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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I am determined to get on with things.  I pack up my bags, order a cab to the train station, and settle in for the journey south to Füssen and the Hotel Sonne.  It’s a charming place awash in salmon pink, where the corridors are lined with costumes and memorabilia from the local stage production of a musical based on the life and death of “Mad” King Ludwig II.  I settle into room 212, but then immediately hop onboard the #78 bus to Hohenschwangau.  The town of Füssen can wait.  Above all, I want to see Neuschwanstein Castle and I will not rest until I do.  My reservation to tour the interior isn’t until tomorrow afternoon, but since the sun is shining brightly today, I think of this afternoon’s exploration as a prudent insurance policy.

As I peer out the window of the bus for my first glimpse of the castle perched high on the hill, I feel a welcome stir of anticipation, the first I have felt for days.  I walk through town, past a line of souvenir shops selling postcards and beer steins, to the shuttle bus stop and ride the rest of the way up a long and winding road to Marienbruecke.  Mary’s Bridge hangs suspended above a deep gorge and looking down gives me an unsettled feeling in my still fragile stomach, especially since the narrow planks are crammed by hoardes of tourists, but the view between the mountains and out across the valley towards Neuschwanstein Castle is nothing short of spectacular.  I snap away on my Nikon D5000 and when I’m through I inhale deeply and relax.  It’s hard to put what I feel into words, but I am grateful to be here.  Perhaps it is as simple as that.  No matter what happens next, I have been here.  I have at least done this, and perhaps it is enough.

Back in Füssen, I build on the afternoon’s success by visiting the opulent Baroque interior of St. Mang’s basilica, and then walk up gingerly to the Hohes Schloss, or high castle, once the summer residence of the bishop of Augsburg, to see its whimsical tromp l’oeil decoration.  I have a quiet dinner in the restaurant of the Kurcafe Hotel, and then stroll through town under damp and darkening skies, all the way to the banks of the River Lech and back.  Later, when my head hits the pillow and I fall off into a well-earned slumber, it is with a contented heart.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

After a cheerful breakfast at the Hotel Sonne, I stretch my legs by wandering down through the cemetery of St. Sebastian to the Franciscan Monastery, which provides a lovely view of the town of Füssen.  I head back up the hill just in time catch the bus to Hohenschwangau, retracing the steps I took yesterday afternoon.  This morning, however, I have to keep my eye on the time because I have reserved tickets to tour the interiors of Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein

Hohenschwangau Castle, with its tangerine façade and blue and white striped awnings, was the childhood home of King Ludwig II.  The original castle on the site was built in the 12th century, but later destroyed in war.  The ruins were acquired by Ludwig’s father, King Maximillian II and the castle was rebuilt according to the original plans between 1833 and 1837.

It’s high on a hill overlooking the village, so when I see a sign outside the ticket office advertising a horse drawn carriage ride to the top, I seize it. 

Tour 152 doesn’t depart until 12:20 PM, so while I wait I admire the view from the castle gardens out across the valley to the foothills of the Alps, and then turn my attention to the castle itself. 

The lavish rooms inside, covered by murals of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, confirm what I already knew.  Namely, that while there are turrets and battlements and coats of arms here, this is clearly a 19th century romantic vision of a medieval castle, which is more than all right with me. 

I make it to the 477 tour of Neuschwanstein Castle at 2:25 PM with little time to spare.  Here, much of the interior was left unfinished when “Mad” King Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances in 1886.  Only fifteen rooms are complete, including the Throne Hall, decorated in elaborate Byzantine style, the Singers’ Hall, intended for banquets and musical performances, and Ludwig’s bedroom, circled by wall murals depicting the story of “Tristan and Isolde” from an opera by Wagner.  It’s quaint and charming and sad, all at the same time. 

I would take pictures, but our tour guide is a young man with a chilling demeanor who promises to escort anyone who does into the eager embrace of castle security.  No one dares try, and although I am tempted to ask where Hitler and the Nazis hid their hoard of stolen art during the war, I don’t have the nerve.

All in all, though, it’s been a satisfying day.  I collect my luggage from the lockers at the station in Füssen and head back to Munich on the train, where I check in to room 519 at the ultra-modern Fleming’s Hotel across the street at Bayersraße 47, tuck in for dinner in the restaurant downstairs, and then shuffle off to bed.