Every single person I’ve met had good things to say about Edinburgh. “There’s a fucking cool mountain right in the city”, “You’ll love Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh is amazing”. These were some of the comments when I mentioned I was going there.
Which was why I was inevitably a little disappointed when I walked down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, only to find myself surrounded by tons of souveniour shops, all hawking assorted Scottish memorabilia like tartan kilts, Walkers shortbread cookies and bagpipes for 75 pounds (after 50% discount). The most ridiculous affair was when I actually walked into one of these souveniour shops next to Edinburgh Castle (because I was attracted by the "free Haggis tasting” sign – there wasn’t any) and found myself in the interior of a huge 4-storey partially-underground complex complete with tartan-weaving machine on display, money changer and hundreds of associated products with the checkered Tartan design on them, as well as an area where you can pay to have your picture taken in full Scottish highland dress.
Most of the other souveniour shops along the Royal Mile weren’t as elaborate, but even they had tons of tartan stuff and annoying bagpipe music playing through loudspeakers. Hey, I came to see Edinburgh, not a red-and-green checkered version of Disneyland!
The Scottish themselves are, to put it mildly, amused by all the souveniour shops in Edinburgh. I read in the daily newspaper that this is precisely the kind of image that “a modern Scotland is struggling to shrug off”. Not that Scotland is abandoning her heritage, but rather, she wants the rest of the world to know that this country is not just about mountains, sheep, tartan and skirt-wearing men (say that and they’ll punch you; they call them kilts here). Stereotypes are stereotypes, Scotland is definitely more than that.
And – there’s more than just souveniour shops along the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s most famous street. There’s also a whole clutch of tourist traps, easily identifiable by the steep admission prices you pay for “dungeon experience”, “prison experience”, “ghost experience”, “scotch whisky experience”, blah blah.
My couchsurfing host says Edinburgh’s the second most touristy city in the UK after London, which is why he moved here to find a job. But it probably feels even more touristy than London because its so much smaller, and you run into a souveniour shop in almost every corner of the city, even in those traditionally non-touristy neighbourhoods.
But despite the clutch of tourist kitsch, Edinburgh’s still a very beautiful city. Its called the Athens of the north. Well, I’ve never been to Athens before, but to me, its something like Sydney. Yes, they are as different as chalk and cheese, but the biggest similarity is that both have excellent natural features. Sydney has that gorgeous harbour, with stunning beaches all around, and Edinburgh has a kickass mountain ridge right next to the city!
It's just so amazing. I mean, how many cities in the world are so blessed in terms of natural beauty? Edinburgh has a dramatic landscape as its backdrop, and is dotted with so many monuments, spires, churches and ancient buildings that it makes for an extremely pretty city, probably the most beautiful urban landscape I’ve seen.
Itching to escape the ubiquitous tartan shops with amazingly awful screechy bagpipe music, I walked up the Salisbury Craigs, that rocky ridge that overlooks the city. It’s not as difficult as it sounds as vegetation on the mountain is pretty sparse, so you can walk almost anywhere. This area has actually been designated a city park, and while other cities have flat, grassy lawns, in Edinburgh you have a huge mountainous feature right next to the city centre, where if you ignore the buildings and just focus on the green valley between the hills as well as the ponds and lakes nearby, you’d think you were somewhere in the Scottish highlands, and not in the second-largest city in Scotland!
Got to the top and I immediately noticed two things: 1) Edinburgh is so, so, so beautiful when there aren’t any tartan shops in sight, and 2) It is really windy. So windy, in fact, that I felt like I was going to be blown off the rocky outcrop atop the Salisbury Craigs. Needless to say I was holding my camera tightly – I didn’t want it to be blown away, which was an entirely realistic possibility.
The view was nothing short of spectacular. The city felt so far below, and I could only barely make out some of the characteristic monuments and buildings. Beyond that there are mountains in the distance, snow-capped, as well as a beautiful river (called the Firth of Forth or some other similar old English name) running next to the city. The most special thing about the view had to be the lighting. In characteristically British fashion, it was cloudy and rather overcast with what’s known as ‘white cloud’ here in the weather forecast. But as the sun set beneath the clouds, I could see the bright rays of sunlight piercing through the layer of clouds. It appeared almost divine, biblical even.
At that point in time, I knew how God must have felt, having created the world and looking out over it. Edinburgh is, simply, the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Now the next step is to get rid of the 18259195721 tartan shops in the city.