Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
If These Walls Could Talk
Thursday, January 8th, 2015
9:00 AM GMT
Starbucks, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
I know, I know. But the walking tour meets right outside here. And free coffee is nice, but espresso is nicer. Stop judging me, my soy latte and I are very happy together. I sip my lovely hot coffee as the walking tour begins to assemble outside. The Edinburgh free tour is run by Sandemans New Europe, the largest network of free walking tours in the region. In contrast to the Dublin tour, this one looks a bit more official. It’s organizers sport red lanyards with the Sandemans logo and carry bright red umbrellas with “FREE WALKING TOUR” emblazoned on them.
As the group begins to take shape, our guide Dave emerges. He’s a skinny fellow with dark rimmed glasses, messy brown hair and a mile-wide grin. He’s bundled in a long raincoat and a tartan-pattered wool scarf. As we depart, it begins to rain lightly at intervals and I’m glad for my waterproof winter jacket, because what was already cold air before has turned quite frigid and I wish I had added an extra layer. Dave is thankfully conscious of this and tries to keep the group moving while telling elaborate tales of the greatness of Scotland and its many tussles with the English rule up until and through its inclusion into the UK.
He even stages his own elaborate one-man show on the steps of St. Giles Cathedral to display the heroism of William Wallace and Sir Robert the Bruce, as well as Wallace’s gruesome end, his remains ending up nailed to the wall of the cathedral. Dave’s enthusiasm is contagious, despite the brutal conditions I still find myself laughing out loud at his tomes and theatrics. Along the way, I see Jennifer and Susan from last night and we smile and wave, the two of them a bit caught up in their own world. I strike up a conversation with another brunette in the group sporting a North American accent, Michelle. She’s from Toronto and we find out we’re staying at the same hostel. When we finally stop for a warming drink halfway through the walk, we both bolt for the nearest pub the moment Dave disperses us.
12:00 PM GMT
The Fiddler’s Arms, Edinburgh, Scotland
It’s £5 for a glass of Glenfiddich 12-year single malt. This beats a warm coffee any day. I settle in with my glass as Michelle and I chat. She’s been studying abroad in London and taking advantage of the gap between studies to travel around a bit. As we sit, I hear my stomach rumble and start to peer over the pub menu. I spot a dish that has much controversy on my side of the Atlantic, Haggis. We have to move on soon, but I tell Michelle I’m definitely coming back here and eating this quintessential dish. She wrinkles her nose a bit and laughs but she agrees.
12:15 PM GMT
Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland
The tour soldiers on, heading to Greyfriars Kirkyard where J.K. Rowling borrowed many names for her characters straight off of the headstones of Scotland’s long dead. We see the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the adorable Scottish terrier that stayed at the grave of its master up until its own death. We continue on all the way to the Edinburgh museum, where we hear the final tale of the drunk college students who stole back Scotland’s legendary Stone of Destiny, which was used to crown the kings of Scotland until English rule prevailed. Upon the end of the tale, we are released, and of course reminded to tip our guide if we see fit. A note for travelers: the free tours are awesome and really are free, however, your guide does get charged a fee by the tour company for each person he/she guides, so please tip your guide. I usually do £3 for an ok tour, £5 for a good tour, and £10 for an amazing tour (the same denominations also apply to Euros). After the tour disperses, Michelle and I head back to the Fiddlers Arms so I can check a bucket list item off, Haggis.
1:00 PM GMT
The Fiddler’s Arms, Edinburgh, Scotland
Back in the cozy maw of the pub on Grassmarket, I place my order for another Scotch and await whatever the culinary adventure gods have in store for me with my haggis endeavor. After a bit more chatting with Michelle, the plate arrives.
The presentation is modern, but the heart is there. It’s rich, warm and spicy. The meatiness pleasantly fills my stomach as it’s chased with creamy potatoes. It instantly warms me, and I devour it in minutes. When it comes to comfort food, the Scots have it down, especially chased by more of that fiery whisky. After lunch, Michelle and I part ways, she heads out to explore the castle and I amble back down the Royal Mile to do some shopping for folks back home before calling it a day.
Friday, January 9th, 2015
10:00 AM GMT
Garfunkels, Edinburgh, Scotland
It’s my last day in Scotland. I’ve decided I want a taste of London so I’ve planned on a weekend there before I leave this group of islands in favor of mainland Europe. It’s rainy and dreary, what I’ve come to expect from this lovely land. I settle down to a full breakfast, while next to me, a TV assaults it’s audience with the gory details of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris which took place two days earlier. Since I’ve been traveling, I haven’t been paying close attention to any news and this is the first time I’ve been near a television in several days. I watch the replays and my chest tightens. I suddenly feel very vulnerable. Watching assault rifles marching through tiny Parisian streets is terrifying, and for the first time in my trip, the thought that everyone has tried to impress upon me has emerged. Anything can happen at any time. I’m a leaf on the wind, traveling streets I’ve never seen, in cities where I soon won’t speak the language. In just a few weeks time, I’ll be walking the same streets that the security guard’s blood was poured on. I feel a bit shaken, and after breakfast take a walk to clear my head a bit before my trip this evening. I’ve checked out of my hostel, but thankfully they let me store my bag in the locker room, which I’ll retrieve before my bus to England tonight.
