A Travellerspoint blog

Day 2: To the health of... SHHH!

in which your author sleeps in and wanders the city streets

Day 2 began exactly as planned, with a bright wakeup at 8am Edinburgh time! It continued with an added "quick nap" of slightly under 4 hours. Ah well, at least I tried. Sort of.

Leaving the flat later than I would’ve liked, I stop for breakfast at a cute café to write my first blog post, which ends up taking longer than it should. (Argh, time management!) Eventually, I commence walking toward downtown Edinburgh, stopping in at St. Cuthbert’s Burial Ground for around 25 minutes. The tower at the entrance was originally set up in order to look out for “bodysnatchers,” who would make handsome sums selling fresh corpses to the medical school; more than a year’s worth of the average man’s pay could be made selling one body. (Creeeepy.)



Many of the graves are full of expression and the style of inscription remind me of the old graveyards of Boston and some Caribbean islands I’ve spent time on. Quite a beautiful place, especially with the majestic Castle looming in the background. (Also: Perhaps another reason I might eb tough to travel with. I seem to like old cemeteries a lot!)


I keep walking and stop into an HMV, browsing CDs but not buying anything; it’s nice to see a dedicated room for classical and jazz the way they used to have at Tower Records in Boston.


The street is busy with pedestrians, bikers and shoppers.


I spend about an hour in the Scotland National Gallery, which like the National Gallery in DC is totally free. The collection, which features hundreds of works including a stunning Rembrandt self-portrait and some terrific Italian Renaissance works, is truly impressive. Unfortunately (and unlike DC), photography isn't allowed upon entering the gallery, so I only get one shot. (Postcards it is!)


A few pieces stick out including Titian’s The Three Ages of Man and one of a minister ice skating, one of Scotland’s most famous artworks. There’s also a fine special exhibit going on of sketches done in red chalk, including a piece by Raphael. I make some small purchases in the gift shop after including some delectable white chocolate cardamom candy which I pick at over the rest of the day.


Exiting the Gallery I walk along the Scott Monument, thinking of the impulsive decision to come here based on the photo on my bathroom wall as I discussed in my first post. I stop at a bench and ponder my next move, consulting my Lonely Planet map and my already-worn list of recommendations (courtesy of the terrifically helpful @hipharpy, a harpist based in Texas who I know only from Twitter and who I’ve never met in real life… thanks Shana!)


I’m told that the park I’m in is closing so I leave and cross a bridge heading toward the Royal Mile. I stop into a small whiskey (whisky? I've seen it spelled both ways here) shop, but am finding the prices on full bottles not much better than in the states so far. It’s more enjoyable to sample a broad range in the pubs anyway before deciding on one I might want to seek out to bring home. (So far my vote is Benromach, though I may hold off completely out of not overspending!)


I’m really hungry at this point so I decide on a place called Arcade Bar, a “haggis and whisky house” with a nice vibe. I take a chance and order the “Robert Burns” veggie haggis, which sounds potentially disastrous but actually ends up being one of the best veggie-substitute meals I’ve ever had: spicy, soft-textured meat substitute layered on top of mashed turnips and potatoes, surrounded by a delicious whisky gravy. I have two whiskeys with dinner (a Cardhu 12 from Speyside and a Dalmore), and also indulge in a warm sticky toffee pudding with caramel and ice cream. OM NOM NOM. (With hindside, probably the best meal I had over the whole trip.)


I keep winding my way around and consider rushing to the Lyceum Theatre to see Of Mice and Men, but realizing there’s probably not enough time, I happen to walk by upon the office of a “ghost tour” and pay for a ticket. (This company, Mercat Tours, came well recommended in my guide book.) In the 15 minutes prior to the start of the tour, I manage to kill time sampling 3 small glasses of hand-pulled local ale at a cute pub close by.

The Tour starts at the Mercat Cross, the site of public executions and torture as recently as the 19th century. The tour guide is an imposing, dour fellow straight out of ghost tour guide central casting, and he starts us off by demonstrating a true story of public torture at the Cross. As the story goes, two Englishmen stopped into Edinburgh and had a drink at a tavern. One raised his glass and toasted “To the health of the king!” The other one listened and clanked his glass. Problem was, the King had just been killed and Oliver Cromwell (a figure Lonely Planet tells me is despised equally by Scottish, Irish, and British people alike) was in charge, and such a toast was tantamount to treason. Word got out and the visitors were dragged to the Mercat Cross, where one had his mouth ripped apart to either side of his ears, and the other had his ears cut off – thus, one for speaking and one for listening. Our guide demonstrates this on two English tour participants, and concludes this portion by advising us to take two pieces of information: 1) The Scots are possessed of a wonderfully ironic sense of humor, and 2) Be careful who you toast to in Edinburgh!


