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25 September 2007

The Athens of the North: Edinburgh

I had an awesome time in Scotland this past week/weekend! So here's a little recap:

Day 0: Wednesday night, 19 September
I departed London with my friend Nicole at 10PM on an overnight bus to Edinburgh. It did feel weird to me that I had no idea which roads the bus was on as we made our way north through the dark night. At least I was able to sleep for a few hours, waking up on the final stretch from Glasgow into Edinburgh.

Day 1: Thursday 20 September
We arrived at a very chilly Edinburgh at 7 AM. As we walked from the bus terminal through the city, we couldn't stop shivering. The streets were also eerily empty. We walked through the New Town, past the Princes Street Gardens and up the hill to the Old Town and Edinburgh Castle.

I was still half-asleep and cold, so Edinburgh at first felt like a dream. A surreal, empty and peculiar city. We zigzagged up a small street that deposited us right in front of Edinburgh Castle. Nearby was our hostel--the Castle Rock Hostel--which lies directly across the street from the castle!

After washing up and leaving our bags in the hostel's luggage room, the two of us walked around the city a bit, discovering the church where the queen goes and an old cemetery (Greyfriars Kirkyard). We then walked onto the Royal Mile, the main street of old Edinburgh, which runs down the hill from the castle. (Edinburgh actually sits atop the remnant of an ancient volcano, the reason for such a prominent hill that provided a great defensive location to build a castle.) We saw the old Parliament House and the historic St. Giles Cathedral.

There was a free tour leaving that morning. We didn't have any specific plans, so why not take the tour!

The walking tour turned out to be a really great tour! Our tour guide was from San Diego, so unfortunately no Scottish accent! He pointed out all the important historical sites, but he also shared many cool details about how Scottish people live, the Scottish perspective, and lots of interesting stories: The hanging of witches, the story of Greyfriar's Bobby, famous writers, JK Rowling, Sean Connery, and so much more! I definitely recommend the tour, (which is free!) put on by Sandemans.

The stories of the hangings at the Grassmarket, an area of Edinburgh just south of the castle, were really interesting, especially that of Maggie Dickson. She lived in 18th-century Scotland and was forced into difficult conditions as a single woman. She was convicted of concealing her pregancy, and was sentenced to be hanged at the Grassmarket. After being hanged, her body was placed in a coffin, but soonafter, the coffin was opened and it was discovered that Maggie was still alive! So it was declared that she be allowed to live as it was God's will, and she became famous thereafter. There is a pub nearby that is named in her honor.

Another great story is that of Greyfriar's Bobby (my memory refreshed thanks to Wikipedia), which was a terrier belonging to a 19th-century police officer. This owner died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Bobby lived on, loyally guarding the officer's grave everyday for 14 years. One day, the city government declared that all dogs without an owner should be killed. However, the people and the police force came to the protection of Bobby, and Bobby was soon officially adopted by the city council of Edinburgh. Bobby is buried just inside the entrance of the cemetery, and a statue of the dog stands prominently in front of the Greyfriar's Bobby Bar, which is near a cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter book.

Edinburgh is often called the "Athens of the North" due to its cultural and historical significance during the Scottish Enlightenment and due to its greco-roman inspired architecture. However, time has had its mark on Edinburgh's buildings: Most of their exteriors have been blackened by years of soot and smoke. Thus, my impression of Edinburgh is one of a forbodingly dark and Gothic city upon a hill. Maybe my perspective is skewed having come from busting and metropolitan London, but Edinburgh feels far away and detached.

Our tour finished, and rain began to shower down. We walked back down to the New Town. I discovered a cafe that sells deep fried Mars bars! Apparently the epitome of Scottish cuisine is simply to deep-fry anything.

The National Gallery had an Andy Warhol exhibition that Nicole ended up visiting. I was so tired that I went straight back to the hostel to sleep. So went my first night in Scotland - knocked-out asleep.

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