Hop Scotch

Edinburgh: A cobbled-together system of passageways has since medieval times offered a shortcut to the capital's history and treasures along the Royal Mile.

October 03, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella

On a rare sun-soaked summer day in Edinburgh, the mood turned festive along the steep, cobbled streets of the Royal Mile.

Visitors thronged the sidewalks, shedding jackets -- standard garb in a place where locals joke that summer came on a Wednesday last year. Tourists strolled in and out of pubs, museums and shops. University students with matching haircuts and sun-reddened faces broke out singing as they strode along in groups.

Outside St. Giles Cathedral, a lone bagpiper played for the tourists. A majestic steeple pointed toward the clouds, enhancing a fairytale skyline of spires and domes and the turrets of a castle that has long stood watch over the city.

But from where Liz White stood, things looked grim.

The tour guide had made her way off the Royal Mile, which stretches a mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, into one of dozens of "closes." The narrow, pedestrian passageways between the ancient buildings, so called because many have gates that close at night, serve much the same purpose today as they did centuries ago. They connect streets, reveal shortcuts, lead to hidden entrances.

White had transported her group to medieval times, if only in their minds. Back then, the network of dark and forbidding alleyways also served as sewers. Inhabitants of the upper floors -- usually the poorest classes -- would toss out their waste to run downhill, she explained. The whole mess mixed in with the pigs and the hens and the rotting cabbage leaves.

"They didn't have a very grand life," White said with a sigh.

The closes, often named after the most important resident in the alley, are reminders of life centuries ago in the Old Town of Scotland's capital. Such reminders are everywhere in a city steeped in history and heraldry.

Edinburgh is striving to capitalize on its heritage, while wooing new and younger markets. Toward that end, the city of 443,600 inhabitants is rejuvenating its closes to encourage visitors to explore, improving pedestrian flow on the Royal Mile, improving marketing for area retailers and investing in new attractions, such as Our Dynamic Earth, the city's answer to London's Millennium Dome, which opened in early July.

The city is making headway, if the hordes of twentysomethings with backpacks more than half their size are any indication. Visitors seeking fine dining on a Saturday night -- without a reservation -- can traipse from restaurant to restaurant before getting a late seating. And guest rooms can quickly book up during the busiest times, such as during the Edinburgh International Festival (this year from Aug. 15 through Sept. 4) and when big events fill Murrayfield Stadium.

Visitors seeking a taste of Edinburgh might want to hop one of several tour buses that loop from the New Town to the Old Town. The Georgian New Town, new by European standards, was built in the 1800s with stately squares, a response to intolerable conditions in the Old Town, which dates to the 12th century.

Royal Mile and Old Town

During a recent visit, it was the Old Town that beckoned with Gothic-style, hilltop sandstone buildings and an air of mystery and myth.

It was here that Deacon William Brodie, an upstanding cabinetmaker and member of the Town Council by day, would burglarize his customers' homes by night to pay gambling debts, becoming the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was there that Jekyll's creator, Robert Louis Stevenson, dreamt in a childhood room furnished with a mahogany cabinet built by the real Deacon Brodie. The cabinet is on display, along with a first edition of "A Child's Garden of Verses," in a tribute to Stevenson and fellow native sons Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, at the Writers' Museum, housed in a mansion at Lady Stair's Close.

The Royal Mile forms the spine of Old Town. Edinburgh Castle -- the former abode of Mary Queen of Scots -- sits at one end, with the baroque royal palace at the other. Holyroodhouse palace was also home for several years to the former queen, who lost her head for defying Elizabeth I of England. Today, the palace serves as the queen's official Scottish residence. (In fact, it abruptly closed its gates to tourists in early June, just hours before an expected two-day visit by Prince Charles.)

To walk the Royal Mile is to truly experience it. And to walk the Royal Mile is to climb, up stone steps, up cobblestone inclines, up the narrow closes. Wear sturdy shoes and pack an umbrella for a stretch that is four streets in one -- Castlehill, Lawnmarket, High Street and Canongate. It's well worth hooking up with one of the walking tours that meet outside St. Giles, such as the one led by White for Mercat Tours.

"There are some things you can't see from a bus," White said. "We try to show people things they might miss."

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