Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Magic of Edinburgh


Fields of green spotted with fluffy white sheep, the clouds hang low, teasingly low, if you go half way up a ladder, you can touch the soft cool underbelly.

Eyelashes feel heavy, drop low, flutter open, close for a few minutes and open again.

Now the windows are wet, small rivers streaming across, cutting the pane into diagonals, blurring the green outside, turning a quaint old-fashioned painting into abstract art.

And my eyes close again, lulled by the even rocking motion of the bus, legs pulled up, knees pushed against the back of the seat in front of me, and a few minutes later, the sky has changed again, the sun breaks through like heaven’s trying to say hello to the world below, misty streaks of gold cutting across the gray in four, five, many rays.  The colors are suddenly vibrant, the rolling hills a bright sunny green, and the trees lit up, even the sheep seem more alive.

The sky kept changing on our ride to Edinburgh, with sudden swift and short-lived bursts of sun, glimpses of blue but mostly different shades of gray, a clouds’ party that kept dwindling down to a small get-together and then gathering momentum to turn into a churning heavy metal bash.
It was almost dark when we reached the city, but I could tell immediately that it was beautiful – the architecture was majestic, ancient, beautifully historic.  Our hotel was right in the city center, our room looked out at the twinkling lights of caf├ęs, restaurants, and a theater.  And we had a TV! After months of watching Netflix on our laptops, the 36 inch screen felt really luxurious and although Fahad kept tuning into the Christmas songs, there were all those other channels to watch live TV! (We saw Home Alone, obviously, and a show that is about British people watching TV shows. You heard me. We were watching people watching TV.)

Edinburgh has a certain magic about it – you feel it as you walk along Waverly Bridge, with old pubs and little shops selling kilts and plaid scarves along the road, and the city stretching out on both sides, church spires and domes of museums, majestic columns, dark statues, angels and gargoyles, thoughts of philosophers suspended in the frozen air above their stately sculptures and words that have strayed off stories huddled in alley corners or shining foggily under orange street lights.

It was beautiful to walk the city on our first night there.  December is a cold, cold month to be visiting Scotland but there were thousands like us milling the streets.  In fact, I think I heard more Hindi/Urdu than English (though to be fair, Scottish English is not very easily understood by my ears!).  The air was chilly, a frequent wind impishly sneaking in between the layers of our scarves and down our neck, curving behind our ears, and sliding across our cheeks, making our skin feel like ice, frozen, smooth.  Across Waverly Bridge and then onto the Royal Mile, cobbled streets and curved street lights that have been throwing down orange halos for hundreds of years.  Every now and then there were dark alleys winding away from the shops or leading down stairs to different neighborhoods of the city.
Edinburgh is a city of philosophy, science and literature and if our feet hadn’t frozen every night of our short stay, we would have done the city tours.  From ghosts and stories of murder and gore, to literary tours and history walks, the city really has something for everyone.

The Christmas market was laid out on a terraced hill – you walked along the top lane browsing wooden toys painted bright and postcards printed with red birds, then down to the candy stalls and little booths selling drinks and hot chocolate, and down further to where a children's train curved around a short track, a carousel with grinning toddlers and grinning grandpas going round and round to merry tunes, and a maze made of stubby Christmas trees, lit up in twinkles of blue and yellow.

There was a Ferris Wheel and the giant swinging ride that rises up to maybe 80 feet and whirls around – on a night as cold as that one with a fine drizzle that started and let off every now and then, I think I was happy to walk with both feet grounded.

Christmas day dawned with some clouds giving way to show that the sky in Scotland can be blue too.  We walked past Calton Hill and down to the Scottish Parliament House and Holyrood National Park.  All the buildings and offices were closed but you can’t close down a hill.  The thing with Arthur’s Seat is it’s bigger than what comes to mind when you say ‘hill’ but smaller than a mountain so I’m not sure how to describe it.

It is beautiful though and there are several peaks that you can go up and down, around and around on.  There are no posts or signs once you start on the trails so you kind of go with the flow provided your legs agree with where you set your eyes on.

It was windy, seemed like the gods had turned on their fans at full speed.  Instead of giving you measurements in mph, let’s just say the wind was strong enough to topple a 3/4th -filled coffee cup off a table and if you were going against it, you had to bend forward (in the shape of an ‘f’).

We decided to take the trail closest to us and I think my thighs started to hurt by the fourth step – it was steep and it was embarrassing how quickly I got tired! But we powered through, mainly because Fahad always strides on ahead without looking back (he told me it is because he believes in my strength and ability but I think it is because he wants to keep enough of a distance so that I don’t grab on to his arm and let him kind of pull me along like a wooden cart).  

The views are absolutely spectacular, and you can pause to admire the city stretched out below with its churches and houses and parks and lakes laid out in miniature perfection, and at the same time regulate your breathing so that people just think you’re a romantic rather than a romantic-who-is-very-out-of-shape.

We went up and then down, only to see more trails going up, including the part that I think gives the hill its name, and so at a crossroads where one path went up to a shorter peak, another down towards the side facing the Leith (which looks like the sea but is apparently a river),  we chose the really steep one to the top.  Roughly hewn steps that were muddy because, who are we kidding, we were in Scotland, and the wind here was enough to throw my balance off, especially because of my giant winter jacket which isn’t very conducive to suave delicate movements anyways.  Every now and then, the sun would throw off its gray blankets to beam at the world, and the craggy hills, the park, the entire city would shine in its golden glow.  It was stunning.

As we made our way up the now-narrow path with a sharp drop to one side (fortunately the wind was blowing me in the direction of the hill rather than off the edge…), a young boy was coming down with his father, saying, and I quote, “aaj to hum marein ge, aaj to marney ka din hai!” and I think he was referring to the sharp windy descent.  As they passed us by, the father said, “Go for it, it’s definitely worth it!”
“Really,” I said, “But I thought aaj marnay ka din hai?” and he laughed, telling us to keep going.
And here Fahad did grab my arm and propel me forward.

And when we reached the peak, which is kind of a wide platform, relatively flat with grass and windblown moss carpeting it, it was inexplicably wonderful.  The wind whipped our jackets and hair and camera bags and caps, and the sun was bright and warm, the sky blue with white clouds and Edinburgh stretched far below, glinting placidly.

You could choose your spot and sit down on the tufty ground, gazing out at the squared neighbourhoods or the lake or the Leith and beyond.  Christmas in Edinburgh was definitely magical. 


Epilogue: We found a much softer way down – the grassy slopes on the other side of Arthur’s Seat (that led down to the pond/loch) was child’s play.  You could have rolled down if there weren’t patches of mud scattered around! And then as we walked along the road that curved around the peak in an attempt to reach civilization, it started to rain. And it was the kind of rain that laughs when people open up their umbrellas and after its done laughing, it turns all umbrellas upside down and then laughs some more. We were completely drenched in minutes! Let me tell you, windswept rain in winter in Scotland is not a particularly uplifting experience.  But there was some comedy to trudging along the road half bent over in the face of the wind with water dripping down your hair and into your earlobes.  About 30 minutes of rain-walking, some kind strangers who offered us the number for a taxi service and a Pakistani taxi driver finally led us to the dry warmth of our room. Wily Edinburgh! 


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