Edinburgh is a city close to my heart. Perhaps my Scots ancestry has something to do with that, but Scotland’s ancient capital stands proud in delighting tourists and locals alike. The Royal Mile, with its gradual ascent to the craggy Castle, and its mediaeval warren of lanes and closes, invites exploration. The New Town – construction commenced 250 years ago – is elegance itself, full of grand shops, haughty restaurants, upmarket hotels.
Between the old and the new, the Princes Street Gardens and Waverley Station offer an escape from the everyday. The gardens with their trees and flowerbeds, benches and lawns, lie literally under the shadow of the castle towering above, impossibly romantic with sheer cliffs, grey stone walls, and bastions and turrets galore. Waverley, with its busy trains heading off to the Highlands and the Islands, is a Harry Potter melding of old and new. Few steam trains now, but easy to imagine Professor Minerva McGonagall stalking off to another term at Hogwarts, or yours truly, heading out to dive into the Scotch whisky vats on the distillery trail.
I was enchanted from the moment I arrived, and the feeling returned on each of my several trips back. My sudden discovery that the Old Town had no eaves when the heavens opened on my first hours there was an opportunity to remark to sceptical locals, in my best Australian accent, “Ah well, we need the rain!”
Not in Scotland, apparently!
I’ve been deluged, sleeted and snowed on, fogged up and down the Royal Mile, drizzled, sozzled, and occasionally sunburnt in Edinburgh. All part of the charm.
Which brings me to Tom Schroder’s piece in The Washington Post. My preferred reading for ongoing tales of America’s cuckoo in the nest, the paper also has a travel section, and it seems that Tom is every bit as charmed by Edinburgh as I have been.
He talks about the oddity of his central city hotel being a good three kilometres from the middle of town (Old or New, doesn’t matter, it still took him a good half hour’s walk to get there) the rustic ramble of the Water of Leith, the Harry Potter feel to certain cafes where J K Rowling spent countless hours writing. Spoon on South Bridge, and The Elephant House near Greyfriars – both repeat dining spots for me. Spoon is quirky and solid, The Elephant House more chaotic and fun. Just look into the jakes at the latter, and you’ll discover love letters to Harry and Hermione scrawled all over the walls. Perhaps induced by the excellent – and strong! – Thistly Cross cider.
And there it is. The secret to Edinburgh. Tom delights in getting off the tourist trail, poking his nose down side streets, being enchanted by his discoveries of the unexpected, the secret, the scenic. I can only urge every visitor to do the same. Find the places only the locals know about. The little restaurant with a wall full of books and “flights” of single malts to wash down the Cullen Skink. The unexpected jawbone of a great whale in the Meadows. The Union Canal and its towpath full of locals walking their terriers, and cyclists hurtling under the bridges. The closes and the parks.
Shelter from the weather through the first doorway you find. I did on my first day in Edinburgh and found myself in a bookshop apparently specialising in every book I’d read in my childhood and never seen since. It is a magic place.
Oh, and take a Sharpie. You have got to find a clean piece of wall in The Elephant House dunnies.
Tom Schroder is MacKinlay Kantor’s grandson, by the way. Poke your nose into Tom’s blog. It is full of wonders.
A word about the weather: I have been in countless places where locals humblebragged about the changeability of their climate: “If you don’t like it, wait 15 minutes.” But Scotland is the first place I’ve been where that is literally true — a sky the color of unlaundered sweat shorts spitting a misty drizzle one moment, and a glorious northern sun cutting through great galleons of clouds the next. It can be a bit challenging as to what to wear, but the upside is a ridiculous number of rainbows. —Tom Schroder
Read more: Discovering the magic of Edinburgh