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Issue 72 - Capital delights

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013

 

This article is 3 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Capital delights

Charles Douglas looks at the attractions to amuse you in Edinburgh

Two acclaimed films set in Scotland's capital were released this year: the one, a drug fuelled and sexually charged underbelly of police corruption based on the writer Irvine Welsh's book Filfth; the other, Sunshine on Leith, a feel good romance accompanied by the songs of The Proclaimers.

Every great international city projects aspects of darkness and light, but what both of these very different films have in common is the historic backdrop of one of the most beautiful townscapes in western Europe. Visitors are dazzled by the mix of antiquity, eccentric modernity, the greens spaces and city skylines with its distant vistas of the sea. Moreover, every August, Scotland's capital city transforms into an epicentre of world culture. There is an Official International Festival; the unofficial, but infinitely larger Edinburgh Festival Fringe; the Edinburgh Art Festival; the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival; the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Edinburgh Mela Festival, not to mention the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and now a Festival of Politics centred on the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

For those of us who live here throughout the year this is can be a mixed blessing, but for visitors there are the distractions of one thousand shows a day over four weeks, and a lively nightlife that goes on until dawn. Long gone is the image of a dour Presbyterian city frowning on every form of excess. Nothing could be further from the reality.

Of course, this may not be everybody's idea of a forty eight hour stop-over, but the sheer exhilaration shared by the multi-cultural crowds and street performers of the Royal Mile, and in the South Side Fringe venues, is overwhelmingly infectious for many people. Moreover, in December, there is a Winter Festival, culminating in a street party and fireworks display at Hogmanay. In October, there is the Edinburgh International Science Festival; in June, the Edinburgh International Film Festival; in October, the International Storytelling Festival, and in May, the Imaginate Festival for children.

That is not to say that Edinburgh has nothing to offer in the months in between. Far from it. For in addition to all of the above, there is the city itself with its castle and volcanic outcrops; seven hills in total creating a series of levels as the Old Town at its centre drops down into the lower New Town. As in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which the local author Robert Louis Stevenson penned in 1886, Edinburgh enjoys the split personality of Old and New. The medieval Old Town comprises a warren of medieval cobbled streets snuggling onto the spine of volcanic rock, which travels east from the castle esplanade to Holyrood Park with its palace, ruined abbey, and the Scottish Parliament buildings. The New Town, so-called because it largely dates from the eighteenth century, spreads out below, comprising a grid pattern of elegant Georgian and Victorian squares and terraces.

Visitor attractions abound in the Old Town. The Royal Mile (incorporating the High Street and Canongate) slopes east from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood and is punctuated with distractions from the National War Museum (within the castle itself); the quirky Camera Obscura; the always enjoyable Scotch Whisky Experience, and the Writer's Museum, tucked into Lady Stair's Close, off the Lawnmarket. Edinburgh's City Chambers stands on the north side opposite Parliament Hall, the Advocates' Library and the Signet Library, next to the High Kirk of St Giles. Further along the cobbled pedestrianised street can be found John Knox's House, alleged to have been the great reformer's home. Further on, you come across the Museum of Childhood; the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and the Scottish Poetry Library in the Canongate. The Old Town of Edinburgh was built on several levels, hugging the southern slopes and eastern walls of its formidable castle. On a lower level is the Grassmarket, situated at the western end of the Cowgate, offering a mix of picturesque restaurants and shops selling antiques, curios and clothes and weekend markets. To this day, Royal proclamations are read out from the Mercat Cross which sits at the foot of Victoria Street At the end of the Royal Mile is the Queen's Gallery displaying treasures from Royal residences, and you have the choice of taking a tour of the Palace of Holyrood house, Her Majesty the Queen's Scottish residence, or the Catalan-designed Scottish Parliament building opposite. The insect -like building squatting nearby beside the headquarters of the Scotsman newspaper is Our Dynamic Earth, a science centre providing an interesting journey through our planet's past, present and future.

