THE story of Edinburgh is one of a cross millennial history in a beautiful and compact modern city, just waiting to be explored. Having avoided the mass and often ugly urban sprawl so associated with many cities in Britain, the Scottish capital literally teems with thousands of years of life, and with great value flights six days a week from Ireland West Airport, Knock, now available with Flybe, this is a city break, a gateway to all the splendour of Scotland and its famous Highlands, or whatever you need it to be, as accessible and efficient on your time as a drive from Mayo to Connemara.
Unlike many English cities, the rich tapestry of Edinburgh’s past weaves through its streets, breathing medieval mystique into a modern world. You can feel the history on the wind that swirls across its ancient cobbles, you can walk in the footsteps of heroes and villains, or stand on the shoulders of those founding fathers on which the Scotland of today proudly sits.
Edinburgh has nightlife that caters for all tastes, cuisine to suit every palate and as some of our group found out on our recent visit, a myriad of high class shops, right in the heart of the city.
For all this however, Edinburgh has lost none of the remnants of its chequered past, and history lover or not, there is simply no getting away from the sheer depth and breadth of the fascinating story of Scotland, which is also the story of Edinburgh.
Primary amongst all other landmarks is of course the iconic Edinburgh Castle, standing proudly on a hilltop, like an ancient citadel keeping watch on the city below. There is just no way that your eyes and attention cannot be immediately drawn to the hilltop fortress, with sheer drops on each side, no matter which side you approach the city from. The town below emanates out from the Castle in a radial pattern in which it has grown over many centuries, and the castle is the centre of the city now, its beating heart, as it has been for generations too many to count. It is remarkable then that at the other end of the Royal Mile, a cobbled stretch of street that has known more events and history than many other cities themselves, stands the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence and seat of the British monarchy in Scotland, and a real life palace of Queen Elizbeth II and her family, where much of the contemporary official affairs of the Scottish nation have unfolded. The modern Scottish Parliament building, now with the focus of the world on it after Brexit, is adjacent to the palace. In the last 1,000 years Edinburgh has seen the ravages of fire and rebellion, plague, occupation, struggles for Scottish Independence, tyranny, reformation, industrial revolution, nazi bombing and much more, and yet all these events have merely served to sculpt an aesthetically immense city, with a rich historical and cultural legacy, unique amongst others in Scotland, and perhaps anywhere on the British Isles.
Getting there and accommodation
This is all good news for anyone with a notion for adventure, travel or just a relaxing city or cultural break, because Flybe’s new Edinburgh route from Ireland West Airport, Knock, has opened up a gateway to all this magic, and for typically low fares. Our flight was short and pleasant and in fact this route - Edinburgh to IWAK - was the one which brought home the victorious Connacht Rugby Team after their historic Pro 12 final success over Leinster in Murrayfield in May. Our motley crew of six, lead by the indefatigable Audrey Elliott from IWAK’s proactive Marketing Department, laid our heads at the Tune Hotel in Haymarket, an almost new concept in budget city accommodation, where you literally get what you pay for and can purchase add ons, items present but not often used in hotel rooms, for extra. The hotel was well-serviced with a large bar and restaurant, and conveniently located adjacent to Edinburgh’s second largest railway terminal and the city centre itself, with pleasant staff, contemporary decor and every mod-con needed.
Where do you start in a town that has history bursting at its seems. The castle is an obvious point, where you can explore the jail cells, preserved in their original state, where prisoners lived in hammocks in the bowels of the castle. The crown jewels are worth a visit, displayed in all their magnificence and still relevant today, while St Margaret’s Chapel, The Great Hall and the Scottish National War Memorial all make the visit worthwhile, as does just exploring inside the castle walls and taking in the views over the city.
At the other end of the Royal Mile we took a self-guided audio tour of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where you can wander through the royal apartments, furnished with treasures from the royal collection, and where the Queen and other members of the royal family receive and entertain guests on ceremonial and official occasions. An exhibition of her Majesty’s dresses from many high profile occasions was on display, while again the history of the palace is a fascinating story all on its own.
