FILM premieres aren’t my natural habitat. The red carpet treatment; running the gauntlet of the paparazzi; being mistaken for Steven Spielberg yet again. It’s an ordeal. Be “Brave”, I told myself in the scrum surrounding the European preview of the Disney/Pixar animation of that name, set to pack out a cinema near you this August.
Brave was the closing event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – itself the first of the series of Festivals that define any summer in the city that, despite the fragrance of all this celebrity, some still call Auld Reekie.
The Reekie bit was much in evidence next morning when we descended from a sodden Royal Mile into the depths of the Real Mary King’s Close. The next hour in the semi-darkness, with only the city’s grim past for company, was in stark contrast to the spectacular schmaltz of that big screen Scotland with its feisty princess and comic clans.
Edinburgh’s like that, though – light and shade are the undertow to one of Europe’s great cityscapes. The New Town of the Enlightenment (which gave the city the alternative nickname, The Athens of the North) and the Old Town of John Knox, executions and grave robbers are yoked inexorably together in Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable, Jekyll and Hyde. The plethora of ghost tours is testimony to that dark past. On our recent I noticed some are even free of charge, so shop around.
There’s a lot going on underground – the pick of which is the Real Mary King’s Close, just off the tourist honeypots of the Royal Mile between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House, but a world away.
It’s a secret warren of houses, part of a 10-storey deep tenement complex that was frozen in time when the Royal Exchange was constructed on top of it in the 1750s. Underground workshops lingered on there over the intervening centuries until it was reopened as a visitor attraction in 2003.
Now guides in character as various inhabitants from the past cannily illuminate the uncomfortable life of real recorded inhabitants in 17th and 18th century Edinburgh, including the eponymous Mary King, a cloth entrepreneur. But it is the ghost tales and the recreation of the plague years that haunt you.
In particular, an eerie memorial to the spectre of a child victim and the mannequin of plague doctor George Rae in his beaked costume to protect him from “contagious miasmas”.
Staying with the macabre, a must visit is to the atmospheric Greyfriar’s Churchyard (home of the Mackenzie Poltergeist, but that’s another story: www.scotsman.com/news/arts/the-tourist-terrorising-mackenzie-poltergeist-1-465100).
Here you’ll find graves protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes. Iron coffins were also in common use to protect newly buried bodies from body snatchers. Most famous of these so-called “resurrection men” were Burke and Hare.
Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the judges. Many more cadavers were needed, which sparked a brisk trade for the medical schools.
To see human anatomical and pathological specimens from the early 18th century – and to learn more about Burke and Hare and the development of surgery – visit he Surgeon’s Hall Museums in Nicolson Street, opposite the Festival Theatre. Not for the squeamish.
Edinburgh, as well as majoring in the chill factor, is currently the best place in Britain outside London to feed the inner man. My favourites from the clutch of Michelin-starred joints are Tom Kitchin out at Leith and his doppelganger Paul Kitching, whose 21212 on Royal Terrace beneath Calton Hill also offers gorgeous accommodation. Paul, once of Juniper in Altrincham, is still one of the great culinary innovators in a city that can be conservative about its food.
More affordable options we tried on our visit include:
Steak at 14 Picardy Place EH1 3JT (www.steakedinburgh.com) has spectacularly transformed a former pool hall and night club space off busy Leith Road. The menu is steak-based, upon the model of London’s Hawksmoor. We Sunday brunched there as we recovered from the Real Mary King’s Close. A mixed grill for two costs us £35. It was a vast plate of sirloin, pigeon breast, Stornoway black pudding, home-made sausage, haggis, bone marrow, wild mushrooms, home-made baked beans, roast shallot puree and dripping chips. Outstanding restorative.
Locanda de Gusti at 7-11 East London Street, Edinburgh EH7 4BN (www.locandadegusti.com). Edinburgh has a strong Italian culinary heritage. Once a small deli, Valvona and Crola is now ubiquitous on the scene. The cosy street corner Locanda is a fixture, too. We paid homage to chef Rosario Sartore’s roots by ordering the Neapolitan Surprise menu – such a surprise the wine waiter couldn’t recommend a wine to cover it. We ordered a Piedirosso red from Campania, huge fruity value for £25. Fresh seafood and pasta dominated an epic spread for just £21 a head.
