Monday, June 18, 2012

This morning, I’m heading to a kiosk on Waverly Bridge to pick up a Royal Edinburgh Ticket, which covers admission to Edinburgh Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the Royal Yacht Britannia, as well as a number of sightseeing buses in town. I ask the woman behind the counter a question about the bus route and she surprised me by sharply correctly my pronunciation. “It’s not r-OO-t,” she said, pointing downward. “Those grow in the ground. It’s r-OUT-e.” I am sorely tempted to say: “Well now, I thought a ROUT was what happened to your Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden,” but think better of it and decide to bite my tongue instead.

It’s an unexpectedly beautiful morning with a crisp blue sky, the finest of my trip by far, so I decide to walk down the Royal Mile to the palace. It’s a stately building set in beige stone with twin turrets at either end. Officially, this is the Queen’s residence when she’s in Scotland, but historically, Holyroodhouse is more closely associated with another monarch, Mary, Queen of Scots, who lived here between 1561 and 1567.

I pick up an audio guide at the entrance and slowly make my way through the State Apartments, used for ceremonial occasions, and the Historic Apartments that include Mary’s infamous bedchamber and supper room. It was here in 1566 that her private secretary, an Italian courtier named David Rizzio, was dragged to his death by a party of conspirators and stabbed more than fifty times. Mary’s husband, the jealous and volitile Lord Darnley, believed Rizzio to be his wife’s lover and the father of her unborn child.

Back outside, the air is cool and the sky is a still a brilliant blue. Incredulous, I savor my time and explore the romantic ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens and grounds that surround the palace. From here, I can see the full grandeur of Arthur’s Seat, a craggy mound of rock half-covered by a carpet of emerald green. Scotland is beautiful and I’m falling in love with Edinburgh.

The morning has been a pleasant one and I’m eager to move on to the Queen’s Gallery, but first I stop for lunch at the palace café, where I’m able to eat a scone spread thick with goat’s cheese and arugula outside on the terrace under the warmth of the sun.

The current exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery is titled “Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces.” There are paintings of Venice by Canaletto, Imperial Easter Eggs by Fabergé, and chalk sketches by Holbein, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Between these lovely objects and DaVinci’s anatomical drawings back in London at Buckingham Palace, I leave wondering what it would be like to browse the Queen’s attic, and if there even is such a thing with so many palaces about.

By the time I leave the museum gift shop and hop abroad the sightseeing bus to head back up the hill, it’s mid-afternoon. The fine weather has restored my energy, so I decide to explore Edinburgh Castle, even though I’ve arrived too late to see the famous One O’Clock Gun. I walk along the battery to soak in the panoramic views of the city, out past New Town and Calton Hill to the North Sea, and then visit St. Margaret’s Chapel, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Royal Palace, which houses the Stone of Destiny and Scotland’s crown jewels.

As I make my way back down the Royal Mile, I wander in and out of gift shops that sell all manner of Scottish things—Shetland sweaters and whiskey and tartan scarves. Clearly, if I had started my trip here in Edinburgh, I would have been better prepared for the inclement weather!

When I reach St. Giles Cathedral, I duck inside to have a look around. In the Thistle Chapel, dedicated to the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest order of chivalry, there is a carving of an angel playing bagpipes, and though my legs are growing weary at last, I’m eager to find it among the hundreds of other ornate carvings of monkeys and sheep and pigs.

I head back to the Apex Waterloo Place hotel to rest up, and when I head out again I opt to stay close by for dinner. There is a small brasserie called Howie’s just up the road, across from the Old Calton Burial Ground, and while it’s not the best meal I’ve ever eaten, it’s more than good enough. In fact, the location at the foot of Calton Hill inspires me to end what has been a glorious day in Edinburgh with one final achievement. I slowly, ever so gently, climb the steep stairs all the way up to the top of the hill, even though I have to stop several times to catch my breath along the way.

There is an eclectic group of monuments at the top, scattered about the rocky ledge—a tall pillar honoring Admiral Nelson that reminds me of a naval telescope, a circular temple with Corinthian columns for Dugald Stewart, and one dedicated to Scottish soldiers and sailors who died in the Napoleonic wars that resembles the Parthenon in Athens. But the greatest reward is in the view itself. From here, I can look out across a sea of stone houses and slate rooftops, out past the bell tower of the Balmoral Hotel, all the way to Edinburgh Castle.

Sitting there, on a grassy bank, I think again of the great poet Robert Burns and his “Address to Edinburgh.”

EDINA! Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and towers,
Where once beneath a monarch’s feet
Sat Legislation’s sovereign powers!
From marking wildly scattered flowers,
As on the banks of Ayr I strayed,
And singing, lone, the lingering hours,
I shelter in thy honored shade.

It is indeed the lingering hours, but the sun is falling fast behind the hills. It’s time to head back to earth and a night of well-earned rest.

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