Edinburgh, Scotland. More than made up for the mis-steps of yesterday

The train ride from England into Scotland made up some of the lost enjoyment from the mis-steps of yesterday (the breaking of the camera, the terrible digs in Carlisle). The train ride up north through England and across the border was a picture-perfect journey in relaxation and all the wonderful things that make me love train travel so much. [Well, it’d be picture perfect if the scenery wasn’t blurring by… makes it hard to photograph]. Allow me to paint a bit of the picture for you:

The trains in England don’t exactly move quickly, so it’s really a highly traditional/rustic experience: as if you’re harking back to the olden days of travel when the pace was slower and the excitement of discovery more profound. The ancient stone bridges, rolling countryside and thousand-year-old farms and estates passing by really helped the journey seem like a time warp. I even spied a few guys fly-fishing along a stream – we exchanged a wave as I peered with wonder at the peaceful European rural charm.

Traveling even further north, the rails started to run alongside the English coast. There was intense fog along the shore which added to the mystical atmosphere of my journey… and every so often I got a peak at the rocky cliffs between wisps of the mist. I was so relaxed that I fell asleep for a while. I woke up and began to wonder if we were in Scotland yet. Sure enough, at that exact moment, a marker along the tracks read: “Scotland, United Kingdom.”

The train rolled in to the Scottish capital: Edinburgh. I had about seven hours to explore the city before flying out to Ireland that night. Fortunately, I didn’t have to start my usual break-neck pace of urban exploration. Edinburgh was quite simply the easiest-to-explore city I’ve visited… everything laid out within a round-about walk from the central train station. And the city itself (at least the tourist-worthy parts) isn’t spread too far at all. 

But my gosh, what they’ve crammed into that short walkable distance. Quite simply the most architecturally-stunning (definitely the absolute most picturesque) city I have ever seen: all medieval stone buildings everywhere. In fact, I read that Edinburgh has more than 4,500 UNESCO-listed heritage buildings. Wow.

Oh, to really set the mood, immediately outside of the train station a street busker was playing bagpipes. Welcome to Scotland indeed!

My first stop from the train station was the closest camera shop to replace my beloved model that smashed to the ground the day before. When you’re on the move with sights to see and photograph, you can’t skip a beat. I just asked for the exact same model I busted, and walked out with the slightly-updated version. And on I continued.

Interestingly, Edinburgh in my mind bore a bit of resemblance to Ottawa. It was the central part of Edinburgh… the main street (called Princes Street) and central business area bordered on one side by a long park ravine – Princes Street Garden. Rising on the other side of the garden a tall, jagged cliff and rock crag capped by Edinburgh Castle. Honestly, it very much reminded me of the picturesque view of Canadian Parliament perched high on the cliffs above the Ottawa River.

But, Edinburgh was by far the most clean, perfectly-landscaped and architecturally-perfect city I’ve seen. Everything all in stone dating thousands of years. I walked through Princes Street Gardens and up into Old Town Edinburgh around Castle Edinburgh. The narrow streets were among the oldest I’d seen in Europe. Continuing the mysterious other-worldly ambience from the train trip, a thick fog started descending over Edinburgh as the temperature started to fall. Soon, the tops of the church spires and even the top of the Scott Monument fell out of view.

I warmed myself up with a trip to The Scotch Whisky Experience. It of course began with the typical cheesy museum tour “back through the history.” The tour ended with a sample, so it was well-worth the ticket price. The museum shop had more than 50 varieties of Scotch Whisky, and I gained a little bit of an education in where the different brands are made. I remember very little about it, except that it tastes great.

Appetite whetted with a small sample of spirits, I rounded-out my Edinburgh exploration with some Scottish fare: a pint of dark Scottish ale and a Scottish meat pie. It took me a while, honestly, to find a suitable pub to eat in. I quickly learned that the most “Scottish-looking” places were the least authentic of all… predominantly North American accents filling the area is a good tip-off that an establishment like that isn’t the place to *truly* enjoy my time in Edinburgh. I ended up in a cafe-bar… not even a true pub: “Ryan’s Cafe/Bar.” But the food turned out to be terrific, the atmosphere was great, and there was a Scottish local band playing. The barkeep was about my age and struck up a conversation with me about my travels and what living in the city is like. 

You know, it’s not always the “traditional” picture of a destination that offers up the most genuine experience for a traveler… if you dig a little bit you can find out where the real local life happens and go away with a true memory of what a place is like.

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