ANOTHER mad Edinburgh Festival whirl is over. Phew. Time to plan ahead for the 2015 events? Certainly time for the Fringe diehards to start restocking the piggy bank to fund their ever-hopeful annual showcases. Maybe next year will be their big time breakthrough.
Maybe next year too the world’s largest ever arts festival can even top the number of productions of The Importance of Being Earnest. This year we counted three (but only attended one). The gender-bending version, the adaptation featuring ‘Three F***ing Queens and a Duck or the relatively straight one? I’ll leave you to guess.
It makes logistical sense, of course, to map out well in advance next August’s high jinks in the Auld Reekie. The programmes for the various Edinburgh Festivals – International, Fringe, Art, Book and so on – may not be announced until well into the New Year but, with affordable accommodation at a premium, it’s worth booking sooner rather than later.
Better still take an off-season recce around the city I rate Britain’s most fascinating. If by then it’s hellbent on becoming the capital of an independent Scotland, well, there’s the added allure of exploring foreign parts. It has so much on offer – from the grimly atmospheric Old Town to the Georgian New Town and on to the coastal airiness of Leith – that a long weekend barely scratches the surface. If the Royal Mile’s whisky-and-shortbread, cashmere-and-tartan circuit is your bag, go for it. But a true Edinburgh experience lies elsewhere.
It’s a great city to walk, even if trekking up to the Castle is a mite calf-tautening. To help get your breath, Edinburgh offers ample opportunity to eat and drink fabulously. Which is what I do on every visit.
There’s an embarrassment of Michelin riches from the likes of Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin in Leith and more centrally Castle Terrace, Number One At The Balmoral and, of course, Paul Kitching, once of Juniper Altrincham, at 21212. But even at a less exalted level there are many gems.
Take Aizle. If the tiny Gardeners Cottage in Royal Terrace Gardens was the talk of 2013, Aizle in Leonard Street, overlooked by Arthur’s Seat, took up the groundbreaking baton in 2014. This simple 50-cover space describes itself as a Scottish neo-bistro. There is no traditional menu, just a blackboard of ingredients for the day, which much-travelled chef Stuart Ralston (ex-Gordon Ramsay New York) uses as his palette. A four-course tasting menu is £35. His partner, Seattle mixologist Krystal Goff’s cocktails are equally inspired. One to watch.
In contrast, the New Town’s Cafe St Honore is an old stager. It carries off the look of a Left Bank Paris bistro to perfection, but chef Neil Forbes is canny with his Scots ingredients, sourcing according to the Slow Food mantra. Still, you won’t find a more authentic Boeuf Bourgignon this side of Dijon and, if you choose to follow it with an Ecclefechan Tart then you are merely cementing the Auld Alliance.
There’s a huge French influence, too, at Galvin’s Brasserie de Luxe in the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian hotel. With ex-Balmoral Hotel chef Craig Sandle at the helm the Pompadour restaurant is the undoubtedly the big gourmet attraction at this Victorian pile, upon which owners Hilton Worldwide have lavished £24 million, but the Galvin brothers, Chris and Jeff, have extended their influence beyond this to the more casual ground floor Brasserie.
The format follows their Bistrot de Luxe in London’s Baker Street, their signature starter of Crab Lasagne here sourcing the crustacean from Berwick rather than Dorset, and the place, especially at lunchtime, has an uptown buzz of its own. As a true brasserie should. Steaks, oysters, haggis, terrines, lobsters, all served with panache. In addition there's a well-judged French wine list.
For a more Scottish experience, look no further than Michelin-starred Tom Kitchin’s pub outpost in Stockbridge, Edinburgh’s Chorlton. The Scran and Scallie offers the likes of Sheip’s Heid Scotch Broth (£5) and veggie options tagged as Nae Meat, Nae Fish.
More cutting edge use of local raw material is to be found at the family-run Timberyard (above) in Lady Lawson St. This innovative restaurant is housed in a warehouse space dating back to the 19th century, when it was built as a props and costume store. Mix and match small dishes such as juniper smoked pigeon, onion spelt, wild garlic flowers or hand-dived scallops, lamb sweetbreads, peas, fennel, sweet cicely apple are the way to explore the menu. Utterly delightful, creative cooking, matched by interesting wines and beers in relaxed surroundings. The future.
