perfect opportunity to enjoy Holyrood Park, Arthur's Seat, and the Salisbury Crags. I took many pictures, but I think the place was just too beautiful to imagine unless you were there. Nevertheless:

(A lovely glade with a seasonal pool, above which the martins and swallows were swooping and diving.)

(Another view of the glade. There were hikers going up to the very top, and a couple were standing up there in very victorious poses. The peak is not that high, but the paths are very, very steep.)

(The peak of this section of Arthur's Cliffs; there is another, possibly higher, peak behind me. Its paths are a little more switchback in nature, making it look slightly less painful to climb. There were actually some maniacs who were running up to the top. Even in my medal-winning track & field days, I would not have thought of such a thing.)

After traipsing about a bit more, I headed back to the hotel, stopping along the way to have dinner. In this enormous city full of new restaurants to explore, where do you think I ate? Pizza Express, which has a franchise right across the square from my flat in Falmouth, and where I just ate last week. I'll try to be more exciting next time--I just happened to be in the mood for a quick salad, and Pizza Express was right there (my husband, on the other hand, actually tried some haggis at the conference banquet, so he made up for my lack of inventiveness).

The day ended with some more World Cup (I am beginning to wonder what I will do with my time when the World Cup is over), and then a return to the duvet cloud for some more rest. Who knows what the next day will bring...

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