The Castle and the Hill

The next day was a much less taxing and physically draining day. We left the flat by mid-morning and spent the first couple hours in town browsing in bookshops. Out of all the bookshops we stopped in, only one of them was actually planned. The others we just happened across. Our one planned bookshop stop was to Old Town Bookshop. The sign, which I had seen via Facebook back in the States said, ‘Books, Maps, Prints.’ Those are three of my favorite things!

It was a long narrow shop that was saturated with old book smell. The walls were lined with shelves that reached to the ceiling before it curved into a shallow dome. There were books in glass-faced cases, books stacked on top of shelves, books stacked on books stacked on books. V-shaped cradles along the floor held prints and maps of all different sizes, and shoved in the corner, almost buried under all the books, was the front desk, and behind it, a single man.

I stopped and craned my neck to look at all the old spines with faded text. Everything felt and looked ancient except for a few newer books that had found their way in. I flipped through maps of places and regions I was unfamiliar with until I found one, appropriately sized for a carry-on, that detailed Scotland as it was known long ago. I paid my five pounds for the map and we left the shop. It was already getting close to noon so we headed down a street adjacent to the Royal Mile and found our way back to a place called The Doric. This was another restaurant on Maya’s list, and we had decided the day before that we would come back here for lunch.

At first look, it seemed the place wasn’t even open yet. We were the first customers to arrive. A red-haired woman came out and seated us by the window overlooking the street. Not long after we had arrived and started to look over the menu, another group of four showed up. Now it was just the seven of us in the restaurant.

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Obviously there was something very interesting outside.

The conversation started off with us making jokes about visiting the Edinburgh Dungeon that was across the street, and from there we entertained silly ideas about getting tattoos at the Royal Edinburgh Military tattoo, which doesn’t even make any sense. It’s extra funny to me now since I’ve since learned what a military tattoo is. I’m an idiot sometimes.

We ate and chatted and I watched, amused, as the guy at the table diagonal to us ordered a whisky and then proceeded to look confused when it arrived. I don’t know if it was because his glass was so much smaller than all of the glasses the girls at the table got and that was funny to him, or if it was because he had never ordered whisky and was confused that he got so little. Either way, it was interesting to watch and wonder about.

When we’d finished lunch, we started up the hill towards Edinburgh Castle. I’d like to take a brief aside here from the day’s events and talk about traveling to and visiting high tourist areas. There are some attractions I avoid going to completely simply because they are too touristy. Other places I’ll go to because I still want to see them even if they are touristy. Edinburgh Castle is possibly the biggest tourist trap in Edinburgh but it has somehow swung past the point of not visiting because it is just that big of a deal. So we went. And I didn’t have a terrible time, but I wouldn’t have been too bent out of shape if we hadn’t made it either.

That’s something else about traveling. So many people are determined to have a good time every minute they’re away, but that’s just not going to happen. You’ll have bad days. You’ll get tired and sore and irritable with the person you’re traveling with (or yourself, if you’re alone). You might go some place that seems cool and it turns out to be rubbish. But that’s part of the experience and the adventure. What I’m trying to say is don’t feel bad about having a less than spectacular time. But enough of my aside.

So we went to Edinburgh Castle, even though it was swarming with tourists. As we crossed the large courtyard between the street and the castle doors, I spotted a food truck boasting Edinburgh’s finest ice cream. Peter had been talking about getting ice cream ever since he arrived (I would later learn he had developed a serious dependency on ice cream since moving to Germany) so I pointed it out to him. He couldn’t resist. We walked over and each got a cone except for Mom (no dairy free ice cream here) and ate them while looking out over a sun-soaked Edinburgh.

Peter, a much more experienced ice cream eater, finished his cone before I did. He and Mom were ready to get going so I sucked the rest of my cone down as quick as I could without getting a brain freeze. We crossed over a dry mote and passed through the outer wall of the castle. There was a row of window across from us where people were picking up their tickets. The sales windows were away to the right with a long line out front that wrapped back and forth between black dividing strips.