The tour continues through the back alleys (called “closes” because the buildings are so close) of old town Edinburgh and the tales are entertaining and spooky. There’s a group of really annoying self-absorbed Italian college kids who are laughing and chattering loudly amongst themselves, oblivious to the rest of the group. At one point the guide says he’s looking for a responsible-looking person to be in the back of the group for when we enter the underground vaults… and naturally, picks me! If he only knew… ☺

The vaults, which the BBC called “the most haunted place in the UK” are actually quite intensely creepy, each room lit by but a few small candles. The guide tells of the various spirits which have been experienced in each room, and thankfully a gentleman silences the Italian group with some choice words.


We’re encouraged to look for figures and “orbs” in our photos, and though this shot was taken in a very dark room and I turned the camera, does anyone see the figure (who looks rather like Grandpa Simpson) seated in the back?


The tour ends in a separate room called “Meggatt’s Cellar” with more stories; most of the tour participants didn’t pay the extra 3 pounds for this portion so it’s nice to be in a smaller group of 7 and sit and listen to tales of Edinburgh, including the famous tale of Burke and Hare, 19th century bodysellers who turned to murder; Burke was hung for his crimes and his body was given to the medical students! A copy of his death mask is passed around the room. After each story the guide raises a glass to toast the protagonists... I fel slightly frightened when one of them was "the King!" Overall, once I got past the self-consciousness of such an obvious tourist activity, the tour was fun and worth the 13.50 pound fee. (Though I am bummed I never made it to see the Lyceum show.)


Exiting the vaults I walk to a beer bar called Brew Dog which had been recommended by Alistair the previous day, and there’s a cool punk aesthetic and local crowd of college students. I drink a house-brewed IPA with Simcoe hops, and as you may be able to tell by the chalk beer list in these photos, I guess I was responsible for kicking the keg?


After consulting my tour book, I take the rather long walk across the bridge to an absolutely gorgeous Victorian-style pub called Café Royal, where I enjoyed a peaty and complex Lagavulin 16. The book mentioned that the bartenders like to stack the bottles back to back on the shelves above the bar, creating what appears to be a mirror-effect. Even though I had read this earlier, at first glance I was still fooled! The friendly bar staff laughed when I asked how long they’d been doing that. A female bartender saw me taking photos and advised me to go into the bar in the adjacent room, presently closed. The mirrors and opulence of this room provided what I think are some of the coolest photos so far on the trip.


I walked back toward the flat, stopping for a few nighttime pictures at "my favorite corner of Edinburgh" (the Scott Monument from Hanover Street, natch), resisting the strange urge to show passersby the photo from 1860 that I have on my phone. I'm able to zoom in on a child walking in the 1860 photo and enlarge the photo on my phone; I took another photo of this and wondered what became of the kid.


I keep walking and was pleased to find the Sandy Bell still open; this pub is famous for their traditional music, and both my guide book and @hipharpy called it a must-visit. Sadly the musicians in the back were packing up, but I took another scotch and some photos with the hopes of coming back another night.


Leaving the pub, I grab a quick falafel with chips for “take away” (the prices are cheaper here if you do that), then stop to admire a shirt in a secondhand shop window. As I’m standing there, a scraggy-looking fellow comes up next to me and recommends the shop based on their mission of helping local abused children. We strike up a conversation and within about a minute I can tell this guy is going to be a friend. As he would later say: “In the sixties we used to have a saying; if you instantly click with a person, take off with them – if not, run away!” (He also instantly became my friend upon uttering "artists fix what politicians screw up!")


George just turned 60 the previous day, and is a natural conversationalist with wide ranging passions: community service, photography, ministering to homeless people at his church (he reminds me of my Jim Bruno, the former priest and eternal hippie who once introduced my parents), but most of all music. When I mention I have a degree in jazz trumpet, his eyes light up, he practically grabs me and says “Okay! Let’s walk!” We walk a ways and find a bench to sit on; he sings a few songs (Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and another by Jesse Colin Young) and I share Raglan Road which I learned after hearing it in Ireland. His eyes leap out again when I mention my master’s thesis on Keith Jarrett; he had just played Köln Concert at a church service. Over the next 90 minutes, we walk and talk and share stories and experiences; at one point while walking on the sidewalk, he insists on switching places with me, as a “gesture of local protection!” I come to find out that he had been not only an associate of the historian David Attenborough , but also had been a war photographer in Sri Lanka, and once had been tortured for two hours after helping to expose war atrocities. He spoke movingly of returning to Sri Lanka a few years ago to make peace with his history there. We exchanged mailing addresses (e-mail not his thing) and he tells me about the website where some of his stuff can be found. Conveniently, our walk takes us past the street I’m staying on, so we depart and agree to meet at the Sandy Bell Saturday night, which will certainly have music as it’s St. Patrick’s Day!


So I’m fully back to having that sort of experience where experiences and newness are packed in so closely, And it feels great!

Posted by coolmcjazz 19:02

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