Edinburgh is often known as the Athens of the north and is a brilliant city to visit. Here are some things I have done in Edinburgh.
by Denise Scotland on December 14, 2009
Edinburgh, like many other cities up and down the UK hosts a continental market during the festive season, the city boasts two main markets with unique characters and they make an enjoyable trip for some unusual treats. The markets open in late November and are opened by the Lord Provost signaling a start to the festive period and they trade until Christmas Eve opening daily from 10am to 10pm. The German market comprises around 30 small wooden huts on The Mound Precinct next to the National Gallery of Scotland. It sells a mixture of German food and drinks, sweets, wooden toys, Christmas decorations and ornamental goods. The stalls are all manned by German men and women and I had always thought that the Germans were a rather humourless bunch but I'm delighted that this stereotype was shattered. The stallholders were all happy to chat with the customers and free samples were handed out in a very generous manner. There were two incidents which stood out in my mind; one vendor roared with laughter when my daughter tried to buy a pretzel by speaking in very clumsy German and spent ages talking to her and the vendor of a stall selling sweets and cakes gave the kids so many free bits of cake and chocolate that they could barely carry them all. My favourite stalls sold gorgeous stained glass candle holders in unusual patterns so I bought a couple as a gift to myself. There was a wide range of beeswax candles and soaps, hand carved crystal decorations, jewellery and metal work as well as the wooden toys. The prices seemed fair for what were quality items and you can pick up some unusual gifts here. There are several stalls selling food and drink here. I'm afraid I can't remember the German names for anything so I shall do my best to describe what I saw in English. There were numerous sausages for sale; unfortunately there were no English descriptions of what the sausage was like so I plumped for a pink one and the four year old for one like a hot dog. My pink sausage tasted remarkably like a Mattersons pork sausage so I was unimpressed by its ordinariness but the little one ate her hot dog happily. My daughter was very impressed by her huge baked pretzel and now wants to find a recipe to make them at home. Other food choices included a stall selling various hot chocolates, potato pancakes with apple sauce, various fried potato dishes, grilled meats and beers. Prices were very reasonable for the food and drink and many stalls also sold food to take away and cook at home and a range of beers. The Highland market is located next door to the German market in East Princes Street Gardens and I was not impressed by the offerings here at all, anyone who has been to a farmers market in a Scottish town or city will recognise the format of overpriced food and crafts. The stallholders are a reserved bunch and will bleat on about how their produce is organic and locally produced in a manner that makes you want to reach for the turkey twizlers. They had the usual range of jams, oatcakes, meats, honey and cheeses at a price which will make your eyes water. The craft stalls offer a range of Scottish made goods like jewellery or hand crafted wooden items or soaps. The biggest rip off has got to be the lavender bags, lavender grows like a weed and picking a few sprigs and sticking it in a fabric pocket and charging £3 for the resulting product is just ridiculous. The food and drink here was the usual £5 for an Aberdeen Angus burger, £3 for a coffee in a paper cup but they did have things like hot toddies for sale. There is also a small French market outside the St James centre. The huts just seem to take up space on a busy walkway with metal barriers providing a tiny walkway. There were only two stalls open when we visited one selling olives and another dried fruits. The markets are ideally situated in the city centre a stone throw away from Waverley station and within a few minutes walk from the bus station. The backdrop of the Winter Wonderland with its ice rink and Edinburgh Castle make it a stunning place to visit. It is even better after dark, the place seems to come alive then and the Christmas lights are beautiful making it a truly magical experience. Edinburgh is a brilliant city to visit during the festive period with a wide range of events in the festive calendar. The German market combines charm, fantastic goods for sale and a party like atmosphere so is a must see for any visitor to the city.
