Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Edinburgh: Week 1, Part 2

Hello everybody!

Here I am halfway through my second full week in Edinburgh, and things have gotten much busier. (Just the way I like my life to be!) Classes started on Monday, so I've been a bit busy and only just now have time to sit down and recap the rest of my "Freshers Week" here at Uni. There are lots of photos in this post (yay!); feel free to click on any of them for a better look.

little things.
Last Tuesday, all of the exchange students (some 2,000 of us) met up for an informational meeting. I wouldn't even mention this but for the fact that, during the meeting, I overheard two Americans behind me complaining about "how hard it is to meet other Americans." I had to check myself, because I really wanted to turn around and smack them in the face. Why would you travel abroad with the intention of meeting Americans? The whole point of studying in another country is to meet people from different cultures. And here they were lamenting the fact that boring old Americans were seemingly few and far between. I have two messages for them: 1) students from the United States comprise the vast majority of exchange students here, so I'm not sure where you are looking, and 2) you're stupid.

I successfully got into all of the courses I wanted! My third return visit to the Visiting Student Office was triumphant. I am now taking three English courses, two at the third-year level: a course about tragedy within sovereign bodies between 1300 and 1625; a course about Edinburgh as it is portrayed in fiction and as a space within which to write fiction; and a course surveying the 18th and 19th centuries of Scottish literature. Since I'm a double major at home, I've never taken so many English courses in a single semester, and the course load both intimidates and excites me. I'm set to read about 40 or so books this social life for me! Ah well. The good news is that I don't have class on Fridays,  which enables me to travel quite a bit more. And to read. A lot. Reading reading reading. (I'll write more specifically about my courses in my next blog post.)

I had the best hot chocolate OF MY LIFE last week at a little Italian eatery. It's like they melted a chocolate bar and added a teeny bit of milk. Seriously, it was SO GOOD. I made Emily, Ahlam, and Anarkalee all try it as well, and we agreed it was positively heavenly. Definitely worth a return visit.

I am proud to announce that I officially know my way around the center of the city! This is a huge accomplishment, and one that I worked hard to attain (my tired map can attest to the frequency with which I unfolded and folded it last week). But now I can ably navigate the key areas of Edinburgh, and it feels amazing not to rely on visual aides anymore. The best part is that now I feel comfortable exploring off the beaten path - the little side streets, winding passageways, and short cuts that lend Edinburgh its true charm.

St. Giles' Cathedral.
Last Wednesday I visited St. Giles' Cathedral. One of the oldest kirks in all of Scotland, parts of the structure itself date back to 1124. The Cathedral is absolutely stunning: it is huge, with beautiful stalls and the most intricate stained glass. The organ was my favorite part. It is positively mammoth in size (check out a picture of it here) and it played such lovely music. Unfortunately, the public isn't allowed to take photographs without a fee, and since I am broke, I let this experience be one for my memory alone. Still, if you're interested in what St. Giles' interior looks like, click here.

Edinburgh Castle.

Last Thursday, I made my way up High Street to Edinburgh Castle, the earliest parts of which date back to about A.D. 600. It was built upon ancient volcanic rock, which is kind of awesome, and it is visible for miles in every direction. (I should know--I have a clear view of it from the kitchen window of my flat!) The Castle has been subjected to countless sieges and invasions over the course of its history, and much of what remains today serves primarily as a military garrison. Still, the Royal Palace was quite awesome to behold. It includes the chamber wherein Mary Queen of Scots (yes, the deliciously devilish Mary) gave birth to James VI! The rooms today are sparsely furnished, of course, because very little of the original furniture survives. Still, the rooms themselves were impressive; the moldings and crests on the fireplaces were especially beautiful.

I'll admit that I was slightly bummed that there wasn't more of the actual castle to see, but I suppose that's what the other thousands of castles in Scotland are for!

Also within the complex are the Scottish Crown Jewels, featuring some breathtaking pieces that apparently weigh as much as a small child. (I suppose when you have the money, the bigger the better, right?) Featured in the chamber with the Crown Jewels is the Stone of Destiny, a historically important block of sandstone revered as a holy relic and rumored to have been the pillow for Jacob (yes, biblical Jacob). In later years, kings of Scotland were crowned upon the Stone. Today it sits on exhibit at Edinburgh Castle, but its legacy makes it quite a bit of fun to see.

Across from the Royal Palace in the upper courtyard of the Castle is the Great Hall, which is absolutely huge, very echoey, and features a ceiling built from the hull of a ship. It is seriously one of the coolest and most impressive things I have ever seen. The Hall also consists of some gorgeously carved window seats, some beautiful antique chandeliers, and a few simple suits of armor.

Across from the Great Hall is the Scottish National War Memorial, a tribute to all of the soldiers who fought and died in WWI. Stepping inside the large stone building, I immediately felt a sense of reverence, one which deepened when I began to sift through the huge volumes filled with the names of the deceased. I even found an entry for a Donald MacMillan, born in Campbeltown Argyllshire, who died on August 17th, 1916. MacMillan is my family's clan. I found one of my relatives. It was such a surreal, moving moment.

