Four Seasons in One Day
|Royal Mile street detail, Edinburgh (Corel)|
It's doubtful that royalty ever disembarked their gold-encrusted carriages to walk the stretch of cobbled real estate that is the Royal Mile, but you absolutely must. Crowned in the west by Edinburgh Castle, and further downhill by Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile stretches through the folds of Scottish history. It has played a part in bloody wars with the English, featured amongst the swirling prose of Sir Walter Scott, and most recently, welcomed home Scotland's symbolic Stone of Scone, stolen in 1296 by Edward I of England but restored to its rightful home on the eve of Scottish devolution in 1996.
And surprisingly enough, cold, harsh, wet weather is when this streetdescribed by Daniel Defoe as "the largest, longest, and finest" in the worldis best enjoyed. Let's just say pelting rain and howling gales have a wonderful way of clearing locales normally abuzz with crowds. Additionally, the Mile is so filled with things to see and do that any time spent outside will simply be to hop to the next place of interest.
First duck left into Lady Stair's Close, one of many entryways into a fascinating hidden world of back alleyways (or "wynds") on either side of the Royal Mile. These dark courtyards and narrow corridors of the Old Town are hemmed in by the multi-storied buildings that grew upward over the centuries. One of these tenements, Lady Stair's House, is now the The Writers Museum (Lady Stair's Close; +44.131.529.4901), which houses manuscripts and effects from Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevensonthe triumvirate of great Scottish writers. If the weather really is too nasty (and, let's face it, a perfect excuse for a warming pint), then keep your eye open for the Jolly Judge (7A James Court; +18.104.22.16869, www.jollyjudge.co.uk), tucked away in the same wynd. It's a tiny 17th-century hole-in-the-wall that pulls a mean pint of "heavy" (Scottish stout) and is always warmed by a crackling log fire.
Once moving again, be sure to stop at St. Giles Cathedral, a mostly medieval structure with a decidedly Gothic interior resonating with the religious intrigues of centuries past. It was here that John Knox, a fire-and-brimstone 16th-century preacher, delivered his diatribes and sermons that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation in Scotland. Beyond St. Giles is the pavement-embedded Heart of Midlothian; passersby may spit on the emblem for luck, although the local twist is that the rival fans of Edinburgh's Heart of Midlothian soccer club use the emblem as a roadside spittoon.
Dotted along the bottom stretch of the Royal Mile are countless small shops, cafés, pubs, and teashops, along with tartan, shortbread, and, yes, Nessie dolls. Eventually you'll come to the impressive Palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Abbey (+44.131.556.5100, www.royalcollection.org.uk), the official residence of the Queen. The palace is a working residence, so not all rooms are open to the public. But those that are offer a close-up glimpse of the intrigues, scandals, and plots that color Scottish history. The most chilling room is the chamber where Mary Queen of Scots' secretary and purported lover, David Rizzio, was stabbed to death by the assassins of Mary's jealous husband, Lord Darnley. You can almost hear the scuffle of boots as you survey the close-quartered space.
Adjacent to Holyrood, the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition (Holyrood Road; +44.131.550.7800, www.dynamicearth.co.uk) is a high-tech, learning-centered experience similar to London's calamitous Millennium Dome. Commissioned as part of the United Kingdom's Year 2000 celebrations, it takes visitors in a "time machine" back to the creation of the universe 15 billion years ago and trundles them forward through events like the volcanic ructions that created the canvas upon which Edinburgh now stands.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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