Edinburgh dungeons is in the city centre just a stones throw away from the main railway station and it markets itself as a feast of fun with history’s horrible bits and it is an entertaining place to visit to learn about Edinburgh’s murky past. The guided tour of the dungeons takes you through hundreds of years of Scottish history and actors in period dress bring the past to life. Edinburgh certainly has a murky past with witchcraft, body snatchers and many ghosts within the city. The first part of the tour involves a witchcraft trial, I was the one selected to stand in the dock while an actor boomed accusations at me and I was then sentenced to death. There is a room which has many of torture devices on display which are gruesome to say the least.Burke and Hare were notorious serial killers who delivered their victims bodies to the surgeon Robert Knox to use them in anatomy theatres as a teaching tool for medical students. The fresher the cadaver the better and they made a fortune selling corpses before they were caught. A trip to an anatomy theatre tells their gruesome tale, if you visit the police museum a few hundred yards up the Royal Mile then there is also a leather notebook on display which is made from the human leather of the killers after they were executed.The catacombs underneath Edinburgh castle have been recreated as a mirrored maze where you will spend ages wandering around lost trying to find your way out. The stories of William Wallace and cannibal Sawney Beam are also told. The dungeon uses impressive special effects to bring these gruesome exhibits to life and as well as jumping out of your skin you will also have a good giggle.The one criticism I have of the dungeons is that the tour seemed to be a little rushed, it probably took around an hour in total but it felt like we were herded from room to room a little bit too fast and I would have liked to have lingered and looked at the exhibits for longer. It is also an expensive way to spend an hour if you pay full price for the tickets which is currently £13.95 for an adult admission but there are often vouchers available giving reduced entrance fees and if you book online for a quiet time of day then the prices are also lower.If you are a tourist you will learn a lot about Edinburgh’s history from a tour around the dungeons. If you are a local then you will be familiar with all of the stories told but will still enjoy your trip. The actors at the various different rooms of the exhibit were enthusiastic and really helped to bring the stories alive. It is not a place to take the very young or those who are very timid but it is a place where most adults will have a lot of fun.
by Denise Scotland on December 12, 2009
Holyrood has been home to the Scottish Government since 2004 and the building designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles was the subject of much controversy because of the massive amounts of money spent on building it and many hated the modern design. I was invited to the parliament building as part of a group by my local MSP and after we had a meeting we were given a tour of the building by her researcher. My experience will be slightly different to most visitors as we visited on a day when the parliament was sitting, public tours normally only take place on non business days. Visit the Scottish government website for more details about what days and time tours take place.Holyrood is at the bottom of the Royal Mile near to Arthur’s seat, it is a lovely walk through the lovely cobbled old streets from the city centre to the parliament building but a regular bus service also operates, unless you are disabled it is best to leave the car at home as parking is extremely limited and very expensive.The first thing that struck me when I first saw Hollyrood was how different the building looks in the flesh rather than the pictures on TV. The wooden roof beams look much softer and friendly than they do on the TV and there are also nice water features just outside the building. It is hard to fully appreciate the building from the outside, many of the features like the leaf shaped buildings and the merging of old and new are only fully apparent once you enter the building.To enter the building you need to go through airport style security. There is a shop and visitor centre telling the story of Scotland on the ground floor which is open to visitors all the time, to explore the building further you need to take one of the guided tours.The first port of call for us on our visit was one of the huge meeting rooms which was tastefully furnished with lots of wood and leather. Our next port of call was a conference room where we were told about the IT systems and where MSPs hold press conferences.Much of the interior of the building seems very drab, a lot of the concrete staircases reminded me of a tower block for instance although I suppose they were perfectly functional. My MSPs office was similarly pretty drab, a tiny office with a terrible view of concrete pillars from the window.The most interesting part of the tour was learning more about the history of the devolved parliament and government in Scotland from the middle ages to the present day. There is a room in the building where the old and new meet where the new parliament was built joining onto the ancient Queensbury house which was first built in 1681 and now houses a memorial to the founder of the present parliament Donald Dewar. The garden room will be familiar to anyone who has seen interviews with politicians on the TV and is also where you enter the main debating chamber. The design of the chamber is spectacular and it was great to see where the action happens, the design reflects the fact that politicians in the parliament are meant to work together rather than the traditional benches at Westminster where opponents face each other in debate. You can also book tickets to watch debates in action.Like many Scots I was delighted when the Scottish Parliament buildings opened, for the first time since 1707 our country had a parliament. I am someone who has a keen interest in Scottish history and politics and I enjoyed my tour of the parliament but for somebody without the same passion for the subject it could be pretty dull. There is a lot of walking during the tour and a lot of stairs to climb so if you are disabled it is best to contact the parliament first to see if they can help you with access. A free crèche is also available to all visitors with advance booking. I’m glad that I visited the parliament buildings so that I could see for myself where the decisions about my country are made and it is a place I recommend all visitors to Edinburgh visit if they have an interest in history, architecture or politics.MSP = member of the Scottish parliament.
