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Tuesday 27 September 2016

The Big Read: Our own private Edinburgh

A Royal time in Scotland

John Chambers

Published 27/04/2015 | 02:30

On with the old (town), and the new: The only problem Edinburgh poses for the visitor is trying to fit all the attractions into a short visit
On with the old (town), and the new: The only problem Edinburgh poses for the visitor is trying to fit all the attractions into a short visit
Heady delights: John Chambers in the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions
Map of UK
Old Town Chambers Edinburgh
Edinburgh Gin Distillery
George Street Bar and Grill
Cranachan and Crowdie

John Chambers and his family enjoy a Royal time on holiday in Edinburgh.

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The postcard has gone down in family history.

It was from our then five-year-old son to his best friend, and described a day trip to the local city from our camp site in France: "Went to Quimper today. It was stupid", said the card.

And so a city dating back to Roman times, and with some memorable architecture, was dismissed in just seven words, whatever its 60,000 inhabitants may have thought.

It was a harbinger of things to come. The rest of France? The food was too weird. The Italian lakes? The surrounding towns had a surfeit of churches with too many frescos to look at. Southern Spain? Too hot. Wales? Too wet. The New Forest? Not enough trees. If the complaints didn't come from our son then they were voiced by our daughter, or my in-laws.

Then there was Edinburgh. Too ... hang on a bit ... we never went to Edinburgh ... at least not together, not as a family. We had all discovered it separately - my son with his mates, my daughter on a girlie weekend, my wife and I on two blissful breaks from family life. We each had our own private Edinburghs, and were happy enough to share our secrets of the city with each other. Maybe that why it's like Goldilocks's third bowl of porridge - just right.

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John Chambers at Camera Obscura

And so before our latest trip my wife and I not only bought the guidebook but listened to what our now-adult children suggested we do while we were there. Top of their list, suggested by both, was the Camera Obscura, which uses a collection of mirrors set six storeys above ground level to capture images both of the surrounding streets and the countryside beyond.

During the 15-minute show we were shown the hills beyond the Firth of Forth and people crossing the esplanade in front of Edinburgh castle. The cameras have even captured the moment of a wedding proposal. I hope it went well for him. The views from the top of the tower are quite special, even without the cameras, and on the floors below there are various illusions to detain and delight. My son actually said he preferred these to the cameras. Our own favourites were The Vortex - which uses a light display to confuse your sense of balance - and the mirror maze. Among the other attractions is a camera which allows you to see how you would look when older, when young, or even as someone of the opposite gender. Standard admission fees run from £9.95 from aged five to 15 up to £13.95 for an adult. Under-fives go free, and they recommend you allow about two hours for the visit (camera-obscura.co.uk).

Our daughter also recommended the Our Dynamic Earth - which is right at the other end of Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile, down near the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the new Scottish Parliament Building. This is a fun ride through billions of years of history, starting at the Big Bang. 'Time Travellers' also get landed close to a volcano, take a 3-D 'flight' from the Arctic to the tropical rainforest through various habitats. Science at school was never like this. Think of having some sort of Doctor Who type as your chemistry teacher and you'll get some idea. Standard ticket prices range from £7.95 to £12.50, with discounts available for booking online. (www.dynamicearth.co.uk)

Hmm. Two suggestions down and I had to admit my kids had chosen pretty well. Maybe I should just have let them make the choices on all those family trips, but now it was time to strike out on my own and I knew where I wanted to be - towering over the city, looking down on the Firth, courtesy of Edinburgh Castle.

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Edinburgh Castle lit up green for St. Patrick's Day

I had been before, but returned because I love the sense of history that being in Edinburgh's oldest building, the tiny St Margaret's chapel, built some time in the 1100s, can bring. Tales of derring-do, sieges, the Scottish crown jewels - effectively lost for 111 years until rediscovered (unlike our Irish ones) by a party including Sir Walter Scott - you'll get them all in the couple of hours you can spend here. Ticket prices range from £9.90 to £16.50, with under-fives going free. Quite apart from wandering round looking at the information boards, you can also get a complimentary guided tour or you can rent a (very good) audio guide (www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk).

I suppose it would be possible to spend an entire weekend in the Scottish capital without ever venturing from the Old Town's Royal Mile. There are enough bars, restaurants, gift shops and attractions to keep the visitor well, royally, entertained. But the trip from Castle Hill to Holyrood is about more than tourism and things touristy. In the end, it's about power. If there had been a Scottish version of Francis Underwood from House of Cards - and there have been enough contenders down the ages - then this is the road you would have found him on, intriguing with the medieval Scottish kings in the castle, contending for the soul of the nation for or against John Knox in St Giles Cathedral, bursting in along with Lord Darnley on his wife Mary Queen of Scots, her ladies and her adviser David Rizzio and seeing poor Rizzio stabbed to death in the Queen's apartments at the palace of Holyroodhouse, or scheming in the impressively modern Scottish parliament buildings (admission free, if you want a guided tour, book in advance).

