Thursday morning dawned cool and crisp, showing signs that perhaps the rain had left us for the time being. We enjoyed hot water showers and continental breakfast (alas with instant coffee, but no matter). Today would be our day of the Royal Mile; “Have fun storming the castle!” day, more precisely. We head out early, and as we walk up Johnston Terrace toward the Hub (stopping for a real coffee on the way- if you take it with milk, be sure to order a “white coffee“), the sun breaks clear through and the city takes on the quality of a cat, napping midday in summer. Needless to say we were pleased. (Though we would have been quite happy to continue our explorations in drizzle, a clear sunny day makes the views from Castle Rock all the more vast and dramatic.)
We climb up the hill to Castle Rock, queue up with the tourists to purchase tickets, and soak up some sun atop the rock. We are disappointed by the presence of two facing sets of temporary stadium seating on either side of the approach to the castle gate (“Uglies” we called them), but this is another small matter. We enter the castle and begin to explore. Here is where Robert the Bruce (among others) resided- here is a place, now full of gawkers like ourselves, once filled with Scot soldiers, prisoners of war, and rulers of a kingdom fighting for its sovereignty. Large stone buildings, heavy as all the others in this town; cobbled pathways looking to have been carved out if the Rock itself; a memorial for all the many Scots, fallen in many wars; parapets; canons- Mons Meg (the largest one, once shot a ballistic that traveled two miles); a chapel; a grave site for the dogs of war set upon a terraced ledge. The most impressive thing from atop Castle Rock, however, is the unrivaled view of the city in 360º- especially, as I said, on a clear and sunny day. The Firth of Forth spreads out in the distance to the north- blue and larger than you thought possible (it is, after all, a mere estuary. Ha!)
As we descend the hill once again to continue wending our way along the Royal Mile– the sun is at full noon, the city is warming as it dries. The smell of the city hits me of a sudden moment– sweet, old stone, history, wisp of musty or something similar- it hits like a brick wall and yet is the subtlest of scents (particularly among cities)- intoxicating, especially on such a big blue sky day. The smell would stay in the air for the remainder of our sunny time in this city; missed and mourned immediately upon leaving. It is unlike anyplace I’ve been, again, in that way. The place has ways of overtaking parts of one’s brain, or memory– wow.
“Such dusky grandeur clothed the height
Where the huge castle holds its state
And all the steep slope down
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky
Piled deep and massy, close and high
Mine own romantic town.”
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion Canto IV
On to Mary King’s Close. Here I’ll paraphrase from the literature (one of many ostensibly “haunted” tour experiences, but the history and sheer numbers that the “16th century” guide dishes out as you descend ever deeper below the level of the high street is far more frightening than any ghost story) To wit : “Hidden beneath the Royal Mile lies Edinburgh’s deepest secret; a warren of hidden ‘closes’ where real people lived, worked and died. For centuries they have lain forgotten and abandoned… until now.” (For more info, Google™ that shit- not enough room to tally here.)
Pub lunch in the Royal McGregor, surprisingly relaxed and welcoming despite its being situated dead center-city on the high street. Very nice. Notes jotted, post cards written, then dropped in the post box just outside.
On our walk down the Mile we stop into a map shop specializing in reproductions of antique cartographic lovelies; the proprietor is chatty and interested; we talk politics; the horrorshow that is George W. and his cabinet. He speaks frankly of the disdain Europeans (and even Canadians he has encountered) have for Americans, but follows it up with his theory of “the five percenters”– those being we 5% of Americans who hold passports (can we really be so few??); travelers who have a view beyond our own borders, who are aware of the rest of the big world beyond the U.S. An interesting chap.
More walking. Out to the very end of the Royal Mile to Horse Wynd and the most spectacular view of Holyrood Park and the Salisbury Crags, sun hitting them at such an angle as to transform this end of Edinburgh to a view more fitting of Arizona or New Mexico.
Random excerpt from jottings in my book:
“The firth spoons the city to the east,
while the setting sun sets a fire along the crags”
Brilliant view, so long as one is facing the park. (Bizarrely, the Horse Wynd end of the Mile is also the location of the new Scottish Parliament building– a crime against architecture and this beautiful city and the park across the motorway from its hideousness. Seriously. A true “Ugly.” We laughed at it, mocked it, photographed it for contrast.) We stare at the fiery crags; get excited about climbing Arthur’s Seat, which we will do on the morrow. We head along the Queen’s Drive, trying to determine a route homeward that will take us down streets we’ve not yet seen. Along the side of this curved motorway, circumnavigating the park, we spy a hidden trail going up a hill; a hippie is descending from the woods, and it is more closely the direction we want than any flagged pavements in sight. We dub this trail a “hippie crawl” and, intrepid, set out to climb it to unknown destination. After a few minutes of climbing, it lands us a a stair, ending in a rather nondescript car park (that’s a parking lot across the pond) behind some buildings that give the vague impression of student housing. Our meanderings lead us to the Meadows, and following them all the way, we find ourselves blocks from home, and having had a lovely autumnal green walk as dusk set upon us.
Dinner at Bennet’s, our local. More football on the screen, a sweet and mellow time at our same table- end of the row and closest to the fireplace. Scotch whiskeys and pints. Tonight is when we meet Grace, our lovely and friendly bartendress.