Scotland the (Almost) Brave
Edinburgh still caters to the
weekend break hedonist, even ones
like Paul Oswell who are slowing
up on the decadent lifestyle a little
As younger men, the mountains we would climb on waking up in a strange city would likely be metaphorical ones. We’d navigate our way up the slopes of our hangovers, fried breakfasts and hairs of dogs – these were the walking poles we’d need to climb to the summit of Mount Recovery and the prize for making it was the chance to descend once again into the valley of hedonism.
It’s surely a sign of maturity, then, that we’re spending our first morning in Edinburgh on a physical slope, all of us in relatively good health. It could also be a sign that we’re eyeing up the business end of our late 30s (my friend Andy is here to celebrate his 40th birthday). Stood at the bottom of the steep hike up to Arthur’s Seat, that grand old man looming over the city, we almost considered taking on something even less demanding.
“Weather looks a bit changeable,” someone said. “Maybe something a little more sedate? Calton Hill?” It was tempting and we’d still get to see the National Monument and the City Observatory, but we had to at least vaguely test ourselves, and an hour or so later we were literally patting ourselves on the back as we took in the overload of panorama that presents itself - true photo-worthy city views.
We bowled back down the hill, buoyed by our early(ish) morning conquest, the four of us filled with the vigour of champions. By the time we reached the Royal Mile, we were ready to re-attend to our waistlines with a burger among the slightly grand interiors of the Royal Café. We knew that the evening would probably bring less cultured pleasures, and since we’d been relatively wholesome with our bodies, so far, we’d give our minds the same benefit of clean living with a shot of art. I’m not sure if there are any other kinds of walks that you can do in Edinburgh that aren’t brisk, but one brisk walk heading out of the city centre bought us to the National Galleries of Scotland, set against the backdrop of some countryside that once again lends itself to filling up your camera phone.
A former orphanage built in 1830, The Dean Gallery is a fascinating place to spend the afternoon even for people with not much expertise in art, for which read our group. There’s a wealth of accessible works, for instance the sideways look at the world that you can get through their large collection of Surrealist and Dada artworks. Minds sated, we swung back to our rented apartments – the regally-named Knight residences in the Old Town (though we preferred to equate them with Knightrider).
There may have been a remedial amount of napping before the first night began, reports are sketchy. Mike Meyers once said that he thought all of Scottish cuisine was based on a dare. Food here does get a rough ride, but its image receives a much-needed boost at restaurants that have a slightly more progressive view of Scottish cooking. One that goes beyond dropping a Mars Bar into a deep fat fryer. The Grain Store, for example, is all exposed brickwork and trendy young people, and it serves up the best local food using Scottish produce, including some impressive beef, lamb, seafood and wild mushrooms.
We decided that over two nights, we’d have to have our fill of pints of cheap lager just as a matter of course, so no harm in having one night at least making a stab at more sophisticated drinking. We made it to two of the city’s nicer craft cocktail bars, Hawke & Hunter and Bramble. Both places are adept at making you feel more like a connoisseur than a drunkard, and alongside shots of unusual whiskey, we downed exotic concoctions and tried not to feel too much like Del Boy, even when the drinks presentation was somewhat flamboyant.
The alcohol fumes were given a chance to escape through our pores as – at Andy’s request – we spent the next morning being pampered in the plush surroundings of the Escape at One Spa, located in the Sheraton Grand Hotel. If there’s anything more metrosexual than lolling about in a heated outdoor pool or the steam of the futuristic thermal suite after a night on the craft cocktails, I’m not sure our group could have handled it.
We wended our way to Edinburgh Castle via a cosy little tapas bar (Barioja) and joined a guided tour of the dramatic battlements that dominate the skyline of the Old Town. The Great Hall that dates back to 1511 and the Mons Meg – a medieval gun that could fire its ammunition almost two miles – were among the personal highlights.
Ageing bones were letting convenience take the strain as we hit the afternoon and a bus tour of the rest of the city. The rest of the medieval Old Town, the new Scottish Parliament buildings and the Georgian finery of the New Town all rolled by in the unexpected sunshine. We’d been pretty thrifty with our entertainment choices so far, something we threw to the wind as we sat down for dinner at The Witchery at the top of the Royal Mile. It’s a slightly goth-looking maze of rooms in an ancient building, all low wooden beams androoms decked with heraldic regalia and the opportunity for more Harry Potter jokes than is probably appropriate.
We wanted to keep the jokes going into the night, preferably told by people way funnier than us, so we hit The Stand, one of the country’s most famous and respected comedy clubs. Improv comedy would usually send chills down my spine, but when it’s done well, it’s hard not to be thrilled by it, and the birthday boy even enjoyed his spin on stage as a “volunteer”. As I paid for and delivered our fifth round, the group laughing their way through a sketch involving a monk and a penguin (I think), I thought of the few more we’d have on the way back and how we weren’t quite over the hill JUST yet.
The beauty of Edinburgh is that it allows you to take your foot off the accelerator pedal and stop off and take in the history and beauty of the city, even as it tempts you back for one more single malt and one more morning blowing away the cobwebs on Arthur’s Seat.
Eating and drinking: The Grain Store, 30 Victoria Street, www.grainstore-restaurant.co.uk, Hawke and Hunter, 12 Picardy Place, www.hawkeandhunter.co.uk, Bramble, 16A Queen Street, www.bramblebar.co.uk, The Witchery, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, www.thewitchery.com
Plane: Daily direct flights from Cardiff Airport with Cityjet (www.cityjet.com)