Already a tiny part of me was resisting going any further than this. We walked over and got in line. There were at least four rows of people to be cycled through, but to be fair things seemed to be moving all right. It was Peter’s brilliance that saved us from having to shuffle along with the rest of the crowd. In the end, we didn’t wait any longer than the time it took him to order tickets online and pick them up from the first set of windows. Once he gave us the ‘all good’, Mom and I ducked under the barriers and we moved farther into the castle.

The path leading from the entrance up to the citadel was wide and teaming with people. I squinted against the bright sun and saw a line of gleaming black canons lining the top of the wall. Only later did I learn that many of these were fake and had been added simply for show. Slowly we moved forward. We hadn’t moved beyond taking pictures of the canons from various different angles before deciding to wait a few minutes to go on a guided tour. Five minutes later a man in a red jacket and awesome tartan pants showed up. He had each person in the group say where they were from, and we had a fairly diverse collection of people.

Our guide, who I quite liked, took us up the gently spiraled path to the castle’s highest point, telling us about the history of the castle as well as its current role in Scottish life. Not only is it a tourist attraction, but some of its buildings are still used today for military purposes. He pointed out all the buildings we could go into as well as ones we couldn’t and what they were used for today. The tour ended 20 minutes later in a courtyard flanked by the Great Hall and another large building that had been converted into a memorial for those who had fallen in battle. The group dispersed and Peter, Mom and I began our exploration of the buildings with the Great Hall. It was very ‘Harry Potter’ so of course I had to go in.

There were two buildings in the whole castle that really had an impact on me. Two buildings and a cemetery that is. One was the war memorial. It was a long building, equal to the Great Hall in length. Inside, resting on a long stone shelf, were volumes and volumes of books filled with the names of those who had served in war and had died because of it. I don’t remember how far back in time they went but I do remember that they were still being added to today. That was the most heartbreaking thing for me. Also inside the memorial was the highest place on the hill. The building had been constructed around it, this great jagged spear jutting up through the floor.

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The building perpendicular to the Great Hall housed the Stone of Scone. The story behind this gives a bit of insight into why Scotland wants independence from England, I think. The stone is also called the Stone of Destiny or the Coronation Stone. This is because, when monarchs were crowned, they would sit upon the stone and it was all very regal and what not. The stone originally belonged to the Scots until the English stole it in 1296 as a spoil of war. This is why the Scots can’t have anything nice. England steals it.

Eventually they got it back though, but only after some stupid agreement that England could still use it for their coronations even though the stone would otherwise remain in Scotland. It’s all a bit silly and traditionalist if you ask me but it was quite a sight to see. The stone is made of red sandstone. It looked so old and worn you’d have thought it would crumble at the slightest touch. A metal rod had been thrust through the middle of the stone to help ease transportation, and there was a great crack on its face from a drop during an attempted theft of the stone.

The Stone of Scone had more of an impact than any of the other displays. Everything was stuck behind a glass case, but there was something more powerful about seeing that old battered slab of stone than there was various old uniforms or weapons or even the Crown Jewels. Those were all very nice but they all felt so fake. The Stone seemed to ooze history and time from every pore and flaunted its age and significance. It was too bad we couldn’t have spent more time there, letting the full effect wash over us. Instead we were herded through the room with everyone else like we were cattle.

The graveyard poked right at a soft spot in my heart. It was a war dog cemetery, a small, semi-circle plot of land sticking out from the side of a building with neat rings of headstones in it. It warmed my heart to see this small gesture of love and kindness towards those animals that found themselves in circumstances outside of their control. I think too often people assume animals are here only for our own ends and would be lost with out us. But that is a frustratingly self-centered way of thinking and I was glad to see at least someone make a small token of gratitude.

