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Report 136: Edinburgh in Two

By Alice Twain from Italy, Summer 2003

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Page 7 of 10: Chapter VI. What we have seen: obviously touristy places

While not indulging in the most touristy stuff, we couldn't help ourselves doing some of the most obviously touristy stuff. We skipped Military Tattoo (despite my friend Claudia kept saying it was worth seeing), but we did visit the Castle and Grayfriars and walk the Royal Mile (we did NOT see Holyrood palace and the Britannia, though!).

Edinburgh castle is a multi-layered cake. It has been first the residence of the kings of Scotland and than a military citadel for centuries and its structures date since the early Middle Age until the XIX century, some of them built according to the actual needs of such a structure (stables, dormitories, etc.), some of them just placed there because they enhanced the medival look of the structure according to the XIX century ideas of what the Middle Age should have looked like. The entrance is pretty costly (8,50 pounds), but the Castle also holds a serie of museums and expositions (mainly devoted to the military) that are completely free once you have paid the ticket to the castle.

Basically, Edinburgh's castle is not a "castle" as we tend to think: not a building but a whole town within the town, with its streets and squares, churches and other useful buildings. In the latest centuries it was never used as a means to defend the city, but since the Holyrood palace was built, it hosted Scot's Greys, so that its lower levels are basically made of pretty large buildings.

Amongst the exibitions you can see at the castle, probably the most famous is the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. We tried to enter the queue to see them, but upon seing a sign saying that we would have had to stand in the queue for 45 minutes, we gave up. The place could be really fascinating, but the crowds make it less striking. If you decide to visit it, do so in a weekday and make sure you are there eraly in the morning. And do not forget a windproof jacket and a scarf, because up there it really gets windy! RATING: ***

The Royal Mile is the long walk that connects Holyrood palace to the castle. It is divided in four sections with different bnames and it is the heart of the Old Town. Once again, this very interesting (from several points of view) strip of streets was usually spoiled by the big crowds of tourists who walked up and down, never daring to leave this main street to wander the other streets (except for a few streets on the sides of Lawnmarket). This meant that we had the rest of Edinburgh almost for ourselves, but also that the Royal Mile was sometimes almost impossible to walk when we needed to. Yet it has some charm, with its often ancient but very tall buildings and its several churches. Even more important, many of the nicest museums (which we didn't have to actually visit: sometimes we had just time to see their first rooms before we were asked to leave because it was closing time) of Edinburgh are found on the Royal Mile.

On its ending part there is also the building site for the new Scottish Parliament: the building is still to be finished, but the site is surrounded by large posters collecting opinions about Scotland and its Parliament which are really fun to read. Yet, the side streets, especially those that led to the areas of Edinburgh where the people from Edinburgh live, were our favorites. RATING: ***

The Grayfriars Churchyard is one of those paradoxical places that fill me with sadness about the obvious silliness of some tourists. Right in front of it there is the statue of the famous Grayfriars Bobby, the dog (also portrayed in a Disney movie) that kept a vigil by his old master's grave until its death, where more or less EVERY tourist who ever visited Edinburgh wanted to have a picture taken. Yet nearly nobody enters the graveyard itself, and those who do just walk the few meters to the grave of the dog, leaving him flowers or toys. Which is a pity, because Grayfriars Churchyard is a very intersting place with a characteristic atmosphere, a light drizzel of rain enhancing it when we visited the Churchyard.

The graves are scattered around the place in a pattersn that is pretty unusual in Italy (we have very organized graveyards, with tombs all of the same size, set in regular rows, etc.), each grave topped by gravestones of many differet shapes and sizes, often used by more than one people (so that the central part of the stone bore the name of one person, and all around it there were other writings, sometimes even carved in the ornamental elelments, about other people) surrounded by dark stone buildings with windows directly overlooking the graveyard. On one side, a long and narrow area was used as a prison for over one thousand rebel Covenanters in the XVII century. The guidebooks claimed there had to be a museum or an exposition about it, but it was probably closed because it was Sunday when we visited Grayfriars. So, despite the crowd that lingered around the statue of Grayfriars Bobby, entering the graveyard proved a very positive experience. RATING: ****

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