On a rare sun-soaked summer day in Edinburgh, the mood turned festive along the steep, cobbled streets of the Royal Mile.
Visitors thronged the sidewalks, shedding jackets -- standard garb in a place where locals joke that summer came on a Wednesday last year. Tourists strolled in and out of pubs, museums and shops. University students with matching haircuts and sun-reddened faces broke out singing as they strode along in groups.
Outside St. Giles Cathedral, a lone bagpiper played for the tourists. A majestic steeple pointed toward the clouds, enhancing a fairytale skyline of spires and domes and the turrets of a castle that has long stood watch over the city.
But from where Liz White stood, things looked grim.
The tour guide had made her way off the Royal Mile, which stretches a mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, into one of dozens of "closes." The narrow, pedestrian passageways between the ancient buildings, so called because many have gates that close at night, serve much the same purpose today as they did centuries ago. They connect streets, reveal shortcuts, lead to hidden entrances.
White had transported her group to medieval times, if only in their minds. Back then, the network of dark and forbidding alleyways also served as sewers. Inhabitants of the upper floors -- usually the poorest classes -- would toss out their waste to run downhill, she explained. The whole mess mixed in with the pigs and the hens and the rotting cabbage leaves.
"They didn't have a very grand life," White said with a sigh.
The closes, often named after the most important resident in the alley, are reminders of life centuries ago in the Old Town of Scotland's capital. Such reminders are everywhere in a city steeped in history and heraldry.
Edinburgh is striving to capitalize on its heritage, while wooing new and younger markets. Toward that end, the city of 443,600 inhabitants is rejuvenating its closes to encourage visitors to explore, improving pedestrian flow on the Royal Mile, improving marketing for area retailers and investing in new attractions, such as Our Dynamic Earth, the city's answer to London's Millennium Dome, which opened in early July.
The city is making headway, if the hordes of twentysomethings with backpacks more than half their size are any indication. Visitors seeking fine dining on a Saturday night -- without a reservation -- can traipse from restaurant to restaurant before getting a late seating. And guest rooms can quickly book up during the busiest times, such as during the Edinburgh International Festival (this year from Aug. 15 through Sept. 4) and when big events fill Murrayfield Stadium.
Visitors seeking a taste of Edinburgh might want to hop one of several tour buses that loop from the New Town to the Old Town. The Georgian New Town, new by European standards, was built in the 1800s with stately squares, a response to intolerable conditions in the Old Town, which dates to the 12th century.
Royal Mile and Old Town
During a recent visit, it was the Old Town that beckoned with Gothic-style, hilltop sandstone buildings and an air of mystery and myth.
It was here that Deacon William Brodie, an upstanding cabinetmaker and member of the Town Council by day, would burglarize his customers' homes by night to pay gambling debts, becoming the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was there that Jekyll's creator, Robert Louis Stevenson, dreamt in a childhood room furnished with a mahogany cabinet built by the real Deacon Brodie. The cabinet is on display, along with a first edition of "A Child's Garden of Verses," in a tribute to Stevenson and fellow native sons Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, at the Writers' Museum, housed in a mansion at Lady Stair's Close.
The Royal Mile forms the spine of Old Town. Edinburgh Castle -- the former abode of Mary Queen of Scots -- sits at one end, with the baroque royal palace at the other. Holyroodhouse palace was also home for several years to the former queen, who lost her head for defying Elizabeth I of England. Today, the palace serves as the queen's official Scottish residence. (In fact, it abruptly closed its gates to tourists in early June, just hours before an expected two-day visit by Prince Charles.)
To walk the Royal Mile is to truly experience it. And to walk the Royal Mile is to climb, up stone steps, up cobblestone inclines, up the narrow closes. Wear sturdy shoes and pack an umbrella for a stretch that is four streets in one -- Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate. It's well worth hooking up with one of the walking tours that meet outside St. Giles, such as the one led by White for Mercat Tours.
"There are some things you can't see from a bus," White said. "We try to show people things they might miss."
You'd surely miss a heart-shaped spot in the ground outside St. Giles. It marks the former site of a tollbooth where citizens paid taxes through the early 1800s. People keep up a tradition of protest today, spitting on the spot as they pass.
