I’m off back to the capital…..
Every July, I make a point of heading to Edinburgh for a couple of days. Just to confirm that it’s still got it and that the complimentary appeal is as strong as ever with my home city of Glasgow. In so doing I beat the imminent pandemonic rush from the Edinburgh Festival but still see this most tourism-centred of cities at the height of its powers as one of the most visitable in Europe. When the Royal Mile is chocka with more nationalities that you can wave a stick at, hotels and restaurants are struggling under the strain and us tourism types swell with pride that Scotland is more popular than ever. Good times indeed. This year’s visit will see me take in one of the country’s top visitor attractions in the heart of the city and merge it with a relaxing hike in the city outskirts. Because, regardless of how often you may visit, this is a city that you’ll never be done with.
In previous blogs I’ve covered so many elements within Edinburgh that show the range of distractions that it can deliver. Lovers of the outdoors can take a hike up Arthur’s Seat or a stroll along the Water of Leith. History buffs can head to the Castle or the Scott Monument. Culture vultures have the National Museum of Scotland, Writer’s Museum or Surgeons’ Hall. Foodies and drinkers have the Grassmarket and the New Town. In a small area, it’s done a spectacular job of keeping everyone happy. So, in an uncharacteristically relaxed move, I’m going to make this visit about enjoying Edinburgh at a reasonable, normal human’s pace. Dabbling in a couple of its best assets and just soaking up the atmosphere. It came pretty naturally.
The Real Mary King’s Close
With the frenetically fun vibes emanating from the Royal Mile over Festival season, Edinburgh’s murkier, more sinister side – that is so prevalent in winter – is quickly forgotten. The carnival atmosphere replaces all the ghost stories and Old Town spookiness that is such a fundamental element in the city’s overall appeal. One grim nugget remains, however. The Real Mary King’s Close is a captivating and unnerving look at subterranean Edinburgh and all of its dingy secrets. A step back in time to the mid-17th Century when squalor, overcrowding, disease and crime were rife in this network of underground streets, highly questionable homes and dodgy passageways.
Today, ghost stories involving Mary King’s Close are plentiful. The most memorable concerns a little girl that has come to be known as Annie. During a visit of the Close by a Japanese psychic in recent times, she claimed to strongly feel the presence of this little girl who enquired sadly of her why she had been abandoned by her mother for having the plague. She tells the psychic that she has also lost her favourite doll and is heartbroken by the separation. The story goes that as long as little Annie has a doll, the room where this event happened will never again be disturbed by her spirit. Hence why a veritable army of toys left by visitors now adorns a corner of the Close. Just in case.
This is a truly unique place that merges atmospherics and evocative imagery with an appallingly fascinating chapter in urban history. References to the plague are extremely powerful – the thought of streets of inhabitants being contaminated by this widespread wrecker of lives is chilling. As is the primitive medical support on offer amidst ever-dark living conditions and constant concerns over sanitation. Outstanding guides, tasteful technological aides and many centuries of history all around you ensure that this place should be high on every Edinburgh itinerary. Note – photography is not permitted inside and these images come coutesy of the attraction. Given its extremely popular status, especially in summer, I strongly advise calling ahead and reserving your spot.
The Pentland Hills
It has been much to my surprise and embarrassment that summer 2018 saw my first proper exploration of the Pentlands. The series of hills that roll effortlessly across the south of the capital, I’ve criminally overlooked them for day trip adventures in the Borders, East Lothian or Edinburgh itself. What an appalling disservice and one that I can finally rectify. While the routes open to you are lengthy and varied, my fairly limited time pushes me to Caerketton and Allermuir Hills – ideal for a couple of hours respite before returning to the city.
The vista is a beautiful one. While many will be familiar with images of Edinburgh from above via Arthur’s Seat, this is a very different panorama. Allowing for appreciation of the quite fantastic geography that Edinburgh has been afforded by Mother Nature, the welcome tranquillity and breathing space makes enormous sense in this, the hottest of summers. The east coast and the mounds of Berwick and Traprain Law stare invitingly as do the northern views over to Fife in the east and towards Loch Lomond and the Trossachs in the west. While its easy to get lost amidst peaks up north, the relatively flat central belt ensures that views are long and big – making these mounds even better on clearer days than I faced.
Getting to the hills is easily done by bus from the city centre (around 20 minutes), or car if coming from elsewhere. Access is straighforward and, although there are some surprisingly steep stretches, these are not generally challenging hikes. The perfect place for a top up for the old muscles or as a training ground ahead of hitting some of our northern giants.
A world class city break is simply not possible without a good place to set up camp. Somewhere with the flexibility to come and go with ease, an opportunistic location and, of course, comfort to greet you after long days on the hoof. My first experience with Apex Hotels in the capital was fabulous. Their Grassmarket hotel is bang in prime time when it comes to location and has the best of the city’s food and drink scene within near or immediate reach. Friendly staff, an impressive breakfast menu and very comfortable rooms made it the ideal choice for my latest weekend stay in Edinburgh. Perhaps the crowning touch, however, was the room’s balcony view. In my fairly educated opinion in this department, I’ll stick my neck out and declare this is very likely the finest urban view in Scotland. Enough said.
While I was invited to stay as a guest at the Apex Grassmarket, the above review is based entirely on my having a very positive experience at the hotel and my belief that it is a top-drawer base for those coming to Edinburgh. I look forward to further stays with Apex who have an established reputation as one of the most reliable providers in several of Scotland’s great cities.
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