by Denise Scotland on October 20, 2009
I'm a confirmed skeptic who believes that there is a rational explanation for most things paranormal. My other half however believes in things that go bump in the night. He had read a lot about the Mackenzie poltergeist and really wanted to go on the City Of The Dead tour. After a lot of begging on his part for me to go with him we got into the car one night to go join the tour.The tour is run by Black Hart entertainment who run walking tours all over the UK. They were set up by Jan-Andrew Henderson, a historian who also wrote the book The Ghost That Haunted itself which sparked my partners interest.We walked up to the wonderful St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile to join the tour and were met by our tour guide. There were around 15 people on the tour that night, mostly tourists.The tour starts outside the cathedral with the guide telling you stories about Edinburghs murky past. She told us a particularly gruesome account of a witchcraft trial and how a whole family were killed. She also told us some of the history of the cathedral and spooked us out a bit by telling us that the car park we were standing on was a graveyeard until the council decided to tarmac it over and that the ghosts were not happy about their bodies being moved.The tour then moved to Greyfriars kirkyard, around 10-15 minutes walk away. This is a lovely ancient graveyard, I've enjoyed visiting it during the day and reading all the old gravestones. It is, of course, also the setting of the story Greyfriars Bobby.It's at this point that the tour guide collected the admission fees for the tour (£8.50 for adults, £6.50 for concessions) and locked the graveyard gates!Once we were inside, the guide told us a bit about the history of the cemetery. I was shocked to learn that the hill we were standing on held as many as 500 000 bodies which were simply layered there during the days of the plague.Then we were taken to a dark corner of the cemetery which I had never seen before and things got decidedly spooky. The air seemed to be even chillier here than in other parts of the graveyard. Me, the hard headed skeptic, started clinging on to my other half at this point, just because I was cold you must understand.Then we were taken into The Covenanters Prison. This is where over 1000 Presbyterians men were imprisoned in 1679 by Bluidy (or bloody) George Mackenzie for their opposition of the Stuart kings. Many of these men perished in this open air prison. We were then taken inside a mausoleum.Inside this small, dark room we were treated to further tales of the dark past of the prison and the men who once inhabited it. We were told of the many manifestations of the poltergeist and that they often physically assaulted the guests, indeed sexual assaults were reported to have occured. I'd heard reports of visitors being scratched and bruised during the tour. The guide did a great job of building up a spooky atmosphere. At one point I felt something brushing against my sleeve and jumped out of my skin until I realised it was the man next to me.On the way out we were shown the famous Mackenzie mausoleum, the final resting place of Goerge Mackenzie, home of the Mackenzie poltergeist and reportedly one of the most haunted locations on the planet.I found the tour really enjoyable. Even though I knew a bit about the history of Edinburgh, I learned a lot more that night. The tour guide was lively and entertaining and built up a great atmosphere.I would suggest that you bring a torch so that you can see your feet when wandering around a graveyard in the pitch black. There are loads of nice little pubs in the area outside the cemetery for you to relax in afterwards. Greyfriars is also well worth a visit during the day.
by Denise Scotland on November 14, 2009
A trip to the zoo is one of those days out that kids always love, the last time I visited Edinburgh zoo was 10 years ago with the toddler group. The toddler group used to go there every year, on my first visit I became upset at the conditions of some of the big cats, especially the snow leopard which paced back and forwards in its enclosure looking utterly miserable. The animal was still there pacing a year later and I decided to boycott the zoo afterwards. I had read in the newspapers that the zoo had made massive improvements over the past few years especially to the big cat enclosures so I decided to put my misgivings aside to accompany a group of friends to the zoo for the day to celebrate a friends birthday.The first thing that anyone visiting Edinburgh zoo needs to know is that the zoo is located on Corstophine Hill which is extremely steep. There is a free bus which runs from the entrance to the top of the zoo every half an hour but we missed it and decided to walk instead. My legs were aching by the end of the day but the view from the top of the zoo is stunning and worth the walk as you can see the whole city of Edinburgh and over to the Pentland hills.Edinburgh zoo is best known for the penguins and since my last visit the penguin family has grown in size with bigger enclosures. We particularly enjoyed viewing the penguins swimming underwater through a viewing window set into their pool. We also saw the daily penguin parade where the birds are led through the zoo and enjoyed the talk by the keepers. They have three species of penguin at the zoo, the king, gentoo and rockhopper penguins, the rockhopper earning the nickname of the punk penguin from us because of the brightly coloured feathers that spike from its head.The big cats were one of the most memorable parts of our visit, the enclosures seem to have doubled in size in the last ten years. The pallas cat looks like a massive fluffy housecat, the tigers look content and my friend managed to use the body language she uses with her domestic cat to lure one of them from his resting place to the front of the enclosure to say hello. The problem is that snow leopard is still there (either that or it is a very similar animal) and is still pacing the same path along the front of its enclosureAnother animal we enjoyed seeing was the wolves which live in a huge enclosure at the top of the hill and there is a viewing shelter to let you see them up close. Other animals of note are the comical little bushdogs, the huge rhino, the tapir and the animals in the African plains reserve like the zebra.A part of the zoo I had really looked forward to seeing was the new Budongo trail which is a chimpanzee enclosure also used to study the behaviour of these animals, it was of special interest to me because I am currently studying evolutionary psychology and I find the cross species insights fascinating, as they say we are just monkeys in shoes! The trail is a fantastic building with state of the art lecture theatres and glass fronted indoor enclosures and a huge custom built outdoor habitat. The problem was that on the day of our visit the only event was a video, there were no chimps inside to watch through the glass and the chimpanzees outside were so far away from the public viewing areas that we could not see them clearly.There is another smaller monkey house near the main entrance, I seem to remember when I last visited that the building used to be the reptile house. The enclosures seemed small here, the animals being held behind glass but it was nice to get close to the animals.Something that was really disappointing was the number of empty enclosures within the zoo including the enclosure for the painted hunting dog, Mercedes the polar bear has now been moved to the Highland Wildlife Park and the Scottish wildcat and beavers were nowhere to be seen. There were signs apologising for the empty enclosures, I estimate approximately 15% or more of the animals listed were not present.There are various eating and drinking points dotted around the park as well as picnic areas where you can eat food you have brought yourself. The toilets are few and far between and even in November we had to queue to use them. The gift shop is brilliant with several funky low cost gifts to remind you of your day.Overall I was not too impressed by Edinburgh zoo and it will probably be another ten years till I visit again. It is an expensive day out with an adult ticket costing £14 and a child ticket £9.50 and for less money you can visit Blair Drummond safari park and have a much better day. I did enjoy some aspects of the zoo like the penguins but with so many empty pens and difficulty seeing some animals because of the design of the enclosures there were many more we missed. If I compare Edinburgh to Blackpool zoo which I visited earlier this year then the former is pretty poor and does not have the same laid back feel or focus on giving the visitor a great day out. Our day at Edinburgh zoo was simply ok but not brilliant and I think there are far better family attractions in the area.
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