"Children spit on it for good luck," White said. "It can look quite disgusting. Fortunately we have a wet climate."
Without walking, you might never know there's no graveyard at St. Giles because it's been paved over and covered by cars on a lot outside the High Courts. The last burial took place in 1566.
And you might never imagine that rectangular stones at the intersection of the Royal Mile and Jeffrey Street are all that remain of a gate of the old walled city. To many the barrier represented the World's End, which now is the name of the pub on the corner. Then, too, you might miss charming Victoria Street. It's just below the Royal Mile, where storefronts are painted rainbow pastels, where one shop sells nothing but cheese, another nothing but brushes.
During our visit, my husband and I kicked off our walk with lunch at the Canon's Gait on Canongate. Even while munching on breaded haddock and chips and chicken tortillas, there was no escaping the Royal Mile's rich history. The Scottish pub, with tartan-patterned booths and black claw-foot bar stools, sits on what had been the main road for the canons of Holyrood as they traveled from their monastery to Edinburgh Castle in the early 12th century. Built in the 16th century, the tavern was the original residence of Mary Queen of Scots' French tailor.
Afterward, we headed uphill toward the castle and into the free-admission Children's Museum on High Street. Founded in 1955 and enlarged in 1986, the museum's five galleries are devoted to the universal history of childhood. Inside glass cases sit a Flemish teething doll, circa 1865, with a human tooth attached to it to absorb pain suffered by a teething child; castor oil, recommended through the turn of the century as a "gentle purgative;" and a wooden kiddie car from the 1920s, which parents used to get their children walking at an early age because crawling infants reminded them of animals. Along the Royal Mile, you'll find fruit and vegetables in the Scottish Grocer, fish and chips at the Tass, exotic plants at the Green House and bagpipes galore at Bagpipes Galore.
But you can't wander far without coming to one of many shops piled high with Scottish-made wool sweaters and scarves, shortbread and the traditional kilts woven in tartan patterns of Scottish clans.
Geoffrey Tailor Kiltmakers on High Street has been weaving textiles and selling kilts on the Royal Mile for nearly a quarter-century. The shop makes kilts-to-measure on its third floor from fabric woven at a nearby mill. It can take up to eight weeks to complete an entire outfit.
"It's an expensive garment, but very, very popular. It's an outfit that lasts a lifetime," says Howie R. Nicholsby, special projects manager and the third generation in the family-run business.
For Nicholsby, the kilt represents the future as much as the past. He says he is pioneering a kilt evolution, adapting modern fabrics to the ancient art. The inspiration for his side business, 21st Century kilts, grew out of a kilt he designed to wear to his sister's wedding. Now he's betting that denim, camouflage, Harris Tweed and velvet kilts will catch on with the younger generation, many of whom still save for years to buy a kilt.
"I'm turning the kilt into a fashion garment," he said, displaying designs he sells through mail order and advertises over the World Wide Web.
The merchants who preceded Nicholsby centuries ago along the Royal Mile could never have conceived of such electronic commerce. Those merchants' lives, and a simpler time, are celebrated in museums such as Gladstone's Land on Lawnmarket, a 16th Century stone house owned by a prosperous city merchant. As was the custom, the merchant rented flats to tenants of different classes.
Visitors enter through a re-created 17th-century cloth shop with a beamed ceiling and wide floorboards, a cutting table with scissors and bins stuffed with bolts of woolen cloth. Up a winding rear staircase is the Little Chamber, set up like the study of another wealthy merchant, who lived there in 1635, with carved oak armchairs, a walnut secretary and a brass foot warmer at the fireplace.
The museum gives visitors "the feel of what it was like to live here in the 17th century on a modest domestic scale," says Pat Wigston, the museum's property manager.
A toast to Scotland
We attempted to digest our history lessons with dinner at Jackson's Restaurant on High Street, where the seafood chowder is a must. But we couldn't leave Edinburgh, or the Royal Mile for that matter, without a toast of Scotch whisky, and we found plenty to choose from among the wide assortment of bottles crowding a top shelf of the restaurant's bar.
