Travel Column: Up and Away, Down to Earth—Edinburgh, Scotland

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Travel Column:  Up and Away, Down to Earth—Edinburgh, Scotland

An Unlikely Road

By: Stephanie Weyant

 

Stephanie Weyant - Up and Away, Down to Earth

Travel writer, Stephanie Weyant

Standing on the edge of a cliff, my toes inch forward – wildly, stubbornly testing fate.  I inhale the longest, deepest breath of my life and listen as a voice inside tells me, “Everything will be okay.”  All that had transpired these last four weeks – hell, these last four years – were giving way to an inner strength I’d never known.  I pause for a moment as it swells within me.  I savor my surroundings; the rugged beauty of Scotland is hypnotizing.  Every direction exposes the most heavenly view of Edinburgh, and thousands of miles away from heartbreak, I am on the road to recovery.  That road has led me to the edge of a cliff, an irony not lost on me, but I won’t fall.  I’m not built to fall.  Right here and now, I am at peace in the world.

But it didn’t start here.  This jagged and bumpy road began over 5,000 miles away.

“this jagged, bumpy road began over 5,000 miles away.”

It was late summer just before midnight near Phoenix, Arizona.  I was in tears, shaken to my core.  Lost.  I had just broken up with a guy I thought I’d spend forever with.  Our relationship had gone so far south, I couldn’t see where it began.  He could – which is why we’d always gotten back together after these awful, bitter fights.  But the cycle was toxic to both of us.  The rollercoaster ride from passion to hatred relented for a moment, and I had to get off.  I was dizzy, sick, exhausted.  The future seemed darker than the sky and more hellish than the heat.  I felt trapped.  I had to get out.

After that night, I had two choices.  One: to plug through it – listen to reason and keep working: go through the motions, avoid our local pub and the mutual friends he still spent time with, and hope time would dull the empty existence I now felt.  Or, option two: succumb to my id and give myself a break – get away and go someplace where I couldn’t see him, couldn’t call him, couldn’t “try to make it work…again.”  For these first few days – the hardest days – I needed an escape or at the very least, to plan one.

My emotions – fragile, but screaming loudly – won the battle against my understanding rationale that had quietly stepped aside.  I needed a change of scenery, a reprieve from the everyday reminders of our life together.  Love is beautiful, but it’s brutal when it goes wrong.  I began searching for faraway havens wondering where I could go, ultimately stumbling back to a place that’s felt like home ever since I first stepped foot there – the United Kingdom; namely, Scotland.

It fit the criteria perfectly; Scotland was in every way the opposite of Arizona.  Cool and lush versus hot and dry, beach versus desert, small-town cobblestone streets versus major city highways…precisely what I needed to break the routine.  And that settled it: I’d visit Edinburgh solo, and then meet up with college friends in St. Andrews.

Right then and there, I was ready to go – just an hour north of Edinburgh, my two best friends, still studying in St. Andrews, welcomed my hair-brained idea to suddenly escape with open arms.  I was itching to pack my bags.  But I had a job, had to request time off of work, and needed to plan it out before hopping a flight across the ocean.

Stephanie and her best friends from Scotland.                    Photo credit: Mark Liddell

I wasn’t making a lot of money at the time.  My lifestyle was already modest, and doing anything special still took from my savings.  I was lucky to find a low fare as summer ended and the school season began – and thus needed only a few weeks’ advance notice to purchase.  Staying with friends meant my room would be the price of a few ‘thank you’ drinks and some beloved cinnamon candy they couldn’t get in the U.K.  No expensive hotel bill, and I’d follow a strict no-eating-out budget to cover the airfare.  I’d begun to realize that the money being spent wasn’t just paying for a plane ticket – it was paying to preserve my sanity.

As I boarded the plane, I looked forward to my friends, but also my alone time in Edinburgh.  Just to wander, do whatever struck my fancy.  When I arrived, before catching the train to St. Andrews, I got lost in Edinburgh for the day.  For just a few pounds sterling, I dropped off my luggage at a manned facility in Waverley Station, dumping my baggage in more ways than one.  For the first time in weeks, I felt free.

A cobblestone road up the Royal Mile led me to Edinburgh Castle, a piece of history dating back to the 12th century that continues to intrigue me to this day.  Being in this beautifully haunting place reminded me that time carries on.  Eventually my sadness will fade like the paintings in the Great Hall.  Standing amongst cannons along the castle’s rocky cliffs, I could almost hear the clip-clop of horse hooves that brought so many nobles through the castle gates centuries earlier.  The real sound of distant bagpipes echoed within the stone walls, and I pictured ghosts of finely dressed ladies waltzing by on their way to court, laughing and whispering about the gossip of the day.  It was fascinating to know that 400 years ago – and even 900 years ago – people lived here.  I could only imagine what day-to-day life was like.