We continued our wandering down the walkway, going in and out of a few other buildings and taking some goofy pictures next to the really big canon before walking back down the street to the entrance. I always wonder about big must-see attractions like Edinburgh Castle; how many people are there because they actually care to some degree about what they are looking at? I wonder how many people appreciate how fortunate they are to be standing in a place that has stood for hundreds of years, to see places that have seen more life and death than they every will. I wonder if they ever have moments like I do, where they realize how amazing it is to be walking along the same cobblestones as, surely thousands, of people had years and years ago. This is a place so many people called home, where they worked and lived and breathed, making their way in the world just as we do today. It’s incredible, and I think so many people forget just how incredible it is. To them it’s nothing more than a thing to go see so you can say you’ve done it. It’s an item on a checklist. All the history behind it is lost.

None of this was in my head that day. As we left the crowds of people behind all I was thinking about was how hungry I was and how nice it would be to sit down for a bit. Before heading back to the flat we decided to stop for a quick bite in a bistro my friend had recommended. The place is called Maxie’s and it’s a cozy place with wine bottle candleholders and bizarre art stuck all over the walls. We didn’t get much, just a few cups of tea, a salad, and some bread. The Greek salad I had was delicious. I think it was the feta; sooo good. It felt good to sit down and relax. The last couple of days had been non-stop fun and it was starting to catch up with us. Mom joked about taking a nap right there on the bench cushions while Peter and I finished our food.

We couldn’t go home just yet, though. We had one more thing to do before Peter left. There was only one thing Peter had told us he absolutely wanted to do while he was in Edinburgh, and that was climb to the top of Calton Hill. During his research, he had come across this gorgeous picture of Edinburgh taken from the top of the hill, which seemed as good a reason as any to go check out a place. We left Maxie’s and caught a bus back to Prince Street.

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We got off at the end of the North Bridge and began to walk along Prince Street until we came to a path the branched off to the left. A short while after the turn we came to a few flights of stairs, which then became a long ramp leading up to the top of the hill. At least it wasn’t all stairs. I think we’d all had enough of stairs. The path lead us straight up and deposited us at the base of a large cylindrical monument made up of a ring of columns. It continued on into the rest of the park off to the right. The memorial in front of us was for Dugald Stewart (great name, huh?) who, Google tells me, was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and mathematician. His monument is at the forefront of the picture that enticed Peter to come to Calton Hill.

Our trio split for a bit. Peter went further up the hill to get a better vantage point for his picture and Mom and I walked around the perimeter of a large white, gray-speckled building that was part of the old Gothic Tower. There were lots of people out enjoying the gardens and the sunshine on top of the hill. We met up with Peter on the other side of the great stone building and walked over to the National Monument.

Our guide from St. Giles had described it as Edinburgh’s biggest embarrassment. It was built as a memorial to the Scottish servicemen who served in the Napoleonic Wars and was modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. Unfortunately, it was never completed due to lack of funds, so only 12 pillars stand on the hill today. Despite its blighted past, the structure was still a grand sight to see. One side was washed in sunlight, and the grooves and shades of gray of the columns were greatly accentuated. The other side was cast in shadow and set against the bright white backdrop of the sinking sun. People sat along the surrounding steps reading, chatting, and just enjoying being outside.

The three of us walked around the far side of the monument and down the slope to get a better look at Arthur’s Seat. From our angle it looked something like Pride Rock. There was a single large mound set at the base of a long, gently slanting incline. Arthur’s Seat is the main peak amongst the hills that make up Holyrood Park. Its elevation is 823 feet, which is nothing to us Coloradans, but reached significantly higher than any other point in Edinburgh that we could see.

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The sun was beginning to disappear behind the hill. We stood and enjoyed the last bits of warmth while admiring the expanse of Arthur’s Seat and the weathered old buildings of Edinburgh’s streets. Exhaustion finally got the better of us and we returned to the ramp from a gravel path that took us through the trees. Once we got back to the street, however, we realized we had a problem. We were short about two pounds for bus fare back to Maya’s house.

