“Half a capital and half a country town, the city leads a double existence; it has long trances of the one and flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles, it is half alive and half a monumental marble.”Robert Louis Stevenson
When the cab left us outside Grantham Station that March morning, the air was cold and wet against our cheeks, but we stood bravely on that platform with our faces to the wind, sniffing the rich aroma of roasted coffee beans and oven-fresh muffins wafting from the station’s food stands. We were university students studying abroad for a semester at Harlaxton College, an extraordinary experience in itself, but this morning was especially anticipated because we were venturing to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Our train rolled into Waverly Station around noon. We stepped onto the platform, gray sunlight drenching our shoulders from the skylights above, and then we rushed outside. What greeted us at the edge of the station was a chimerical kingdom of weather-stained stone rising up from the earth. Those buildings didn’t just claim existence on the land. They coexisted with it, rising and falling with the harsh slopes. And that beauty of nature and architecture, so perfectly blended, was my first and most magnificent impression of Edinburgh.
Attractions: Where We Started
We ambled down the Royal Mile and checked into Castle Rock Hostel, located just down the cobblestone street from the picturesque Edinburgh Castle. That’s the city’s main attraction, an historic fortress rising out of the earth, cutting into the skyline. There we witnessed regimental exhibits, the Scottish National War Memorial, St. Margaret’s Chapel, and even a graveyard dedicated to the deceased dogs of past soldiers. After visiting the castle, we wandered the Mile, strolling by storefronts, caressing lamb’s wool scarves, tasting savory haggis, and interacting with the kilt-wearing locals until the spirit of Edinburgh was thoroughly buried in our souls.
The Royal Yacht Britannia
On our first full day in the most marvelous city I’ve had the honor to visit, we took ourselves down to the Royal Yacht Britannia, a private cruise ship used by Queen Elizabeth II for nearly half a century. The tour guides led us through the less-than-lavish, but quaintly British ship. We saw everything from Elizabeth’s private bedchambers to the State Dining Room. I most enjoyed the scandalous stories and historical tidbits of the yacht’s travels. Overall, the attraction was entertaining, but not distinctly Scottish (so it might not be at the top of your sightseeing list).
Wandering the City
Our digression from Scottish experiences continued as we hiked back to the Royal Mile and came face-to-face with one of our own: an American. And in true American style, he was performing on the slanted streets in a cowboy costume. Cracking a whip and cracking jokes, he touted his ten gallon hat and tried to escape from a strait jacket. He recognized his fellow countrymen almost immediately, because we laughed at all his jokes, he admitted after the show. We shook his hand and spoke for a long time. The man was from Detroit, Michigan and sharing that experience was a sweet reminder of home. We saw him on the Mile every day after that and he always paused, whether he was performing or not, to greet us with the words, “My people!” It feels good to have a friend in a foreign land.
As the day progressed, we visited significant stops like the National Museum of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, but most importantly, we stumbled across the famous Elephant House Café, the birthplace of Harry Potter. According to the magical legend, J.K. Rowling would sit in the backroom of the café and gaze out the wavy glass windows at Edinburgh Castle, the inspiration for Hogwarts. The café sells a variety of snacks, sandwiches, baked goods, and of course, enchanted souvenirs. I purchased a delicious chocolate brownie, a souvenir t-shirt, another brownie, and then a fistful of Elephant House pins for friends and family. If you ever visit yourself, be sure to take a peek at the loo as well. The walls are layered from floor to ceiling in magical graffiti, everything from Harry Potter quotes to personal messages and thank you notes.
Climbing Arthur’s Seat
On our last day, we woke promptly with the peak of the moon, dragging our sleep-deprived selves from our hostel bunks, being careful all the while not to disturb the sleeping strangers. It was 3:00 a.m., but by God we were going to hike Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcanic mountain on the city’s edge, and watch the sunrise. So we bid goodbye to the Virgin Room (each room at the Castle Rock Hostel has a theme and each bunk in that room has a related name). The beds in the Virgin Room were called Records, Madonna, Cliff Richard, Immaculate Conception, Brooke Shields, Jesus, Sandra Dee, and my own bunk… Airlines.
So we climbed Arthur’s Seat in the pitch dark. I feel inclined to warn you about what we didn’t know until after the fact: there exists a gentle, sloping trail to the mountain’s peak and there exists a second, more treacherous path to the top. We took the latter for lack of better knowledge, but I’m not bitter. Scaling the side of a Scottish mountain in the dead of night and digging my fingernails into that cold, clay-like dirt when the path turned vertical was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever been lucky enough to have. The climb was indeed treacherous. I wheezed and grew dizzy and wondered all the while if we were even on a real path, but in my heart, I was a medieval highlander, steeped in adventurous courage and grandeur.
About halfway through the strenuous climb, one of my travel companions suggested that we play some music, so I pulled my cell phone from my pocket, opened my music app, and set my personal library on shuffle. What happened next is perhaps the greatest uncanny coincidence of my entire life: the first song to play was “It’s A Long Way to the Top” by ACDC.
By the time we did reach the top of Arthur’s Seat, sunrise was still twenty minutes out, so we settled into the craggy outcroppings of rock on the mountain’s peak and we waited. Other hikers arrived during those twenty minutes, including an a cappella group. When that Scottish sun crested the horizon, the waters below turned a deep orange, like a fiery ocean. The rocks turned bronze and the dewy green grass glinted with accents of pink and gold. While this miraculous light show shimmered around us, the a cappella group hummed the Game of Thrones theme song. It was nothing less than epic.
Everyone deserves such an experience at least once in their lives.
Winding Down Our Trip
After the brilliance of colors faded, we began the trek back to town, but our eyes still sparkled with the sun-fueled fire of that splendid sunrise. We stopped for breakfast in a random café. I can’t even tell you the name of it, but in that little stone shop I ate the best batch of pancakes I’ve ever tasted. They were probably so delicious because I was so hungry, but I like to think they were sweetened with the magic of Edinburgh. After breakfast, we walked the Royal Mile once more before reluctantly returning to Waverly Station. Our time in the city was over.
We left Edinburgh on a first class train car (buying first class on any trip is superfluous, but everyone should do it at least once). We sat in recliner seats and received unlimited, complimentary beverages and snacks. I treated myself to a Coca-Cola, tea, water, a cherry muffin, a tea cake, sweet and salty popcorn, and a sandwich with Wensleydale cheese, roasted carrots, lettuce, fig, and tomato chutney on malted brown bread. The train ride was indeed grand, but it offered little solace, for I was being torn from a place that stole a piece of my soul. My only consolation is that the city of Edinburgh gave me a piece of its own soul to keep in return, a piece that I hold close to my heart even to this day.
“There’s no leaving Edinburgh, No shifting it around: it stays with you always.”Alan Bold