From London to Edinburgh in 6 Days (Part the Third)

Erika and I had decided to give ourselves a break and took a ten o’clock train from Durham to Edinburgh. I had only spent a few hours in that city and that had been back in December when the Christmas Market was on. I remember it being dark, cold, and rainy. It wasn’t that I had not enjoyed myself, but I remembered being underwhelmed. It frustrated me because everyone I had spoken to who had been to Edinburgh absolutely loved it. They would talk about how it was their favourite city in the UK. I wondered if they had been to London at all.
The train got us in at a little after twelve. We dropped off Erika’s extra bag in the station and began our walk over to the Royal Mile in the direction of Edinburgh Castle. The sky was slightly overcast but it was a lot nicer than Durham had been. While it was a bit chilly, the walk and carrying our backpacks with everything we would need for the next two days warmed us.
We had pre-purchased tickets to the Scotch Whisky Experience the day before. It’s not that I’m an avid drinker of the stuff, though Erika is, it was the “experience” half of it that I was most excited about. When we had mentioned to people in the pub the night before what our first stop in Edinburgh was to be, we were met with excited enthusiasm. We were regaled with tails of the barrel ride and the world’s largest collection of whisky. By the time we reached our destination, we had definitely worked up a thirst.
The Scotch Whisky Experience is next to Edinburgh Castle. We went in, picked up our tickets and managed to get on an earlier tour. The tickets were a bit pricey but both of us were really excited about this barrel ride. We met our guide (who coincidentally had a brother who had gone to Durham Uni) and then Erika and I were placed in a barrel car running along a track and our whisky adventure began.

Alright, so if you’ve ever been to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania and gone of the Hershey’s Chocolate World ride, it was basically that just all about whisky. Also you probably now have the Hershey’s Chocolate World song stuck in your head. You’re welcome. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, the ride basically takes you through the process of making scotch whisky. This includes smells and sounds in addition to visualisations of the whole process. The journey is hosted by the ghost of Douglas McIntyre a distillery owner and a mild Scottish caricature.
After the ride, we were given a scent card with four Scottish whisky producing regions in the corners. We went into the tasting room and our tour guide joined us. As he spoke to us about the four regions, a projection screen showed the hard working whisky makers doing all the things that whisky makers do. We were invited to rub the corners of our cards and smell the bouquet which distinguishes the single malts from each region. I was drawn to the sweet vanilla scent from the Highlands while Erika preferred the very smoky scent of Islay. The last portion of the presentation was about blends which culminated in a most delightful musical analogy wherein a classical symphony was played over footage of a master blender doing his thing. Musical notes on the walls lit up and Erika and I tried to hold back the laughter than was threatening to burst forth over this terribly cheesy turn of events.
After the music died down and the film ended, our guide returned.
“I hope you all enjoyed that musical analogy as much as I did,” he said very cheekily. Erika and I both laughed relieved that even the staff knew how bad it was.
We were told to place our tasting glasses on one of the five circles on the table in front of us to choose which type of whisky we wanted to taste. We could choose a single malt from one of the four regions discussed or a blend. I chose the Highlands and was poured some of the light gold liquid. Erika went with the Islay and she received a darker gold coloured pouring. We were told not to drink it all yet as we all rose and followed our guide into the next room.

We entered into a whisky lover’s paradise. The largest collection of Scotch Whiskey glowed from lit shelves and was reflected all around us by mirrors making the already large collection seem larger. We gathered around a table and our guide took as through the tasting process. How to hold our glasses to the light, take a sniff, and finally take a drink. Now, I am not one who likes to drink spirits. I remember a hard night many years ago in Atlantic City with some Ukrainian ballet dancers and a bottle of cognac that didn’t end well for my stomach. To me, all liquors just taste like fire. I prepared myself for the burn as I took my first sip. I wasn’t disappointed, that burny, alcohol flavour singed my tongue. What surprised me though was that I was actually able to taste some of the other flavours our guide had mentioned. I wandered about the collection and took very small sips. The more I drank it, the worse the burning became and eventually I began to feel a burning in my stomach, too. I managed to finish it and to be honest it was one of the more pleasant experiences with fire water I have had to date. Having learned about whisky, I’d be more likely to accept a sip if offered from a friend’s glass, but I’ll most likely stick to wine and cider.

