Walking down the historic Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace is a walk through its history. Between touristy kitschy shops selling tartan hats with fake hair attached to them you find centuries old pubs, dark and ominous looking alleys called closes that once housed gardens and livestock, churches, and the Scottish Parliment building. It was really hard to imagine that in the 17th century there were 70,000 people living in the vicinity of the Royal Mile in crowded, and in most cases squalid conditions with some buildings reaching 14 stories high. Gone were the charming wood structures and gardens of Medieval Edinburgh, which was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1544 in a not so subtle show of power. Today it feels quaint again, without a high rise in sight, restored and remodeled in the 1880's by Patrick Geddes- inspired by the Royal Mile of 500 years earlier. You can still see today why King David I established the Royal Mile and remodeled the existing hill fort in 1124- it feels like the center of the world, high up on the once active volcano, with an uninterrupted view for miles around- a natural place to put down roots.
I started to have my doubts as we made our way down the slope that is the Royal Mile that The Palace of Holyroodhouse was really there. I thought for sure we'd see it well before we actually got to it- how can you hide a palace from view? Well, my friends you can. You don't see the actual palace until you've entered the gates, it is not seen from the street. After you pass through the stone arch of the gatehouse off of Horse Wynd street and stroll down the Abbey Strand you find yourself in a large courtyard called the forecourt. Behind you is a statue of Edward VII (son of Queen Victoria) erected in 1922 by George V., but most striking besides the palace itself is the 19th century Victorian Forecourt fountain by Robert Matheson. It's mini gothic looking spires, intricate carvings and details are impressive. I learned later that it is a replica of the 17th century fountain at Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots and the earliest surviving Scottish royal palace.
Walking towards the gatehouse entrance next to the Queen's Gallery at Holyroodhouse
In the Forecourt of Holyroodhouse.
Clearer view of the fountain with Arthur's Seat in the background
Above and below: Inner Court
In 1501 the royal residence was built on the site of a guesthouse belonging to Holyrood Abbey, built and established in 1128 by King David I. The ruins of this Abbey can be wandered through at your leisure, but first I recommend touring the actual palace. The palace is the official residence of the monarch in Scotland but what interested me most and the purpose for taking the time to tour the structure is its connection to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary occupied the royal apartments in the north-west tower from 1561 to 1567, when she was forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, the future King James VI (later James I of England). It was in these private apartments that she witnessed the murder of her private secretary David Rizzio by her jealous husband, Lord Darnley. You can tour these untouched apartments and see the very nook, called her supper chamber, where she sat at dinner with Rizzio and four other courtiers moments before he was dragged away from her table and stabbed 56 times in the adjoining chamber (his blood stains are still visible on the floor in the room where his body lain). History comes alive in places like this. The narrow, winding "secret" staircase leading to her chambers, her bed in an ornate room, her cozy prayer niche, the glorious warm wood paneling of her outer chamber, these are the places that felt most intimate and real. The rest of the palace is sumptuous but I found it quite cold. It doesn't feel like the kind of place you can sit next to a fire and read a good book in. Touring Mary's apartments was the highlight for me and worth every penny of the admission. Of course there were no photos allowed but you can do a quick Google search to see the interior of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and of Mary's rooms in the palace.
We exited the James V tower and entered the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Partially in use until the 17th century it was left to fall completely to ruin in the 18th century after a storm in 1768 caused the roof to collapse. It has been proposed several times over the ensuing 2 centuries to restore the abbey but so far that has not happened and I would assume it won't. There is something quite beautiful about a ruined abbey, and being able to wander around the roofless nave with only one or two other people present was something special.
Looking back towards Holyrood Abbey and our only real bit of blue sky that day.
