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Unexpected Edinburgh

As a card-carrying, belt-and-braces uber-planner, I find it almost impossible (well, discomforting, anyway) to wing it when travelling. I like to know where I will be, what there is to see (and when) and a dozen other details.

However, on a recent trip to Scotland's capital, I discovered it was not such a bad thing to go unscripted occasionally. It challenged us to explore and allowed chances of serendipitous meetings such as with this fellow - none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, surely someone with a clue or two of his own.

We bumped into him on Edinburgh's Royal Mile as we slowly made our way up High Street, joined, it seemed by the residents of all of Edinburgh and half of the rest of Scotland too!

You see, we had been so intent on coordinating our trip to meet up with family members who were also travelling, that we overlooked entirely (yes, I know, how could we?) that Edinburgh would be in the midst of its biggest annual celebration

August is THE month to visit Edinburgh. This was Surprise #1 but there were many more to come. There is the Edinburgh International Festival, the Festival Fringe (which has become a template for other such festivities around the world) and at night, the famous Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held Monday to Saturday in the forecourt of the Edinburgh Castle.

 
These festivities certainly brighten up Edinburgh, a city which might otherwise appear as prim and grim and grey. Not in August!
 
 
It seems everyone wants to get in on the action. There are special events, special menus, art exhibitions, musical performances, dance and drama. For a month, this old town becomes a stage and everyone is invited to become part of its enormous cast of players.
 

Even the timing is right as the late-summer sunshine makes dining on the street under baskets of flowers the obvious choice.

Everywhere there are volunteers, which we guess are students on holiday from school or university, on hand to slap up the day's new attractions. Theatres around the town are easily identifiable by long queues of people waiting for entry to one of the events, and a common opening question when you meet someone is: "How many shows have you seen?"

We soon realised how privileged we were to be seeing Edinburgh this way - relaxed, fun-loving and having the best time all year. If you think this fellow is a little over-dressed, he was just one of dozens we encountered in the mile-long walk to the castle. 

CLICK ON GORDON'S VIDEO (below) TO SEE MUCH MORE:

See Gordon's video of Edinburgh at end of this post

Of course the only place that could tempt me away from all the fun in the street was a brief detour into Taste of Scotland a tasty spot tucked in between shops selling tartan kilts and cashmere on High Street.

An assistant at the door was handing out samples of fudge and chocolate - including this 'had to happen' version. Before you groan loudly, read the fine print. The chocolate has haggis spices only added giving it a sort of fruitcake flavour. No meat.

In the same shop we discovered the ideal souvenir for GOT lovers. 

Military Tattoo fans may recognise the seating here behind the ice cream van. Empty by day, the crowds begin to line up with their tickets from late afternoon. For now, I was happy to line up for this treat.

The Scots seem to be a nation of ice cream lovers and this rather strangely-named shop looked tempting. It was a 'wee' (small) shop too, but the servings were large.

Although there are many places selling traditional Scottish dishes in the town, this was voted 'best meal' by our group. Burgers have become popular here and you can see why.

Lured by the claim of 'proper burgers' we were not disappointed. The company, Byron, proudly uses 'properly-sourced' British beef, and has many branches throughout the UK.

In the New Town's theatre district, the gardeners have been so enthusiastic with their plantings at this pub, that it was almost difficult to see where we were eating at one night. Still, it is here  that I muster the courage to order haggis, buttered neeps and tatties. Translation: a quenelle of spiced minced meat cooked in a sheep's stomach, buttered turnips and potatoes. Despite my fears (Surprise #2) this traditional dish was very good and I could understand why it also appeared around town as haggis spring rolls and wontons on more contemporary menus.

 

Scotland's seafood is legendary. The chilly northern oceans and clean rivers provide an abundance  of some of the world's best fish and crustaceans. At Loch Fyne Seafood & Grill restaurant in Leith north of the city, on the Firth of Forth, we discovered this place, which not only is a very popular restaurant but also had counters where you could buy absolutely fresh seafood for your next meal.

