The most scenic rail journey on Earth?
The train ride to Edinburgh remains one of the most scenic journeys I’ve ever had the privilege of taking.Coincidentally, the ticketing agency randomly allocated me a window seat. A prime position to take in the views. Similar to the journey from London to Harrogate, the trip began with views of the surrounding English Country.The countryside is gradually replaced by the urban city of Newcastle as the train approaches the Central Station, crossing the High Level Bridge over the River Tyne along the way. Newcastle has four major bridges including the iconic Gateshead Millennium and Tyne bridges, each running parallel across the River Tyne. I’ve never seen a river with so many bridges in such close proximity. It’s quite a sight!
The train continues north and the English countryside returns momentarily. It passes by the town of Berwick upon Tweed, the northernmost frontier before crossing the River Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge.
Two miles from Scotland, the scenery drastically changes.The English countryside disappears, replaced by stunning vistas of the North Sea on your right and the rugged highlands on your left. Nature’s very own welcome to Scotland.
The train finally comes to a halt at the historic Waverley Station, in the center of Edinburgh. One of my favorite train journeys in the world.
Getting lost…YET AGAIN!
I followed the crowds out of the train station for my first glimpse of the city.The sound of bagpipes playing what sounded like the Star Wars opening sequence grew louder as I drew closer to the exit. At the entrance, I was greeted by the sight of a stout bagpiper decked in a highland dress.Welcome to Edinburgh! I found myself on one of the busiest streets in Edinburgh- Princes Street. I wandered around in search of my hostel but it came to nought. I had committed to memory some landmarks and street names prior to my arrival but everything around me was unfamiliar. I decided to put off searching for my hostel and explored the nearby vicinity instead.
It was still early afternoon and I had time to waste before check-in so I did what all girls do. I window-shopped. All major brands are available on Princes Street. From H&M, Topshop to my personal favorite, Marks & Spencer’s. Prices are roughly similar to back home so I didn’t bother getting anything.To be honest, I’m not fond of window shopping. It’s a frustrating experience going through items you want without having the money to buy them. I got bored not long after so I headed to the famous Princes Street Gardens across the road.
Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens is actually a misnomer since it’s more of a public park. Set against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle to the south and Holyrood Palace to the north, the gardens are an ideal place to relax for both locals and tourists alike.
The Scott Monument dominates the Eastern side of the Gardens. A towering Victorian Gothic structure commemorating Sir Walter Scott. Those of you who read literature might be familiar with his works. A Scottish national hero due to his literary exploits detailing Scottish Culture and also for his role in reclaiming the crown jewels.The monument holds the record of the tallest monument in the world. Impossible to miss if you’re in Edinburgh.
Numerous statues of famous people who contributed to Scotland’s illustrious history in some way or another can also be found around the park. There’s also a Scottish-American war memorial on the other side of the park.
I settled myself in one of the benches and tucked into my ham sandwich. Halfway through my sandwich, I noticed an inscription on the bench. I was sitting on one of the many memorial benches scattered across the park. It’s a pretty commonplace in Britain to donate money to the National Trust in return for a bench to commemorate the death of a loved one. Most of the benches seemed to commemorate war victims. Haunted benches? Kinda morbid don’t you think?
The Unique Geography of Edinburgh
First-time visitors will notice the peculiar presence of bridges across the city. The most notable ones you’ll notice when you arrive are: The Waverley Bridge directly on top the train station and the North Bridge which runs parallel well… North as its name implies.The conventional purpose of a bridge is to connect point A & point B over a water body.The bridges in Edinburgh do not serve conventional purpose( The Scots are famous for rebelling).There is no water body running through the city. Instead, the bridges were built to connect the Old Town to the New Town.
The Edinburgh we know today is divided into two distinct quarters as mentioned in the previous paragraph- The Old Town and New Town. Due to overcrowding of the Original Town(Old Town) from the 16th century onward, city planners settled on the creation of a New Town. The New Town was finally completed in 1850.
Oblivious to me back then, I was in the New Town and my hostel was in the Old Town. Like all first-time visitors, I was curious about the bridge so I made the crossing to the other side. Street names and places began to look increasingly familiar. Finally, I was back on the right track.The hostel website mentioned that it was a mere 10 minutes from the train station. Well that information as with all information on hostel websites is a tad bit misleading.The 10 minutes did not account for the numerous flights of stairs I had to haul my suitcase through. Physical exhaustion aside, the Old Town was beautiful.
