Edinburgh could forego much of what its Christmas and Hogmanay festivities have to offer and still seem the epitome of midwinter, says LAURA SLATTERYNOTHING SAYS Christmas quite like the sound of people screaming in unified terror. Orbiting Edinburgh’s Flying Carousel in increasingly violent arcs, limbs flailing, there’s only a harness between you and a certain, unceremonious death. Happy holidays, as they say in America.
Today, the sight of flying Scottish teenagers might be something of a surprise for visitors emerging from Jenners department store onto Princes Street with bags of souvenir tartan, but it’s all good kitsch fun compared to the kind of murky goings on that used to occur in this exact spot down through the centuries. The Nor’ Loch, a watery cesspit surrounding Edinburgh’s Old Town, was once known for its stinking sewage and suicide attempts – the latter sometimes involving imbibing toxic quantities of the former. In the 1820s, the by then drained valley became Princes Street Gardens, a public park right in the heart of Edinburgh, and at this time of year it’s transmogrified into a Winter Wonderland for your innocent fairground pleasure.
Anyone who has experienced the incongruity of a snow-frosted Christmas tree glistening in the Australian sunshine while try-hard Santa clones swelter in their furs will know that “Christmassy” is not a vibe that any city can just manufacture with a tankard of mulled wine and smattering of angel trinkets, just because it wants to.
Happily, there is nothing surreal about Edinburgh’s effort. The city could probably forego much of what its Christmas and Hogmanay festivities have to offer and still seem the epitome of midwinter. As it is, you will find a German Christmas Market of the steadily proliferating variety: temporary wooden cabins dishing out gluhwein and weissbier and wishing dazed visitors a Frohe Weihnachten. Not very Scottish, and pretty much a standard pre-Christmas indulgence these days, but nevertheless it wasn’t long before my pupils were dilating at the cone-shaped baubles and feeling cheered by the warbling strains of All I Want for Christmas Is You.
With not a snowflake in sight, my dream of sledging down a snowy hillside in a red skisuit like Mariah Carey in that video would have to be postponed – for the weekend at least – but the below-freezing temperatures did at least guarantee that the ice stayed solid enough to cut some triple axels on the rink. Well . . . after the usual tentative edge-clinging for the first circuit, I recalled that you’re supposed to use the inside of the skate to push out. Then it was just left to overcome the fear of crushing a fallen kid’s fingers with my blades.
Wobbly skaters may be comforted that help is on hand if you do end up doing the comedy splits. After an accident disembarking from a fairground ride, my travelling companion’s finger was bleeding like Silvio Berlusconi’s lip, but it wasn’t long before an ex-army officer took us into the first aid Portakabin for bandaging. “You just sliced your finger open so you could get in out of the cold,” he accused us.
You’re skating in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which kind of has a romantic edge on the Rockefeller Plaza (as well as being cheaper to reach from Ireland). To the south, you’re overlooked by the imposing Edinburgh Castle, which may or may not be smothered in “haar” (mist), while to the north there’s the more orderly array of Georgian terraces in the New Town. To the east of Princes Street Gardens, the Edinburgh Wheel strobes in candy colours against the Gothic backdrop of the Scott Monument, a jagged shale tower that adds more than a little historical edge to this wonderland.
Views of the Firth of Forth and beyond are available as the Edinburgh Wheel’s capsules ascend to the top; alternatively, on a clear day at least, the northern viewpoints of Edinburgh Castle or the gradual ascent to the craggy jut of Arthur’s Seat will deliver the panoramic goods from either end of the Royal Mile.
Edinburgh has long been a city of great heights. From the 1500s onwards, restricted space in the Old Town forced buildings upwards; by the 17th century, closes (or wynds) diverging from the Royal Mile often had 11 or 12-storey buildings, so in modern parlance, they were skyscrapers. These altitudes were recently exploited in the 2007 film Hallam Foe, in which a grief-stricken Jamie Bell spies on hotel worker Sophia Myles from the vertiginous rooftops and wanly lit attic rooms of the city’s medieval quarter. In keeping with much of the city’s folklore, it’s a magical tale with a dark heart.
Edinburgh is not afraid to milk the market for paranormal tourism (see panel), though back in the real world, it’s the once-vaunted, now zombie-like financial sector that is spooking the city’s economy. The tree-lined St Andrew’s Square, the first part of the New Town to be completed, is home to the headquarters of Scottish banks and insurance companies – among them Dundas House, site of the now largely nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland. Though the widespread obliteration of wealth in the capital since the September 2008 financial crisis has been humbling, there are still plenty of bonus-rolled workers around to drift off the square into Edinburgh’s newish upmarket shopping area, Multrees Walk, where the top floor of Harvey Nichols boasts a restaurant and cocktail bar. For my money, however, the cosy public establishments on Rose Street, where nets of white lights drape above the cobblestones, offer more appealing fire-lit respite from the cold.