Photograph by Erika Beth
We were given cardboard boxes to put our glasses in (yes, you keep your glass!) and we were taken into the bar area with some good views of the city. The sky had cleared even more and Erika and I were hoping it would last while we headed over to the Castle.
As in any good museum or experience we had to exit through the gift shop. The arrangement and layout reminded me so strongly of the Hershey’s Chocolate World gift shop that I am convinced they styled their attraction on that one. It was odd to have those childhood memories flood back to my brain as we took a gander at whisky themed pencil cases. Having found no suitable post cards to send to her friends, Erika and I left and heading next door to the Castle.
I was feeling really good. No I wasn’t drunk, but I was happy. Erika and I had just had a really great time learning about whisky and though it was very cold, we weren’t drenched. It was a bit unfortunate that we were at the Castle while they were building the stands for the Tattoo as the magnificent views of the city were obscured behind scaffolding and heavy vehicles.
We paid for our entry into Edinburgh Castle (no student discount!) and found a tour that was just leaving. I do recommend doing the tour. It isn’t thorough but they give you really good information and point out all of the buildings you should go into when it’s over. It’s the perfect way to get your bearings and the background on the events which took place there. Our guide was really lovely gentleman who told me how much he loved Durham Cathedral when I mentioned I was a student there. He began talking about his love for cities and I think I made his day when I introduced Erika as a New Yorker. He went on and on about how New York is his favourite city and how he goes there every year.
After our tour we decided to hit up the café for some much needed food and a hot beverage. The cool May air and the brisk breezes had left our extremities a bit numb. If you go to the Castle, you must have tea there. It was a really lovely experience. As we sipped our tea and warmed our hands, Erika and I began to talk about how much we were enjoying Edinburgh. Everyone we had met had been so nice and seemed genuinely interested in hearing about ourselves and what we thought of the UK. Even the guy at the luggage place had been warm and friendly. I couldn’t believe how happy I was feeling in Scotland. It just seemed a more open, friendly sort of place. I also couldn’t help but notice how much more international it felt. Our waiter was from Bulgaria, there were signs saying welcome is many different languages, people would ask us about the US and not with the sometimes mocking disdain and sometimes genuine disdain I had encountered in the past, it was with actual interest. It occurred to me then and there, Edinburgh is my favourite place we had been in the past five days. Sure London was amazing as always and Durham was home, but Edinburgh…Edinburgh was heaven.

Photograph by Erika Beth
We finished our tea and took our time wandering through the Castle. We saw the war memorial and looked through some of the remembrance books with the names of those who had died. We saw the Scottish Crown Jewels (they are older than the English ones as they had been hidden from Cromwell’s forces). We went through the Great Hall, St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building at the Castle), and looked at the remnants of David’s Tower where the black dinner had taken place. We also drank in the remarkable views of the city from the battlements. We looked across to Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh. Erika and I had decided to climb it on our second day.

Arthur’s Seat is the little bump on top of that rather large ridge in the distance.

“Dude, we’re climbing that tomorrow,” I said pointing out at the tall ridge in the distance.
“Yep,” said Erika.
We stayed at the Castle until it closed at six. Then we made our way along the Royal Mile. Erika had found us lodgings on AirBNB and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Lucky for us, the sun wasn’t due to set until 9:41pm. We still had plenty of daylight to get to our room, drop our stuff, and head out again to get some supper.
The neighbourhood where we were staying was quiet and tucked away from the busy Mile. It was close to Holyrood Palace and Arthur’s Seat so our next day’s expedition would be easily accessible. We relaxed for about an hour before Erika managed to convince me to get out of the nice, warm bed and go get some dinner. We ate at The Regent the local gay pub (which is also the coolest place in the world because they had dinosaurs in the windows.) Erika ordered the haggis and I opted for some mac and cheese. I had gotten chilled being atop Castle Rock and needed the comfort food feeling of hot macaroni and cheese. After a cider, we headed back to base, the sun still bright albeit lower in the sky. That night, I slept well.

