A Travellerspoint blog

Day 1: A Lovely Edinburgh Welcome

in which your author returns to writing too much about his travels

overcast 45 °F

“I always loathe the last entry, the one where you have to pack up the hours you spent living that constant state of newness into some neat summary, all the while not knowing when your next travel adventure will arrive down the pike.”
--me, Barcelona, February 2, 2011

Forgive me, trusted travel blog, for it has been 406 days since my last entry, but I am so pleased to jump into my next travel adventure here in Edinburgh, Scotland. I write from a cute log cabin-decored café close to my flat, later in the day on Day 2 than I would have hoped, munching on a scrumptious yet distinctly foreign-tasting banana muffin, the Beach Boys playing in the background.

One nice thing about returning to travel is revisiting one’s process and for me this includes writing about my experiences, so rather than jumping out into the city today – it is 12:30 in the afternoon here, after all – I’ll sit here and drink coffee and write about my arrival yesterday. BUT I’ll try to go fast because the city awaits!

Skipping an audition in Baltimore due to last-minute packing, I scurried off to the Metro to start the journey to Dulles, which as any DC-based traveler knows isn’t the most convenient place to get to via public transportation. All went fine and I ended up at the airport OVER three hours prior to my flight. The flight was uneventful; I made small talk with a fellow from Mumbai. (I enjoy that about flying; the person next to you might be headed to anywhere in the world.) I purchased my ticket for this trip on the very day that my $250 travel voucher on Delta (from the delays in Barcelona last year) expired, but Delta had farmed out the itinerary to KLM. I’d never flown KLM before; I was impressed by their on-flight entertainment, watching some travel documentaries on Berlin, and another on a man attempting to visit every country in the world in one year. Dream big.

Arriving in Amsterdam for a two-hour layover (which became three as the flight was early), I walked around the modern airport and re-acclimated myself with the traveling photographer’s eye. I couldn’t find any caramel stroopwafels inexpensive enough to buy, though those were one of my most distinct memories about my last visit to Amsterdam. (Note: I’ll be making a more substantial visit to this city on my way back, and am expecting to stay in the same place I stayed on this unforgettably fun visit almost two years ago.)

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In a lounge area I came upon a gorgeous Kawai piano which I played a few notes on softly; I walked away and a few minutes later, while perusing a nice art installation of “Dutch winter scenes,” I heard some terrific stride piano start up. Teaching piano lately I’m usually seen as the expert so it’s invigorating to hear someone do things I can’t come close to doing – stride versions of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “On Green Dolphin Street.” (Perhaps this was his “street set?”) The guy – a fellow traveler – gets up and I replace him, playing my usual set of “Body and Soul,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “How Long Has This Been Going On,” receiving some nice appreciation from the loungers when I finally close the lid. I was worn out from the long Atlantic flight (on which I barely slept) and this was a nice creative invigoration. I made it to the transfer gate perfectly on time, and on the second leg tore through this fascinating book on Scots history.

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Arriving in Edinburgh, I get a flash of emotion on touching down; although I’ve visited my half-mother country of Ireland twice now, it’s my first trip to Scotland, the other half of my ancestry, and though my Scottish ancestors came specifically from a distant island in the Hebrides called Barra (my mother knows the family tree for hundreds of years), Scotland is still Scotland.

I get off the plane and am met by what feels like a biting coolness in the mid-40 degree range (compared with DC, which has been tropical lately) and overcast skies. I hop on a bus to the city and upon realizing that I don’t get a signal, borrow a kind fellow’s cell phone to call my host Alice. (Be nice to tourists – you might be their first impression of your city!) We wind through the bustling, London-esque streets of the old city and I get off on a street with a ravishing view of Edinburgh Castle in the near distance. I had seen an ad in a paper on the bus that Starbucks was giving away free lattes today, so I pop into one and grab a burrito, having a nice chat with a woman in front of me in line, who recommends taking in a bus tour of the city – so far, Edinburgh citizens are nice, helpful, and welcoming!

After getting slightly lost, I spend about 20 minutes walking to my rental flat, down the corner from a sad old abandoned church in bad state of disrepair. I'm let in by another resident, and Alice shows me to my simple, smallish room. The apartment itself is homey and will do fine for my purposes.

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Resisting the very strong urge to sleep – apart from about 30 minutes on the first leg I haven’t slept in over 24 hours – I unpack and venture out into the city, fully-charged camera in tow. (I remember making the mistake of napping upon first arriving in London in 2010, and it took longer to shake the jetlag than it should have.) The castle is majestic and ancient, towering over the city and reminiscent for me of the medieval walled city of Carcassonne which I visited in 2011. I winded my way around the back section and decided to not go in just yet, opting instead to walk a bit down the famous Royal Mile. (Not the one which is a pub two miles away from me at home, which sadly, I believe just closed.)