This mix of cooked and fresh could be surprising except this concept was created by oyster-farmers turned restaurateurs, Johnny Noble and Andy Lane, and this is just one of many Loch Fyne restaurants throughout Scotland.

The food was magnificent, and this dish was probably  ordered mainly because of its crowning component - a  crispy poached egg - which was the perfect foil for Loch Fyne smoked haddock, chargrilled creamed leeks and wholegrain mustard mash.

Surprise #3 was definitely the high level of dining in the city. The more we explored, the more we discovered, and we realised it would need weeks to fully eat our way around the best  places. Next time!

Read more about the 2016 Edinburgh Restaurant Festival....

Day One in Edinburgh I wondered out loud if there would be any good cafes in town. I was worried it might still be all about mugs of tea. And then we stumbled over this, and I knew immediately that help was at hand for our caffeine-needs!

Machina Espresso was just up the street - modern, clean, great coffee and served goats cheese baguettes! YES!! 

At this cafe, Lovecrumbs, we picked up a map showing many 'indie' cafes in Edinburgh, of which this is one. Here, our very good flat white coffees - we were pleased to see the Australian version has well and truly reached Great Britain - arrived sans saucers, and our ultra-relaxed waitress pulled out a chair and sat down with us while she took our lunch orders. 

It's a cool and vibey place with a very strong following  of cake-lovers, as you'd imagine. A good dozen freshly made cakes like these were on display, begging to be consumed.

But this light and pretty dish of petal-strewn fresh peaches, golden beetroot and mascarpone caught our attention.

There was no time to coffee-drink our way around Edinburgh either, but New Town Deli...

...with a flat white again, was one we would return to. Mention should be made of Cafe Marlayne in Antigua Street in the New Town area, which also became part of our regular morning coffee run.

The decor may be shabby chic at Artisan Roast, but the outstanding double-shot coffee, and tiny outdoor area is classy. These life-saving places became Surprise #4.

Edinburgh's New Town designed and built between the mid-18th and 19th centuries, is hardly new any more. Depite its heritage-listed buildings, there is a upbeat feel to the area and a wide range of cuisines - Indian, Turkish, Thai, pizza, Italian - making it as popular with tourists as it is with the trendy locals who call this place home.

The area is also the birthplace of Sherlock's creator: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, honoured by this statue.

A nearby pub is dedicated to him, and so we ate there  one night. Unlike his books there is no mystery as to why this is a popular watering hole.

One of a chain of affiliated hotels it serves the right sort of pub-grub at good prices in a friendly ambience. Watch the screen on the wall for sport if you like, belly up to the bar, or take  a table and relax for hours with an ale and perhaps bangers and mash or a shepherd's pie and watch the world go by outside on York Place.

GET IN THE MOOD with this video:   

 

Surprise #5 was how popular Edinburgh is with tourists. While of course I would have expected history-buffs and gallery-lovers to find the wealth of old buildings, museums and historic places a drawcard, most of the tourists we saw seemed to have come for a good time. It was playtime in the city, and they were there with friends and families to soak up the sunshine, hit the bars and dance until dawn.

I promised the seller of these sturdy bags I would feature them on this page, so I hope he reads this. He was doing a roaring trade and all round town I saw them in good use carrying shopping and lunches.

If I thought that traditional Scotland had caved in to 21st-century trends, Surprise #6 was that it certainly has not. The soundtrack of the city (at least in Festival month) was the forlorn wail of bagpipes, played by people of all ages. A strangely difficult and improbable instrument, it is at its best played outdoors. This gentleman playing near Waverley Bridge not only looked the part but was versatile too. Catching our accents he immediately swung into Advance Australia Fair!

Nearby, is the Scott Monument, a striking sixty-one-metre gothic landmark, a memorial to Sir Walter Scott, regarded as the greatest writer of his day. For an entrance fee, you may climb up 287 twisting stone stairs until you reach one of Edinburgh's best vantage points for a view of the city.

