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What kind of crazy people book a tour for New Years Day. We do!

We had hoped to visit The Real Mary King's Close on New Years Eve. However when we rocked up for a quick visit we were told that you could only enter on a tour and all the tours for new years eve had already been taken. We made a booking for the next day, but the latest time they could offer was 11am. We handed over the fee fully intending to drag ourselves out of bed on New Years Day with or hopefully without a hangover.

New Years Day dawned and we rolled out of bed and trudged over to the Royal Mile one last time. Andrew and Natalie turned to their old friend coffee and I sought salvation in a can in the form of Red Bull. It was time to push through the hangover barrier.

The Real Mary King's Close is a group of closes (closed streets) that were sealed off when the Royal Exchange was built over the top of them. We were guided through the close by "Walter King". Our guide was a real Scotsman and had the best accent ever! It was a pleasure just listening to him. Since our visit to Scotland, I've tried hard to introduce the word "wee" into my vocabulary. (Andrew and I affectionately call each other a wee bit stupid. Don't we have a wonderful relationship!).

The tour was very interesting and we learnt a lot about the history of Edinburgh:
  • Gardy Loo -- The houses on the Royal Mile are surprisingly tall, sometimes as high as 12 stories. In the old days, there was no plumbing or sanitation and the toilet was just a bucket in the corner. Of course, this bucket needed to be emptied. At 10 o'clock each day, residents would tip the contents of the bucket out the window with the cry "Gardy Loo". Anyone out on the street at this time would duck in to a doorway, or get caught out in an unusual shower. (Apparently this is an anglicised version of the French "Gardez l'eau" meaning "watch the water". Sarah? Is this true? Google translations says differently)

  • The Plague -- Edinburgh experienced a severe outbreak of plague in 1645 and a large percentage of the population died. People suffering from plague were quarantined within their houses. Food and drink was delivered to them daily. They were quarantined for periods of up to 6 weeks or until they died. Whichever came first.

  • Little Annie -- Mary Kings Close is famous for the ghost of a child. The ghost of Annie was discovered by a Japanese psychic who felt her presence. The psychic sensed that Annie was sad and lonely because she had lost her doll. They believe that Annie had been quarantined in the room after she fell sick with the plague. The psychic rushed out and bought a doll and left it in the room. Apparently afterwards the psychic sensed that the ghost was now happy. Visitors now bring dolls and stuffed toys to leave in the room to keep Annie company.
We really enjoyed the tour and found it to be very interesting. I think we should give a big pat on the back to our guide who was extremely entertaining and made us all laugh even though we were slightly under the weather. The Real Mary Kings Close was well worth a visit.

After a quick brunch at Always Sunday we split up and went separate ways. Andrew went to climb Arthur's Seat, Natalie went to visit Holyrood Palace and I went to see Greyfriars church.

Next up: Andrew's adventures on Arthur's Seat (mebbe...)

jess - 27th Jan 2007, 11:11 tags: travel scotland edinburgh hogmanay

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Our last day of 2006 was actually very quiet. We headed back to the Royal Mile planning to do some more sight-seeing. Unfortunately the wet, windy and cold weather drove us to find refuge indoors in a pub (The Tass). We brunched, wrote postcards and waited out the weather. Regrettably, the weather won this battle. We returned to our hotel to prepare for our big evening with a disco nap.

On our journey back to the hotel we experienced "the weather" that instigated all the warnings from the meteorological bureaus. While we were walking, the heavens opened and it started to pour. This rain storm combined with a 110km/h (70mph) wind, meant that the raindrops were being driven horizontally into our faces as we ran to get out of the rain. It stung!

Back at the hotel we napped for a bit and then started to get into party mode with a few rounds of drinks and a packet of twisties. Our plan was to head out at around 8.30pm. Sadly this plan was turned on its head when at 8pm we heard the news that the street party had been cancelled.

We regrouped and headed in to the Royal Mile to meet up with some Aussie friends of friends. Unfortunately this plan also failed when I left my mobile phone in the hotel (oops!). We spent most of the evening in the Albanach chatting with the people around us and knocking back beer and cider. At midnight we all spilled out on to the street where we hugged total strangers and wished everyone around a happy new year.

While it wasn't best New Year's Eve I've ever had, I can't say it was the worst.

Next up: pushing through the pain barrier on New Years Day...

jess - 24th Jan 2007, 11:11 tags: travel scotland edinburgh hogmanay nye nye06

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The Scots really know how to party. Welcoming the new year doesn't involve just one night of celebrations but three. Our second official Hogmanay event was the Night Afore Celebrations held on the penultimate night of 2006. At 7.45pm a pipe band kicked off the celebrations, parading along George St while treating the audience to some traditional Scottish tunes. We managed to catch the tail end of the procession.