Just before sunset, we reached Edinburgh Castle. Perched atop an extinct volcano, the enduring symbol of Edinburgh is a collection of structures. The oldest, built at the end of the 12th century, is tiny St. Margaret's Chapel, with stained-glass windows depicting saints. The castle also houses Scotland's crown jewels. Lifesize mannequins tell the mid-17th century story of the Scots hiding the crown, sword and scepter from the English.
On this evening, the crowds had gathered outside on the esplanade for a "Beating Retreat" parade. Massed pipes and drums and bugle/trumpet and flute bands marched and played, with the turreted castle as a striking backdrop and city rooftops in the distance. Perched on their fathers' shoulders, children clapped to the drums' upbeat rhythms.
A light drizzle began to fall, capping a day without rain. But we were prepared, having earlier stopped at a Royal Mile souvenir shop for an umbrella. Red and blue plaid. Fitting, we thought.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: British Airways flies direct from BWI to London, with connecting flights to Edinburgh International Airport, seven miles west of the city center. Current round-trip fares start at $550. From the airport, Guide Friday and Lothian Regional Transport offer shuttles for about $5 to the city center. Taxis and rental cars are also available. From London, visitors can take ScotRail trains to Waverley Station. Contact ScotRail (www.scotrail.co.uk or 011-44-345-484-950).
Accommodations range from guest houses with shared baths and full breakfasts to five-star hotels.
* Station Hotel, 9-13 Market Street, is a short walk both from Waverly Station and the Royal Mile and opposite the airport bus terminus. This moderately priced, comfortable hotel offers private tiled baths with hairdryers and in-room coffee and tea makers and includes a full breakfast. Rates: Double room, $57-$89 per person. Phone 44 (131) 226 1446 or fax 44 (131) 226 1447.
* Joppa Turrets Guest House, 1 Lower Joppa, at the beach end of Morton Street. Located on the Firth of Forth, accommodations include double rooms with private sink and shared bath or private bath. Rates: Double room, private bath, per person, $36-$44; Double room, shared bath, per person, $29-$37. Phone 44 (131) 669-5806.
* Christopher North House Hotel, 6 Gloucester Place. Located in the Georgian residential area of Edinburgh's New Town, the family run hotel offers private bathrooms, television, telephones, hair dryers and tea and coffee makers. Rates: Double room, $163. Phone 44 (131) 225-2720, fax 44 (131) 220-4706.
* Caledonian, Princes Street, EH1 2AB. Overlooking Edinburgh Castle from the west end of Princes Street, the luxury hotel offers a health club, pool and three restaurants. Rates start at $365 a night. Phone 44 (131) 459-9988.
* The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street. This striking Victorian building has grand entrance halls and ballrooms and private dining rooms with views of Edinburgh Castle. Rates: Double, starting at $321 in high season. Phone 44 (131) 556 2414, fax 44 (131) 557 3747; reservations: 44 (131) 556 1111.
* Sheraton Grand Hotel Edinburgh, 1 Festival Square. Just a few minutes walk from Princes Street, the hotel offers minibars, voice mail and air conditioning in its 261 rooms. Rates: $308-$365 double occupancy. Phone 44 (131)229-9131, fax 44 (131) 228-4510.
What to bring:
* Comfortable shoes for walking.
* An umbrella.
* A wool sweater and jacket (even in summer).
* For those who plan to stay in the city center, avoid renting a car, as the highway system and proliferation of "roundabouts" can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the terrain or driving on the left. Traffic in downtown Edinburgh is congested and parking is tight. Once in town, save time and money by walking or by purchasing a pass for one of several bus tours that loop from the New Town to the Old Town and allow visitors to get on and off.
* Make your first stop the Edinburgh and Scotland Information Centre, 3 Princes St. (on top of the Waverly Shopping Center) where you can load up on maps and brochures, change currency, book tours and, for a small fee, even have the center find accommodations.
Where to eat:
* Jackson's Restaurant, on the Royal Mile at Jackson's Close in a 300-year-old building in the heart of Old Town, offers traditional Scottish fare such as salmon, lamb and venison with a light, modern touch. Perthshire Lamb is pan-fried in nut brown butter, fanned around a Granny Smith apple and drizzled with lamb jus. Entrees range from $19-$27.50. Phone 44 131 225-1793.
