By mid-October we were seeing more Christmas decorations than Halloween decorations in London, so rather than stay put for what was shaping up to be a rather lackluster All Hallows Eve in the city, we headed north. On Friday morning we hopped on a train at King’s Cross and rode it about four and a half hours until its final stop in a characteristically gray and rainy Edinburgh. After lunch in a tavern near the station to hide from the rain for a few minutes, we slogged across town to our hotel and, despite the best efforts of our jackets and umbrella, were thoroughly drenched when we arrived. We managed to wait out the rain and warm up a bit with a brief rest in the hotel, and were ready to start exploring.
Our first stop was an old cathedral only a block or two from the hotel. It was open to visitors, but we noticed there was a children’s string recital going on on the other side of the nave so we tried to keep quiet as we took a quick look around.
After which we made our way back towards the train station to the Royal Mile, an appropriately-named 1.1-mile stretch of road that connects the Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s home for one week in early summer. On and around the Mile, we got some great views of the Edinburgh Castle, stopped to listen to a man play the bagpipes (and felt like we were back at CMU) and took a stroll down Victoria Street, which was the inspiration for Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter books.
We capped off the day with a ghost tour, in which I became a semi-willing audience participant in a demonstration of how the Edinburgh mobs of old liked to torture traitors. Another audience member and I were instructed to place our hands on Mercat Cross, a stone structure that historically denoted the site of a medieval market, while we were (lightly, thankfully) flogged. The tour itself took us underground through the South Bridge Vaults, man-made stone caverns that became closed off when buildings were constructed on either side of the South Bridge, enclosing the pylons and the spaces in between. After the tour we ate a late dinner on a patio above Victoria Street, and headed to a different pub well-known for live music. There we got to listen to the Auld Reekie String Band (which was excellent) and meet the dog that apparently lives there (who was a very good boy).
The next morning we visited the Edinburgh Castle, which stands atop Castle Rock, an ancient volcano in the middle of the city. Parts of it date back to the eleventh century, and we were actually able to go inside buildings roughly 1,000 years old. In addition to some beautifully-restored royal apartments, we saw some fantastic views of the city and learned quite a bit about Scottish military history in the on-site museum.
From one volcano to another- after the castle, we trekked across town to Holyrood park (right next to the palace), home of Arthur’s Seat (named, some say, because it was the site of King Arthur’s Camelot), a second ancient volcano that towers above the city. On the way there, we stopped by the graveyard that J.K. Rowling supposedly drew inspiration from while coming up with names for characters in the Harry Potter books. Once at the park, we took advantage of the surprisingly sunny weather and climbed the volcano, which was a good decision because it would have been a muddy slip-and-slide on a rainy day. The hike itself wasn’t too long but the steep grade meant frequent breaks to stop and admire the view, which got better with each step. The final hundred feet were a rocky scramble that culminated in an incredible panoramic view of the entire city, along with the surrounding countryside and ocean. It was as beautiful as it was windy- Sara was convinced that if she wasn’t holding onto something she would fly away.
After a cab back to the hotel (you think we were about to walk all the way across town again after that climb?) and a brief rest, we headed over to the nearby area of Leith to check out a Halloween event Sara found at a pub. We made a quick stop for pizza, and found our way to the pub’s Halloween Pudding Fest (yep, great name), complete with ice cream, candy, and dessert beers, which ranged from lemon flavored (which was fantastic) to banana flavored (which was, well, can you imagine liquefying a half pint of banana runts?).
After the pudding fest was another ghost tour, this one a bit more historical than the last. It took us down the narrow underground path that was once Mary King’s Close. Closes were narrow roadways in the Edinburgh of old, that wound between buildings that stretched as many as fifteen stories tall. As a result, little sunlight made it to the streets below, and since then the closes were eventually covered to form the foundations of the buildings that make up Edinburgh today.
Sunday was a bit more subdued- it was a rainy day, so we opted to spend some time around the Royal Mile. We checked out a few shops, and eventually made our way down to the Queen’s palace of Holyroodhouse. We didn’t have tickets so we couldn’t go in, but that didn’t stop Sara from knocking on the door to see if anybody was home.
We also learned about Greyfirars Bobby, a dog whose loyalty earned him a statue. When his master died in the 1800s, he spent the remaining years of his life waiting on his grave, until he was finally buried just outside the same graveyard and a statue was cast and placed just around the corner.
Right before heading back to the hotel, we stopped by Deal Village, which, despite its proximity to the rest of the city, looks completely different- a lazy river winding through a quiet old town. We took a quick walk along the river before a quick ten-minute walk back to the hotel.
Finally, it was time for the main attraction, the reason we came to Edinburgh this weekend of all weekends- the Samhuinn Fire Festival. The festival starts with a parade through the streets of Edinburgh, down the Royal Mile towards Holyroodhouse. With acrobatics, drumming, and fire performance, it tells the ancient Celtic story of winter replacing summer through a confrontation between the respective kings of each season. The parade culminates in a closing ceremony near the palace (which we tried to watch from a nearby hill until a cop had us get down). The ceremony ended quietly, which came as a surprise but made sense as it symbolized the transition from a carefree summer into a cold and careful winter.
Return to London
We were up early the next morning for a train ride back to London. About halfway back, the train slowed and the conductor announced that because the horn was broken, they couldn’t travel faster than 20 MPH, which would delay the train until they could fix it. About a half hour later, they announced that the remaining stops would be cancelled, and we all had to disembark early. Thankfully another train was waiting at the station, so all in all we only got to King’s Cross about an hour late, from where I walked to my Jeweller’s school and Sara headed back to the apartment to get some work done (and start thinking about the next trip!).