30 May 2014 – Day Six – Edinburgh
We only had half a day left in the magnificent city of Edinburgh. I was due to catch a train at 1:00 from Waverly and Erika was continuing her European adventures in Norway. I tried not to think about saying goodbye. Instead I steadied myself and mentally prepared for the climb up Arthur’s Seat.
Now, I love hiking but I know that the last time I went back in the States I had been one of the slowest in the group. The uphill climbs had damn near killed me. Though all of the reviews of Arthur’s Seat had said it was an easy climb and only took about 45 minutes, I could not believe them. I had seen it after all and it looked like a daunting task. Nevertheless that was what we going to do that day. We packed up our backpacks and signed the guest book in the foyer of our lodgings before closing the door behind us.
It was a downhill walk to Holyrood Palace and across the street. I picked up a few maps of the trails from the kiosk in a nearby parking lot and then, we were off.
I cannot describe how beautiful a climb it is. Yellow gorse lines the hillsides and the green grass is punctuated by rocks and boulders. Scottish thistle springs from the ground and the morning sun casts soft shadows along the route. Truly it is remarkable. It is everything I love about hiking.

Photograph by Erika Beth
What’s more, I found the ascent to be a breeze. (I swear it must be the CrossFit.) Erika and I had done nothing but walk and climb for the entire six day trip and I was moving along the trail fairly easily, not getting too much out of breath. My muscles did not ache at all (save for my abs from Tuesday’s WOD). It was a truly pleasant experience and we were at the top in under an hour.

This is my favourite picture I took from the climb. Nope, I haven’t retouched the colours.
That’s just Scotland.
We stayed there for some time, taking pictures and mentally fixing the views into our brains. We were about to head down when Erika, ever the extravert struck up a conversation with a guy who had the same backpack as her. Turns out he was an American also named Andrew who was a student and a journalist. He was in Edinburgh for a month but a native of Florida. We all chatted together as we descended the mountain. It was a lovely conversation between world travellers, the kind I imagine happens frequently when you’re open to the world. When we reached Holyrood we shook hands and wished each other well.

We had two and a half hours to do the Palace before we needed to start our walk to the station. We purchased our tickets (which are good for a year if you get them stamped) and took up the free audio tour guides. It’s worth picking them up as it takes you through the rooms and provides you with some good information. Like most audio tours, the tracks can be a little long winded and at times I found myself cutting it short in favour of using my own eyes and reading my guidebook later.

My favourite rooms were Mary Queen of Scots chambers where her Italian secretary had been murdered by her jealous husband. They aren’t to be missed. The best parts of the Palace though were the Abbey ruins and the gardens. They are a must if you are there during the summer months and good weather. (Just a quick FYI: They have several ticket options and the way they are worded makes it sound like you can only do the gardens if you get the Royal Visit option which is £20. This is NOT true. You also get to tour the gardens if you buy the standard Palace of Holyrood ticket which is only £11 .)

After we finished our walk through the gardens, we grabbed a quick tea at the café. It was alright, but we had definitely enjoyed the tea at the Castle a little more. It was nearing the time when I’d have to say goodbye to my friend. I was feeling so sad about that. We had had the best of times over the past five and a half days and I wasn’t quite ready to go back to dismal Durham and back to the routine of grad school. I felt so energised and excited about the possibilities of traveling and seeing the world. I wished Erika could fit me into her suitcase and take me to Norway with her. We began the walk back to Waverly Station.
Erika picked up her suitcase and we wandered over to the departures board. My train was leaving in thirty minutes from platform nine. She took out her postcards which she had managed to find at one of the many Scottish souvenir stalls along the Royal Mile. We each wrote a message to a mutual friend back in the US before Erika sent them off to places far afield from that little red post box.

We began to walk toward platform 9 when Erika stopped and looked up at where the buses to the airport depart from.
“Is this where we part?” I asked.
“I think so,” she replied.
We spoke about the amazing time we had and the fact that we had travelled so well together. We promised to do more in the future. We hugged and then set off in different directions. I held back some tears as I marched through the station. Erika had reminded me how much I love travelling and how much I had grown to love the UK. The thought of leaving in September began to gnaw at me. Showing her around had been so much fun. I realised that this was because I was showing her my home and it had felt so much homier having her around.
I boarded my train. The bright sunlight filtered through the tinted glass. As the train began to pull away, I sighed heavily.

I have to plan more trips, I thought. I don’t want to lose this feeling I have right now. Then I smiled. I realised I had been having a string of what Erika would call “right here-right now moments.” Those were moments when there is no place or no time you’d rather be than where you are right now. 

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