The ferry across the Irish Sea was Swift, both in name and nature. Named after the famous Irish author, Jonathan Swift, it took a mere two hours to span the waterway to the UK. At Holyhead, I caught a train that took me along the beautiful coast of Northern Wales. Some great views of the rolling green hills and mountains near Snowdonia National Park kept me pressed to the glass of the train’s window.
I hopped off in the small town of Conwy, a tiny town that is known for one reason: it’s huge castle! This was my first time visiting a castle and I was absolutely blown away. I literally ran up the path that led through the castle’s main gate. For being over 700 years old, the castle was remarkably preserved, especially the outside walls and towers. Visitors were allowed to explore almost every part of the castle, so I spent the early afternoon climbing the narrow staircases of every tower. Each one earned new views of the castle, the tiny town of Conwy, and the sea on which it was situated.The castle was completed in 1287, after only 4 years! The castle and the town walls were planned and built by Edward I, the current King of England.Since his first invasion of Wales, there had been two attempted uprisings and he was done messing around. This was one of 17 castles that he either restored or built anew to completely crush the Welsh rebellion. After my self-guided tour of the castle, I ate fish and chips for lunch before walking the walls and ramparts that surrounded the town. Houses pressed up against the walls and I noticed several grills and tables in little circular courtyards along the walls. Imagine grilling out every evening at the foot of these ancient walls! My stroll continued outside of the walls and into a nearby park where I did some push-ups and pull-ups- gotta stay fit somehow.
That night, two more trains took me to Manchester. It was already after 11PM and I decided I would try to sleep in the train station to save some money. Turns out, the Victoria train station is currently under construction… it was a rough night to say the least! The next morning, two more trains brought me to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.
The history of Edinburgh is long and bloody. At its very early stages in the 7th century, it was a hill fort called Din Eidyn (Din means Fort). By the 12th century, the enormous castle for which it is known was constructed and it has been the capital since at least the 15th. Similar to Ireland and Wales, there have been many battles and switching of power between Scotland and England. The structure of the city reflects this. From the train station, it was a climb up hill to my hostel. I took a quick shower and then headed up the Royal Mile. The main thoroughfare leading from the castle on the hill to the Holyrood Palace below, the Royal Mile is filled with bars, restaurants, and shops. Situated in the original Old Town of Edinburgh, the cobblestone street and wonderful architecture of the buildings help it to retain its Medieval look.
Almost at the top of the hill, I entered the Scottish Whiskey Experience.As the official National Drink of Scotland, the Scots are serious about their whiskey.The exhibitions were nice and a corny barrel ride was entertaining. We then were able to try a genuine Scotch Whiskey and see the largest whiskey collection in the world: over 3,500 bottles! On the tour, I met Erica, a wonderful girl from Virginia. We had lunch at a nice cafe, where she shared with me her experiences as a psychologist and an extra on several TV shows and movies including Dumb and Dumber Too. We then toured the National Gallery for a bit and headed up Calton Hill, which holds several monuments and great views of the city. The best views of the day though, came when we climbed the 287 steps of the massive Walter Scott Monument.
The narrow staircase made the adventure all the more fun! For dinner, I tried Scotland’s most famous dish- Haggis. It basically is sheep heart, lung and liver wrapped inside its stomach and boiled. Yummy!
That night, Erica and I went on an Underground Tour that took us into vaults under the city. Since Edinburgh is so old, much of it has been basically buried underneath the new stuff. What appear to be 6 or 7 story buildings nowadays, really have another 6 or 7 stories that extend underground. The tour was fun and they did scare us a bit in the final vault. I also learned the history of the word “shit-faced”. It originates from Medieval times when people poured buckets of their waste out windows into back alleys that ran downhill. In Edinburgh, they had designated times for this, one being 10PM at night. Drunks often stumbled into these alleys and got a nice surprise when they looked up at the sounds from above… EWWWW!
Climbing Arthur’s Seat
My second day in Edinburgh began with a hike up Arthur’s Seat- a huge ancient volcano that rises above the city. The hike was fairly easy and the views astonishing! The city spread out before me and ran all the way to the sea.
After the hike, I headed back into town to go on another walking tour. I love these! They are a great way to hear the history of the city and see things that you may otherwise miss. To my enjoyment, the guide also talked quite a bit about Harry Potter. After all, Edinburgh was the inspiration for J.K Rowling’s massively popular series. George Heriot’s School has 4 houses and was originally set up to educate orphan boys (sound familiar?). Victoria Street is lined with popular stores including a joke shop, and cuts diagonally (Diagon Alley) through the city.
In Greyfriars Kirk, we walked past gravestones with names such as Tom Riddle and and a poet called McGonagall. A nearby street on the map is named Potterrow…Coincidence? I think not! The real birthplace of Harry Potter is a small cafe called The Elephant House. In a table in the back, with a great view of the Edinburgh Castle, magic flowed from Rowling’s pen as she wrote the first two books. I was in Harry Potter Heaven!!! After the tour, I headed over to the Museum of Edinburgh for a quick peek. It had a great video on the history of the city. That night, I went out in the Grassmarket area. Originally a huge public market for trading and selling goods, it now houses many pubs and restaurants. In Maggie Dickson’s I met two guys named Andrew and Dave. They were from Stirling, Scotland and Newcastle. We hit up several bars and had a grand ol’ night, finishing the night with some Irish dancing and late night fried food. They were awesome guys and hopefully I’ll see them in Oktoberfest later on.
The next morning I needed an Irn Bru to recover. Scotland’s favorite soda, sells more here than Coke, is reputed to be a hangover cure. It has a weird, kind of bubblegum taste, but not bad. I then headed up the hill to finally explore Edinburgh Castle.
The crowds were pretty insane for 10AM in the morning, but the castle was incredible nonetheless. Every building houses a different museum and exhibit. The Crown Jewels and the National War Museum were two of my favorites. Great views of the city are a given just about anywhere in the castle. With Fringe Fest soon to come, a huge stadium is being constructed for the world famous Miltary Tattoo performances that are held almost nightly.
The castle is Edinburgh’s #1 visitor attraction and for good reason. After the tour, I headed back to Maggie Dickson’s for some Haggis, Tatties (mashed potatoes), and Neeps (a root vegetable). Maggie Dickson was sentence to be hanged in the 1700’s. She was hanged for 30 minutes, said to be dead, and then came alive while the coffin was being moved to the grave site. Because the law at the time said you only needed to be hanged for 30 minutes, she technically had served her punishment and went on to set up this bar, right next to the site of the gallows, and live another 20 years. From there, I headed to the National Museum of Scotland. It was a massive museum with exhibits on everything imaginable. I especially enjoyed the history of the Scots exhibits. I stayed in that night, dining on some fries and a Deep Fried Mars Bar, and talking with all the people in the hostel. Everyone is so nice and friendly.
My final day in Edinburgh, I went on a run up to the top of the hill in Holyrood Park. I think this is my favorite spot in the city. While the rain drizzled and the wind had a bit of a bite, it seemed to enhance the city’s dark and creepy side and I quite enjoyed it. After a shower, I spent some time at the Writer’s Museum learning about Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Walter Scott, three of the Scottish’s proudest. I then walked through New Town, if you can call something that was built in the early 1800’s “new”. It is a great place to shop and have lunch. I will continue to explore this incredible city later tonight. It is really one of the most beautiful I have ever seen!