Alternately, given time, you might just prefer to set off into open spaces of Holyrood Park to climb Arthur's Seat, the central hilltop, or follow the Radical Road across Salisbury Craggs. Both provide glorious vistas over the city and surrounding countryside. On Chambers Street, parallel to the Royal Mile, is the National Museum of Scotland, its impressive interconnecting exhibition space shared with the Museum of Scotland. The former houses an astonishing display of Scottish antiquities, culture and history, and the Royal Museum collections, covering science and technology, natural history and world cultures, are among the best to be found anywhere. Across from the corner of Chambers Street and George IV Bridge, look out for the recently restored statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal little Skye Terrier made famous in the Walt Disney film carrying his name. From Greyfriars Kirk, a one-time haunt of the body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, there are daily ghost tours, and on the High Street, among the tartan gift shops, is the entrance to The Real Mary King's Close, a warren of underground streets, which were bricked up over four hundred years ago when the plague struck the city. There are two important relatively recent additions to the city's cultural life. First, the Dovecot Studios, housed in a former swimming baths in Infirmary Street. This is a hub for weaving and tapestry making and hosts a turnover of exhibitions by celebrated artists. On the Meadows is Summerhall, the former Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, which has been transformed into an arts centre with studio and workshops. Edinburgh boasts a remarkable collection of international art accommodated in three splendid public galleries – the National Gallery of Scotland, at the foot of The Mound; the refurbished Scotish National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Belford Road. For those interested in purchasing contemporary art, the New Town has its very own commercial gallery quarter in Dundas Street, to some extent immortalised in Alexander McColl Smith's 44, Scotland Street novels. Stockbridge, which lies at the foot of Howe Street, provides an eclectic mix of curio, fashion and food shops.

Edinburgh is superbly served by its business quarter with the Edinburgh International Conference Centre providing spacious, state-of-the-art facilities at the West End. Within walking distance are several theatres and concert halls, notably the Usher Hall and the Queen's Hall, and the Festival, Playhouse, Royal Lyceum and King's theatres. There is a wide choice of hotels ranging from the five star Balmoral, Missoni, The Sheraton Grand, The Caledonian- A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and Scotsman Hotel to boutique hotels such as the Atholl, the Howard, the Hotel du Vin, and the luxurious out-of-town Prestonfield House.

A unique opportunity for enjoying the skyscape of the city can be found at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Inverleith, with its rododendron walks, glasshouses, Chinese garden and recently modernised restaurant complex. Situated where Edinburgh's river, the Water of Leith, meets the Firth of Forth, the Port of Leith, which also dates from medieval times, is a vibrant and colourful district, its waterway reminiscent of Amsterdam. In centuries past this was a busy trading hub for the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, and has now been transformed into a haven for those who enjoy seafood restaurants.

Nearby is the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia, which is anchored at the Ocean Terminal. Launched at John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank in 1953, the Royal Yacht proudly served Queen and United Kingdom for forty four years. During that time it carried members of the British Royal Family on 968 official voyages.

Stylish restaurants and shops abound in both Old Town and New Town. It is possible to eat out in almost any language in Edinburgh, and the retail emporiums of George Street, Rose Street and Thistle Street, have much to offer.

On Princes Street there are historic department stores such as Debenhams, and Jenners. There is a Harvey Nichols on St Andrews Square, and a John Lewis in the adjacent St James Centre. More quirky shops are to be found in Causewayside, Bruntsfield, Canonmills and Leith, and there are tartan and tweed shops a-plenty in the High Street.

Edinburgh Zoo is located at Corstorphine on the Glasgow Road, and is the home of two Giant Pandas, Tian Tian and Yuang Guang, on a 10 year breeding loan from the government of China. Another favourite attraction here is the Penguin Parade, which takes place daily at the purpose built Penguin Rock at 1415 hours.

Another compelling attraction, on the west side of the city, is the Jupter Artland at Bonnington House, an eclectic sculpture garden. On Drum Street, there is the intriguing Gilmerton Cove, a series of hand carved underground passages and chambers, which continues to baffle historians.

Outside of the city, there are trips to the iconic Rosslyn Chapel (of The Da Vinci Code fame), to Dalmeny House, home of the earls of Rosebery, or to magnificent Hopetoun House, the ancestral home of the marquesses of Linlithgow, both at South Queensferry.