11:00 AM GMT
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
This gothic wonder has already appeared in several of my photos before. It sits just up the hill from my hostel, and it’s curves have seen years of struggle, bloodshed and hymns. During the walking tour, Dave had mentioned with great enthusiasm its spectacular interior. Now, it’s been quite some time since I’ve actually stepped foot in a cathedral. Armed with my camera, I enter the enormous, heavy doors and begin to walk among the columned halls.
A work of art that has stood for 400 years. A location that has seen worship for almost 900 years. It’s quiet by decree, the only noises being hushed whispers and the click of camera shutters. Not wanting to clutter the air, I choose my shots carefully to minimize my shutter noise. At the back of the main hall, theres a closed off meeting room, the deacons room, with a £2 “suggested donation” to observe. I toss my coin in and walk in, quickly overtaken by the intricate woodwork that covers floor to ceiling.
I can’t believe the amount of detail and work that has gone into this masterpiece. I wasn’t able to capture it, but one of those floating angels on the ceiling is playing the bagpipes. The only bagpipe playing angel in the world. My neck is soon sore from constantly craning it to get better look at my surroundings. Of course, in the back of my mind I am drawn to the shame that such abundant wealth was poured into this while the rest of the country lived in relative poverty. But the beauty that humans are capable of soon eclipses that thought.
4:00 PM GMT
New Town, Edinburgh, Scotland
I retrieve my bag from the locker room and begin to devise a plan to use the rest of my day in Edinburgh before I catch the overnight bus. I decide to indulge in one of my favorite things to do back home, go to the movies. I’ve got a few hours to kill and my feet are a bit tired, plus the cold and wind have become a bit grating. The movie theatre lies just blocks from the bus station and the film should let out with an hour or two to spare. I choose The Theory of Everything. I’ve been a big Eddie Redmayne fan for a while and the movie looks sweet. So I settle into my seat, giant backpack in tow. There’s really no appropriate place to put it, so I scrunch it between my knees and settle in for the show.
Just after the movie starts, I become acutely aware of my surroundings. It’s entirely couples. Then I realize, for the first time today, what day of the week it is. It’s Friday night. Date night is an international concept. And here I am, giant backpack between my legs smelling of hostel disinfectant and sweat. By the emotional climax of the movie, I’ve got tears rolling down my cheeks and I’m hugging my backpack for dear life. Life tip: If you can’t identify the weird person in the room, it’s probably you. But in this moment I didn’t care, my backpack is truly my relationship and I’m very ok with that. Also, the Theory of Everything is a wonderful movie and you should watch it.
9:00 PM GMT
Edinburgh Bus Terminal, Edinburgh, Scotland
I arrive at the bus station and check the departure board. My heart sinks when I find out my 10:45 bus is delayed. I’ve booked a “seat” on MegaBus UK’s “sleeper bus” service. For £30 ($45), I’ve booked an overnight ticket for an 8 hour bus ride from Edinburgh to London. The situation seems perfect, for the price of a nice hostel room I’ll sleep my way from one city to the next. The unique sleeper bus essentially foregoes bus seats in favor of onboard bunks, one bottom bunk and one top hammock bunk. All the bunks are equipped with outlets and reading lights. It’s avant-garde but my curiosity and budget have made it irresistible. At 11:45 the bus finally arrives and we hop on board. A boisterous man who serves as our steward hands us each a bottle of water and a small pastry as we enter the bus. It’s then open seating and we all scramble to find our preferred bunks. I opt for the top “hammock” bunk and climb in. Below me is a double-wide bunk, and an American couple soon settle into it. We exchange awkward hellos and apologies for potential snoring and kicking. We’re all giggling a bit as we realize this may not be as comfortable as we may have anticipated. Every time the woman below me turns over, her knees swipe across my bum. It’s going to be an interesting trip.
I buckle the seatbelt across my hips and plug my phone in. My travel pillow again saves the day, proving to be much plusher than the provided pillow. As the bus begins to pull out, the gentleman across the aisle from me is having a loud phone conversation with whoever he’s meeting in London. The steward comes by and politely asks him to hang it up. The conversation continues. The steward comes back again, but this time he raises his voice, his face turns a bit red, and he emphatically declares in his thick Scottish accent “THIS IS A SLEEPING SERVICE, PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP”. The man finally hangs up the phone. Then the steward turns off the lights and we all attempt to drift off.
Each time I start to doze, the bus hits a turn and my seatbelt digs into me, keeping me from rolling onto the couple below. Finally, we hit a stretch of highway and my exhaustion overtakes me. The next time my eyes open, bright light is seeping through the blinds and I’m seeing flashes of buildings flying by us. Ready or not, I’m right in the heart of London.
Thanks for reading! My first total stranger Couchsurf and London shenanigans are next!