Drinkers, particularly of malt whisky, can’t go wrong in Edinburgh, but the ale selection is far better than of yore. Among pubs and bars, two very different places to recommend.
The Innis & Gunn pop-up bar at 32 Potterow EH8 9BT (www.innisandgunn.com) may yet become a permanent fixture after its three month summer stint slaking the thirst of festival-goers. It showcases the oak-aged specialities of the Scottish brewers. The food is no more than solid and I must confess the oaky vanilla (and some times rum) flavours of the beers are not to my taste, but there are outstanding guest beers (Edinburgh brewery Stewart’s Radical Road is a triple-hopped treat) and it is a companionable chill-out space.
The Oxford Bar at 8 Young Street EH2 4JB (www.oxfordbar.com) is a New Town drinking shop unchanged since the 19th century. As well as a fine cask selection from Scottish breweries expect to find a Ian Rankin fans thronging its spartan interior. It is a favourite pub of the author and his creation, Inspector Rebus.
The best bet for quality food shopping is the Edinburgh Farmers Market every Saturday morning on Castle Terrace.
Ediinburgh has the expected array of high quality shopping destinations, though not alas along the famous Princess Street on a cursory examination. A procession of To Let signs and desperate summer sales showed the Auld Reekie is feeling the pinch as much as the rest of Britain.
Fingers crossed that Brave, boosting the tourist profile, will come riding to Scotland’s economic rescue...
Hotel IndigoGetting there:
Edinburgh can be reached via both West Coast and East Coast rail services. Neil Sowerby travelled on the First North West service from Manchester Airport and Piccadilly. Call 08457 484950 or go to www.nationalrail.co.uk for all train times.
Coaches operate day and night from major UK cities. For details log on to National Express (www.nationalexpress.com) or Megabus (www.megabus.com).
Edinburgh is an hour or so away by air from most UK airports. For operators and timetables go to www.edinburghairport.com. Airlink provides a frequent and inexpensive bus service into Edinburgh city centre, with the journey taking around 25 minutes: www.flybybus.com.
To organise a trip to Scotland it’s essential to visit www.visitscotland.com.
Neil stayed at the recently opened 4 star Hotel Indigo at 51-59 York Place, EH1 3JD in the New Town. A cosy boutique bolthole. For rates visit www.hotelindigo.com. Pick of the Old Town Alternatives, the stylish Missoni. www.hotelmissoni.com.
For the latest offers and to book accommodation in Edinburgh visit www.visitscotland.com or call 0845 22 55 121.
If you’re looking for a bed at lower prices through private individuals try www.crashpadder.com, www.couchsurfing.org, www.edinburgh.gumtree.com or www.spareroom.co.uk.
For a comprehensive dining guide to eating out visit www.list.co.uk/food-and-drink.
For full information on all the Festivals and to buy tickets visit www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk. Individual Festival links, see box below.
The Real Mary King’s Close: www.realmarykingsclose.com.
Surgeons’ Hall Museums: www.museum.resed.ac.uk.
Edinburgh Castle: www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk.
Three images (Old Town Close, New Town Georgian Style and Sunbathing in Princess Street Gardens) are courtesy of ‘Edinburgh Inspiring City’. Visit www.edinburgh-inspiringcapital.com.
Castle hosts the TattooEdinburgh’s 12 major festivals span the year, but late July/August is peak season – featuring more than 25,000 artists, entertainers and thinkers, 300 venues and 1,000 shows a day. Opera and theatre tickets start at £6 and 600 events are free. The Fringe alone offers 2,500 individual shows across 250 venues. Particularly interesting this year is the Book Festival with Over 750 events in Charlotte Square Gardens celebrate the city’s pride in being the world's first UNESCO City of Literature.
EDINBURGH JAZZ AND BLUES FESTIVAL
20 – 29 July www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk
EDINBURGH ART FESTIVAL
2 August – 2 September www.edinburghartfestival.com
31 August – 2 September www.edinburgh-mela.co.uk
EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE
3 – 27 August www.edfringe.com
ROYAL EDINBURGH MILITARY TATTOO
3 – 27 August www.edintattoo.co.uk
EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
9 August – 2 September www.eif.co.uk
EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL
11-27 August www.edbookfest.co.uk
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