Surely this must be the world's largest tribute to a writer. Was there just a drop of sour grapes from contemporary authors Robert Louis Stevenson, who described the monument as 'among the vilest of men's work', or Charles Dickens, who stated 'it is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground'?

'Auld Reekie' was once the name for Edinburgh because of the smoke (reek) from coal fires that were needed to heat the buildings. Now, on a clear day you can see the Firth of Forth at Leith to the north, or the hills surrounding the city to the west.

At ground level again, next to the Festival Wheel (which only gets used during August and around Christmas) it is obvious that the national obsession with fish and chips is alive and well, although it is clear that Indian cuisine has made definite inroads on many menus.

Edinburgh is a great city for walking. Good cardio exercise, especially when some of the 'walking' involves flights of ancient stairs (even better cardio workout). Accessing the main streets from Queen Street Gardens and Princes Street involves climbing steep hills and passing through a maze of narrow medieval lanes.

While much of Edinburgh's building facades remain a sensible grey, Victoria Street has splashed some colour around and there is a continental feel to this end, near Grassmarket. 

Beyond cafes, butchers and pubs, at number 32 we found this place: Demijohnaptly named for its fine distillations. It calls itself the 'world's first liquid deli' and getting in the spirit of it, we sampled a walnut liqueur with an interesting clove flavour, then an excellent limoncello, watching other customers having bottles filled with their liquor of choice. If only we'd had unlimited baggage weight!

For a couple of nights we stayed in Scott House, a luxury bed-and breakfast which, at the end of the trip we chose as serving the best breakfast of the trip. Just look at the range of offerings, on the buffet in addition to a full cooked Scottish breakfast!

I make no apologies if this visit to Edinburgh seems food-biased! That's because, after several years since our last visit, there seems to have been an explosion of interest in fine food, and cookery. Cookery schools abound too.

Sure, there are still fried Mars Bars, deep-fried haggis and chip-butties to be had. 'Toasties' - toasted sandwiches, sometimes sealed closed like jaffles - seem all the rage too, and chips turn up with most pub meals.

Valvona & Crolla in the New Town area, north of the Old Town, has proof that it has been leading that revival for many decades. 

Step inside and you could feel like tou have been transported to the Continent. If you were a local, the cheese counter alone would take weeks to work through, and the range of fresh fruit and vegetables is world-class. For those like us, just passing through, the Ristorante and Vincaffe at the back was the ideal place to sample some of the products.

A few blocks away, in yet another street brimming with dining options, was this winner of baking awards for many years.

It's still early in the day, but the empty baskets and spaces on the display shelves show how popular this is with locals who obviously come early to get their favourite baked goods. I relieved them of that last raisin snail you see there, and it was....... deliciously award-winning. Surprise #7 has to be that good food is not only in restaurants but available for home cooks and as takeaway.

This wide open space in such a densely packed city was certainly a surprise to me. Even though I have visited Edinburgh several times, never have we taken the time to visit Arthur's Seat. I had certainly seen it from a distance, that imposing grassy cliff adjoining the rocky prominence of Castle Rock, the foundation of Edinburgh Castle.

The large area of Holyrood Park encompasses the palace, well worth a visit too, but has so much more that requires no entrance fee at all and offers opportunities for fresh air and exercise and some of the best views of the city and surrounding areas.

There is something for everyone here - photographers, children, cyclists....

...dog walkers, strollers. And hikers - just look at those people all over the mountain!

There below us is the castle, solid and secure as it has been for nine centuries. The spires and domes, and the city old and new, spreads out below. That such calm and tranquility exists so close to a town full of hectic celebrations was Surprise #8.

The symbol of Scotland is the thistle. This may seem a strange emblem: a weed, and a prickly one at that, and not good for grazing animals.

See why the Scots love it... 

