We arrived in Edinburgh pretty late on the night of the Olympic opening ceremony. Checking into our hotel just as the cauldron was being lit, we crashed out and got a good night’s sleep for the next day of sightseeing.
That Saturday morning, we took a liesurely stroll down Broughton Street, happening upon a chocolate shop with my name on it – literally.
After trying their amazing chocolate bars (snappy, rich, and perfectly smooth), I bought a couple for my dad and brother in two exotic sounding flavors: Ginger Beer, and their award-winning Rose & Black Pepper. I’m kind of kicking myself for not having picked up some more for yours truly — if you’re headed to Edinburgh, be sure to take home a bar or two!
Next, we headed over to Leith Walk, stopping at Gaia Cafe for lunch. The cafe was full of healthy-sounding and great-looking options, and we chose a homey vegetable soup, along with two enormous lunch salads. Fortified and ready to see more of the city, we headed to Leith Cycle Co. to meet Andy of Storybikes.
Andy took us (along with a group of six Swedish tourists) on a wonderful bike tour of Edinburgh. We even made our way up Calton Hill, which provided panoramic views of the city below. From the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh Castle, you can see a whole lot from up there! Really lovely.
Oh, and all along the way, Andy told wonderful stories about the different monuments, streets, and former inhabitants of Edinburgh. A member of The Scottish Storytelling Network, Andy has lived in Scotland since 1978 and knows a whole lot about the city’s history! He told us many tales, some of which sounded suspiciously apocryphal, and kept us entertained for the entirety of our four-hour tour.
After getting some recommendations for dinner from Andy and the employees at the bike shop, we walked to Smoke Stack Steakhouse and Bar on Broughton Street. We enjoyed our generously-portioned plates of Scotland’s most delicious fish — I ordered the Loch Duart salmon, which came perfectly seared in a Moroccan-y spice rub and swimming in a pool of citrus butter. GF Boy’s smoked haddock special was a total showstopper — resting atop an impressive mountain of mashed potatoes and covered in a creamy dill sauce, it was one of our favorite things we ate in Europe.
Totally stuffed, and pleasantly worn out from a great first day in Edinburgh, we made our way back to the hotel, watching some Olympics on TV (loved the interviews of self-deprecating British athletes) before falling asleep.
The next morning, we tried our first haggis! We knew what we were getting into, and had a good idea of what to taste for after getting some advice from Andy. He’d told us that good haggis isn’t too greasy, and that it should be spicy, but not *too* spicy. Our hotel’s breakfast buffet provided a tasty rendition of this national dish (though I found their blood sausage to be dried out and metallic-tasting — GF Boy wouldn’t go near it!), and lightly-roasted tomatoes made a nice accompaniment, cutting through the richness of the sheep offal-based main dish. Spiced with nutmeg and black pepper, it was a flavorful and seriously hearty way to start the morning.
We walked from the hotel to our next destination — the famous Edinburgh Castle. It’s a unique and beautiful castle, known for its hodgepodge of archetectural styles, and it also happens to be home to such treasures as the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles, as well as the Stone of Scone.
People have inhabited the castle rock since the 9th century B.C. (!!!), and Scotland’s oldest building, St. Margaret’s Chapel, stands at its highest point. We wanted to take a look inside, but a bagpiper stood guard at the entrance — it turned out that a wedding was going on while we were there! Anybody can get married in the chapel, provided they don’t mind that it only fits about 25 guests.
After a great tour, we walked down the Royal Mile, the historic road leading down from the castle that makes up Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Branching off the main road are narrow alleyways called closes — many of them are made up of flights of stairs that lead down to courtyards surrounded by businesses, all at a level below the ones on the main road. This is because Old Town was built in layers — the buildings that are now underground used to be at street level. As the population of Edinburgh grew, people built vertically rather than sprawling out into suburbs, as it was advantageous to stay inside the well-defended city walls.
Once we’d gotten our fill of walking around in Old Town, it was time for our platinum tour at The Whisky Experience, a museum and whisky shop at the foot of the castle. It was an entertaining, informative, and rather boozy attraction — after a haunted house-style carts-on-tracks tour through the process of whisky-making, we were lead to a tasting room where we learned all about the different styles of whisky distilled all over Scotland.
Each region‘s spirits have their own characteristic flavor profiles and aromas, owing to the terroir and the historically employed methods of local distilleries. In tasting scotch whiskys from the Highlands, Islay, and Speyside, we detected flavors ranging from bananas to hydrogen peroxide!
