My trip earlier this month to Edinburgh, Scotland was… well, it was horrible. And I’ll write soon all about my many terrible mishaps that put me into the city 22 hours later than expected.
But once finally there, I really enjoyed this very old yet picturesque place that often looked to me like a giant film set. In fact, its Old Town area almost appeared too atmospheric and too quaint – as though it came from the imaginings of a director wanting to create the perfect village from another time. But the city and its architecturally interesting buildings are quite real and lay ready to be explored by foot — which I did. A lot.
I hit town on a Sunday morning after getting approximately an hour and a half of sleep the night before at Heathrow Airport. (Yeah, I’ll write about that later too.) I was exhausted and my hotel, the Apex International, had my room all ready. So the logical thing would be to just lay down before I dropped, right? Yeah, no. That’s not how I roll.
After depositing my luggage and changing into clean clothes, I was ready to see some sights. And I wanted to start with arguably Edinburgh’s biggest calling card — its magnificent castle.
Quick flashback: I was a little nervous about this because of some information I received earlier from an elderly lady I met at the airport. I mentioned that I wanted to see the castle as soon as possible and couldn’t wait to take a cab there, but she said that cabs can’t take passengers “straight up.” That’s when I replied, “What do you mean it’s STRAIGHT UP?!” She started giggling and said, “There are some things the tour books gloss over and don’t really mention, love.”
Even though she called me “love,” which I rather enjoyed, she worried me. As mentioned, I’d had very little sleep and felt like I was walking along on jelly legs. But really, what can you do? If you’re somewhere with a castle, you go see it! (Even one that I learned was sitting atop the volcanic Castle Rock.)
First, I stopped at the hotel’s front desk to check on a “secret tip” my cabbie told me about — that there was a simple shortcut leading from near my hotel right to the castle. After receiving confirmation that this was indeed a “super easy path with a slight climb,” I took off.
From my hotel, I crossed the street to the historic square in the Grassmarket area. (For those that don’t know, this area lies in a sort of hollow and is well below Edinburgh proper’s ground levels.)
On the far left of the buildings, I found a narrow flight of stairs called Granny’s Green Steps and started my ascent. It was quite a climb but I was relieved to get to the top, only to see lots of parked toured buses and another flight of 187 steps on Castle Wynd street.
It was pretty embarrassing to be walking so slowly and huffing and puffing all the way while runners, kids, and even local grandmas passed by with pleasant smiles. But at least I did a little of the passing by myself, including 1 group of college age students lamenting that that was NOT the way to get over a hangover. Ha!
After all the steps, guests walk up to and through the Esplanade, sort of a long up-sloping courtyard. From here, I walked straight towards the long-snaking line for admission tickets. Yikes! Don’t do what I did — get your tickets ahead of time.
These can be ordered online or bought at various places around the city, including some bus tour operators. Instead of doing something that sensible, I waited in line for over an hour and through an entire Scottish weather cycle: it was sunny, then windy, then dark, then rained on us, then sunny again before I bought my tickets. But at least I was there, right?
Nope, some more sloping paths faced me — although by this time I no longer minded. After a quick stop to rent headphones and an audio guide to the castle area, I was ready to explore!
The first thing I learned was that the need for all of this climbing was actually strategic. Back in its day, Castle Rock was easily defended because of its sheer cliffs to the north and south, and extremely sharp incline to the west. So approaches had to come from the east, where the Old Town sits.
The next thing I learned was that the Castle is actually a fortress, made up of several impressive buildings of various ages, and royalty started inhabiting this area at least since the 12th century. I walked around and through many of the buildings, including what is now the National War Museum of Scotland. But my favorite of all was the Royal Palace.
Here, I visited the state apartments; a brightly painted walk-in closet-sized Birth Chamber, where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI in 1566; the Crown Room, which houses “the Honours of Scotland” – the state crown, scepter, and sword; and a cavernous room that lives up to its name of “The Great Hall.” I enjoyed this room’s distinctive wooden-beam ceiling, its collection of weaponry, and its fiddler.
He was there to give scheduled programs but not knowing this, I asked him if he could really play and then took pictures while he did. I was clapping enthusiastically for quite a bit before I realized he was looking pointedly at a tip container on the floor. Oops! As mentioned, I was pretty much running on fumes by this point…
I ended my visit by walking through St. Margaret’s Chapel, which was built by King David I after his mother passed away in 1093, and then checking out the expansive views of the city from such a high perch.
Okay, maybe all of the climbing was worth it!
NOTE: I did miss out on one very famous aspect of the Castle — the One O’Clock Gun. I had read that this is fired during a ritual every day at 1pm from the Mill’s Mount Battery. However, I learned that doesn’t include Sundays. Oops again!