Can you travel through mysterious Scotland over 21 days, climb the mighty Ben Nevis, say I've been to magical Orkney, and do all this solo? Don't believe me? It's true and it's all here...
[ VITAL SCOT-ISTICS ]
STAY -- at Youth Hostels -- £500
TRAVEL -- by buses, trains, taxis -- £300
FOOD -- mostly cooked in self-catering kitchens at the Youth Hostel -- £200
Grand Total: £1000
Days 1 to 4
An early morning start and a smooth 4 hour train journey later, I am back in Edinburgh around 11 a.m. on June 5, 2017, after a whirlwind and impromptu tour earlier in April. It feels great to return to this Athens of the North, where the buildings are still made of solid stone and the air hangs heavy with mystery. After paying £4 (!) for the locker to store my bag before checking into the Youth Hostel after 3 pm, it was time to visit the National Gallery. Last time, due to a packed schedule and the visit being so sudden, it had been impossible to visit this treasure house of art, even though it lies just off Princes Street gardens, where I love to spend time doing nothing.
The National Gallery is loaded with art from across the ages -- Pre-Raphaelite, Romantic, Classical and others -- with mind-numbingly beautiful paintings by Guilio Cesare Procaccini, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Nicholas Poussin, Ponsonelli, Testa, Veronese, Calvaert and Vasari, to name a few. 'The Monarch of the Glen' commands attention and competes for best display with the 'Mother and Child' and 'John the Baptist'. Depending upon your level of involvement and interest, it is possible to spend anywhere from 4 hours to 4 weeks here, studying every one of these breathtaking works of art, marvelling at brushstrokes and choice of colour, analysing composition of landscapes and treatment of natural light. But I had to rush back and make a wholesome meal for myself at the centrally-located and aptly-named Edinburgh Central Youth Hostel. And so, the National Gallery will see me return with ample time on hand to explore its timeless art pieces some day soon.
It’s Day 2 and it has been raining since morning, a dull, dark grey spreading through the skies around the Firth of Forth, which is visible from my third floor room. It’s time to go down to the kitchen in the basement and get down to the business of cooking, which became impossible in my flat where the kitchen is tiny, the cooks too many and their attitude stinks of more than just spicy chicken tikka masala. Among the several strangers in the kitchen is an American ex-Navy guitar player, pining for the Spanish girlfriend he had just left behind in, where else, Spain...! With heavy rain and the possibility of minor flooding, there is nothing to do except stay put in the hostel and make the most of it. So, there is a long chat with the nameless American soldier-singer and lots of good, home-heated, store-bought food consumed in a leisurely manner on a non-productive but thoroughly-enjoyable day.
Edinburgh Castle is one of my most favourite sights in all of Edinburgh. It is sometimes impossible to believe that such a historic complex sits right in the centre of town, offering unparalleled views in all directions, right upto the Firth of Forth and from just above the Princes Street Gardens. But then, this should not come as a huge surprise because here not one, two or 10 monuments are World Heritage Sites, the entire city holds UNESCO World Heritage Status…!
Crossing the Royal Mile and heading up the slope towards the Castle entrance, it feels like stepping back into time. With a slightly active imagination, it is easy to convince yourself that nothing has changed here in 700 years or more. Replace 21st century clothes, shop signs and electronic noise with medieval attire, less people on the streets and more horses than houses and you can ‘teleport’ back to the 1300s in no time…! Although the ticket price is a bit steep at £15, there is no way I am in Edinburgh for the second time in 3 months and DON’T VISIT the Castle, which is a lot of work -- to watch, walk and engage with. There are the most famous Crown Jewels in a transparent casket in a dark room, there’s Mons Meg -- the biggest gun/cannon of ‘em all, breathtaking views of Edinburgh, museums of war and warfare along with those long queues at the ticket counter and tourists everywhere. That’s the only bit that rankles, with the hope (raising its eager head inside the heart) that there is more space to roam freely and be far away from the crowds.
Calton Hill is my next destination and the approach might seem a little puzzling at first but once you see Chinese tourists and students going somewhere in 2s and 3s, it is safe to assume it must be a tourist spot and sure enough, the chatter of Oriental voices and clatter of Oriental feet led to the steps going up towards Calton Hill. The hill itself is a deeply calming place, its magical peacefulness seeping into you within minutes of setting foot there. Difficult to explain the hows and whys of this seemingly-esoteric feeling, it is something that can only be experienced and never adequately-expressed in human language. There are 03 main grand structures that form part of it -- the Nelson Monument, the Observatory and what is called Edinburgh’s ‘Folly’. Lord Horatio Nelson died in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, fighting the French and the Spanish and left behind a legacy of statues and monuments spread across Britain, with this 105-ft-high, castellated structure which looks very much like a lighthouse to me, sitting at the highest point on Calton Hill. The other impressive structure is the City Observatory, also called Calton Hill Observatory and was established in 1776 but faced closure in 2009. Designed by James Craig, the Observatory complex has a Greek temple-like building and large domed structure (City Dome) housing an astronomical telescope. In the early years of the 20th century, the City Dome housed a 22-inch refractor and still makes for quite a sight, with the emerald dome a good contrast to the azure skies over Edinburgh.
