Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Castles, Wynds, Closes, Ghosts, & Scotch in Edinburgh

On a rainy, grey morning Chris, Melissa, myself, and Melissa's friend Kayla arrived in Edinburgh Scotland. Despite the rain, we couldn't help but already be charmed by this mysterious city, as our cab drove past streets lined with little cottages in the foreground of the lush green landscape. The rain began to dissipate just as our cab pulled up to Cumberland Street, where we had rented a cute, little, modern lower-level apartment on VRBO for the next two nights and three days. It's amazing how much you appreciate the little things when on vacation, like opening up the lockbox provided for us to find a skeleton key to unlock the apartment door. We squealed with glee at the sight of this simple skeleton key, already deciding in our minds that this skeleton key was a symbol of this mysterious old city, just waiting for us to explore! After dropping off our luggage, it was time to walk up the hill to take in all the extraordinary sights down the Royal Mile. 

The Royal Mile is known as being the heart of Scotland's historic capital, running straight through Edinburgh's Old Town, connecting the breathtaking Edinburgh Castle, which rests upon a base of volcanic rock, with the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Overwhelmed by the beautiful historic architecture surrounding us, we took those first few hours as an opportunity to take in some of the sights, and in true UK fashion, grab a couple pints and some grub at a pub on Rose Street. 
After some short exploring and stuffing our faces with sausage and mash, fish and chips, and pints of Guinness, we succumbed to our exhaustion and took the misty rain as an opportunity to grab a not-so-quick nap at our rental apartment, so we would have lots of energy to make it up to the castle later that afternoon. After our much-needed nap, we felt energized and ready to walk through the royal mile and up to Edinburgh Castle. Although the tours of the castle were already done for the day, the mere sight of the stunning, ancient Edinburgh Castle was enough to send us all into a tizzy! The castle alone was of course stunning, but I can't forget to mention the magnificent view that the large, volcanic hill affords you of both the New and Old town, allowing you to take everything in all at once. High off our castle photo shoot, we walked back down the Royal Mile to pop into a few shops and purchase some Celtic jewelry at an outdoor stand before the sun set. 

As darkness loomed, our thirst kicked in and we were once again ready for another pint! Our mighty navigator, Chris, led us to The Abbotsford Pub in New Town, Edinburgh, built in 1902. The Abbotsford Pub was absolutely beautiful, featuring exquisite Edwardian pub design, with a classic island bar carved from Spanish Mahogany and an intricate Jacobean ceiling.  Although their pub fare sounded above the ordinary, Chris had bigger plans for us, with a pin on his Google map at a restaurant called The Dogs

The Dogs was appealing for us because we love dogs! Just kidding! We do love dogs, but what really caught our attention was the mouthwatering menu filled with unique takes on Scottish classics at very reasonable prices. One of the things we noticed in Edinburgh was that the food tended to range from very low quality pub fare, to extremely high end dining with staggeringly high prices, and not a whole lot in between. So The Dogs, with its delicious sounding menu and fair prices was like finding treasure! With no reservation, we were very happy to be accommodated immediately, simply warned that we would have a short seating, as the table was reserved in a couple hours. 

