In the previous installment of my adventures in the UK, my mom and I had just taken the night bus from London to Edinburgh. As we approached Edinburgh, the rising sun in the curtained windows of the bus revealed black outlines of windswept lowland trees and foothills. Soon, we were hurtling through the empty streets of grey, early-morning Edinburgh and pulling into the bus station.
Arriving in London, I knew what I would find. Having read and seen so much about the city in my favorite books, movies, and television shows, even memorizing as much of the city map as I could, I felt like I was stepping into a familiar place, where I could spot friendly reminders of the great stories and people who had shaped its famed streets. Edinburgh, in contrast, was like a wonderful, friendly, and surprising stranger. Though I thought I knew a bit about Edinburgh from classes on Scottish culture I had taken and from many stunning photos of the town’s unique architecture, I had no idea it would be so beautiful, so absolutely enchanting.
As we tried to find a cab to get to our hotel, I was next to useless in helping my mom figure out which way we needed to go because I was too busy falling in love with every doorway we passed, a trend which continued for the next 48 hours we were there. After resting at the hotel, we did some practical shopping for my new flat, stopping at “T.K. Maxx” (perhaps the strangest difference between the US and UK, here T.J. Maxx is T.K. Maxx. Does K refer to a different middle name than J? I don’t understand.)
By mid morning, we boarded a double-decker bus tour to go to the stretch of High Street leading up to Edinburgh Castle known as the Royal Mile where we had booked a walking tour. Of course, we got off at the first available Starbucks for my mom’s morning mocha and some brunch. Even the two Starbucks shops on the Royal Mile were more charmingly antique than one could have anticipated!
Edinburgh contains two distinct historic areas, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Old Town and New Town. The medieval Old Town is home to the Royal Mile and the Castle, while the New Town is a masterpiece of Georgian city planning containing many stunning cultural landmarks and museums. As with any city, Edinburgh is not merely a pretty face. It holds innumerable secrets nestled into its history like the cobblestone pathways of the narrow alleyways darting off of High Street known as closes. What a blessing it is that the medieval streets of Edinburgh were not ravaged by bombs and fire as those of London were.
Our walking tour took us up the Royal Mile by the homes of ill-fated plotters of medieval assassinations and the apartments of the brightest figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and finally up to the gates of the castle. Edinburgh Castle is not, as one might expect, a cohesive fortress constructed at one time and preserved ever since; rather, it is a grouping of very different buildings representing various period’s of Scotland’s history encircled by an iconic medieval wall. The oldest building in the complex, and in fact the whole city, is the Chapel of St Margaret, built by her son King David I. In another quarter, one finds the small palace where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI, who would become James I of England. In yet another space, a peaceful chapel pays tribute to the Scottish forces who fought in the World Wars. Like the whole city, the castle is a physical record of the story of a nation, in times of war and peace, strength, joy, and even danger.
Our second day in Edinburgh, we took our double-decker bus tour into New Town. In stark contrast to the Old Town, New Town’s streets are wide and planned with a very regulated geometry. Here, one sees the towering Scott Monument, a monument to the author Sir Walter Scott, which happens to be the world’s largest monument to an author. Driving on, we passed another literary site, the Balmoral Hotel, where JK Rowling stayed while finishing the final Harry Potter book.
Rowling lived in Edinburgh while writing all seven Harry Potter books, and spent a good deal of time writing in the Elephant House Cafe, where my mom and I went for lunch. The line was rather long—Potter fans of course—and I can’t say the food was very impressive, but the view from Rowling’s favorite corner showed exactly why she had come here. In the window from the back dining room, Edinburgh Castle stands above the whole city, quite like a castle found in the pages of Rowling’s beloved series.
The other striking feature of the cafe is, surprisingly, its restroom. As soon as you open the door, you are confronted by more graffiti than you have seen in your whole life. Thousands of Harry Potter fans have crammed messages of their thanks or love or just their favorite quotes onto every surface of the room, from the door frame to the cheap frame of a dull print of flowers hanging above the sink. There never was such a bizarre and oddly moving shrine.
Watching Edinburgh drift past the taxi window as we left for St Andrews might have been much more saddening if I didn’t know it is so close-by, and that I actually have plans to go back for the St Andrews vs. University of Edinburgh rugby match later this month! Edinburgh certainly did not disappoint; it really was beyond enchanting.