Open the Map and dream of traveling again! The COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc globally. Countries have been on lock-down for months to try and stop the spread of the virus. Travel has been out of the question and its future remains uncertain. But someday we will again board jets to far off places and soak up the culture and history we crave. When that time comes, consider the beautiful and special place of Edinburgh.
Open the Map and find an island off the western coast of Europe. At the top sits a small country that shares a 96 mile border with England. This is Scotland, home of 30,000 lochs. Its capital city is Edinburgh. I traveled to Edinburgh a few years back with my family after a stopover in London to catch the Wimbledon tennis tournament in late June. We boarded a brief flight to Edinburgh from Heathrow. It was now early July, but after exiting the airport we needed our coats because it was so chilly. The sky was grey, the air crisp and the foliage was dense and green. We arrived at the beautiful Caledonian Hotel and our spacious rooms provided postcard-like views of Edinburgh Castle. The Caledonian is situated down the hill from the Royal Mile where the castle sits. There are other lovely hotels along the Royal Mile, but I became appreciative of the Caledonian’s location after seeing the hustle and bustle of tourists on the Royal Mile. It was only a few minutes ride after hailing one of the taxis in queue to be taken to the top of the hill where the action is.
Edinburgh is a city rich with history. It has been the recognized capital of Scotland since the 1400’s. It serves as the seat of government, education, culture and finance. The Scottish people, though technically British, are fiercely independent and proud to be Scots. They love their kilts, bagpipes and Scotch Whiskey. Scotland has a tumultuous past with England going back many centuries when there were frequent and violent struggles for independence. Their national hero is William Wallace, depicted in the movie Braveheart.
There is much to see and do in Edinburgh. A must-see is Edinburgh Castle, the mighty fortress that sits atop Castle Rock and is like a sentinel keeping watch over the city. The castle was first built in the 1100’s and housed the royal families until 1633. It then became primarily a residence for military officers and barracks for local soldiers. The only building from the original construction in the 1100’s is St. Margaret’s Chapel, known for being the oldest building in Edinburgh. Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her only son, James I, in a tiny room in the castle in 1566. You can see the Crown Jewels and The Stone of Destiny, returned to Scotland in 1996 from London’s Westminster Abbey.
If you love to hike, enjoy the trails of Arthur’s Seat. This hill makes a backdrop to the city and is widely visible from Holyrood Palace. It is an extinct volcano that locals and tourists alike enjoy for its walking trails and biking areas.
Old Town Edinburgh is the most frequented tourist section of the city and for good reason. The heavily traveled street called the Royal Mile, I wrote of earlier, has at one end Edinburgh Castle and at the other end is Holyrood Palace. In between are many restaurants, hotels, shops and buildings of interest like St. Gile’s Cathedral, built in 1124, and the Scottish Parliament. Also in Old Town is the National Museum of Scotland where you can see many old artifacts, a kinetic millennium clock and even a medieval guillotine. It is also fun to get tickets to the Scotch Whiskey Experience and learn how scotch is made. You can sample the varying types and learn to taste the difference between scotch distilled in different regions of Scotland. They told us it’s the water that makes whiskey from Scotland taste better than brands from other countries. With 30,000 fresh water lakes, Scotland has lots of great water.
Calton Hill is place a newcomer should visit. It boasts a little Acropolis and Greek style observatory on top of the hill and affords sweeping views of the city, all the way out to sea.
For those who love golf, St. Andrews in the county Fife an hour north east of Edinburgh is a pilgrimage. There is also the beautiful old college of St. Andrews where Prince William and Kate Middleton met.
My favorite place in Edinburgh was Holyrood Palace. The building first was constructed in 1178 as a monastery. What is visible today dates to 1671. It is the official Scotland residence of Queen Elizabeth II who spends a week there every summer. The exterior is grand and imposing stone and the interior is beautiful and elegant. We saw the royal apartments where Mary Queen of Scots lived when she arrived in 1561. It was there her secretary David Rizzio was attacked and stabbed to death in front of her by suspicious noblemen. There is a dark stain on the wood floor that is said to be his blood. There is also an exquisite embroidery work of a cat chasing a mouse Mary Queen of Scots embroidered after her imprisonment by her cousin Elizabeth I. The grounds of Holyrood are magical and eerie at the same time. There were colorful foxglove blooming along the walking paths and huge old trees rustling as the perpetual wind in Edinburgh blew their leaves. There is a beautiful stone sundial from 1637. After exiting the house and walking a bit, the path curved and eventually revealed the dark and towering stone ruins of Holyrood Abbey. It was built in the 1100’s as an abbey but after the Reformation became a parish and was used as a church until the end of the 1600’s. By the 1700’s, it decayed into the ruins I saw. Walking through it, one feels like they are intruding on a sacred place. Robert the Bruce held parliament in those walls. James II was married there. Charles I was crowned there and the Knights of the Thistle worshipped there. The ground was gravel and abandoned sarcophagus lay about. Apparently Queen Victoria ordered the bones of the royals that were once interred there be picked up for they were just scattered about. It is impressive and sad at the same time to see something built almost a thousand years ago that stubbornly still stands despite now having no purpose.
Our family decided to take a day trip out of Edinburgh and see one of the famous Lochs. A tour company on the Royal Mile offered an all day excursion through the Highlands and to Loch Ness. The Highlands were lonely but beautiful, rocky slopes dotted with sheep and an occasional small house. We made it north to Loch Ness, the second largest loch in Scotland and famous for the elusive Loch Ness Monster nicknamed Nessie. We took a ride on a sonar boat and the captain allowed my sister and me to take turns driving. The water was black and glassy calm. The recognizable 16th century Urquhart Castle on the bank made for a great photo opportunity.
On the way back to Edinburgh we stopped in Inverness and passed the William Wallace Monument.
So when the jet engines start warming up again and hotels welcome travelers, I urge you to Open the Map and find Edinburgh. Immerse yourself in the land of kilts, bagpipes, lochs and Scotch. You won’t soon forget its charm.