Edinburgh is a city built on many hills. Back in the day, there were no technologically advanced engineering tools and it was probably too much work anyway to level elevated ground so the town was incorporated into the hill profile.The outcome of this is magnificent. Numerous buildings have underground levels which are only visible if you’re on the “right” side of the street. A building might appear to have 3 floors from the front but when you head to the back you’ll see that it actually has 7! The layout of streets here can also be confusing to the unacquainted.They wind around the buildings across different altitudes.The street behind a building might be different from the street in front of it. Usually the address of the building is the street at the front. Medieval staircases built into a block of buildings link streets of varying altitudes.When climbing these staircases, you’ll notice an intricate network of narrow alleyways in the side profile of the buildings. I was awestruck.
The Best Hostel Ever?
Although I only spent a night there, my fondest memories of living in a hostel were at Smart City Hostels Edinburgh. Located at Blackfriars Street just off the Royal Mile, it’s a convenient location to explore the city.
When you’re staying in a hostel, the people bunking with you play a big role in determining the outcome of your experience. The people or person for that matter I met made my stay a memorable one indeed. From a strictly non-personal standpoint, Smart City Hostels Edinburgh exceeds every possible expectation you could possibly have of a hostel. Spacious modern dorms, comfortable double decker beds, attached toilet and 2 showers? Check. Bar with cheap alcohol prices and insane happy hour deals? Check. Decent WiFi? Check.Washing machines and dryers? Check. It was a drastic change from the basic hostels I’ve become accustomed to earlier on in the trip.The hostel was also vibrant and full of life. It definitely was the best hostel I stayed in throughout the trip. I wished I had stayed longer.
Making Friends on the Road
As usual with all my previous hostel experiences, I was the first one to check into my dorm. Woohoo bunk beds finally! ( All the hostels I stayed in previously only had single beds) I don’t know why but I have an odd fascination with bunk beds, the top bed in particularly. I guess it’s due to an unfulfilled desire from my childhood where I pestered my parents for a bunk bed year after year but to no avail. Instinctively, I settled myself on the top bed.
My stomach was feeling queasy from all the delicious food I had stuffed myself over the past few days so I went to relieve myself in the toilet.While I was halfway through my business, the door clicked open and I heard the sound of footsteps. Someone else had checked-in. While in-dorm toilets are convenient here’s a few bad things about them: 1) Everyone knows when you are taking a dump 2) Everyone can smell that haggis you had in the morning.The flushing of the toilet probably tipped off the person outside of my presence. Still, I tried to sneak out of the toilet but then I saw a petite girl unpacking her bag on the bunk bed below mine.
There was no escape. I tried to avoid physical contact and said “Hi” but she offered her hand and introduced herself. Crap(pun intended) this was awkward. I’m not sure if she was oblivious to the fact that I had just taken a massive dump or maybe I was just a germaphobe. Shaking hands immediately after taking a dump is a strict no-no… I reluctantly shook her hand and that was how I met Carla. If she was indeed oblivious to the fact that I had just taken a dump, she would soon find out.The first thing she asked me was ” Where’s the toilet ? “. I never got to apologizing… I mean how do you even go about doing it?! If you’re reading this, I am truly sorry Carla. I regret that our first meeting wasn’t in a less awkward or more hygienic situation.
Carla wanted to do some laundry and she didn’t know where the washing machines were so I brought her there. We returned to the dorm after that. I grabbed my phone and was about to leave for the bar.
“Where are you going?” Carla asked as I was halfway out the door
” The bar? ” I replied
” Can I come along? ” she asked
I was taken aback by the question.Over pints of Stella at the bar, I got to know Carla better. She was from Santiago,Chile. I don’t know what’s the deal with me and South Americans. A 3rd year medical student with aspirations of volunteering for Doctor without Borders once she graduated. A solo backpacker like me, she was backpacking through Europe before flying in to Madrid to meet up with her newlywed friend who had migrated there.Oh and she was a vegetarian so I didn’t order chill cheese fries which I intended to split with her initially. She picked up English solely from American TV shows like friends and HIMYM. Wow.We shared stories about our travels and itineraries. Our itineraries coincided.Three days later both of us would be in London, staying in hostels which were not far apart from each other.We didn’t think much of it and made a passing remark along the lines of ” maybe I’ll see you there “. We did exchange Facebook details though in case any of us needed tips or help in London.
The dorm was full when we returned from the bar. A guy from New Zealand had checked in. He didn’t seem interested in talking so we let him be. Besides him there was also probably one of the most good looking couples I’ve ever seen.They were French obviously. Thierry and Marie were very friendly.They were engineering students on a road trip through Europe.They rented a car in their hometown a month back and had been on the road since. A stunning blonde with an engineering degree? Someone slap me. Thierry had previously been on exchange in Edinburgh and fell in love with the city. He brought Marie along this time round to show her around.They invited us out for a night of drinking and partying but Carla wasn’t game since she had an early tour the next morning. I didn’t want to be a third wheel so I had no choice but to decline as well.Time to rest for the long day ahead tomorrow!
***To be Continued***