 

+++++

Finally time to leave the city, we made a side trip to the small village of Carlops, just 12 miles (half an hour's drive) from the centre of Edinburgh. To be honest we hadn't planned on visiting this hotel. Looking for directions we had stumbled upon this fascinating place and met a cheery publican who pulled us a beer and shared the pub's history with us, over a bar-top with hundreds of pre-decimal coins glued to it.

The hotel is named in honour of the 17th-century Scots poet Allan Ramsay whose many literary works celebrated the rural life of the area. There is a link to witches in the area too, as some of the paintings on the dining room walls show. 

 

Our real mission in the area had been to find some heeland koos, as the locals pronounce them. These Highland cows are fine examples, even though they are well south of the Scottish Highlands. Call them Surprise #9.

We found them in a nearby field, munching in the mist, and it was hard to tell if they could even see us through all of that orange hair. Even though they seemed benign, those Viking horns were enough to deter us from hopping over the fence and saying hello. 

All good things come to an end, so after about a week in Edinburgh, we turned the car towards England, but not before we included one final detour. The Firth of Forth extends inland for many kilometres from the North Sea.

We decided to follow the coast eastwards and discovered our final surprise, #10. When people talk about beaches, Scotland is usually not mentioned. The East Lothian coast, however, is home to several holiday spots and swimming beaches, so we decide to let go of Scotland slowly. Above is Portobello beach, which like most we were to see has large tide levels and needs piers to reach over mudflats, far into the water. The bonus is that the sands are golden, clean and firm. 

We found Musselburgh a little stonier, then slowly continuing eastwards we looked at several more towns, many very small. Prestonpans had murals and tapestry, Longniddry welcomes birdwatchers, Gullane  was a venue for the Scottish Open, and Dirleton had wind farms. Most seemed to have cramped High streets and Chinese takeaway shops, although we knew there were castles and museums too that would have been worth seeing if there had been time.

Then we arrived in North Berwick. a popular tourist place with a sign announcing it was a recent winner of Britain in Bloom. Its name confused us a little. Our trip would later take us through Berwick-on-Tweed in England, but there seems no connection.

It was lunchtime, though, and we had come to the right place. After bypassing the ubiquitous shops that were frying anything they could lay their hands on, we discovered this gem on the cobbled main street.

Bostock Bakery, run by a young couple who are proud of the fact that everything offered is made by the bakery. There were racks, diminished by early buyers, holding still just a few remaining loaves, and a rustic sideboard displayed cakes and biscuits.

We needed lunch, and this was perfect - fresh, wholesome and delicious.

Those in the know come to North Berwick for these beauties, which we saw being unloaded, ready to be transferred to a restaurant just metres away.

At the Lobster Hatchery visitors can see the whole process of how these delicious creatures are raised and nurtured to juvenile size, ready for release into the sea.

Of course for those who wish to fast-track their experience, just nearby is the place where you can order a half lobster or a lobster roll and then sit down in the sunshine and enjoy all the briny scents of the ocean as you eat. Once you have reached this point, the water you are looking at across the wall is the North Sea.

To learn more about the area and its wildlife you must visit the Scottish Seabird Centre, filled with informative exhibits.

 Souvenirs too, of course, if you need a stuffed puffin, or a mug with seagulls on it to take home!

Before you leave, don't overlook this lonely little fellow gazing out to sea. What is he looking at? Some say he is watching the island  referred to locally Stevenson's Island. Some say it is this rocky prominence, Fidra, in the Firth of Forth, where Robert Louis Stevenson spent many childhood holidays that became, years later, his vision of an island far away in tropical waters - Treasure Island.

All trips to the seaside should end with an ice cream! Right? And if you are going to indulge, why not with one that has a slew of gold medals to its name?

This, then, was our delicious farewell taste of Scotland.

The flavours? Somehow they seemed appropriate: Belgian chocolate and Turkish delight.

+++++ 

 

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Words: ©Sally Hammond 

Photographs: ©Sally & Gordon Hammond 

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 

 

 

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