Sunday, June 17, 2012

Since I’m bound for Scotland this morning, a Robert Burns quote seems to be in order:

“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”


My train was to depart from Kings Cross this morning at 9:50 AM, but it’s running late. The departures board overhead flashes ominously and the crowd around me groans. I had been preoccupied taking pictures of Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter books, but the sudden noise causes me to look up quickly. CANCELLED, it says.

Confusion follows, then people start sprinting towards alternative routes. The official explanation is “overrunning engineering works on the tracks,” whatever that means. I’m instructed to take a train to Peterborough and change lines there, which I do grudgingly because I know it will negate the money I spent on a first class seat reservation.

By the time I make it all the way to Edinburgh, it’s late afternoon and I’m in a foul mood. It’s freezing cold and pouring down rain—of course—but from a practical standpoint it means that I can’t hold an umbrella and carry my luggage at the same time. I pull up my hood, tighten my scarf, and mumble something about staying calm and carrying on under my breath, followed by an expletive.

I’m so weary that I feel like Joey the “War Horse” dragging my luggage up the ramp and out of Waverly Station to my hotel. After checking in to a bright, modern room at the Apex Waterloo Place, I venture out across North Bridge toward the Royal Mile in search of the nearest restaurant, which happens to be an Italian place called Prezzo. It’s warm and inviting inside with the fire from the brick ovens and their bruschetta with sliced cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and pesto does wonders for my mood. By the time I finish off a plate of chicken ravioli, I feel refreshed and ready to explore the city in the morning, and determined to brace myself against the weather by buying a tartan wool shawl.

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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

When I part the drapes in my room this morning at the Apex Waterloo Place, I can hardly contain a squeal of joy. For the second day in a row, there is a blue sky overhead. Hallelujah, hallelujah! For nearly three weeks I have traveled under an unrelenting canopy of gray. It’s rained nearly every day, often in torrents, and daytime temperatures have only rarely reached into the sixties. Finally the weather has broken, and in the most unexpected of places—in Scotland, where the weather is so foul that it’s earned its own adjective: dreich.

I walk along Princes Street, past the neo-Gothic grandeur of the Scott Monument, down to The Mound. I plan to start the day at the National Gallery of Scotland, which has a famous painting of the Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, but I pause first to listen to a bagpiper playing on the terrace outside. He has a kind face, gray hair, and wire rimmed glasses, and he is in traditional Highland dress, complete with a kilt, sporran, and glengarry cap. There is a length of blue plaid draped over his shoulder, held in place with a larger silver brooch. We talk for a bit and he explains that the color and pattern of the plaid tartan identifies his clan. I thank him for his time with a £1 coin and he asks me what I’d like to hear. I stand there, dumbstruck, for a second. To say “Scotland the Brave” sounds terribly uncreative, but I honestly can’t think of anything else. I tell him to pick instead and he plays something American, to match my accent—”I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which is an odd choice for a bagpipe, but an apt one since I live in Saint Albans, Vermont, a town known as the “Rail City.”

I walk through the galleries of the art museum a bit, but I’m itching to get back outside. I head into Old Town, past a giant set of Olympic rings commemorating the 2012 London Games later this year summer, and walk across the Royal Mile, downhill on Bank all the way to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, where there’s a charming bronze statue of a dog known as Greyfriar’s Bobby, who famously guarded the grave of his owner for fourteen years. Nearby is The Elephant House, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling used to sit and write the Harry Potter books long before they made her famous. I stop inside for a cappuccino and a little literary inspiration.

I wander back up the hill along Candlemaker Row to the Grassmarket and then along the colorful shops on West Bow to Victoria Street. By the time I reach the Royal Mile again, I’m ready for lunch, which I grab at a cheery place called the St. Giles Café & Bar on a small side street across from the cathedral.

Next, I buy a ticket to tour The Real Mary King’s Close, a warren of underground streets long buried by the city’s expansion. Our guide is a pleasant American girl who tries hard, but largely fails, to adopt a British accent, and the script itself is a routine mix of ghost stories and historical narrative, worth the price of admission, perhaps, but not by a large margin.

Back above ground, I opt to spend the rest of the day shopping for souvenirs. I select a brown tweed cap for my Dad and gray cashmere scarf for my nephew. Intent on a necklace for my Mom, I stop at a stall selling Celtic jewelry just long enough to overhear this snatch of conversation:

Tourist: “Did you make this ring yourself?”

Merchant: “Naw.”

Tourist: “Where was it made, then?”

Merchant: “Ai-jah.” Or so it sounds in a nearly impenetrable Scottish brogue.

Tourist: “Ooooo, how wonderful! That must be one of those lochs up in the Highlands,” grinning to her husband while reaching for her wallet.

Me, walking away snickering: “You know, I’m pretty sure he just said it was made in ASIA.”

Further down the Royal Mile I find a silver cross set with green Scottish marble for Mom, then refocus my efforts on finding the perfect lambswool shawl for myself. After trying on various combinations of navy, green and red, I opt for something less traditional, a plaid by Lochcarron with shades of aquamarine and dusty rose, designed as a memorial tartan for Diana, Princess of Wales.

As I work through a fine plate of chicken and mushrooms over mashed potatoes at a lively pub called Whiski, I tick off the boxes on my list. I haven’t made it to the Royal Yacht Britannia, but I’ve done nearly everything else and I’ve enjoyed the city of Edinburgh immensely. I have just one more day in Scotland before heading home, and I’d like to explore the countryside. I thumb through a brochure I had picked up earlier at the tourist information center near Waverly Station. There is a Heart of Scotland tour called “Rossyln Chapel, the Borders, and Hadrian’s Wall” that runs on Wednesdays.

Sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I’m watching the BBC this morning as I eat breakfast in my room and pack my suitcase in advance of tomorrow’s departure. They’re discussing the results of a survey which says that people are unhappy with the way police are answering complaints about “anti-social behavior” in their neighborhoods. This amuses me, and I almost choke on a bite of Golden Syrup cake. In America, holding a knife to someone’s throat is something we would call assault and battery, but admittedly, the British euphemism sounds less distressing.

From there, things really get quaint. The TV news anchors segway into a discussion of cat curfews where the sentence, “OK now, it’s 11 PM, time to find Mr. Tibbles” is used. Apparently, there are local ordinances designed to protect song birds from the murderous instincts of felines. It sounds like a losing battle to me, but as a compromise, someone gamely suggests mandating that cats wear bells on collars as a kind of alarm system. I look at my watch and groan. I’ll have to miss the end of the story because it’s nearly nine and I have a bus to catch, even though I don’t have far to go.

The Heart of Scotland van is parked just outside my hotel at Waterloo Place, and I’m greeted by a cheerful guide named Steve, who wears a kilt not as a costume, but as an everyday item of apparel to show his Scottish pride. I climb aboard with a half dozen or so other tourists and we slowly make our way south out of Edinburgh.

Our first stop of the day is Rosslyn Chapel, best known—sadly enough—for it’s prominent role in Dan Brown’s potboiler of a novel, The Da Vinci Code, where it was said to have been a hiding place for the Holy Grail. The church is undergoing a major restoration, so much so that we can barely see the exterior beneath walls of scaffolding and blankets of plastic sheeting. The interior, however, is another matter entirely. Nearly every square inch is covered with intricate carvings and mysterious symbols, including an angel playing bagpipes that reminds me of the one in the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles. Among all the imagery there is but one inscription, which reads like the answer to a riddle: Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas, or “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all.”

There is a guide who greets us and she narrates a brief history of the chapel and its most famous architectural element, the Apprentice Pillar, named after a novice stone mason who completed the work under divine inspiration while his master was away. Enraged by jealousy at the quality of the young man’s work, legend has it that the master mason struck his apprentice in the head with a mallet, killing him instantly. Legend also says that the murderer’s face was carved into the opposite corner of the nave, destined forever to gaze upon his apprentice’s work.

Back in the van enroute to our next stop, Steve holds us in rapt attention by telling the story of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. After his death in 1329, his men cut out his heart and placed it in a box to carry with them in the crusades, so willing were they to follow that “brave heart” into battle. Thus, Steve insists that the phrase has nothing to do with Mel Gibson or a certain movie of the same name.

Today, what remains of Robert the Bruce’s embalmed heart is buried among the ruins of Melrose Abbey, which is where we break for lunch. I go on a quick scavenger hunt around town in search of something to eat later in the van—a coronation chicken sandwich, a bag of chips, and for dessert, a delicate fondant petit four from a local pastry shop—then I head back to use the bulk of my time to explore the grounds of the abbey.

Like so many Catholic churches and monasteries across Great Britain, Melrose had a turbulent history. The abbey was burned by the army of Richard II, and damaged again in the 1540s as English armies raged across Scotland in an effort to force the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the son of Henry VIII. And it was bombarded yet again by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. By the early 19th century, it was a romantic ruin, one that inspired Sir Walter Scott to write:

If thou would’st view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight;
For the gay beams of lightsome day
Gild, but to flout, the ruins grey.

It’s a great, cavernous place of crumbling stone. I climb a set of stairs for a better view and find myself high among the gargoyles, their worn faces covered in moss and lichen. I may not be here by the “pale moonlight,” but Melrose Abbey by day is still well worthy of a couplet or two.

We journey further south until we come at last to the border with England. It’s a desolate stretch of earth, covered with wild grasses and herds of hearty sheep. Standing tall beside a great stone marker carved with the word SCOTLAND, there is a man playing bagpipes, serenading visitors as they either arrive or depart. His name is Alan and I pose with him for a picture. I tip him well and he throws an arm across my shoulder gratefully and calls me a “bonnie lass.”

We break again when we reach Housesteads Fort, the remains of an ancient Roman outpost. For many years, this was the northernmost boundary of the Roman empire. To keep out the barbarians, the emperor Hadrian ordered that a massive wall be built all the way from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, eight to ten feet across and fifteen feet high. What little remains of it today is best seen here. Steve gives us some basic directions and warns us not to fall off the cliff. He says he’s from the veterinary school of medicine, which means: “If you bleed, I shoot you.”

It’s a scenic walk, but a tiring one, through a large expanse of green field, doted with sheep, and then up an imposing hill. I’m breathing heavily by the time I reach the crest, work my way through a copse of trees, and look out across a great expanse of Hadrian’s Wall as it stretches into the distance. Here, the wall is sturdy, but wild and unkempt, with a thick carpet of grass growing on top and a well-worn footpath following alongside. I admire the view for several minutes, but then pause for a moment of quiet reflection.

I don’t know why it occurs to me just now, but I’ve made it. Not just up the hill, but through my whole trip, and for that matter, through the entire last year—and what a dreadful year it has been, my very own annus horribilis, to borrow a phrase made famous by Her Majesty, the Queen after a year in which three of her children ended failing marriages and fire nearly consumed Windsor Castle.

Perhaps someday this will feel like the end of a chapter. It’s time to turn the page and start afresh, to follow the path over the hill and on to the next, to see what lies beyond. Isn’t that what travel is all about?

Once back in the van, Steve turns to us and says, in his thick Scottish brogue: “OK, that’s enough time in England, let’s go!”

He’s right. I am loathe to admit it, but after three weeks on the road, home and work await, and in the morning, a long connecting flight from Edinburgh to London to Philadelphia.

I nod. It’s time to go.