Edinburgh: A Visit to the Athens of the North
It was as Teesside entered the straits of Autumn that Cat received another quest. It arrived as a letter through the mental post. A sharp click sent a bullet of cold air whizzing through the letterbox to her brain as a brown envelope landed on the grey floor. Unaddressed with no return address. Inside were three clues and a souvenir: 1) Dram, 2) Tartan, 3) Arthur. The souvenir was a picture of a whisky barrel floating down an antique city. It was clear. Cat had to leave the land of the Angles and travel to the Athens of the North in search of a tartan blanket, drams of whisky and Arthur’s Seat. She had three days, three goals, and several royal miles of new discoveries.
Before the festive season started I took a short mid-November break in Edinburgh. No matter how dreary its weather is said to be — days reputedly stretched between continual sheets of rain — it is one of those cities that can never set a foot wrong. The capital of Scotland is a maze of intimate closes, cobbled streets and façades of a bygone world, transformed into laid-back contemporary shops, cafés and restaurants. Once you start exploring it by foot, a magical pull from its mystic surrounds keeps you going, until the allure of a plate of hearty food or a warming glass of whisky cannot stop your feet from tracing prints in every street you can find.
Drams of whisky
The national drink of Scotland flows more easily, in more shades, peat variations, and tasting combinations than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. So, on the first day Cat wrapped herself into a cocoon of wool and boots and set out on her first quest. Find a familiar dram of whisky (and a new favourite too). She suspected that there would be whisky bars, countless hidden nooks filled with golden barley treasure. Yet, no online guide could tell her which one was the best when that unquenchable thirst hit. It was all about, well, which was the closest?
She had wondered into the Old Town vaguely towards the Edinburgh Castle when she took a sudden turn into the city’s oldest visitor attraction: a locus obscurus and maze of illusions. Camera Obscura is not the obvious first stop during a visit to Edinburgh. The most serious and historically informative part of the attraction — a tour of the citythrough its famed historic camera in a darkened chamber — lasts about 15 minutes. After that there are four floors of optic experiments and nifty tricks that can provide you with several hours of mindless and addictive fun.
A pure blue sky temporarily blinded Cat as she stumbled out of the dark maze of illusions. The first thing she saw as her eyes adjusted to the light was The Scotch Whisky Experience. It arrived. The moment to enhance Edinburgh’s magical pull. And the completion of her first quest. (It was the closest whisky bar.) She skipped the whisky tour and headed straight to the height of Scottish sophistication — the Amber Restaurant and Whisky Bar — to celebrate that goodness of genuine goodness that gets measured in drams.
Hunger only occurred to Cat much later on as something slowly appeared. A flash of neon out of nowhere. It was somewhat Asian, colourful and small. It invited her to have the most unlikely meal she imagined having in Scotland: a bowl of steaming ramen and saki.
The next day, at the first sound of daybreak, Cat began her second quest. A sacred climb up a frosty volcano, a road into the Arthurian world of myths and half-truths. Arthur’s Seat is believed by some to be the capital of the fantastic king’s realm. A castle said to be located “nowhere in particular” (Norris J. Lacy). As Edinburgh’s main mountain — an extinct volcano filled with virtue, royalty and mystery — and as an ancient hill fort it is as likely a non-location for Camelot as possible. Less known, except to residents, is the fact that it is also the ideal hangover recovery spot, where magical whiffs of liquor get exhaled with air that freezes over as it is breathed out of throbbing human lungs.
The climb is less daunting than it seems and for those who brave it, an unparalleled view of the city awaits, especially on a clear day. The simplest sites are sometimes the most satisfying.
The Tartan blanket
Daydreaming of a cup of coffee and a warm blanket, Cat descended the hill, walked past Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament, taking fleeting snaps until she reached the bottom of the Royal Mile. It was there that her third quest was completed. She entered a shop of sacred textile objects. Wooly, colourful and cosy. Cashmere, tartan and lambswool. And in between it all there was the perfect blanket. A perfect pattern of red, green and blue to take back as a new souvenir and a much needed accessory for her second winter in the North.
My stay in Edinburgh ended somewhat nostalgically next to the imposing stone piers of one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. The Forth Bridge is a railway bridge that connects Edinburgh to the Kingdom of Fife. It was a revered bridge in my grandfather’s household. It was the god of all bridges: a mythological name handed down from generation to generation. There was a picture of it hanging in my childhood home. A picture to welcome me each time I opened the backdoor.
I now understand why.
Even if Camera Obscura, illusions, whisky, Arthur’s Seat or Scottish arts and crafts don’t appeal to you, at the very least visit the quaint village of South Queensferry just outside the city. Look out over the river railing or even better go down to the estuary’s shore or yet better still take a boat out onto the Firth of Forth. And feel the eerie voice of mankind’s genius wash over you.