The plunge in banking asset values has drained the city of its financial swagger, making tourism even more important to the city than before. But Visit Scotland, the Scottish tourist authority, has much less to worry about than most. From the rinky-dink jingles and ear-muffed skaters of Princes Street Gardens to the looming, otherworldly citadel topping Castle Hill, last-minute trips to celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay in the city are odds-on to be satisfyingly, bone-chillingly festive.
Low road: going underground in Edinburgh
SOME PEOPLE claim to feel a different kind of chill in the Scottish capital, one that’s got nothing to do with its hilly topography. When its architects built over many of the Old Town’s network of closes to make new developments level with the Royal Mile, they created an underground city. Where plagues once festered, legends of ghosts began to multiply, until eventually the old stories were packaged up and sold as tours.
Even if you don’t believe that the dead would be bothered coming back to torture tourists of a nervous disposition, you could do worse than spend an hour at The Real Mary King’s Close (2 Warristons Close, High Street, 00-44-0845-070 6244, Realmarykingsclose.com). Here, tour guides dressed in 17th century costume will take you down into one of the concealed streets, where thousands of families lived, worked and shopped – or at least they did until they came out in bubonic boils, put a white flag outside their door and called for a leather-clad plague doctor wearing a raven’s beak.
In one of the underground rooms, dubbed “Annie’s House”, an American visitor in the 1980s “saw” a small girl standing in the corner, claiming she was a child abandoned by her family because she had caught the plague. The room is now host to a display of dolls, purportedly to comfort the ghost, although frankly the pile of “tartan McBarbies”, as our tour guide called them, only adds to the horror.
With a heavy dollop of amateur theatrics, your tour guide will tell you the oldest recorded ghost story, which originates from this part of Edinburgh. But if you’re really lucky, you’ll also get to hear about a murder that took place in the close – and yes, “murder” is pronounced in that special way loved by fans of Taggart and Rebus.
Other ghostly tours of Edinburgh’s vaults are available from Auld Reekie Tours (45 Niddry Street, 00-44-131-557 4700, Auldreekietours.com) or you and your kids could “enter the eerie unknown” at Edinburgh Dungeon (31 Market Street, 00-44-131-240 1001, Thedungeons.com).
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly direct to Edinburgh Airport from Dublin. Ryanair also flies from Shannon.
Where to stay, eat and go
Where to stay
The Howard. 34 Great King Street, 00-44-131-557 3500. Townhousecompany.com/the_howard. Where we stayed – a New Town five-star with luxuriant drawing room, friendly efficient staff, and bubble-tastic standalone baths.
Caledonian Hilton Edinburgh Hotel. Princes Street, 00-44-131-222 8888. Hilton.com/Caledonian. Another fancy option, though some of the rooms have a more contemporary feel than the exterior – a mix of Victorian and Dutch baroque – features may suggest to would-be guests.
Radisson BLU Hotel. 80 High Street, The Royal Mile, Old Town, 00-44-131-473 6590. Radissonblu.co.uk/ hotel-edinburgh. The Royal Mile is where you’ll find a lot of the street entertainment if you go to Edinburgh for the August festivals. Again, this is an option if you want to indulge yourself and stay in the lap of luxury.
Where to eat
VinCaffe, 11 Multrees Walk, 00-44-131-557 0088. Valvonacrolla.co.uk/html/vincaffe. Italian eaterie in shopping precinct, stocked with Valvona Crolla wine range and rich chocolate torte.
St Giles’ Cafe, 8 St Giles’ Street, 00-44-131-225 6267. Just off the High Street (part of the Royal Mile), this mahogany café is near a number of tourist attractions (including St Giles’ Cathedral). The warm Belgian waffles are recommended.
Iris, 47a Thistle Street, 00-44-131-220 2111. Irisedinburgh.co.uk. Located on a quiet but central street, mid-priced steaks and crunchy garlic fries were the pick of the menu here.
Where to go
Winter Wonderland, Princes Street Gardens. Edinburghschristmas.com. Includes one of Europe’s largest open air ice rinks and rides for all ages. Most of the attractions are open until January 4th (with the exception of Christmas Day). Skating is £8 for an adult and £5-£7 for kids.
Scotch Whisky Experience, 354 Castle Hill, The Royal Mile. Barrel-loads of distillery fun on this tour, even for visitors who prefer their whisky to be spelled with an “e”.
Edinburgh Castle, Castle Hill, The Royal Mile. Stuffed with attractions in its own right, culminates at the entrance to the castle, where visitors can see the Scottish crown jewels, the restored Laich Hall and (if you like a bit of military history) the National War Museum.