And now for what is intriguingly-called Edinburgh’s Folly…! Some might say this is what you get when, in 1822, you propose to ‘erect a fascimile of the Parthenon at a cost of £42,000’. Its foundation stone was laid in 1826 but funds ran out in 1829 and the building still remains incomplete a few years short of its 200th commencement anniversary. While the proposal to raise this Greece-inspired structure was met with massive support from Edinburgh’s prominent residents, its unfinished status is as much of a puzzle as the other lingering one centred on a certain triangle which sounds like a pair of shorts…! I stay on Calton Hill for a long time, soaking in the sun, laying on the grass, doing nothing more than watch other people like me lazying in the warmth of a clear day or cooking on open-top stoves; a group of athletes working out strenuously, dogs running after frisbies, one shade of green foliage complementing the other 5 in the vicinity; magpies, seagulls and ravens gliding on mild thermal winds above the hill and basically feeling deep bliss at being able to just Be. And then there are the magical dark-green-brown shrubs on the side of Calton Hill that looks out at Arthur’s Seat, but that is a story for another day. . .
It’s raining again today and ‘sightseeing’ in the general sense of the word is just not possible. So, I am going to the Botanical Gardens today, where they have 11 glass-houses, each of them dedicated to flora of a specific region. Spanning rainforests, deserts, tropical forests and now largely-extinct fern forests, these glasshouses are one-of-a-kind. Although in need of repairs and a facelift, most of them are filled with flowers, shrubs, ferns, cacti, the very distinct smell of flowers and vegetation in general. It keeps raining, pouring rather and the sound of heavy raindrops on glass roofs above is enhanced by high ceilings. With no scope to explore the grounds where there are many attractions, I head back to the Youth Hostel to cook another hearty meal. In the kitchen there’s a cyclist in her 50s and she’s been travelling around the world, solo…! Now that’s exciting and we get talking and carry on way into the late evening, but since both have an early start tomorrow -- Stirling for me, France for her -- we reluctantly call it a day and head upstairs.
STIRLING & GLASGOW
Days 5 to 8
I took the 11.05 bus from Edinburgh to Stirling and after a 90 minute drive through a green highway dotted with farmlands, reached Stirling bus station, which is adjacent to the train station. At the taxi stand, I got into the one first in line and on being asked, told the driver, “The Youth Hostel…” At this, the driver shook his head and muttered under his breath, “For fuck’s sake!” What followed was me stuck in a taxi being driven at breakneck speed, with a visibly-agitated driver who stopped at an old building on top of a hill, took out my bag from the boot of the car, took his fare and went off in as much of a rush as he could manage…! To call this experience ‘weird’ would be too much of an understatement, and I hoped this would be an isolated incident but it was not to be.
After dropping off my bag at the Youth Hostel, I walked down to the market at the foot of the hill, bought locally-made bread, some ready meals and the day’s local newspaper. I wish I hadn’t had coffee at Nero’s because although the coffee was standard fare, the loo was so filthy it had to be seen (and smelled) to be believed. Climbing back upto the Hostel via the old, cobble-stone street makes for a steep trudge up a narrow path and there’s lots of ‘atmosphere’ here in Stirling. The Hostel building dates back from the 1800s and is situated next to the Old Town Jail, which is yet another complex with so much ‘atmosphere’ it can put the Tower of London to shame. Even the rooms are quite dark and mildly-damp. I am beginning to wish I had stayed somewhere else. But gentle wind in the trees next to the Old Town Jail boundary wall, a magpie and a wood pigeon sitting side-by-side and the promise of sleep are enough to lull me and afford a good night’s rest.
By 7.30 am on Day 6 of my Scotland tour, I was up and awake, and let me tell you that doesn’t happen daily ! At 10 a.m., I was at the ticket counter of Stirling Castle and was in for a big shock when the woman at the counter was unnaturally rude (I had asked for a student discount). This is when it occurred to me that the Scots were a different sort of people, Quite different ! Since it was raining very heavily, there was nothing to do but wait for it to subside and so I decided to spend some time with a steaming cup of hot chocolate at the Unicorn Cafe, inside the Castle complex.
Housed in a converted stable or guards’ quarters, it’s a unique structure and has been put to good use in modern times. Stirling Castle is located on top of a hill and reminds me of hill forts in Central India, particularly Raisen in Madhya Pradesh and Sinhagad in Maharashtra. Although a world apart geographically and culturally, there are similarities in structure, layout and location. It is a very powerful and ‘charged’ site, not least because the Church of the Holyrood is located nearby. I spent nearly 5 hours here, visiting all the ‘tourist attractions’, from the Heads Gallery to the Great Hall, and including Tapestry Exhibition, Wall Walk and Argyll’s Lodging.