We then wandered down George St and through the crowds. Every now and again we'd stop to watch the street performers. Our favourite performers were a group of guys on stilts called Theater Irrwisch. Their catchphrase is "Anarchy hits the streets". They certainly did torment the crowd watching them. They stole clothing off a girl on a guy's shoulders, appropriated some guy's camera to give someone else, took pieces of chewing gum off a man and handed them out to the masses. They even scaled a wall so they could knock on a store window and wave to a guy watching from above. They climbed a wall in stilts! It was quite amusing to watch.

We then walked down to the Ceilidh stage to take part in some traditional Scottish dancing. In front of the stage a multitude of people were enjoying the music and the dancing. Natalie and I wiggled our way into the crowd and took part in a Scottish version of the heel and toe polka. We were also lucky enough to be part of the World's longest Strip the Willow. I've been to a few a square dancing evenings (I'm such a party animal) and Strip the Willow is always the most confusing dance. So imagine 500 people, a little bit happy, a little bit tipsy all trying this manoeuvre. It was a bit chaotic but lots of fun.

Afterwards, we headed over to the old town to grab a quick bite before meeting up with Auld Reekie's Ghost Tour, one of Edinburgh's many nightly ghost tours. Quick was definitely the right word for our evening meal. Time was limited so we ducked into a chippy for some food on the go. Natalie and I opted for a portion of unhealthy but ever so delicious chips and gravy. Andrew thought he'd go for a more healthy option and he ordered a Veggie burger. We were a bit surprised when this turned out to be a large potato scallop. No bun, no salad, just a large, deep fried potato patty. Granted we did spot a few carrots mixed in with the potato. But it certainly wasn't one of Andrew's five servings of vegetables a day.

At 10.30 pm we met up with our guide to try out another city's ghost tour. On Auld Reekie's Ultimate Ghost and Torture tour we viewed instruments of medieval torture and we were escorted through a "haunted" underground vault. I wasn't overly impressed with the Auld Reekie experience. After we met our guide we walked down to their administrative office and handed over the £9 fee. Then our guide walked us around the block, stopping for around 20 minutes to tell us some stories from the history of Edinburgh. Although almost with the same breath she said "I've been doing this job for 7 years" and then "I don't pretend to know much about the history of Edinburgh". You'd think after 7 years you'd actually check your facts.

Our guide then took us into the underground vault via the Medieval torture chamber. The vault was a large cellar which was used as a food storage area. However, at one time in its past it was used as accommodation. People actually lived in this underground musty, damp cellar with low ceilings and no natural light. While we were in the vault the guide told us a few vague ghost stories and then at the very end someone employed by Auld Reekie jumped out and yelled BOO at us. We didn't feel that we'd got 9 quid out of the Auld Reekie experience.

(We figured they must be making a mozza though! There were about 50 people on our tour. Their overheads include hiring out a musty vault no one else wants to use and paying a guide minimum wage. We have to come up with one of these schemes.)

Next up: Last day of 2006...

jess - 23rd Jan 2007, 11:11 tags: travel scotland edinburgh hogmanay

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Edinburgh Castle is a little hard to miss. It sits perched atop a hill in the middle of the old town and dominates the skyline of Edinburgh. We felt that no visit to Edinburgh could be complete without a trip to the castle.

Every castle assault should be attempted on a full stomach so the first order of the day was to find breakfast. We decided on the Lonely Planet endorsed Elephant House café as our breakfast venue. Lonely Planet commends the café for its view from the back dining room. It was the ideal view for our morning meal. The large windows in the dining look out over Edinburgh Castle. It was perfect for a little castle reconnaissance especially as it was done over steaming hot coffee and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon.

Review: Elephant House Café, 21 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. Although they do get a thumbs up for the view I'm not sure I'd give them points for anything else. Andrew says the coffee was ok. However, the food was a bit disappointing. Andrew's breakfast roll was tiny and certainly didn't satiate my boy's appetite. My breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon was fine. However, presentation was lacking and it came with two slices of pre-buttered white toast (just like school camp). The bathrooms were grubby. Apparently this is not unusual as there was actually graffiti on the walls to that effect. Lonely Planet suggests that the Elephant House Café is in the top five brunch spots in Edinburgh. If so, I'd hate to dine in one of Edinburgh's worst brunch spots.

After breakfast we wandered up the royal mile to the castle forecourt. Here our castle assault was temporarily stalled while we waited in line for 20 minutes to buy tickets. Apparently everyone else also thought that a trip to the castle was a must.

Tickets in hand we made our way through the castle gates, paying our respects to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace who flank each side of the entrance. Points of interest from our visit to the castle:
  • Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny -- The crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny are kept in the crown room. The Stone of Destiny or Stone of Scone is the famous Coronation Stone, used in coronations originally for the Scottish monarchs and then English monarch and now the British monarchs. In the Coronation ceremony the king or queen to be sits on the stone. There is a special chair in chair in Westminster Abbey with a shelf under the seat for the stone to be placed. The stone is said to be Jacob's stone. (One evening Jacob used the stone as a pillow and God came to him in a dream. So Jacob consecrated the stone.)

