For the second time in as many weeks I shunned the open road and remote spaces to spend time in my lovely hometown, Edinburgh – with its magnificent castle, perched on a hill.
This time we’d decide to spend a day exploring some of the city’s Old Town visitor attractions. It was shaping up to be a dreich (Scots for not very nice) February day, as we headed into town.
Dreich days really bring the character of Edinburgh’s Old Town to life. It looks beautiful under grey brooding skies, cobblestones glistening with rain, and a cosy yellow glow radiating from bars, shops and restaurants to lure passers-by inside like moths to a flame.
No sooner had we arrived in the Old Town than we were lured by the cosy glow of Brodie’s Close. The house of notorious Edinburgher Deacon Brodie once stood nearby. Brodie was a respectable Cabinet Maker and Locksmith by day and a burglar by night. He’s believed to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
We said good morning to Mr Brodie and the haughty Bonnie Prince and found a table inside the Deacon’s House Cafe for breakfast.
After breakfast our first visitor attraction of the day was Camera Obscura and World of Illusions on Castlehill. It’s been drawing visitor since the 1850s.
I last visited 29 year ago and loved it, so I’m not sure why a return visit has taken me quite so long!
From the second I was inside I was like an excited 5-year old who’d just swallowed a handful of blue Smarties. I charged around shouting ‘LOOK’, ‘LOOK’, ‘LOOK’. Mr G was equally excited by the 5 floors of interactive, and mind-boggling delights we had to explore.
There’s so much to see and do inside that it’s impossible to get bored. It’s also one of those rare places like Disneyland, where adults can truly revert to childhood again.
We had a wonderful time exploring the mirror maze, stumbling around, arms outstretched. It felt like we were trapped inside a weird fantasy world labyrinth, and the prospect of never escaping felt real.
Crossing a bridge has never felt like such a challenge. Your rational grown-up self tells you it’s just an illusion, the bridge isn’t actually moving. Inside Camera Obscura you’re forever 5-years old, so your childlike self screams with delight at the prospect of crossing a fast-moving bridge and risking being thrown off, and into a neon vortex.
Dizzy, we went to find some less disorienting fun.
We struck gold with a set of musical stairs, complete with natty top hats to wear as you recreated the Hollywood scenes of old. I think every house should have musical stairs – what’s not to love.
We took some time out from larking around to watch a Camera Obscura show. Rosie our guide was brilliant, really knowledgeable and funny. Despite the camera’s age and simple design the attraction is still fascinating to see.
We had great fun picking up unsuspecting passers-by outside using pieces of cardboard, then flipping them into the air, before placing them back on terra firma! No wonder the attraction once terrified Victorian visitors. There are reports of people fainting and fleeing, screaming. Even in this day of cutting edge technology, Camera Obscura still feels a wee bit magical.
After the show we braved the wind and rain, which was battering the rooftop viewing platform to admire the bonnie Edinburgh view below.
As we wound our way back down to ground level, we immersed ourselves in a whole host of fascinating, interactive delights.
Our next Old Town attraction was The Scotch Whisky Experience which stands opposite Camera Obscura on Castlehill.
We had two excellent guides for our tour – Gary who was hugely knowledgeable about all things whisky, and a ghostly Master Blender called Douglas McIntyre who was a real character.
Our tour began with a barrel ride, guided by the dearly departed Mr McIntyre. He took us through the whisky making process.
The film which was shown on a big, curved screen showcased Scotland’s finest scenery – it was cinematography at its best. I felt my eyes well with tears as I watched the Scotland I adore before me. I longed to return to the beautiful Isle of Islay, and walk with the wild deer on the rugged Isle of Jura once more.
We sniffed our way through each whisky region and found out what gives their whiskies a distinct regional character – from the strong, smoky peat of Islay to the subtle purple heather of the Highlands. It was fascinating.
Our next lesson was in the art of blending whiskies to make blended malts. The blending room wouldn’t have looked out-of-place inside Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I absolutely loved it, with its magical blending bottles and replica of Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’ glowing majestically in the corner.
On a serious note the National Galleries of Scotland have just launched a fundraising campaign to buy this beautiful painting to prevent it from leaving Scotland. They have until mid-March to raise the remaining £750,000 needed. You can find out more about the campaign and make a donation here.
After a whistle-stop tour of blended malts it was time to make a decision for the tour finale, a tasting – Highland, Campbeltown, Speyside, Lowland, Islay or blended? It was a peaty, Ardbeg for me and a fruity, Highland GlenDronach for Mr G.
This was the part of the tour I’d been looking forward to most. The tasting inside the Diageo Claive Vidiz Whisky Collection – a fabulous shrine to Scotch Whisky. I stood in awe looking at the 3,384 bottles, glowing like gold in the beautifully lit room. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be.
In the tasting we learned how our whisky had legs which hinted at its maturity and viscosity. We swirled our glasses and the legs on my Ardbeg slid slowly down the glass like treacle. Mr G’s light, heathery Highland raced down his glass like the proverbial you know what off a shovel!
I was instantly transported to the Queen of the Hebrides. I pictured the peat cutters working in the fields, the distinctive pagoda rooftops of the distilleries, pretty whitewashed villages and unspoiled beaches with foaming waves crashing on golden sand.
I took a sip and there it was, that intrinsically Islay taste of peat. A taste I once found overpowering and undrinkable, had now become pleasant to me.
We enjoyed our wee nips as we viewed the stunning collection of whiskies.
None of the bottles have ever been opened yet one was empty, with only a dry amber reside left at the bottom of the bottle. A fine example of the angels taking more than their fair share. The angels’ share is the whisky which evaporates from the casks during the maturation process. Even when bottled, if left long enough the angels will find a way to get to the whisky.
We were ravenous so we headed to Gordon’s Trattoria for lunch. Gordon’s have been serving good, home-cooked Italian food on the Royal Mile since 1982. Lunch was delicious – one pizza fontaluna with spicy Italian sausage, and one penne fontaluna in a cream and cheese sauce, with spicy Italian sausage. There was most definitely a spicy Italian sausage theme going on!
We lingered a while over a chilled Pinot Grigio and Peroni, chatting happily about a fun morning spent in two of Edinburgh’s best visitor attractions.
Any plans we had to explore more visitor attractions after lunch were hampered by insanely long queues, so instead we decided to find somewhere to have one for the road before heading home.
En route to the Whiski Rooms (our chosen one for the road venue) we passed The Writers’ Museum in Lady Stair’s Close. I dragged a reluctant, and thirsty Mr G inside for a quick look. It’s a beautiful old building which houses a collection of interesting artifacts about the lives of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.
And there it was, the item that had drawn me inside – one of my favourite Edinburgh artifact. A cabinet from the childhood bedroom of Robert Louis Stevenson, made by Deacon Brodie.
Our day began and ended with Deacon Brodie.
Well not quite. It ended in the Whiski Rooms with one for the road. A delicate champagne cocktail for Mr G, and for me a delicious whisky cocktail made with Talisker and ginger beer. We drank a toast to a wonderful day – Slàinte mhath!