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Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Because Jon and I rarely travel outside of London to see the rest of the UK, we’ve designated this summer the Summer of Britain (catchy, no?). As part of this exciting series, Jon and I spent 36 hours in Edinburgh this past weekend.

It’s a one-hour flight from London to Edinburgh, and the Edinburgh airport is just a 30-minute, £3 bus ride into the city centre. (Due to a forgot-our-passports- in-the- hotel-safe incident, we also discovered that it’s a 15-minute, £25 taxi ride into the city centre. Those of you who know me well understand how much it kills me to take a taxi, so clearly this was an incident of emergency proportions.)

Edinburgh, like many European cities, has an Old Town and a New Town. Everything is relative, of course, and the “New” Town is a youthful 300 years old, whereas the Old Town dates back to the 11th century, when Edinburgh Castle (see photo at top of this post) was built.

Because most of the interesting restaurants and shops we’d researched are located in the New Town, I prefer it to the Old Town, even though the Castle and the Royal Mile (i.e., the Big Tourist Attractions) are in the Old Town.

Our weekend was a relaxing mix of eating and walking around, with a Castle thrown in. In many ways, Edinburgh is like London Lite. There are the same restaurant and shop chains; same currency; same language. But of course there are also “we are a separate country” quirks. The currency may be the Great British Pound, but local banks print their own legal tender “Scottish Pound” notes. Scots speak, you know, Scots. Pub chalkboards advertise “haggis, neeps and tatties” instead of fish and chips. The list of these small differences is endless, and the gist is that I can see why Scots still believe they live in a separate country.

Le Monde Hotel, Milan Bar, EdinburghJon and I stayed in a boutique hotel called Le Monde, which is in the New Town. You couldn’t beat the location on George Street, close to Multrees Walk (yay Harvey Nicks!) and a 10-minute walk from the Castle, and you certainly couldn’t beat the service and style.

Even after we’d booked at Le Monde because of rave reviews on TripAdvisor, we were a little concerned about the hotel’s “around the world” theme (i.e., there are 18 rooms, each named after and decorated in the style of a different world city). But I forgave any cheesiness immediately upon sinking into our room’s feather bed and turning on the giant flat screen TV. And of course I have to mention that the hotel was incredibly helpful when we realized we’d left our passports in the room safe. Two thumbs up.

Anyway, on to Things to Do and Things to Eat:

Thinking that most shops would be closed on a Sunday, we decided to “save” the obligatory Edinburgh Castle visit for Sunday, so we spent Saturday exploring Old Town and the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market.

The Crisp Hut, Edinburgh Farmer’s Market

First, the Farmer’s Market. It’s a 100-yard lineup of uniform-looking stalls on a road below Edinburgh Castle called “Castle Terrace.” I was disappointed that there wasn’t much produce on offer. It is summertime, after all. And while the uniform awnings keep the market tidy-looking, it seems wrong to have a farmer’s market look so antiseptic. But I perked up when I saw “the Crisp Hut.” My kind of vendor. Freshly-fried potato chips flavoured any way you like for £2 a bag. Most excellent. I think every farmer’s market should have one!

Second, the Royal Mile. The main Old Town drag is the Royal Mile, which was built 900 years ago to connect Holyrood House (the Queen’s stopover when she travels from Windsor to Balmoral castles) and the Edinburgh Castle (among other things, the birthplace of King James I).

If you’re thinking the Royal Mile is a tasteful, sedate little road, you’re sadly mistaken. Although the road is cobblestone and lined with imposing stone buildings, it’s chock a block with tourist traps and souvenir shops. Take, for example, the “Scotch Whisky Experience,” where, for £9, you can get in a plastic barrel ride that takes you through the history of whisky making through the ages. Hmm, no thanks.

Up the street from the Whisky Experience, Jon and I ducked past the Bravehart look-alike (you know, you snap a photo and then you give him a pound for the privilege) and into one building that advertised demonstrations of Scottish wool making. As we suspected, the place was a most entertaining example of tourist retail masquerading as an educational experience.

Creepy Kilt Mannequins, Edinburgh

I followed a path designated by arrows through racks of overpriced wool and cashmere goods (many in plaid, obviously), and every now and then, I’d pass a scary plastic mannequin posed over an old-fashioned loom (the “educational” part, I suppose). By staying on the path, I eventually hit the tourist schlock jackpot: for just £20, you could have your photo taken in “ancient Scottish costume,” and if you opted out, you were still in for a treat because the nook behind the photo studio included a “history of kilts” exhibition that consisted of the world’s scariest-looking mannequins in variations of the kilt through time.