  • Pet Cemetery -- there is a small garden on a ledge where the pets of soldiers were buried.

  • St Margaret's Chapel -- the chapel is the oldest building in the castle and in Edinburgh. It dates back to the 12th century and was built by King David I and named for his mother. We were unable to go inside as a wedding was taking place. A small wedding as the chapel only holds 25. After vows had been exchanged the wedding party came outside for some photographs. I felt sorry for the bridesmaids who were wearing strapless cocktail dresses. The wind was icy and I was cold wearing a beanie, overcoat and gloves. They must have been frozen solid!

  • One o'clock gun -- The one o'clock gun is fired at precisely 1pm (strangely enough) every day. This has been done since the 1860s to allow ships sailing in the Firth of Forth to reset and check their chronometers. The sound can be heard in Leith Harbour up to 2 miles away. There are maps which have been produced to show what the actual time is when you hear the gun's report. We were in the crown room when it was fired; it sounded like a door being slammed.

Next up: Night Afore and Ghost Tour II...

jess - 20th Jan 2007, 11:11 tags: travel scotland edinburgh hogmanay abc

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More driving! This time a 5 hour trip from York to Edinburgh. We arrived at our accommodation late in the afternoon, happy to finally be out of the car! (We're getting soft; a five hour car trip wouldn't even get you out of NSW). We dumped our stuff, found a parking spot for Indy for the next 4 days and then headed into the old town to pick up our vouchers for that evening's entertainment, the Torchlight Procession.

Tickets in hand, our very next stop was a pub. The Royal Mile has a lot of pubs; it seems that there is a pub on every corner. It would be a great place to do a pub crawl. We entered the first pub we found that was serving food, Deacon Brodie's Tavern.

Deacon William Brodie is a famous Scotsman who is well-known for the double life that he led. During the day he was a cabinet maker, deacon of the trades guild and a city councillor. At night he was a burglar and thief. He turned to a life of crime to fund his expensive life style which included two mistresses and a gambling habit. Unfortunately for Brodie he was eventually caught and hanged for his crimes. Apparently, the story of his double life inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Every country has a national dish and I'd say that Haggis is Scotland's most famous (or infamous) cuisine. Never one to back down from a challenge Andrew elected to have Haggis for his evening meal. Haggis is normally made with the following ingredients: sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver, and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and is traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour. Andrew ordered chicken stuffed with Haggis so it was only the mince. I had a substantial mouthful and although it sounds disgusting it wasn't all that bad. But, a bit salty for my tastes and something that I won't be going out of my way to eat again.

After collecting our torches (and a quick half pint at the Jolly Judge) we headed down to join the Torchlight procession. Originally, when I'd read about the torchlight procession I assumed that we'd each be given a candle to hold in the parade. But no, we were given a proper Torch a la an exploring the jungle, musty caves, scary catacombs torch. It was a wooden rod, wrapped in Hessian dipped in wax almost a metre in length. You certainly had to be careful with it when it was alight (and give a wide berth to the under 12s with torches).

To start the parade, marshals moved through the crowd kindling a torch here and there. This torch was then used as a lighter for the people around. In this way, every torch in the procession was lit. It was like a relay race but with a fiery baton. The Lerwick Up Helly Aa Vikings led the procession, dragging a wooden Viking ship behind them. We wound our way down The Mound, along Princes Street and up to Calton Hill. It was an extraordinary sight. A river of fire; flaming torches as far as you could see.

At the top of Calton Hill the Viking Ship was set on fire and we were treated to an impressive fireworks display. It was all the more impressive because of its proximity. The fireworks exploded directly above us. We were told it was good luck to throw your torch on the Viking ship bonfire so both Andrew and I had a go. (Andrew actually hammered his in.)

While we walked along Princes Street, I wondered what the significance of the procession was. Why the torches? Why the Vikings? Why the Viking ship bonfire? It felt like we were taking part in a tradition that was hundreds of years old. So, my post-event research was disappointing. Apparently the Edinburgh Torchlight Procession is only as old as the Hogmanay festival. I can't find anything on its history but it would seem to be an event borrowed from other Scottish towns. In particular, Up Helly-aa in the Shetland Islands which holds the same event on the last Tuesday in January. The tradition is so old that nobody really knows the true significance of the procession and the burning of the Viking ship. However, it is said that fire wards off evil spirits and acts as a cleanser.

I was really impressed with the behaviour of the crowd. On the path up to Calton Hill the width of procession reduced from about 20 persons wide to 5 persons wide. This merge caused quite a bottleneck (will we ever learn how to merge?). For around half an hour we slowly trundled forward in a queue at the bottom of the hill. There was no pushing, shoving or queue jumping and even the "young people" (read belligerent teenagers) patiently waited their turn. The Scots are obviously a very patient nation.

Two thumbs up for the Torchlight Procession. It was a great start to our Hogmanay festival.

Next up: Look! it's a castle...

jess - 17th Jan 2007, 11:11 tags: travel scotland edinburgh hogmanay

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