Leaving Holyrood Abbey
Looking at the ruins of this once great abbey
After leaving the abbey ruins you find yourself back in the Forecourt area and at the entrance to the gardens. Unfortunately for us the gardens on the grounds weren't open for the season yet, so we couldn't wander the paths. If you've been following along with my UK blog posts then you'll know that I've mentioned before the pros and cons of off season travel. The biggest "pro" and the reason we do it time and time again is that places aren't as crowded. I've had whole abbeys and castles to myself, not another tourist in sight, I've sat in tiny chapels next to the ghosts of memories of kings and queens completely alone, and read centuries old illuminated manuscripts with only my husband at my elbow. The "con" of off season travel is of course weather that is less than ideal and places being closed or closing quite early. You have to weigh what is more important to you when you travel but my husband and I prefer less crowds and cheaper accommodations at the expense of closed gardens and the ocassional grand house not accepting early visitors. While I was upset to miss Alnwick Castle a few days earlier, being alone in the ruins of Holyrood Abbey made up for it.
We still had to bulk of the day in Edinburgh to explore but at this point it was nearing lunch time and we were ready to eat. I'd love to say we picked a local restaurant or pub to calm our appetites but in the end we found ourselves at a Starbucks. Of course this was my doing. I wanted a coffee and a bathroom in whichever order I could get them in. Public restrooms are hard to find in Europe unless you are at a tourist spot or train station and once you've left that location, good luck! Your best bet are cafes and restaurants and those don't come free. So we plopped ourselves down with coffees, sandwiches and the all important bathroom code on the receipt. One of the things I really liked about Edinburgh is that a lot of the businesses were actually not at street level. Quite a few cafes we went into were on what we would call the 2nd floor, but in Europe is referred to as the 1st floor. This gave you lovely views as you sipped your beverage and ate your food. This particular Starbucks (Edinburgh Royal Mile) took up both the ground floor and 1st floor (2nd floor in the US). You order on the ground floor and then go upstairs to get a lovely view of The Royal Mile below. We enjoyed our sandwiches and planned out the rest of our day in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse were the only things that I knew without a doubt that I didn't want to miss while in the city of Edinburgh. I also planned on buying a pair of Dr Martens boots as my souvenir, so that was on the list of things I wanted to do while there. Lucky for me there is a big Dr Martens store right on Princes Street, (... And, unlucky for me they were out of my size in the shoes I wanted- cue sad trumpet sound...)
We left The Royal Mile, but not for the last time that day, and made our way back across the North Bridge to Princes Street, where the action is. We walked up and down Princes Street so many times that day. Stopping to listen to bagpipers on the corner, taking in the huge monument to Sir Walter Scott, dodging busy city dwellers, and coffee- always more coffee.
As I've stated in an earlier post, I was a tea drinker on this trip- you can't be married to a native Yorkshireman who hasn't had a proper cuppa in 7 years and not drink pot after pot of tea in these two weeks, but Edinburgh was different- I needed the coffee to keep me going, we got up so early and had to be on the go, go, go until 9pm. Somewhere during our repeat treks up and down Princes Street we went into a Starbucks that arguably must have the best view of any Starbucks. Right there on Princes Street one level up from the road itself was a beautiful view of Edinburgh Castle seen through beautifully ornate huge windows. I also had a funny interaction with the Italian barista who took my order which made it all the more memorable. He was such a cliche with the thick accent and flirtations, telling me I was a beautiful lady with a beautiful name. In over exaggerated motions he wrote my name on my cup with an extra flourish of dots and swirls. Seeing as he was in his early 20's I'd take the compliments and run with them, pretending that he didn't say that to all the ladies.
We sat and enjoyed the view in delightfully oversized chairs, sipping coffee, and gleefully using the free wi-if. We planned to watch a movie to break up our day a bit since we still had hours before we had to catch the train so we checked out our options and took screenshots of the maps we found. It's a bit easier these days to not stand out like a tourist with a big paper city map in hand. We could discreetly blend in looking at our smartphones just like everyone else. I can't remember if I mentioned this before but I did definitely notice that Britons are not as enthralled with their smartphones as Americans are. They do definitely use them, but I didn't see a single person take a photo of their food in a restaurant, their lattes in a cafe, or take selfies. It was quite nice to see people having conversations, look ahead while they walked down a sidewalk and not texting while driving. I'm sure all of our bad habits have been imported but I just didn't see it the way that I do at home. Although, while they may not be as distracted by technology they are naughty little litterbugs, so we all have our faults.