Edinburgh Castle – Photo Credit: Mark Liddell

Making my way across the castle grounds, I walked through the jail quarters where prisoners once faced a much worse fate than a broken heart.  Admittedly, my catastrophic personal problem was now being put in perspective.  The graffiti on the prison cells offered a glimpse into their lives, and in some cases untimely deaths; stories told to me centuries after they happened.  I may have been sad, but at least no one was going to execute me.

Aware of the freedom I had now that many others in the past did not, I was suddenly feeling invincible.  I wandered over to St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh dating back to 1130 A.D.  Legend has it that the devout Margaret aspired to become a nun when she met King Malcolm Conmare.  The King, taken by her beauty and kindness, fell in love with Margaret and eventually convinced her to forgo the nunnery to marry him – and settle for the title of Queen instead.  Despite my general newfound skepticism, it was true love, I am certain; he adored her and she admired him.  An illiterate king, she read him poetry.  A pious woman frequently found in prayer, he embedded her holy books with jewels and ordered a chapel built for her.  She brought a genteel touch to an unsophisticated, almost barbaric court, and brought out in him a better version of himself.  Margaret gave birth to their six sons and two daughters, and when he died in battle along with their eldest son, news of it broke her weakened heart, and she died three days later.

St. Margarets Chapel. Photo credit: Jonathan Oldenbuck

These two soulmates had found each other, honored, and loved each other, and all but left this earth together.  It was beautiful, and at the same time tragically poetic.  Tears welled up in my eyes once more.  Feeling invincible?  Maybe I spoke too soon.  But the experience did begin to crack the shell that was my cynicism against love.

As I walked down the Royal Mile, I peeked into tartan shops and the not-yet-busy pubs, slowly realizing that while I wasn’t suddenly happy, I was pleasantly distracted and much calmer.  This trip – this giant step back from my little world in Arizona – let me pull away from the camera’s viewfinder to see the entire world around me.  So much life, so much beauty, so many possibilities lay ahead.  The pain was still with me, but it was no longer magnified by the scene of the crime.  And with that I could begin to heal.  Reconnect and find my center again.

In the distance, I could see Arthur’s Seat, a former active volcano that also offers panoramic views of the city.  Double-checking the ‘former’ part, I headed toward the hill to see Edinburgh from a different angle, and work up an appetite along the way.

The author and best friend from Scotland. Photo credit: Mark Liddell

A good hour-long hike up did my soul some more good; it gave me a chance to clear my head undistracted, and the 360° view was a reward in itself.  Along the way, I thought about where I was a month ago: in tears, feeling hopeless, needing to check out of life for awhile.  And now 5,000 miles later, I was a bit older, wiser, and fully grateful that I’d gone with option two: to give myself a break – experience something different – and travel.  It was this trip that made me realize that whether it’s facing pain or simply needing to cultivate the curiosity to discover new places, travel has and always will be a vehicle to unlocking the mind.  When you break out of your routine and embrace that change, you grow in ways you hadn’t imagined.  We take care of our bodies, we exercise our minds, but we can often forget about our souls – the core of who we are – and it’s important to nurture that.

And there was still more to come.  But that’s another story altogether.  I looked forward to seeing my friends, sharing laughter and stories, revisiting the town we knew so well.  I looked forward to their unconditional support in helping me figure out what’s next.  And that was the key: looking forward.

So here I am: on the edge of a cliff, on the edge of my world.  It could be the end, or the beginning.  There is no question.  The beginning has so many possibilities – a much more thrilling adventure!  Onward and upward.  Or in this case, maybe just back down the hill.  I have a train to catch.

 

Edinburgh Snapshot

Edinburgh, like all of Scotland, is a place of great history full of intrigue, a lush and mystical landscape, and solid character.  The people are friendly, helpful, and here, you’ll find few if any pretenses.  While technically British, don’t ever call them that.  They are Scottish, and take pride in their heritage.  Dress comfortably as they do, but don’t wear white sneakers.  White sneakers are for nurses in 1972.  You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.  I understand comfort, but tone it down – blend in.  And don’t wear high heels to tour the city.  In the battle between high heels and cobblestone streets, high heels will lose.  And bring a jacket.  Well wouldn’t that depend on the time of year like summer, you ask?  No, bring a jacket.  And if it’s winter, bring a heavy jacket.  My dearest Scottish friend puts it best: “Scotland summer: my favourite day of the year.”