*The Canon's Gait, 232 Canongate. Traditional Scottish pub with pub fare. 44 (131) 556-4481.
* EH1 Cafe Bistro, 197 High Street. Open 9 a.m.-1 a.m. daily, with large menu served until 7 p.m.
* Black Bo's, 57 Blackfriars Street, off the Royal Mile. Gourmet vegetarian restaurant with relaxed, candlelit ambience, known for vegetarian haggis. Dinners average $24. Open midday-2 p.m., 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday. Phone 44 (131) 557-6136.
* Cafe Royal Oyster Bar, 17A W. Register Street. An elegant Victorian cafe and bar known for its oysters and other seafood, and popular with locals. Open midday-2 p.m., 7 p.m.-10:15 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m., 7 p.m.-10:15 p.m. Sunday. Phone 44 (131) 556-4124.
* The Edinburgh Classic Tour, a double-decker bus tour, stops at all major attractions in Old Town and New Town. Tickets, $10.50 for adults, available at the Ticket Centre, Waverly Bridge.
* Guide Friday, open-top, double-decker bus. Tickets, $13 for adults, valid all day. Join the tour at Waverly Bridge or on the Royal Mile.
* Edinburgh & Lothians Tourist Board: www.edinburgh.org/.
* Tourist Publications: Phone 44 (131) 225-4547, fax 44 (131) 220-6789.
AN IDEAL DAY
8:30 a.m.: Start with a hearty Scottish breakfast, typically eggs, sausage, beans, toast and coffee, and usually included in the price of a night's stay at many hotels and guest houses.
9:30 a.m.: Tour Edinburgh Castle, the city's most famous landmark, at the top of the Royal mile. Either rent a tape recorder and take a self-guided tour or join a group tour highlighting the crown jewels, dungeons, royal apartments, the Great Hall and St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest structure surviving from the medieval castle. Phone 44 (131) 225-9846.
11:30 a.m.: Before leaving Castlehill, stop at the Tartan Weaving Mill and Exhibition, next to the castle. (Admission: $4.85, adults.) Visitors can tour a weaving mill, try out the looms and watch kiltmakers work their craft. Across the street, at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, take a tour that shows how whisky is made and sample a dram of whisky. The center has a whisky bar, restaurant and gift shop.
12:30 p.m.: Tour Gladstone's Land, 477B Lawnmarket, a restored 1620 tenement building, once the home of a prosperous city merchant, which has now been set up to depict lifestyles of residents who would have inhabited the building in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Open April through October, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.-5 p.m.) Phone 44 (131) 226-5856.
1 p.m.: Have lunch at Deacon Brodies Tavern, 435 Lawnmarket, a traditional pub named for William Brodie, who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1886.
2 p.m.: Visit the High Kirk of St. Giles, otherwise known as St. Giles Cathedral, on High Street. Tour guides are available to point out highlights -- such as the stained glass, organ and the exquisite Thistle Chapel -- of the 12-century church where John Knox launched the Scottish Reformation.
2:30 p.m.: Browse in shops for wool sweaters, shortbread cookies and whisky. You'll find an array of single malts at Cadenhead's Whisky Shop on Canongate, designer knitwear at Ragamuffin on Canongate and tartan kilts, scarves and blankets at Geoffrey Tailor Highland Crafts on High Street.
3 p.m.: Tour some of the free city of Edinburgh museums and galleries, such as the Writers' Museum on Lawnmarket, the Museum of Childhood on High Street, and farther down the Royal Mile on Canongate, Huntly House, which showcases collections from Edinburgh's past, and the People's Story, a museum telling the story of ordinary people in the city from the late 18th century to the present day. (Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.)
4:30 p.m.: Tour the palace of Holyroodhouse at the end of the Royal Mile. Still a royal residence, the palace was founded by James IV in the 15th century. Most of the palace dates from Charles II's reconstruction in the 17th century. (From November through March, last admission is at 3:45 p.m.)
6 p.m.: Wrap up the day with a traditional Scottish meal at Jackson's, 209 High Street.