3/10/12: Edinburgh, Scotland – My homeland.

I find it quite odd the amount of Starbucks there are in the world. I always seem to find them no matter my location. I have to say, it’s nice to have a bit of home with me when I’m half across the world but, nonetheless, I’m going to force myself to start trying more of the local fare when it comes to caffeine. However, the one that I’m occupying currently is quite the find. It is situated under a rail station. The ceiling and walls are made of old brick with colors varying from dark chocolate brown to deep burgundy and held together with ancient mortar that is wearing its years well. Every 15 minutes or so there’s a rumble from above that never fails to make a couple heads turn to the heavens in hope they won’t get hit with a brick. It’s rugged and I love it.

Last weekend my roommate, friend and I went to Edinburgh, Scotland. Words cannot describe how happy I was to be there. I always knew I would go to Scotland. As heritage goes, I’m mainly Scottish and I knew I’d hear it from my dad if I didn’t visit while being on the same freaking island. When planning for all of my travel around Europe, I never really set aside a weekend to take the train to Scotland. I kept on saying, “It will just happen – someone will undoubtedly go there and I’ll just ride along with them.” Word to the travel newbies (like moi), do not make plans with an imaginative idea of someone wanting to do exactly what you had envisioned in your head. Chances are, you’ll never end up doing what you had intended. Just set a date, book your train, hopefully convince some friends to go with you, but by all means, just go on that dang trip. I was in sure panic mode last week when I started planning out my remaining free weekends abroad and realized that this dream of exploring my roots might not become a reality unless I acted quickly. When I finally discovered this predicament, I thankfully had friends who wanted to go with me and the time and the means to take the train to beloved Scotland. Never will I ever rely on chance again when it comes to making plans.

The weekend was a spectacular success. We brought the night train up which took about 5 hours and got us into the heart of Edinburgh by midnight. Then it was a short hop, skip, get lost for 10 minutes, and a jump to our hostel (which I have to say, for being my first experience in a hostel, was surprisingly nice). We went straight to bed so we could wake up early and get the most out of our Saturday. Early was, however, a relative term. The occupants above us thought that the night was indeed young and proceeded to jump about and sing along to pop music. For the first hour I could understand their noisiness, I mean, they’re on vacation too. By 2am I was about finished with the ruckus, put my ear buds in and tried to drain out the drunken buffoons with some classical music. The morning came a bit too soon but I was itching with anticipation to see the city. We stuffed ourselves with the continental breakfast (free food is a coveted find while studying abroad) and headed out into the crisp morning air.

Since we arrived late at night, we didn’t get a chance to take a good look at Edinburgh. Well, the clear, bright morning definitely made up for that! As my friends and I stepped out of the hostel, we stopped dead in our tracks as we were stunned by the spectacular Scotland scenery around us. From ancient buildings and cobblestone roads, to castles and emerald green parks, Edinburgh was instantly my favorite city in the world. After taking a minute to catch our breath we all turned to each other with eyes as wide as Christmas morning.

First thing on our agenda was a trip to Edinburgh Castle. The journey had us climbing up a windy, steep, cobblestone road passing gardens, whiskey distilleries and epic views of the city. To say the least, it took us awhile. Finally, we found ourselves at the castle gates as we stared up in awe at the magnificently ancient palace in front of us. As we fought our way past a crowd of tourists taking countless pictures we couldn’t take our eyes off of the incredible architecture merely feet in front of us. The stones had delicate moss growing on them which casually spilled over the sides like green waterfalls. We walked as far into the castle as we could without having to pay and snapped some tourist-y yet beautiful pictures in the bustling atmosphere around the courtyard. As we can all agree, it was a great start to our weekend.

Once we pushed our way back through the crowd of tourists, we hit the streets again to explore more of the inner city. There’s a park in the heart of Edinburgh that is vibrantly green, extremely well kept, and, most importantly, hugely unavoidable. It literally borders all major roads within the city so, unfortunately, we were “stuck” with it. As I’ve told many a worried friend back in Wisconsin, “Don’t worry, you can take the girl out of Wisconsin but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the girl.” I can’t make that more clear than in my love for nature and all things green. London offers many small parks and light afternoon “getaways” from the hustle and bustle but nothing of this magnitude. It was in the air, the atmosphere, the very aroma of the city. It was freshness with a hint of complete freedom. As we snapped multiple pictures of trees, valleys, fountains and ancient graveyard stones, the girls and I felt like we had just shook Scotland’s right hand. We weren’t visitors anymore, we were acquaintances.

