Looking up over the brilliant blooms of Princess Street Gardens toward the brooding gray battlements of Edinburgh Castle, a visitor finds it difficult to imagine the tumultuous beginnings of this now-tranquil city and its friendly people.
Fierce and bloody battles, tenuous truces, devastating raids, rebellions, plots and counterplots, hangings and beheadings, internecine forays between clansmen--it seems the early reign of intrigue, death and destruction was endless.
The castle's cast of characters was no less dramatic: Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, Bonnie Prince Charlie and four Stuart Kings of the 15th Century, none of whom died in bed. Indeed, Scot-born John Paul Jones sailed into the Firth of Forth just to lob a few cannon balls at the castle during the American Revolution.
Yet Edinburgh Castle has always been the stalwart symbol of Scotland, particularly during the interminable wars with England. Another symbol, the Scottish lion, was once kept there in pairs and, according to our jovial castle guide, fed a daily ration of two Englishmen.
Once one of Britain's most elegant shopping thoroughfares, Princes Street is only now beginning to emerge from a decade or so when its smart stores gave way to fast-food emporiums and tacky souvenir stalls. Today it is once again becoming worthy of this lovely old city of formal Georgian houses, innumerable heroic monuments and convivial citizens no more dour than their lively forebears.
Here to there: British Caledonian and British Airways will get you there with a change in London, several U.S. carriers and Air New Zealand to London for a change to either of the first two or British Midland. Take an airport bus to the center of town for $2.50 or a cab for about $10.
How long/how much? Give it at least two days, another for a short trip across the firth for a taste of the Highlands. Lodging costs are high moderate to expensive, dining costs moderate and less.
A few fast facts: The British pound was recently valued at $1.48, a dollar buying you about 67 pence. Late spring until mid-fall are best times for a visit. Raw winters are hardly the weather for kilts.
Getting settled in: Old Waverly Hotel (43 Princes St.; $92 double, full Scottish breakfast) was built in 1748 just opposite the castle, gardens and monument to Sir Walter Scott. Waverly Station and air terminal are nearby. Recently renovated but still rather formal, the dining room with its lavender draperies seemed rather flouncy to us. Still, it's improved measurably since a previous visit, and the location is difficult to beat.
Mount Royal (53 Princes St.; $80 B&B) is modern, top to bottom: large rooms with views of castle, a coffee-tea-bar lounge combined with dining room into an absolutely huge room that didn't exactly overwhelm us with its ambiance. But, thanks to our shaky dollar, Mount Royal is a good value in today's Edinburgh.
Clarendon (12 Grosvenor St.; $83 double with full breakfast) was the trip's find for us, two houses combined within a Georgian block, large rooms and baths, a staff that goes well beyond the usual Scot friendliness. A quiet place in a neighborhood that's pure Edinburgh, good dining, each room with TV and video system, tea/coffee-making facilities for slow-to-get-moving types.
Regional food and drink: Let's throw a bit of light on the haggis mystery, first by saying it's all the less-choice parts of a sheep made into a choice dish that we look forward to on our trips here. Ground, stuffed and cooked in a sheep's stomach, it is often served ceremoniously with pipes, drums and a few lines of praise from Robert Burns' "Address to the Haggis." The paunch is then lanced with a dirk a clansman carries in his stocking. All very impressive, but we'll take our haggis in a patty beside breakfast eggs.
Aberdeen Angus beef has few equals on this planet, and lamb is prepared well here in a number of ways. The flavor and delicacy of Scotland's salmon needs no fanfare, but the country's bakers deserve accolades for the variety of breads, scones and shortbreads they turn out.
Scotch whisky may be suffering a decline elsewhere in the world, but here it still goes down in one gulp with a hearty slange gevar toast at every bar and pub, of which Edinburgh has more than its fair share.
Moderate-cost dining: Rose Street between Princes and George is awash in good pubs and small restaurants, our favorite of many years the Abbotsford at the east end. Dine here on the likes of shepherd's pie, fillet of haddock, haggis and turnips or a fine mixed grill, the last being most expensive at less than $6, the same for a grilled sirloin. The wooden race-track bar at room center is a work of art, a favorite gathering place for business types at lunchtime.