Sunday, June 28, 2009

E09: Exploring New Town

Maps, splayed out in front of me I scribbled on one computer printout, planning routes on another, comparing to locations marked on a third, while copying down necessary information from a fourth. After a good thirty minutes of planning, and scribbling leaving my travelling companion a mess of blue ink, arrows, and overlapping trails, I was ready to head out. As I planned my route, I had clearly overshot my limitations, assuming that I could see all of New Town, and all of Old Town in a single journey. While this was not to be, I did manage my tour through New Town, saving the rest for the journey for another day.

As I headed down the Royal mile, turning North onto New Street, I headed towards Calton street. My initial plan was to wander down Calton, over to Waterloo, leading towards the path that headed up Calton Hill. However, right at the bottom of New Street I could see a doorway built into the opposing wall. Above this portal was a sign labeling it as Jacob's Ladder. While I do enjoy following maps, especially routes of my own construction, as many will tell you, I do quite love alleys, and other strange passages. So, precariously planning was thrown aside, and through Jacob's Ladder, I went. It turned out to be a staircase, followed by a steep ramp, once again turning into a staircase. Rather than winding around the rough elevation of Edinburgh, this path simply said: no, this is ridiculous. These switchback roads are too much. I'm simply going up!

And up it went, right to the mouth of the path leading to the top of Calton Hill. On the hill, there were a number of monuments. Many were surrounded by scaffolding, and undergoing construction. There was an old observatory, a monument left unfinished due to funding cuts, created with Roman style pillars, and a structure built with rocks taken from historic locations such as the streets of Paris, and the concentration camps at Auschwitz.

From the top of Calton Hill, beautiful views of Arthur's Seat, towering over cometary, city, and my apartment were offered. From the other side, a view of the surrounding towns could be seen stretching out towards the water. As I took photo after photo from high upon the hill, I was struck with one thought: if somehow it ever manages to stop raining, and I am blessed with a sunny day and a blue sky, I'm going to have to come all the way back up here once more.

Regent Terrace to Hillside Crescent offered views of a quieter Edinburgh, where the activity of tourists headed from one shopping destination to the next, were replaced by people drinking slushies, watering plants hanging outside their doors, held in pots towards their porch, and growing in window boxes. The people here were simply going about their daily lives.

Down Leith Walk would lead towards St. James Shopping Centre. A mall. Alright, I know, why travel to see a mall. But, still, if I walked in one side I could walk out the other and still find myself on track. And, you know, perhaps it might offer me a cultural experience, and isn't that what it's all about? Aside from the aptly, if not wholly subtle, video game store named Game there were also shops of great value such as The Pound Store.

The Pound Store is by far the greatest dollar store I'd ever seen. Yes, I know, due to the exchange rate it's more like a Dollar Ninety store, but inside were haircare products of all the major brand names, packs of batteries made by companies you'd recognize, home products, grocery goods, and sodas. Sodas: four four a pound! Now this was a cultural experience. I grabbed an Irn-Bru (Scotland's regional soda), some sort of explosive orange soda, Juiceful (canned apple juice), and a red-bull type drink. As I threw them all back, one after the next, I was welcomed by a host of flavour sensations I would most likely never experience again. And for only one pound, what could possibly go wrong?

Up St. Andrew's Place, I headed to Abercromby place. I kept assuming I was headed in the wrong way, never mind that I was following the map to the letter. This trouble, it would seem, was caused by Edinburgh's infuriating need to change every road's name after each two hundred meters. As it turned out, I was on the road I thought I was. It would just take three more name changes before it matched that which was printed on my map. This is a problem I have noticed with a lot of the city. Though there is a simplistic grid-like system to the city, the street names seem to change with every intersection, leaving it still somewhat difficult to navigate, if headed out with names alone.

My ultimate destination was Moray Place, a small ringed road, connected to two other such streets. These were quaint little neighbourhoods, each surrounding a private garden to which only the residents of the street had a key to. The green surrounded by cobblestone, nd surrounding city blocked off by the tall ring of houses created a feeling of escape from the rest of the world. For a moment it seemed like everything else could fade away, and that there was only this location which had remained the same for hundreds of years. The short walk down to Deans Bridge, offering views of spires poking out of small forests, pressing back against the smaller buildings nestled within, added to this mystique.

It was also around this time that I realized what could possibly be wrong with drinking four cans of soda in a row. A washroom was needed, yet none was to be found. Even the McDonald's kept their washrooms locked with archaic crypt keys. What was I to do? Where was I to go? I checked my map. At the corner of Princes Street and Lothian there was a public washroom. A beacon of hope set amongst public park. Within a simple silver trough offered relief, and a chance to continue on, finishing the last few paths of New Town.

I shuffled along Rose street, a tourist path which bisects four square streets set up around it. Here I saw bar after bar offering “authentic Scottish cuisine,” which to me indicates that there's probably very little authenticity behind the kitchen at all. Perhaps I'm wrong, but most pizza places don't advertise “authentic pizza,” they just serve it. So too, should I suspect, any other such restaurant.

As I neared my home for this journey, I found myself finally feeling as if I were in Edinburgh. For a long time I had thought that this was a city best taken in before London, as so much seems the same. However, it was while climbing the stairs in Fleshmonger Close that I took a moment to look around at the bleak alley leading between both streets and elevation that I finally felt “I am here.” This is an important moment on many of my trips. It is a moment when I cease to feel as if I've just wandered off a subway stop in a part of town I'd never before visited, and instead feel as if I am surrounded by something very different. Like stepping through a looking glass, and realizing it for what it is, this moment is when everything that follows changes.

The streets are not simply quirky cobblestone built for the benefit of tourists. The locals who try to avoid the visitors, simply wanting to live their lives do not do so only because we are here. The shops do not sell for my benefit alone. It is at that moment, that shifting of paradigms, that the city comes alive.


  1. The case of the Pound Store! Not even Scotland is immune to this phenomenon (the dollar store phenomenon)!

  2. i tell you though. this store is brilliant. even better than dollarama. ohh!


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