The quiet and intimate atmosphere of the canine-themed restaurant was a welcome change from the bustling pub scene we were so familiar with throughout the UK. This change in mood required a change in beverage, switching from beer to wine that would pair with our meals. After promising all of my foodie friends in Toronto that I would try the Scottish favourite, Haggis while in Edinburgh, I had no choice but to order the Lamb Barnsley Chop with Haggis Hash, Braised Cabbage, & Tarragon Gravy as my entrĂ©e. Although I was a little uneasy about the idea of eating haggis (sheep's heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and stock, encased in the animals stomach) I was so pleasantly surprised at the delicious, savory flavour the haggis added to the potato hash, not to mention my succulent, tender lamp chop, with the ever so slightly bitter braised cabbage playing the perfect accompaniment. There was a chorus of "mmm's" ringing through the quiet space as all of us cleaned off our plates, satisfied with this special Scottish fare. Stuffed to the brim, with a bit of a buzz from the wine and beer, it was off to bed for us sleepyheads, with lots of tours planned for the following day. 
With plans of hitting up The Scotch Whiskey Experience tour on our second morning in Edinburgh, there wasn't a chance we would be skipping breakfast that day! Just a short walk from our apartment was Eteaket, a bright and welcoming tea room that specializes in ethically-sourced, exceptional loose leaf teas. After cramming ourselves into a tight, corner seat by the window, we ordered a round of tea lattes, with myself ordering Eteaket's specialty, their Chai Latte, made with their secret recipe. I've had many Chai lattes before, and have always enjoyed them, but this was no ordinary Chai latte, with an intense flavour from the blend of spices and topped with a garnish of spices to give you a hint as to what you are sipping. To go along with my tea, I ordered simple poached eggs with toast. A lovely way to start another busy day in the UK! 
After breakfast we excitedly headed over to Castlehill to take part in The Scotch Whiskey Experience, AKA Chris' number one reason for coming to Scotland! The tour is designed to give you the full scotch whiskey experience by first taking you through their interactive swirling, bubbling barrel ride, allowing guests to become apart of the scotch whiskey making process, with narration by a friendly ghost. After you are taken through each step of the scotch whiskey making process, guests are guided up to a private room where a scotch whiskey expert leads an introduction to the aromas found in various types of whiskey. We were each given a little scratch-and-sniff card with the names of the various regions within Scotland, each one identified with a different colour. One at a time, we were taken through each region, beginning the lesson on each one with our guide asking us to scratch the designated area on our scratch-and-sniff cards of that particular region, and asking us what we smelt. Through this, we were taught all about the dominant flavours that are found in scotch whiskeys made in those different regions. Those flavours were:
Lowland - Grapefruit
Highland - Vanilla
Speyside - Banana
Islay - Peat
With this as a reference, we were each asked to pick which flavour we were drawn to most, and were then poured a glass (which we were later gifted!) of a whiskey from that region. Not much of a whiskey fan myself, after understanding how scotch whiskey gets made and learning about why certain flavours are present, I found a new appreciation for the punchy liquor...but this doesn't mean I was able to finish my glass! This next part of the experience was my favourite, as we were led into a room that was entirely lined with bottles upon bottles of scotch whiskey, which we soon learned was the largest scotch whiskey collection in the entire world! The look on Chris' face was absolutely priceless! The man was in his glory! Then came the part he was really looking forward to, the scotch tasting! Chris had purchased the Gold Experience Tour, which gave him a flight of four scotch whiskeys that ranged from light flavoured, to strong and peaty. What a treat for him! An extra special treat for Chris came when he purchased a rare and fairly reasonable bottle of Scotch to take home with him. My guy works so incredibly hard, he most certainly deserves a nice bottle!

After the scotch whiskey experience, we found a cheap restaurant nearby to satisfy our hunger. Plain "American" greasy fare, there isn't much to report on that restaurant other than, it was cheap and it filled our growling bellies! It was off to do some more exploring and shopping after that.

Thanks to a suggestion from an old friend who lives in Edinburgh, we had eagerly signed ourselves up for the Ghost & Torture Tour from Auld Reekie Tours, a decision that us ladies would later regret. My friend Lyle had promised us that the ghost tour would be a great way to learn about the history of Edinburgh in a fun and frightening way. I love me some history mixed with entertainment, so I figured this would be a cool and funny experience. Now after the fact, 'funny' is definitely not the word I would use to describe the tour, as our eerie guide took us through the dark underground vaults and torture rooms, while passionately telling us horrifying stories of the tortures that went on in Edinburgh back in the day, as well as ghost experiences that guests have had while on the tour. Shaking and white as...well, you guessed it, white as a ghost, we ended the tour, sure that we would never get a wink of sleep ever again! 

Thank goodness for fun bars with charming bartenders and wicked music, the Victoria Bar in Leith was just what we needed to take our minds off of our terrifying ghost tour experience. 
We awoke on Wednesday morning, sad that this was our final day in beautiful Edinburgh, but excited to take part in The Real Mary King's Close Tour. After grabbing a quick bite at our favourite Edinburgh breakfast spot Eteaket, we rushed back up to the Royal Mile to make it in time for our tour, which would take us through a network of hidden underground streets and spaces which were once inhabited by Mary King (a prominent businesswoman in the 1630's), and are now buried underground, shrouded in myths and mystery! Although this tour hinted at possibly being a repeat of the blood curdling ghost tour we had experienced the previous night, The Real Mary King's Close Tour was only similar to the prior tour in its historical base, as our costumed character tour guide shared with us the true tales of how families lived in this underground town many centuries ago. 

With a few hours to spare before our short flight back to London, we decided to take some time to relax with a good meal and chat about everything we had experienced on our little excursion. Back on Rose Street we stowed our luggage and quickly got a table at Jamie's Italian, Jamie Oliver's large Italian eatery known for their large cheese and charcuterie planks and fresh pastas. Exhausted from a very busy three days, it was so nice to slide into our seats and indulge in Jamie's Meat Plank which featured fennel salami, pistachio mortadella, prosciutto, schiacciata piccante, buffalo mozzarella with chili & mint, pecorino with chili jam, green chillies, green olives, Gaeta, caper berries & shaved carrot & beets with lemon and mint. Following the plank, we shared a plate of Crispy Tomato & Mozzarella Risotto Balls, doused in a spicy arrabbiata sauce, and I dived into my large plate of Tagliatelle Bolognese. Everything was so incredibly delicious and, believe it or not, so much lighter and easy on the stomach than all the greasy, heavy pub food we had been eating. The only thing that could have made our experience at Jamie's Italian better? Why, if Jamie Oliver himself showed up, of course! 

With full bellies and happy hearts, we sleepily boarded our EasyJet flight back to London to continue our UK adventure! 

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