Culture, kilts and culinary treats: Edinburgh has something for art lovers, fashion aficionados and gourmets alike. Scotland’s capital is a treat for all the senses.
The last time I visited Scotland, I was highly pregnant, which meant: no Scottish beer and none of the famous whisky for me (by the way: the correct spelling is "whisky". If spelled "whiskey", the beverage is from Ireland). So I am definitely up for some beer and whisky tasting on this trip.
I start with a glass of champagne at the venerable "Balmoral" hotel situated in the heart of the city. "The Balmoral" is regal looking from the outside and features an equally regal and timelessly elegant interior with thick carpets and comfy armchairs. It is the perfect place to get into the groove of this city so steeped in history. But, in fact, I shall stay at the more affordable "Motel One" which has a modern interior and is, most importantly, brilliantly situated – a key requirement on a city trip.
I choose to eat dinner at the "One Square" bar and restaurant in the Sheraton Grand Hotel. Instead of serving regular aperitifs, this modern and comfortable bar offers sampling, not of beer or whisky, but of gin! Indeed, gin distilling boasts a long tradition in Scotland, though its booming renaissance is fairly recent. A good seventy per cent of gin produced in the UK is from Scotland, and the distilleries are shooting up like mushrooms. I cautiously sample my way through the various gins. Since I have not yet eaten, a drop too many could have highly undesirable consequences! I have soon made out my favourite: Pickering’s Gin produced by a 150-year old distillery in Edinburgh.
Now I really must get some food in my stomach. At the "One Square" restaurant, the menu promises Scottish specialities, which triggers a sense of unease within me. Could this mean I will be served THE speciality Scotland is known for, i.e. haggis? Haggis is sheep’s stomach filled with sheep’s pluck. Though not a fussy eater, I hope tonight’s menu has something more to offer than sheep offal. And indeed it does: I dine on Crab Cake, Lamb Wellington and a dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce served with the traditional After Eight mint chocolate. Simply delicious!
A wealth of history and culture
The day ends with a time travel back to the seventeenth century. The medieval Mary King’s Close is one of Edinburgh‘s most popular sights. Several centuries ago, the Close was a regular street set between multi-storeyed buildings, which is why living in the Close felt like being in a subterranean world. In those days, Mary King’s Close was rife with rumours of murders, ghosts and inexplicable events. It is assumed that the gas from the highly polluted "Nor Loch" ("loch" is a small lake) nearby permeated the street and caused luminary effects and hallucinations – which would explain the alleged spookiness. Nowadays, the Close is visited by tourists who learn what life was like in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. A fantastic spectacle provided by guides who possess great acting talent. Their historical tales send chills down their listeners’ spines and conjure up fears that the wax figures on display will spring to life.
The morning of my second day in Edinburgh is dedicated to culture. The National Museum of Scotland leads visitors on a journey through Scottish history, focusing on the country, the people and the culture. I am particularly fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart, who reigned over Scotland in the sixteenth century. Mary was just six days old when her father died and she inherited his throne. By marriage to King Francis II, she also became queen consort of France. Widowed, she returned to Scotland aged seventeen. Throughout her life, she was the toughest adversary of the English Queen Elisabeth I, who ultimately accused her of high treason and had her executed. I spend the second half of my cultural morning in the Scottish National Gallery. The three buildings in the centre of Edinburgh host everything that Scottish local art has to offer, ranging from the Portrait Gallery to Modern Art. I especially like the paintings of Scottish artist Joan Eardley who became popular after the Second World War. One of her preferred motifs were street children in the city of Glasgow
What do Scotsmen wear under their kilts?
My after-lunch programme is something I include and enjoy on every city trip: shopping! While I rarely hit the shops in my home country (Switzerland), I tend to go a little over the top when abroad. In fact, on several past occasions, I have had to purchase an additional suitcase to carry my "trophies" home in… Whereas the centre of Edinburgh houses well-known stores like Primark and Topshop, Thistle Street is far more interesting and features local designers and shops. My undisputed highlight on my shopping tour is a visit to kilt maker Howie Nicholsby of "21st Century Kilts". Howie makes every imaginable design of the famous men’s skirt – from traditional to very modern. He also creates kilts for women. The walls of his shop are plastered with photographs of famous people clad in his kilts, including: musician Lenny Kravitz and actor Vin Diesel in a leather kilt and Princess Charlène of Monaco in a long, beautiful ladies’ kilt. Since I am unlikely to ever have the opportunity to wear a kilt at home, I reluctantly decide against a purchase. But I still need to ask Howie a question – one he probably gets asked some fifty times a day: "Do you wear any undergarments under your kilt?" He grins. "Yes. Since I am always dressed in a kilt and never wear trousers, I would be ill all the time if I went without." Men who wear kilts for special occasions only are free to be "with" or "without" anything under their skirt.