I'll keep this next part brief as there is probably nothing more boring than hearing someone yammer on about walking down a street and going to a movie theater. This is what I will say: it is very expensive to go to the movies in Edinburgh. Actually it's probably expensive in any city, but wow, it's really expensive there. We went to the Vue Cinemas inside the Omni Centre, saw the prices and walked right back out. We had to weigh what we would rather spend the money on: movie tickets or entrance fees to a historic site. I for one will vote historic site each time, so off we went and left the Cinema in our rear view mirror.
Looking up the Playfair Steps to New College in Old Town Edinburgh
Looking back towards New College
Our next stop was the Scottish National Gallery. No matter how many times I've seen masters like Rembrandt and Raphael in person I still find myself in awe at their work. The artwork is beautiful to look at but I'm most interested in getting as close as possible to see the brush strokes and colors close up. I imagine the painting process and how I might replicate it. The great thing about being an artist married to a fellow artist is that we can both get lost in the art and not have to worry about the other getting restless or bored. We admire very different artist and different styles so we're not often entranced by the same works but we can understand the need to stare for long periods and take it all in. If you get the opportunity to see a Rembrandt up close and personal do yourself a favor and get in close- it will be flawless, I promise you.
We wandered quite a bit at this point. There are really only two things I regret not seeing/doing while in Edinburgh upon reflection: Arthur's Seat and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It was way too cold to hike Arthur's Seat and I'm embarrassed to say that I mistook the Prince Street Gardens for the Royal Botanic Garden because I just wasn't paying attention- and they closed literally as we walked up. I didn't even bother to properly check the sign so there were with time on our hands and only 1.5 miles from the actual botanical gardens. One of these days I will actually check a giant Victorian conservatory off of my bucket list. I'll bring a bedroll, a pillow and just settle in. It just might have to be the Palm House at Kew Gardens. Future trip!
We finished out our day eating deliciously naughty Cornish pasties full of mashed potatoes and cheese in the train station. By this time we had walked 17 miles (tracked with my trusty Fitbit) and were tired but surprisingly not achingly so. It never fails that at some point during a long day out in a city Daniel will inadvertently attract the attention of someone who has seen better days, and this day was no exception. I think his kind nature shines like a beacon to those who society shuns. My husband is incredibly generous and will give you the shirt off his back and his last dollar. It's put him in some real sticky situations in the past and makes me very wary. So, there we were like sitting ducks in a semi crowded train station eating pasties when a very, very drunk early 30 something man who was definitely down on his luck planted himself in the empty chair next to Daniel. He proceeded to talk Daniel's ear off, spill his pint of beer and play us some music on his portable boom box (they still make those?!) all the while getting more and more agitated. I had to draw the line when he stood up and was essentially looming over me while I sat and he ranted about various things. He was finally distracted enough that we could make a hasty exit without upsetting him. It was really sad to see- he wasn't that old to be so down on his luck. I suspect he was a nice lad when sober- I wish they'd cut him off a few pints earlier. Daniel never feels threatened in those situations, he's over 6 ft tall and knows how to defend himself, but me on the other hand always feels vulnerable and freaked out. I suppose we balance each other out. He keeps me from yelping at every shadow and I keep him from just walking down dark alleyways. City mouse and country mouse got married.
The train back to Berick-upon-Tweed was uneventful and we found ourselves back at the Country House Hotel without incident and grateful for a warm bed. We had done our Northern adventures and now it was time to make our way South.
*for videos from our day in Edinburgh please view Cheer Up Old Bean Facebook page HERE
*for videos from our day in Edinburgh please view Cheer Up Old Bean Facebook page HERE
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