If you are self-catering the obvious magnet is Edinburgh Farmers Market (above), held every Saturday between 9am and 2pm and featuring over 50 independent food producers.
Drinkers, particularly of malt whisky, can’t go wrong in Edinburgh, but the ale selection is far better than of yore. The latest conversion is Jeremiah's Taproom on Leith Road, a former spit and sawdust relic turned craft beer bar. Pick of the beer bars at the other end of town are The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road and The Bow Bar in the Old Town.
Over in Leith charcuterie plates are the obvious accompaniment to craft beers and spirits at The Vintage on Henderson Street in the slowly gentrifying port area of Leith. Try a schooner of resinous, floral Double Joker IPA from bar owners/brewers Williams with your hot-smoked pig’s cheeks or champagne and hazelnut salami rom the open kitchen in a slick, stripped down interior.
For a more traditional pub experience, even if it is on the tourist trail, drop in on The Oxford Bar at 8 Young Street EH2 4JB. This New Town drinking shop has stayed unchanged since the 19th century. As well as a fine cask selection from Scottish breweries expect to find Ian Rankin fans thronging its spartan interior. It is a favourite pub of the author and his creation, Inspector Rebus.
A pint always tastes better after a walk and even better after a ghost walk, in which Edinburgh abounds. Many of the city’s most interesting haunts have a macabre history. Here are my spine-chilling recommendations. May the potent Scots spirits be with you!
Edinburgh International Festival 201
The dates for the International Festival 2015 are August 7-31 under new director designate Fergus Linehan. 2014 is a hard act to follow with critical and popular successes across the board, including The James Plays by Rona Munro, Inala featuring Ladysmith Mambazo, Pina Bausch's Sweet Mambo, Back to Back's Ganesh Versus the Third Reich and an acclaimed Usher Hall concert series and many more! We particularly liked the Philharmonia’s production of Britten’s War Requiem there.
For information on all the Edinburgh Festivals: www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk. The next 2014 Festival is the Scottish International Storytelling Festival from October 24-November 2.Then we’re into Hogmanay and 2015.
2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival: August 15-31 Programme announced in June.
Exhibitions from The Edinburgh Art Festival 2014 are still continuing in selected galleries. Visit this link.
2015 Edinburgh Fringe: August 7-31.
In 2014 there were 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues, making it the largest ever arts festival in the world.
For the hugely popular Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: www.edintattoo.co.uk.
Neil Sowerby stayed in the new Ibis Edinburgh Centre South Bridge. Hugely convenient for all events but as across the city, accommodation prices soar during The Festival.
My favourite Scottish-based midmarket chain is Apex, which has four hotels in Edinburgh and regularly run special offers.
For a New Town boutique hotel go for the buzzing Tigerlily on bustling George Street or incongruously in the Old Town, the sleek G&V Royal Mile, formerly the fashion-centric Missoni)
At the luxury end, my favourite destinations for staying and eating are:
The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Princess Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB . Nightly rates start at £239 per night in a double room inc VAT, with breakfast only at. Our Pompadour Menu Gourmand cost £120 with selected sommelier wine pairing. Without wine this seven-courser is £88 a head. For further information or to make a reservation, call 0131 222 888.
21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB. The starting rate for a double room is £150. Lunch Tues-Fri from two courses for £20 to five for £52; Sat lunch three courses for £28 to five for £52; dinner Tues-Thurs three courses for £48 to five courses for £68; dinner Fri and Sat five courses for £68. For further information or to make a reservation, call 0845 22 21212.
Edinburgh can be reached via both West Coast and East Coast rail services, including the First North West service from Manchester Airport and Piccadilly. Call 08457 484950 or go to www.nationalrail.co.uk for all train times.
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: With the Edinburgh Pass you get the Airlink shuttle free.
If you drive up leave your car in the seven-day overnight park and ride at Sherriffhall.
To organise a trip to Scotland go to www.visitscotland.com; for Edinburgh visit www.edinburgh.org, thisisedinburgh.com or this link. For a comprehensive guide to eating and drinking visit www.list.co.uk/food-and-drink.
The cheapest way to get around most attractions is by buying an Edinburgh Pass. It offers free entrance to 30 of the city’s key attractions plus many special offers and discounts. Adult prices range from £30 for one day to £50 for three; child prices from £20 to £30. For more information and to book visit this link.
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