I honestly enjoyed all the unadulterated schlock in the Old Town. Even the Castle, while impressive and historic, had its moments, particularly when the audiotour got in on the act. The narrator informed me that in addition to the Castle’s role in the drama triangle of Mary Queen of ScotsElizabeth IJames I, there were many locations within the Castle walls where I might pick up a Castle souvenir.

I mean, we’re not talking about one tourist shop housed in converted stables (as is usual at castles, it seems). We’re talking about a tourist shop located in seemingly every free-standing building throughout the castle grounds. How many key chains, cheap scotch whisky and shortbread can one tourist site push? Tons, I guess.

The one last thing I’ll add about the Castle is how dinky the Scottish Honour (i.e., the Scottish Crown Jewels) are. If you’ve seen the stash at the Tower of London, you’ll understand the disappointment of seeing a single crown with pearls (we all know pearls ain’t no diamonds on the bling scale) and a necklace or two.

In any case, the Castle was definitely the highlight in terms of big “sights” in Edinburgh, and otherwise, Jon and I did a lot of wandering down small alleys between buildings (called “closes”) and shopped at the same shops that are in London.

Which brings me to my favorite activity, of course: Eating.

Generally, service was friendly and attentive at every place we ate in Edinburgh. Food was good only when we stuck with seafood. Otherwise, I’d say most dishes sounded a lot nicer on the menu than they tasted.

We have to admit, we were a little too London-centric and couldn’t conceive of having to make any reservations in advance, but trying to get reservations at Martin Wishart taught us a lesson: there are, in fact, highly-reputable Edinburgh restos that require advance booking.

Centotre Restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland

Centotre is an Italian place we tried because it’s housed in a converted bank, and I love those kinds of places. Remember the Blue Water Grill? I’m never disappointed by the high ceilings, the dramatic dome, the vaguely neoclassical look inside. Centotre had all these, but the greenish lighting kind of threw me, as did the generic-looking hangings that looked like the sort of thing a museum would hang to advertise its latest exhibition.

The food at Centotre was, overall, not worth the prices (which weren’t even high). Jon’s polpette (i.e., meatballs) were dry and flavourless in a way that no amount of overly-acidic tomato sauce could mask. And the Manzoni Moscato rose prosecco was digustingly syrupy despite the menu description that it’d be “medium dry.” At £5.50 a glass, we were outraged. (OK, fine, our fault for thinking a rose prosecco might be good, but I suppose we were spoiled by all our fantastic rose champagnes in France).

The only high point in our £80 meal at Centotre was my spaghetti alle vongole. I’ve never eaten such plump, juicy clams, which tipped us off to the idea that we should stick with seafood in Edinburgh.

Fishers in the City restaurant, Edinburgh, Scotland

Our stand-out meal of the weekend was lunch at Fisher’s in the City. Seafood, of course. A nice, casual-elegant interior. Fresh seafood well prepared at good prices (£12-20 per main course). Nothing super creative, but I don’t think you need to be creative when creamy fish chowder is surprisingly light and flavourful and a gazllion steamed mussels arrive with nary a closed shell in sight. And service was incredibly friendly and attentive, which is a real treat in the UK.

Other places that seemed worth stopping by for a good snack or a quick lunch:

Valvona & Crolla, a Dean & Deluca-type place located on Multree’s Walk, was perfect for delicious pastries and strong cappuccinos when we got tired of shopping. Multree’s Walk is a new-looking open-air shopping complex that’s anchored by Louis Vouie and Harvey Nicks, so I’m not surprised Valvona & Crolla includes both a sophisticated café downstairs and a fancier restaurant upstairs. The owners also own Centotre.

Has Beans Cafe, Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Has Beans Café is a cheerful, crunchy-looking (think whimsical, mismatched teapots for décor) organic place on the Royal Mile. It was the least touristy place we could find when looking for a lunch break. Wraps and sandwiches for £3-5, but what stole the show for me was a delicious lentil soup.

Overall, Edinburgh was a small, pretty city, but I don’t think I’d make it another destination trip unless it’s time for the Festival. Its charms (history, scenic streets, a few nice restaurants and cafes) are ones I can also find in London, but I do think the place would make an excellent home base for exploring what I hear is the gorgeous surrounding countryside.

29 July 2007 Update: Check out this weekend’s New York Times Travel section article, “36 Hours in Edinburgh.” I agree that George Street is the place to be and that the Castle is worth a visit, and that’s all the overlap we have.

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