Day 3, after our now-standard Jurys Inn breakfast, we packed up and trekked off to the Queen Street station for the quick jaunt to Edinburgh. Our new hotel (another Jurys Inn), turned out to be spectacularly well situated, a block from Waverly Station and a mere skip up Chalmers Close to the Royal Mile. We were pleased enough about that that we got over the clerk at reception attempting to charge Sherry’s credit card repeatedly for the room…
The weather continued to be fine, though it had cooled slightly, which was appreciated. We made our usual jaunt over to the tourist info centre, then took a spin ’round the city on the hop on/hop off tour to orient ourselves. (Though, amusingly, a goodly number of Ian Rankin landmarks were within spitting distance of the hotel, apparently.)
We actually rode the bus all the way around (what can I say, we finally had upper deck seats), then returned to the hotel briefly to actually take possession of our room before attacking the city’s lovely sights with a vengeance.
High Street, or the Royal Mile, starts at Edinburgh Castle and courses downhill to Holyroodhouse Palace. (No tours while we were there, however, as there was a royal in residence.) We hiked up to the Castle, just in time to get sprinkled on. They were setting up for a tattoo, and I’m sure it would have been quite the spectacle.
The castle itself is pretty cool, though certainly a tourist trap par excellence. (Not sure the views of the city entirely make up for the £13 highway robbery admission price.) However, we found Sherry’s Xanadu (a shop that specialized in books and rare whiskeys), and the splendidly tiny and Romanesque St. Margaret’s Chapel, which, alas, we couldn’t enter. (Though apparently it can be rented for very small weddings.)
It was amazing, too, how the Castle really was built right on the hill’s volcanic basalt. It juts pretty much out of the walls and foundations in spots.
We got to see the Crown Jewels, or “Honours”, which, interestingly, still show damage from some of their adventures throughout history. (Talk about an epic game of “keepaway”…) The War Memorial (in the former St. Mary’s Church) is a lovely place, and was fascinating just to wander and watch. People were leafing through vast books — searching for names of relatives among war dead. (Interesting to me as there are none in my family.) There were also two older gents re-applying silver leaf to an altar in one of the small chapels.
King James’ Great Hall was even more impressive than the one at Stirling Castle. Similar soaring hammerbeam roof, though this one is original. One helluvan arms collection lining the walls, too. My brother would give his right arm to get his hands on some of that stuff. (Good thing he’s left-handed…)
After the Castle, we wandered back down the Royal Mile, and came across one of the attractions that was on Sherry’s must-see list, The Real Mary King’s Close. (Alas, no photos were allowed.) The closes are those little alleys that run off the larger streets (like High Street/Royal Mile) down to what was the Nor’ Loch).
In this case, when the Royal Exchange was built in 1753, the buildings that had gone up storey by storey along Mary King’s Close were demolished above two stories, and the original street was essentially entombed below. (The tenements could soar over a dozen storeys, so things at ground level got pretty dark and close, even before buildings went over top.)
Our tour guide was the “clenger”, basically a guy whose job it was to remove the plague dead and burn their houses and effects. The tour was fascinating, though definitely not for the claustrophobic. Houses for the poor in those days were tiny, often one room, low-ceilinged, and everything got mucked out into the street — household garbage, chamber pot contents, animal waste and hay from stables, you name it. And when it rained, it all got washed down into the Nor’ Loch. Is it any wonder they eventually drained it?
Mary King (or Marie King, in those days) was a real person — a fairly prosperous seamstress and widow who lived in the close with her family in the early to mid-1600s and rented her house and luckenbooth (basically a collapsible market stall at the front of her house) for £100/year, which wasn’t pocket change in those days. That the close was named after her was testament to her prominence in the community, since it was quite rare in those days to name anything after a woman.
We learned of some of the locals scandals and quirky neighbours, including the final resident of the close who remained there until the 19th century. We couldn’t go into his house as the floors are no longer stable and the still-hanging wallpaper is full of arsenic, but you can see into the washroom at the end of his front hall, installed there since he had the first flush toilet in the close, and would use it, doors open, in full sight of the street, to show it off. Classy!
After returning to the 21st century, we did a spot of souvenir shopping (found one jewellery store in particular that specialized in Mackintosh-inspired designs and which proved to be a rich vein of family gifts) and then cleaned up at the hotel before heading out for dinner. We’d been told that this one particular area in the New Town was excellent for restaurants, but… not so much. Unless your definition of excellent is a few fast food chains.
However, we decided on an Italian place — Bella Italia — that’s part of a chain in the UK, and had quite a tasty meal with salad, pizzas, wine, decadent dessert, and coffee. As per usual, we weren’t real night owls (though it wasn’t getting dark til around 10pm, anyway), and so headed back to the hotel after dinner to get our energizing sleep to prepare us for the following day’s jaunt to the east coast and Dunnottar Castle.