After a brief browse through some boutiques –and, no, I won’t need to purchase an additional suitcase this time– I make my way to the beer brewers "Innis & Gunn" where beer can be sampled alongside a four-course meal. The truth is, I know nothing about beer. But I do find the names ("Rum Finish", "Toasted Oak" and "Malt Whisky Trail") very intriguing. And, thanks to a few drinking games, the evening turns out to be more fun than expected – even for people like me who don’t really drink beer. Fortunately, I should add, as there is no risk of overdoing it and suffering from a next-day hangover.
A very special whisky experience
I still have a "must-do" item on my Edinburgh discovery tour list: Edinburgh Castle. Perched majestically above the city, the view from the fortress, across the rooftops to the sea, is simply breathtaking. Visitors wanting to see the castle’s most important exhibition piece –the Scottish crown jewels– must be prepared to queue. But it is definitely worth the effort, as the regal crown, sword and sceptre figure among the oldest such pieces in the world. After visiting the castle, a stroll along the Royal Mile is to be recommended. It leads from the castle to Holyrood Palace, which is the official residence of Queen Elisabeth II in Scotland. The Royal Mile is like a beehive, with shops, bars and restaurants lining the streets and buskers and bagpipe players entertaining the many visitors.
And then the time has come for my eagerly anticipated whisky tour – nota bene in the early afternoon! "The Scotch Whisky Experience Tour" is truly unique. During the ghost train-like ride in replicated whisky barrels through a number of rooms we learn about the history of Scotland’s liquid gold. And of course we also get to sample some whisky. The choice is huge – ranging from soft and velvety to so smoky every sip feels like one’s throat is on fire. Almost all of the whiskies are single malt, which means they are from a single distillery and not mixed. On principle, whiskies from the Lowlands –in southern Scotland– tend to be mild, whereas those from the Highlands, in the north, are more likely full-bodied. I decide to buy a bottle of the classic "Glenkinchie" as this is a pretty safe choice. I still have one "must do" item to tick off my list: a Scottish pub crawl, also known as pub hopping. But after my mid-afternoon whisky sampling, I am more inclined to favour my hotel bed. Though there is one pub I cannot miss: "Elephant House" where bestseller author J.K. Rowling wrote a big part of her Harry-Potter novels. A fact that is prominently advertised by this otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill pub with a sign that reads "Home of Harry Potter". I take a quick peep inside and then detect a large sign in front of another pub nearby: "J.K. Rowling never wrote anything here." That is Scottish humour for you – and definitely my cup of tea! Before returning to the hotel, I treat myself to a small whisky in that pub, the name of which I regrettably cannot recall. Memory loss happens to be a common aftereffect of "real" pub crawls. So although my "crawl" consisted of just one and a half pubs (the "Elephant House" does not really count), at least I got the ending right. Now I can say with confidence that I completed all of the Edinburgh "must dos", in the cultural as well as in the culinary domain.
Three Edinburgh Tips
The Real Mary King’s Close: A real goose bump experience, especially in the evening. A guided tour is a must – and a great way to learn about seventeenth-century Edinburgh. (2 Warriston’s Close, High Street, Edinburgh, ww.realmarykingsclose.com)
21st Century Kilts: Howie Nicholsby makes the nicest kilts in Edinburgh, and they are worn by everyone: men, women, rock stars and royalty. A look inside Howie’s shop and over his shoulder is worth it! (48 Thistle Street, New Town, Edinburgh, www.21stcenturykilts.com)
The Scotch Whisky Experience Tour: A unique journey through the history of Scotland’s liquid gold and a selection that impresses even the most seasoned whisky connoisseurs. (354 Castlehill, Edinburgh, www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk)