Searching for Athens of the North – Edinburgh Vista
(This begins the 2016 Scotland series. I will cherrypick some of my favourite moments since a complete chronicle, by my usual snail-like pace, will take us til the end of times. A Traditional Chinese version should appear alongside after even more delay. Do please track my progress with frequent visits!)
2016: A Scottish Summer. My Scottish summer.
Edinburgh, the capital and by a country mile the city that I know best in Scotland, having visited a few summers ago. Weeks and years may have passed by, yet I can still picture vividly those lovely afternoons, basking in the unseasonable Northern warmth, when I traced my steps from the cobbled medieval streets to the orderly boulevards decorated in Georgian grandeur. People have christened Edinburgh as ‘Athens of the North’: with its splendid architecture, reputation for academia and enlightenment, AND that clear sky of ocean blue that fails to greet me, who is it to object?
I’ve never seen Athens, but I have been to Edinburgh a few times and saw at first hand its status as a gorgeous and illustrious city. The favourable geological arrangement provided quite a few intriguing options for a panorama. Instead of a sight-by-sight overview, may I present to you my two cents to see Edinburgh? (Warning, poorly-shot phone photos ahead, viewers are advised to put on their preferred Instagram filter themselves)
Edinburgh Castle: the icon, the standard bearer; what Big Ben is to London for the proud Scot. While a symbol of city and vital in Scotland’s history, I’ve always found the grounds a tad… underwhelming. The Castle has not hosted a reigning monarch since 1633, and it has spent the next five centuries designated as a military garrison: the sober(!) and functional ethos entrenched within the armed forces have long since replaced hints of the royal ornate, extravagance. The Scottish Crown Jewels may be resident, secured in a concealed display room that doubles as a giant vault; but much of the interior is dedicated to barracks, monuments and regimental museums. It is brute and formidable from afar but lacks the delicate touch commonly found with the great European castles and palaces.
Therefore, instead of looking in, let’s look outwards: Edinburgh Castle occupies an enviable defensive position atop the city which in this peaceful era provides some of the best views of the gem of Edinburgh: the New Town.
Built throughout the 18th and 19th century, the New Town of Edinburgh has been hailed (by none other than the foremost expert of our times, Wikipedia) as a ‘masterpiece of city planning.’ It is not difficult to deduce why it has been inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Much of the original neo-classical and Georgian architecture has survived, as has the neat, uniform grid system, hosting wide thoroughfares and garden squares, displaying the magical townscape. And a hefty price tag.
Between the Old and New Town lies a steep and narrow valley, formerly a loch, that now forms of the site of Waverley railway station surrounded by city-centre greenery; beyond the rolling mansions lies Leith, the port, and the Scottish mountains and oceans. It may lack the castle’s recognisable, touristic appeal, but it is one of my favourite views.
On the Castle battery, looking out, I noticed the classical columns to my right: half-built or perhaps half-decayed, casting a watchful eye down towards the bustling city, it fittingly conjured images of the Acropolis. I did not remember Edinburgh as a Roman settlement, and as I completed the short hike to Calton Hill, I have my answer.
Calton Hill is the stronghold of the Scottish Government which was consecrated as one of Edinburgh’s oldest public parks. Its deceivably low summit (103m, the hike seemed a lot harder than that) houses various civic buildings, of which the National Monument is the most prominent. Intended as a catacomb for fallen soldiers, its construction was halted due to the age-old problem: money, or lack thereof. Surprising: Edinburgh has failed where Sunderland succeeded.
The Monument has seen many proposals for its completion and revitalisation (what a corporate phrase): although judging from the standalone wall of columns that remains, quite clearly nothing has come of those plans. All the better. On this warm day that I visited, the sky and clouds seemed incredibly near, the stone facade is a wonderful place to read, for vistas around this magnificent city, for the peaceful few hours.
Lastly, we move to the most obvious look out of Edinburgh, and by ‘obvious’ I mean ‘large’: Arthur’s Seat. An extinct volcano, a most astonishing bit of nature in the heart of a major city like Edinburgh, there is simply no way for any visitors to ignore it. Even though, for bizarre reasons, I have never got anywhere near its summit in the previous two trips here.
This time, it was… no exception. Initiating the ascent from the pointlessly tough track by Holyroodhouse, the only advantage was a view towards the Old Town, with the Castle as the centrepiece surrounded by this beautiful city. After a breathtaking, literally, walk slash climb between the rocks, I arrived at my Edinburgh memory. The ‘crossroad’ on the foot of Arthur’s Seat, looking towards Leith.
Last time I was in Edinburgh, it was a day-trip with a group of friends from university. Due to time constraints we never made it all the way to the summit, and instead spent quite a bit of time on this crossroad, looking out, sitting, contemplating, meditating even. The image stuck.
It may well be the side without the glamour, the grandeur, heck the interest. But this will forever entrench in my Edinburgh memory.