As we wound our way back through the park, we decided our course of action for the next 10 hours. Besides haggis, whiskey, cider and Guinness (those of which to come at the end of our journey) we made plans to tackle two of the peaks in Edinburgh. One, being Calton Hill which holds ruins from Scotland’s earlier ages and whose rolling grassy demeanor remind me of The Sound of Music. From Calton Hill, if you look across the city over the Scottish Parliament building you see a massive “hill” (I’d like to say mountain but I am statistically proven wrong). Nevertheless, this thing is immense and any picture you take of it will show you otherwise. Trust me. I, being riddled with excitement and adrenaline from climbing the first hill, wanted more. So, up the Edinburgh Hill we go!

My main reason for climbing was my mom. She had described this gigantic hill that offered bar-none the best panoramic views of the Scotland as well as host one of my childhood literary favorite’s “seat”. Can you think of the one I’m referring to? Guinevere? The Sword in the Stone? The Edinburgh Hill houses the one and only King Arthur’s Seat and as my mother had warned, it wasn’t very easy to get to. There are two ways to tackle this mountain and, yes, I’ll stick with mountain for this part of the story; from the front (which was the seemingly easier route) or the back (the ominous “dark” side of the mountain) which is not visible to the majority of Edinburgh. I’d love to tell you that we were bold enough to take the path less traveled and brave the back entrance. Sadly, like ducklings following their mother, we began our ascent from the anterior side of the mountain.

The first leg was a steep, rocky incline. Yes, there were amazing views. No, there weren’t any decent places to take a break. When we finally reached a bend in the path we halted to take some pictures of the city below (which was magnificent) then turned to the path again to meet our demise. But, wait, this path isn’t going up. No, no this path is most certainly advancing at a slowly, but surely, downwards slope.  Exasperated and confused we proceeded down the path in full knowledge that we had made the wrong choice in attacking this mountain.

About half way down the length we had just climbed we spotted another path leading up the hill again and let me tell you, this path was not what I had signed up for. To all my geeks out there, remember those stairs leading to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings? Those really steep, unsafe, “better hold onto those branches next to you so you don’t fall off” kind of stairs? Yeah. This was that, but in Edinburgh and with three college-aged girls fighting out way to King Arthur’s Seat. Thank you J.R.R Tolkien, for your amazing literary works, but you could have let on that bits of those stories were real.

After climbing, clawing, and mis-stepping our way, we finally reached the top of the hill. We had about five seconds of pure joy and relief that the end was near before being hit with gale force winds that literally pushed us sideways. I wanted to take so many, “I made it!” pictures but it would have looked as if I went skydiving. Wind in the face, hair a mess, yet utterly happy, we climbed the last small leg of the hill to the Seat. I instantly got a bout of homesickness as I could hear my dad speaking his strong (yet fake) Scottish accent in my head. “Ay, you Bonnie Lass, come down to the lake for a morning canoe around the loch!” and once in the canoe, he’d religiously lead with his famous phrase, “Keep yer head down, yer mouth shut, and paddle.” It was the first time I really felt homesick for my family. I think it was the ancestral ties to the city and the past trips my mom and dad had taken to Scotland. I was standing where they were almost 30 years ago. This was the hill, the views, the feeling my mom had told me about. Sans the minor mishaps and frustrations leading up to this peak I felt immensely accomplished and overwhelmed with love for my family. These emotions, which were coupled with the spectacular views and (let’s be honest) the gale force winds blowing my eyes out, made me begin to tear up. After taking as many pictures as I could muster, we started our descent down from King Arthur’s Seat.

Not so surprisingly, the way down was eons easier than the climb. We stumbled upon a small pond filled with swans as we reached the bottom and I, not so cleverly, deemed it Swan Lake. Now, all we had to do was hike our way back through the city, to our hostel, clean ourselves up (relatively) and head out to a pub. Chop, chop! For the beer, cider, fish ‘n chips, haggis, and scotch awaits!

Day two, Sunday, was deemed our shop-till-you-drop day as we raided the local Edinburgh shops in pursuit of the traditional wool sweater, plaid scarf, and – if you were daring – a kilt! Let’s just say, after the day was done, I was – and still am – scared to look at my bank statement. I don’t think I can attribute that overspending to the exchange rate alone. On a lighter note, most of my family is Scottish so I got Christmas all sewn up!

I didn’t want to leave but our train was calling and so were my mass amounts of homework awaiting me upon my return. I have to say, London is fantastic and I am so lucky to have this experience here but if I were to do a “do-over” it would hands down be in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’m addicted and I want to go back already! I’ve decided that I want to take my parents there for their anniversary someday. A dream that is some years, thousands of dollars and a full-time work position away but nonetheless a good dream. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to make good on that promise and get back to the homeland of the Stewart Clan – Scotland.

Thanks again to everyone back home for your love and support.

Until next time!