A biting chill rides the frozen wind that crosses the esplanade in front of the castle. Visitors tuck closer behind the ancient ramparts hoping to find a protective lee, a moment of relief from the sand-like frozen mist. It proves fruitless as the gusts swirl and twist as though they originate from every direction. The ancient castle is perched high on its volcanic outcrop and looms mightily above the city below. When viewed from the streets of the lower city on stormy days like this, the castle appears to be floating in the clouds, sometimes visible and sometimes not.
The sound of a lone bagpipe carries strongly upward from the streets of the New Town far below. Its distinctive sound, so engrained in the culture of this part of the world, can fill the heart with longing and melancholy. Yet, on days like this, the sound penetrates the weather, and provides the hopefulness and inspiration to make the best of what the day might bring. Muted streetlights cast shadows on Princes Street, the wide boulevard below. Double-decker buses carry late commuters along the moist streets. Pedestrians stride briskly along the broad sidewalks, past ornate Edwardian storefronts, wasting no time getting to their destinations. It’s late March and winter still hangs heavy over the city.
If gray is a color, then no city has cornered the market better than this. Starting from the sky and looking down toward the cobbled street stones on this stormy day, the shades seem uncountable. Common vocabulary terms of light gray or dark gray don’t do justice to describe the lack of color. You often find yourself reaching for less used descriptors. Ash, platinum, gunmetal, charcoal, nickel, gray-green, blue-gray, asphalt and battleship become common terms. You may discover yourself reaching for more, perhaps taupe or puce uncomfortably roll across your tongue.
The architectural history of the city is easily traceable as you walk downhill from the castle along the high street toward the royal palace. In medieval times nearly the entire town was located along the wide street now called the Royal Mile. Only small parcels of land were available next to the road running along the natural volcanic rock spine that flows downhill from the castle. In ancient times these small plots were massively developed with some of the tallest and most densely populated buildings anywhere in the world at the time. Impressive stone facades line the street. Built to stand up to the elements and impress, they spread their broad shoulders high above the street.
On cloudy days, the gothic spires of the many ancient churches along the mile literally reach skyward into the clouds. St. Giles is the most famous. It provides a welcome break from the weather on a stormy day. Towering arches rise high above the pews, softly but colorfully lit by the immense stain glass windows that fill the church. Although fairly modern by this church’s standards, the ornately carved Thistle Chapel inside conjures images of Knights and Kings in times past.
Numerous tiny alleyways called ‘closes’ are located along the entire length of the Royal Mile. They lead to tiny courtyards surrounded by large buildings that provided crowded housing for the early citizens. Rich and poor mixed together in these tenements. When passing through these arched passageways on a stormy night or gray windy day, it is easy to see where favorite Edinburgh authors Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and J.K. Rowling found inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or some of the darker passages of the Harry Potter books. The cold drafts, dark shadows and foggy mists can inspire a chill in anyone’s dreams.
The stormy days and chill filled nights may force the visitor indoors. This is not necessarily a problem as Edinburghians have created a wealth of indoor activities to chase away the gray of winter. A host of world class museums, as nice as any in Europe, seem to be around every corner. The National Museum of Scotland is amazing and requires multiple visits. Visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Museum on the Mound and National Gallery of Modern Art can easily fill a day. The Writers Museum and displays at the National Library are interesting and provide excellent afternoons indoors. All are outstanding and all are free.
Cafes, Pubs and Bars are always filled with friendly people who are willing to have a chat. Stylish, well informed citizens are proud of their country and heritage. Coffee, Tea, Gin, Beer and of course Whiskey each have loyal devotees who are willing to share their knowledge with the less informed.
Time passes and the gloomy skies eventually give way and spots of blue sporadically appear. Almost magically a few yellow daffodils are noticed as you pass the towering Scott Monument along Princes Street. The next day you notice a few pink or white flowers in the budding trees. Recently turned flower beds begin to fill with colorful flowers in the abundant parks of the city. Window boxes are hung out on windowsills of palatial Edwardian townhouses adding a welcome softness to normally stern facades.
It is time to head up the hill to Queens Park, the undulating grass covered hilly area behind Holyrood Palace. Take an easy hike around Salisbury Crags or perhaps follow the young and fit to the top of Arthur’s Seat for commanding views over the entire city and all the way to the sea. The cities different periods of development are noticeable, roads growing wider as your eyes travel from the dense inner city outward to the surrounding countryside.
Another sunny afternoon can be spent viewing monuments on Calton Hill which towers over the inner city and provides the best views if you are lucky enough to catch a sunset. The nearby seaside town of Leith is an easy bus ride away. The once gritty town depicted in Trainspotters is slowly (and perhaps grudgingly) giving way to gentrification. Perhaps a tour of the retired HMS Britannia, the former Royal Yacht of Queen Elizabeth on a sunny day will give you an idea of the excitement surrounding a royal visit.
Sunny days also bring opportunities to purchase an inexpensive day pass on public buses for trips outward into the beautiful green countryside that is found north of Edinburgh. After crossing the choppy water of the Firth of Forth, narrow two lane roads lead the way through wooded farmlands and lush pastures. Horses, ponies, cows and of course sheep with heavy fleece ready for shearing after a long winter are everywhere. Recently tilled fields, separated by tall hedges, appear ready for planting soon.
A visit to Saint Andrews, the legendary home to golf, is enchanting for day trippers as well as golfers. Classic architecture of the historic city center filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops draw visitors for sunny afternoon strolling. A long sandy beach and stunning coastal walkway leads along the gray-green sea and past the ruins of an ancient castle and cathedral.
Edinburgh is known as Festival City. It is known worldwide for its almost never ending outdoor party that runs non-stop for most of the summer. Unfortunately we were not here to visit in the best part of the year. Nevertheless, once we adjusted to the hour to hour weather extremes that make up Edinburgh’s early spring, we found the city to be one of our favorites. Any challenges or frustrations encountered with the weather were easily overcome with an extra layer of clothing or an interesting conversation with one of the warm hearted citizens. Most assuredly we will return one day. This is a four season area of the world and surely each is worth seeing.