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A block away I enter a store dedicated to all sorts of Scottish products, focusing on traditional woven goods, and there’s an enormous weaving machine with a live operator on the ground floor. I pick out a few items to purchase on a return visit. (I don’t want to lug around anything just yet!)

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A short distance later I come upon “The Scotch Whisky Experience,” which though obviously a tourist trap I had heard from a few people was worth “experiencing,” and this proved to be quite true. (My trusty Lovely Planet guide describes it as “Walt Disney meets Johnny Walker!”) After paying the 12.50 pound fee for the basic “silver tour” (that’s about US $20.62) I’m put in an amusement park-style bucket seat and the “ride” takes me through a video-enhanced, cheeky narrative of the whisky-making process. This part was cute, but thankfully the ride empties out into a tasting room with a live host who happened to be really passionate about scotch and led us through an informative class on how to distinguish the four major regional varieties of Scotch whisky (Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands and Islay!) For my tasting, included with the price of my tour, I go big and pick the “Laphroig 10 year” from Islay, rich and peaty, like a mouthful of burning smoke. Our guide Alistair leads us into something truly impressive, a display room packed with scotch bottles – the largest private collection of scotch found anywhere in the world. (The collection was owned and donated by Claive Vidiz; Alistair makes a point of telling us how Vidiz was “not a scotch snob, and that his favorite scotch in the collection was “the Budweiser of Scotches” Johnny Walker!

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Here’s a rare pre-mixed Johnny Walker with Coke purchased for an Australian dollar, and the most expensive scotch in the collection, which Vidiz paid $1,000 for in 1969 – apparently it’s the blue, custom-made bottle which makes it expensive, rather than the booze!

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In the collection room, Alistair gives us further instructions on adding water and how to judge the aroma of a scotch; like wine there are many subtleties to be found here, as aroma is a keener sense than taste. The tour ends up, not surprisingly, in a pub, where I spend another hour and chat up Alistair who has taken over the bartending duties. I order Balvenie 15 aged in a port cask and a “105 degree cask strength” (60 proof!) Glenfarclas; both are delightful. I tell travel stories with two Americans seated next to me at the bar; both are brand new to Edinburgh and we compare notes on stuff to check out.
Feeling the three strong scotches, I leave the Experience (realizing later I left my free sampling glass at the bar – will have to return to claim another one!) and walk downhill and around a bend through the downtown area.

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Probably the major catalyst for taking this particular trip hangs on the wall in my bathroom – it’s an old framed photograph of a city scene in Edinburgh taken in 1860; I bought it at a thrift shop a few years ago, and have always like the way the shot captures the easy bustle of everyday city living. One of my goals was to stand in that very spot – viewing the Scott Monument from Hanover Street – and take another photo of the same location in the present. This is a nice moment.

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It’s also quite convenient, as I’m headed to a vegetarian restaurant called Henderson’s, which Lonely Planet calls “the grandmother of Edinburgh vegetarian restaurants.” The recommendation is a great one and I thoroughly enjoy my meal of soup, risotto, and local oatmeal stout, using the free wifi to check in on Facebook.

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Ambling down George St., I pass by a light installation of Scottish Enlightenment quotes (these are Adam Smith), and come upon a church where a classical music recital is about to commence. I spontaneously decide to take it in and it’s a nice, somewhat tame sampler of student renditions of classical works; the highlight for me was the opening Magnificat by Pergolesi. (I fight to stay awake through the relatively placid music and wonder whether this 90 minutes and 7 pounds were the wisest use of time for someone who hasn’t slept in 36 hours!)

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I walk around, getting a bit lost and end up passing on my intended destination, a beer-focused pub which looks a little slow from the outside (and not in the greatest area) and end up in the Grassmarket area, where hundreds of witches and Scottish Presbyterian Covenenters (who dissented against British rule) were hung hundreds of years ago, including one affectionately known as “Half-hangit’ Maggie” who allegedly survived the rope! I end up in a quirky pub called “The Last Drop” (the irony of the name doesn’t strike me till I’m inside) where I drink ¾ of a pint and have some packaged shortbread and realize my tank is fully on empty.

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I make it back, download the day’s 200 photos (!!) and collapse into a heap. It’s 10:45pm local time and I set my alarm for 8:00am. We’ll see how that turns out in the next post. WHICH I PROMISE TO MAKE SHORTER AND LESS DETAILED THAN THIS ONE. ☺

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Posted by coolmcjazz 07:21 Archived in Scotland Tagged scotland edinburgh

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