That evening, we ended up The Dogs — the restaurant is named for the owner’s two dogs, who have their own statues prominently displayed in the entryway. There’s also an enormous portrait of one of the restaurant’s eponymous pets hanging behind the bar — it makes for pretty hilarious interior decorating.
We very much enjoyed our candlelit dinner, the highlight of which was a creamy crumble of goats cheese, leeks, turnips and potatoes. The oat crumble mixture on top was amazing — I’d only had that sort of topping on dessert cobblers before, but it’s fabulous in a savory context as well! It provided a great contrast with the creamy, cheese vegetables. Our waitress was kind enough to explain the cooking method to me after dinner, and I can’t wait to make some more savory casseroles as the weather gets cooler this fall.
On our third and final day in town, we took a tour outside of Edinburgh to visit a few popular tourist destinations: Glenkinchie Distillery, Melrose Abbey, and the famous Rosslyn Chapel. We also stopped at Scott’s View, took a short hike to a statue of William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart), and got waylaid by a small herd of cows crossing the road in front of our bus. All in all, a pretty action-packed tour!
Rosslyn Chapel was beautiful — every surface has been hand-carved by masons, and the imagery is both beautiful and mysterious. There are oddities such as a horned likeness of Moses, plants that look suspiciously like maize (a New World crop that, according to common wisdom, was not known to the British Isles at the time the chapel was built) and grim tableaux featuring sinners receiving punishment for their misdeeds.
The whole church is currently undergoing a massive restoration project. Black mold has been eroding much of the interior over time, and past efforts to paint over it have only succeeded in compromizing the structure of the stone. Nowadays, modern restorers are injecting a resin compound directly into the stone to help strengthen it. They are also re-carving many parts of the building that have seen wear and tear over the centuries — originally built in the mid-15th century, it has certainly taken its fair share of abuse. Strangely enough, all of this restoration is possible not because of national interests, but due to increased tourism revenue stemming from the chapel’s mention in Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. Once Hollywood swooped in to film the movie starring Tom Hanks, the chapel’s visitorship skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, the chapel’s increased fame came at a bit of a price — a few crazies have come out of the woodwork, obsessed with the chapel’s tenuous ties to the Knights Templar and freemasonry. One particularly batty tourist, convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was hidden underneath the chapel floor, came into the building wielding an axe, ready to claim buried treasure! Luckily, he wasn’t able to carry out his mission and nobody was harmed.
Our final bus tour destination was Glenkinchie distillery, where we got to walk through the whisky-making process and see everything first hand, from the fermenting casks topped with barm to the enormous copper distilling tanks. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the distillery — each outfit carefully guards its whisky-making process. We left with a bottle of their 12-year-old single malt, which we’re looking forward to cracking open on a chilly night!
Once back in Edinburgh, we headed to our last dinner destination, Urban Angel. On the way there, we happened upon Real Foods Ltd, a fantastic-looking health food store. Inside, we picked up some varieties of gluten-free crackers we’d never seen in the U.S., which turned out to be very good — if you’re listening, Amisa, please ship your goodies to this side of the pond! Upon checking out, I remarked on how great the store was, and when the clerk found out we were from San Francisco, she mentioned that one of their employees used to work at Rainbow Grocery. Small world!
Walking into Urban Angel, we felt like we may as well be back in the Mission. The vibe was decidedly hipsterish, with employees to match — with skinny jeans and asymmetrical haircuts, they reminded us of our neighbors down to every last detail, save for their Scottish accents. The food was much like any farm-to-table restaurant in SF, except there was *more* of it — my generously-portioned chanterelle risotto featured locally foraged mushrooms, and the impressive pile of arugula salad came napped in a flavorful vinaigrette. I am pretty sure GF Boy ordered something featuring chicken and haggis, but I think he ate all of it before I got to try it . . . in any case, it must have been good!
After one final evening of watching Olympics on TV, drinking cups of Tick Tock Tea, and getting a good night’s sleep, we made our way back to the airport on Tuesday morning, stopping by Sainsbury’s for a few airport snacks.
After a last couple sips of duty-free whisky (it must have been noon somewhere), we were on our way back to the States.
Thanks for reading all about my summer travels! It’s been a lot of fun writing about our Euroventures — I’ve enjoyed reliving all of it as I share it with you. Next up, GF Boy and I are headed to Tahoe for a family-filled birthday weekend, and then I’ll begin my next adventures, cooking, singing and teaching voice lessons!
Coco a.k.a. Opera Girl