The first shop we tried to get change from couldn’t open their register without a sale. The second place we tried said the same thing but we weren’t going to try again so we just bought something. I was really glad we did, not only because it got us the change we needed but because what we bought was this delicious oatmeal fruit bar thing and, uh, it was just fantastic! Too bad we can’t get them in the States or I’m sure I would try to subsist on oatmeal fruit bar things.

With our exact change, we crossed the street to the bus stop and once again found ourselves waiting for a bus. As soon as we were inside our room, we all collapsed in a heap on our respective beds. Sleep sounded nice, but so did food, and we didn’t have much of that. The meal at Maxie’s would keep us going a bit longer so before we thought about dinner, we took the time to Skype with my brother, David. Not a whole lot of talking took place, however. Once you get more than two former roommates together on two sides of a video camera, things devolve pretty quickly into nothing but screwing around with camera angles.

We were lucky if we got 20 minutes of real conversation in before we started hiding off camera and then sticking our faces into frame from the side or overhead, our faces way too close to the camera. David decided to give us a tour of his house (which we’d all seen before) after we gave him a very short look around our new room. Then the cats showed up and the only words that came out of our mouths were, “aw, kitty!’ and ‘he/she’s so cute!’ and more ‘awwww’s.’ So overall it was a productive Skype exchange; roughly 20 minutes of talking and 40 minutes of messing around.

The time had come for us to venture out and forage for our dinner. This meant walking the mile or so to the Sainsbury we had passed on our ride home. We, that is to say Mom and I, needed to do some laundry. We decided the best thing to do was divide and conquer. Mom stayed behind to rest more and get the washing done, and Peter and I returned to the street to bring back groceries for tonight’s feast! Night had fallen fully when we left the flat and the street was empty except for just a few people. The air had a slight chill to it but I kept warm enough from walking.

We didn’t realize the Sainsbury was a superstore until we walked in and were greeted by racks of clothes and shelves of home goods instead of food. My brain took a moment to figure out what was going on before I dashed after Peter, who had just forged ahead. The aisles of groceries were at the back of the store. I’m usually a complete mess when I’m in a new grocery store, and I expected to be doubly so in a store where I wasn’t familiar with half the products. There was still a fair amount of wandering and doubling back that went on, but Peter was the one following behind like a confused puppy while I took the lead. It was rather fun, like a treasure hunt, navigating aisles to find the right ingredients.

We left the store laden with a bag each. It was getting colder and the straps of the bags cut into my hands. We made it back to the flat before things got too unbearable. The kitchen was empty when we walked in. I set my bag on the table and went to let Mom know we’d returned and were starting dinner. When I walked in the room, Mom was on her phone. I asked if she had gotten the laundry going, to which she responded no, she hadn’t. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if it wasn’t done tonight, but I had been hoping for something different to wear.

She said she would get it started while Peter and I worked on dinner. I left her to it and went back to the kitchen. Together Peter and I whipped up a large pot of pasta with veggies and some slices of bread, and an adult beverage each. I didn’t realize it until Mom pointed it out to me but I had bought a non-alcoholic cider. It wasn’t a big deal though. It was still very tasty.

We sat down to eat and listen to some music on Maya’s tiny pink speaker. I had bought a small pie on an impulse and we each had a few bites once we’d finished our pasta. Peter and Mom went back to the room a while later, but I stayed behind and made a questionable decision about what to do with the rest of the pie. By that I mean I decided to eat the rest of it. I tracked my progress, albeit a little late. Bite by bite, I took another picture and posted it to Facebook, like you do. And go figure, I forgot to take a picture of my empty pie pan. Overstuffed and fighting off a food coma, I dragged myself down the hall to get ready for bed.

~Ren

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2 thoughts on “The Castle and the Hill

  1. Will you not give an old man some peace? Just when I thought I was caught up with your blogs, I see an e-mail notification pop up with you guessed it, another blog. I’ll get you for this.

    Pops

    Liked by 1 person

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