You can let your imagination run away with you as you visit them all - provided, of course, the Queen isn't using the palace herself. Ticket prices for the palace range from £7 to £11.60, depending on age, and up to €16.40 if you want to see the Queen's Gallery too.

Of course, all the history can make a body tired but we were lucky enough to have an apartment just off the Royal Mile, opposite St Giles cathedral. Old Town Chambers is an impressive collection of 50 apartments - ours was kitted out to a very high spec and decorated in an urban chic style. Our two-bed had dimmable lighting, Juliet-style balconies, a swish kitchen and views over much of the city. We'd wake up in the morning and look out to Calton Hill and the Scottish National Monument while in the evening we could watch the sun set on the Scott monument and Princes Street. It was both a haven and yet right in the middle of everything - 20 seconds to the nearest pizzeria, where apartment residents get a discount, perhaps a minute to the buzzy and recommended Angels and Bagpipes.

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Old Town Chambers, Edinburgh

The in-laws might have complained once we crossed into the New Town that it wasn't really that new, given that it was begun in the 1760s. We, however, had no such problems. My wife loves the shopping in this area not just the stores along Princes Street, including the Victorian exuberance of Jenners department store, but also the chic boutiques of George Street. While she wandered happily here I went further afield, heading to the suburb of Stockbridge with its beautiful houses and then on to the Botanic Gardens - more fantastic views, beautifully kept grounds, a giant Victorian glasshouse. A perfect spot to blow away whatever cobwebs may have accumulated from the night before. Admission is free, though you pay £5 to enter the glasshouses.

OK, let's step away from the glasshouses before we mention the elephant. Yes, that should be far enough. This particular pachyderm is called The Strength of Sterling, and to be honest, it was a concern before we arrived. But plan your activities and you can minimise your costs. The canny folk at the thisisedinburgh.com website have a section devoted to visitors on a budget (http://thisisedinburgh.com/discover/my-edinburgh/budget/).

You could even string together a day's sightseeing and hardly spend a bean, starting off with catching views of the city from the Castle Esplanade, strolling through the Princes Street Gardens and taking in some art at the National Galleries complex. With all the money you save you could treat yourself to lunch in the excellent gallery restaurant. Or you could mix and match the free with those attractions for which there is a charge - the Castle Esplanade with the Camera Obscura; the parliament and the palace; the Cathedral and Mary King's Close.

Ah yes, the Real Mary King's Close. I haven't mentioned that yet, have I? A subterranean journey down a real street, now built over. Descend into the houses of the 1600s and learn about the people who lived there, including the formidable Mary King. It's not always a happy tale - there was poverty and plague, for instance. But modern-day visitors (admission £8.25 for children 5-15, up to £13.95 for an adult, no admission for under-fives, pre-booking advisable) get some entertaining ghost stories as well as easy-to-digest historical insight before emerging, an hour later, back into daylight, realising how lucky we are that the most pressing problem is where to head next - on with the delights of the Old Town or off to the New. So much city, so little time.

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Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Book the best value packages to Scotland on travel.independent.ie.

Getting there

For a local guide on things to see and do in Edinburgh visit ThisisEdinburgh.com. Old Town Chambers apartment prices start from £105 per night (oldtownchambers.co.uk).

To get a good idea of the geography and history of the city, and to spot sites to head back to later, you can always try a guided bus tour (edinburghtour.com). Buses leave from close to Waverley Bridge and there are a selection of tours, with adult prices at approx £14. Some tours go as far as Leith (where you can see the Royal yacht Britannia) or you can confine yourself to the Old and New Towns. I picked the Mac tours vintage bus with a live commentary.

Tours of the Real Mary King's Close depart every 15 minutes from 10am. See realmarykingsclose.com.

Take three

Drink

Mention Scotland and spirits and everyone thinks whisky, without the e. But there is a gin distillery in Edinburgh which you can tour, learning about gin and sampling some of the produce. Tours cost from £10-£75. On the deluxe gin-making experience you can even distil your own gin.

Details: edinburghgindistillery.co.uk/visitor-centre

Dine

George Street in the New Town is home not just to the glitzy boutiques but also hosts a range of dining options. We sampled The George Street Bar and Grill which was reassuringly full of discerning locals on our visit. My wife is still talking about her sea bream. Food, including afternoon tea, is served all day. Expect to pay about £40-50 for a two-course meal for two, less on the pre-theatre menu.

Details: georgestreetbarandgrill.com

Shop

If you want to bring home a kilt and a CD of Andy Stewart singing Donald Where's Your Trousers then let me be the first to applaud your courage. We, however, tried the all-Scottish produce at Cranachan & Crowdie on Canongate on the Royal Mile, and left with cheese, chocolate and Mostarda, a compote of fig, apricot, apple, prune and mustard seed.

Details: cranachanandcrowdie.com

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