The most beautiful panorama of Edinburgh, seen from the Scott Monument. Photo Credit: Oliver-Bonjoch – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Oliver-Bonjoch

 

When You Go

There are many lovely hotels with welcoming staff that fit all budgets in Edinburgh.  My recommendations are for places I would stay, with my budget.  Should you opt for different accommodations, please follow my universal advice – just be sure to do your research: Google hotels, reviews, and pictures.  Inquire about construction (which can lead to early morning noise and smells), renovations, and extra fees (like parking, wifi, pet lodging, etc.) – typically you can find a toll-free number or at least an e-mail address for foreign hotels.  Check cancellation/refund deadlines, and keep note of that if your plans change.  Dare I say, check www.hotels.com – you’ll likely find deeper discounts, and after staying 10 nights in any mix of most hotels, you’ll earn the 11th night free.  And ultimately, go with your gut.

For my money?  Stay at Fraser Suites – right in the city centre and a stone’s throw from the nearest pub.  Rates in the off-season dip as low as $119/night (without breakfast), and most rooms have a hint of the old Edinburgh architectural style and décor, while being modernly elegant and comfortable.  This is near the Waverley train station, so you can save a few quid on a taxi and walk to the hotel if that’s your arrival spot.  It’s also very close to the Royal Mile.  (http://edinburgh.frasershospitality.com/)

Fraser Suites, Classic Room – Photo Credit: http://edinburgh.frasershospitality.com

Or, if you’re looking to stay in a bit more of history, there’s a lovely, stately 16th century castle just a short drive outside of the city called Dalhousie Castle.  Rates in the off-season start around $112/night with a full Scottish breakfast included.  Dine in the dungeon and feast on the best fresh salmon you’ll ever taste.  Lounge in The Orangerie – a library within the castle – and sip some fine, strong, earthy scotch.  Given the structure was built 500 years ago before elevators, they do not have elevators.  This is not the most wheelchair friendly place; however, they can assist in a roundabout way – not ideal, but possible.  Check with them directly for the latest improvements.  (http://www.dalhousiecastle.co.uk/)

Dalhousie Castle – Photo Credit: http://www.dalhousiecastle.co.uk

For a splurge, dine at The Witchery, an intimate restaurant (and luxurious hotel – 8 rooms total ranging from $520-$560/night) whose menu is as unique as the gothic atmosphere.  Dinner menus include both à la carte and prix fixe options.  A thoughtful selection of wine, scotch, and whiskey complements the palate from the entrées to the desserts.  Three-course Prix fixe dinners run about $48 and a complete à la carte meal would run about $45-$100 per person, excluding beverages and a general 10-12% tip (it’s less than the U.S.).  (http://www.thewitchery.com/)

The Witchery Restaurant – Photo Credit: TheWitchery.com

Please note: exchange rates are based on Nov. 2012 rate of $1.60/£1.00.  There are daily nonstop flights to Edinburgh from New York City; many other U.S. departure cities have a stopover in London Heathrow.  Passports are required and must not expire within six (6) months of arrival date; prior special visas not required.  Enjoy!

Stephanie lives and works in New York City and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the University of Denver. She also spent a year abroad studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. To read more about Stephanie, her travel column, Up and Away, Down to Earth, or ask Stephanie a travel question, visit her page: Up and Away, Down to Earth with Stephanie Weyant.

5 Comments

  1. Beautiful article, Stephanie. It made me realize even more how very much I would love to visit the land of most of my ancesters. My grandfather’s family came to the United States from Scotland in the 1800′s. To honor our grandfather, my brother played the golf course at St. Andrews several years ago and visited Scotland on behalf of our family. You have now re-ignited a longing to do the same. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us through our Kelli. A Scottish friend, Susan

    • Dear Susan,

      I am so touched that you enjoyed reading about Scotland. It truly is one of my favorite places, and I never tire of talking about it! Some of my ancestors are also from there, so I know the feeling of wanting to get back to that. Happy New Year, and may your travels take you there soon. If you do plan a trip there, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me if you have any questions – I’m happy to help!

      Sincerely,
      Stephanie

  2. What a wonderful and touching article. I visited Scotland in 2000 and again in 2003, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit both times. I had the good fortune to stay at Dalhousie Castle, and I highly recommend it. Your article is beautifully written.

  3. Loved the article! Makes me want to visit Scotland! You certainly are a good writer who transports one to somewhere else. I enjoyed reading about your personal courage and please continue your writing for us who are not so brave.

  4. Broken hearted and lost ….women should travel to find themselves. Sometimes you are not lost. You just need a different perspective and being away you will find the strength and independence you thought you lost. You will see how others mainly strangers see you . Most of all you will make new memories new friends ….my saviour was Italy . Scotland is my balm…. My adopted homeland. The wild rugged beautiful land reflect my personality , my passion and yes do come over ladies …. I enjoy your blog Stephanie …. All the best for 2014 .

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