Edinburgh Steely grey, yet simply gorgeous, writes Aparna Karthikeyan about a city that has been stereotyped many times over
Edinburgh is associated with a great many stereotypes — dull, gloomy skies, steep cobbled streets, swarming with big, beefy men wearing kilts, playing the bagpipes. Is this really an accurate portrait of this elegant city?
The sky was depressingly grey, a light rain pitter-pattered on the pavements, and a brisk, cold wind threatened to whip umbrellas and freeze fingers. Thankfully, none of this affected us. Not because we were impervious to the elements, but because we were wisely seated in warm, cosy Starbucks on Princes Street (the city's fashionable high-street) sipping a chai-tea-latte, and admiring the view.
And, what a view it is! Just across the road is an ancient castle, in surprisingly fine fettle, and built — strangely enough — on top of an extinct volcano. Behind the castle stands a row of tall, exceptionally attractive buildings with a church spire popping in here and there, lending a certain elegance to the celebrated Edinburgh skyline.
Beneath all those medieval high-rises are the manicured green spaces, the Princes Street Gardens, and the seasonal ‘Winter Wonderland' — the Christmas market complete with miniature chalets selling Christmas kitsch and mulled wine.
And, if you squashed your nose on the glass, and squinted a wee bit (the café is on the first floor) you could see the shoppers below scurrying past, even as brightly painted double-decker buses and the quintessentially British black-cabs sped by.
Oh yes, it all does sound impossibly sugary, awfully picture-postcard-ish. Yet just a week earlier, the town-centre had a very different feel, what with the (infamous) tram-works shutting-down long stretches of arterial roads, resulting in confusing diversions and traffic snarls — it took forever to get around. But, as Edinburgh still remains a ‘compact' city, with all the main sights tightly packed, it's quite possible to get-by on foot. As long as you have an extra lung — Edinburgh is built on seven hills.
If you were to view the city from the castle esplanade, you get an idea of the gradation, the gentle slope, all the way down to the Firth of Forth (Scottish for the estuary of River Forth). But, there's nothing gentle about the climbs, as we realised when we foolishly puffed our way up to the castle; though, to be fair, the sweeping, spectacular views more than made up for the vigorous exertion.
And, if you are really lucky to be up there when the sun makes a rare, fleeting appearance, you can see the magical transformation of the classical facades of New-town — a touch of sun-shine, and voila, mere sandstone gleams solid gold! Why, it even manages to make the comical rows of chimney pots look classy!
Is it any surprise then, that the castle is Edinburgh's most-visited monument? Stunning views apart, there's heaps of history within the walls, including a 12th Century place of worship (St. Margaret's Chapel) priceless royal jewellery, lots of frightfully large cannons and, of course, Edinburgh's famous 1 o' clock gun, that goes ‘boom' every Monday-Saturday at 1 p.m. sharp.
When you finally tear yourself from the castle, and walk down the Royal Mile (exactly one ‘Scots mile' long, i.e., a mile and 107 yards, running between two royal buildings — the Castle and the Holyrood Palace), you have a number of very touristy attractions waiting to part you from your money.
Naturally, that precious pale-gold liquid — whisky — and the famous Scottish tartan figure prominently. In fact, there's such a tartan overkill — the double-decker buses even sport chequered fabric seats! — that if you get knocked down in these parts, you're sure to see checks, not stars.
Then again, it's not like you see stars much around here — the sky is usually a deep, elephant grey, and that's early in the afternoon. By 3.45 p.m., in December, you're sure to be rootling in your handbag for night-vision goggles!
But, despite this drained-of-colour look that Edinburgh specialises in, it still manages to look terribly photogenic, aesthetically appealing, because of that subtle, sublime contrast between the sandstone buildings and steely skies.
Plus if your spirits ever dip, you can always take comfort in a glass of deliciously warming whisky-laced hot-chocolate, and soon, you'll be ready to clamber the 287 steps up the Scott Monument.
And, you can happily watch, from that great dizzying height, all those big, beefy chaps walking around in kilts, and enjoy the distant, melodious strains of bagpipes, which, I'm told, sound especially musical when it is played far, far away …