As with any city, the hop on hop off open top bus is a great way to familiarise yourself with the many sights of Edinburgh, and for the foot-weary, of course a way to travel the city at ease. You will find a choice of four tours, all of which are based at Waverley Bridge on Princess Street. There are many museums to visit, and from art, history and culture to the more obscure surgeon’s museum, you could spend a whole trip bounding between the many venues that record various aspects of Edinburgh’s past. This is a city also renowned for its history walks and ghost tours, be afraid be very afraid…
We did not make it to the perfectly preserved Royal Yacht Britannia, docked at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh, a short drive outside the city. The vessel is kept as if the Queen might use it in the morning on official duty, even with her Rolls Royce on board, and it is worth noting that Britannia is ranked the number one tourist attraction in Scotland, and is among the most famous vessels in the world, having sailed over one million miles on over 1,000 official visits during 40 years of royal service. For Great Britain, Britannia was a majestic symbol and trade ambassador for the Commonwealth. To the Royal family and dedicated crew of 220 Royal Yachtsmen, she was home.
After an indulgent lunch at the exquisite and exclusive fourth floor restaurant at the Harvey Nichols Department Store, I winced looking out at a grey sky, while my colleagues around the table convinced themselves to tackle Arthur’s Seat. After what was a sumptuous three course meal, prepared, cooked and presented to a standard like nothing you could expect for a ‘lunch’, and with the effects of sampling perhaps a little too much Scotch Whisky the night before, I was hesitant, but knew I couldn’t back out. We were in this together. Arthur’s Seat is basically an 800 foot high extinct volcano, with a mythological link to the famous King Arthur, that is practically in the centre of Edinburgh, and it is surrounded by sweeping parkland, and many trails, making it popular for walkers, hikers and fitness enthusiasts - of which I am none! Given its height towering over Edinburgh, but proximity to it, the summit provides the one of the best city panoramas you will experience. My pleas for a re-think on this idea to our female-dominated group fell on deaf ears and I was imaging the rotor blades of the rescue helicopter overhead, though I need not have worried. The ascent is little more than a walk, and in about 20 minutes we were gathered on the craggy precipice staring in awe at the most magnificent of views. I was wrong, it was definitely worth the small effort and highly recommended.
Food and drink
Food and drink go hand in glove in Edinburgh. Even the non-liquor connoisseurs among our group enjoyed the experience that was the Scotch Malt Whisky Society on our arrival night.
This consisted of dining in an old-style members club, almost like something from a Jules Verne novel, with staff most welcoming and professional and comfortable surroundings, finished to a standard not often seen. The concept here was that for each, to die for dish, you were given a relevant and expertly chosen Scotch Whisky (or wine) from their impressive cellar, the choice described and explained in-depth by your host.
After delightful Amues-bouche, we munched over seemingly never ending courses, on: Veal Sweatbread, Crispy Tongue and Wild Garlic Foam; Tartare of Peat -Smoked Haddock with Soft Duck Yolk; Daube of Pork with Crispy Serrano Ham and Rosemary and White Bean Puree; Roasted Halibut Fillet with Scottish Shellfish and Foraged Seaweeds and finished off with a dessert of Strawberry and Elderflower Verrine, with Strawberry Sorbet and Oats Granola. The Whisky ranged from 10 to 30-years-old, the wine almost as good, as we indulged in a feast that was literally fit for a king. Afterwards we shuffled down the old town, but had not much room left for a night cap. The following evening we ate at a Scottish/French restaurant, a unique combination indeed, called Brasserie Les Amis, where our host explained how he had come to open the restaurant and went out of his way to ensure all diners enjoyed their experience, which we did. The moral of the food story here is that be it frogs legs or haggis that tickles your taste buds, you can have it in Edinburgh.
For the many interested, Edinburgh’s nightlife is vibrant, diverse and welcoming, with something for everybody whether you are into gourmet cuisine, live music, late bars, cocktails, a cosy snug to enjoy a local tipple, or as we experienced, a little bit of all of these. This is a cosmopolitan city waiting to be explored and enjoyed. The pound is falling in value after Brexit, Scotland could be on the cusp of breaking from the UK, history is once again unfolding in Edinburgh, as the chapters of its fascinating story continue to be written today. And all this just 50 minutes from Ireland West Airport, Knock. What are you waiting for….