Other neat things about Edinburgh Castle include the National War Museum of Scotland, which featured a great exhibit on the history of the bagpipe (I'm a dork, I know); St. Margaret's Chapel, built in 12th century and today the oldest building in Edinburgh; and Mons Meg, a cannon from the 1400s that weighs more than five tons (and is utterly useless as a weapon since it would destroy pretty much everything within a significant radius, not to mention sink the ships for which it was intended).

Perhaps the best part of Edinburgh Castle, though, are the absolutely amazing views that it provides. Since it's situated so far above the rest of the city, it allows for stunning panoramas, and some of the city's architecture, viewed from above, is even more brilliant than when seen up close.

I also made two new friends during my excursion to the Castle--Kaiti and Hina. After a pleasant two hours of exploring the grounds together, we decided a commemorative photograph was in order. A sweet elderly couple from Georgia took our picture, but the winds seemed to have their own plans in mind. Ah well. Such is life in Edinburgh.

Underground Vaults.
Last Thursday I also took a night tour of the Underground Vaults. My "ghost tour" consisted of an eccentric (but highly effective) guide named Emily, outfitted in cloak and all, who led us on a trip around historic areas of Edinburgh's Old Town (including a parking lot built on top of the city's oldest cemetery) before finally leading us into the Vaults that lie beneath the street of South Bridge. Emily told some highly entertaining stories about the Bodysnatchers (naughty, naughty people), as well as some more recent tales about ghostly inhabitants of the Vaults. There are over 150 rooms in the Vaults, but apparently only three of them seem to be haunted. I'm not sure what my beliefs are as they pertain to ghosts, but I will say that my hands felt weirdly cold while I was in the Vaults (much colder than they'd felt when I was outside), even with my gloves on. Strange, no?

St. Andrews.
On Saturday, I made a trip out to St. Andrews, which lies on the east coast of Scotland, on the bay of the North Sea. Let me just say that I am completely charmed by the place! It is so clean and green and scenic and beautiful. This, I'm sure, was well-aided by the fact that it was a beautiful 65 degrees and sunny with very little wind. Still, though, St. Andrews is wonderful, especially if you're looking for laid back exploration. It's a very economically comfortable area, which affords it the ability to have some of the most well-manicured lawns I have ever seen. I spent my first hour in the town just wandering with my friend Julia along North Street, which lies along the coast of the North Sea, taking in the house fronts with their darling colored doors and the sight and smell of the waters just a few meters away. The cliffside is very steep, but the views are beautiful, with birds flying over the water and the smell of salt overhead.

We also passed by St. Andrews' Links, the world-famous golf course. It was also perfectly manicured and green. But of course. St. Andrews is the birthplace of golf, after all. Next, we explored St. Andrews Castle, which wasn't much of a castle at all, since it's now in ruins. Still, what's left today is impressive, especially when viewed from afar along the cliffs by the water.

Julia and I grabbed lunch at this really neat restaurant called "The Glass House," which is a tiny little eatery that used to be a Salvation Army but has since been converted. I had a delicious sausage, leek, and mushroom flatbread pizza, possibly some of the best pizza I have ever had. We then began our afternoon by exploring St. Andrews Cathedral, also in ruins. It must have been utterly enormous back in the day, because what's left of the structure today is massive.

It was so interesting to stroll among the gravestones and read the epitaphs, and to gaze up at the staggeringly-high remnants of the Cathedral's original structure. By far the best moment of the day (and the most rewarding) was climbing the 155 steps up to the top of St. Rule's Tower. Upon reaching the top, we were greeted by soaring panoramic views of the town and the North Sea beside it. It was absolutely breathtaking. And also very windy. But of course.

We ended our day by visiting part of the campus of St. Andrews University, the oldest and most prestigious university in Scotland, now famous for two graduates by the names of William and Kate. The campus was absolutely gorgeous-- more flowers, more stone buildings, more green grass--and if anything, it made me miss Mount Holyoke so very, very much!

Thanks for sticking with me through such a long post! I'll hopefully be posting more pictures on Facebook soon. I have a 500-page novel to get through by Monday, however, so we'll see what happens. Still, I have enjoyed my time here so far immensely, and I just hope it keeps getting better! I'm feeling less lonely than I initially did, although I do experience huge bouts of homesickness from time to time. I'm assuming that once my courses swing into high gear, I'll have very little time to think about it at all. Here's hoping I retain some semblance of a social life with my crazy reading schedule...we shall see.

So what's next? Finishing out my first week of classes, reading that 500-page tomb of Sir Walter Scott's (among other books), hiking Arthur's Seat (weather dependent, of course), and a day trip to Loch Lomond this weekend! Stay tuned for my next blog post.



  1. AHHH LOVE IT ALL :) and you. and i miss you. a lot.

  2. This was such a pleasure to read! I'm so glad that you're having the time of your life :) Just as I was done reading the part about thy fellow Americans, I realized how much I've missed you :( I will be keeping myself posted on your blog!

  3. You know, if the poetry and acting things don't work out, you should really consider writing guidebooks. Just saying.