'What not to see?" exclaimed my Scottish friend Fiona, her long blonde curls waving in the air, when asked about her dear hometown of Edinburgh. I was unsure if her excitement came from pure Scottish pride, or her heavy afternoon consumption of English lager under a rare sunny sky in Cardiff. Having listened to Fiona unrelentingly blab about how hot, hip, modern and rich in history Edinburgh is _ far outreaching premier European destinations such as London, Paris and Berlin _ I was sceptical of the objectiveness behind her claims.
HISTORY MEETS MODERNITY: View of Edinburgh, old and new, as seen from Calton Hill.
After all, Scotland is stereotypically described as ghost-haunted and dull, where her inhabitants are odd bagpipe players coupled with drunken haggis eaters. But after caving in to Fiona's pressure, I found the stereotypes could not be justified.
Starting my escapade around Edinburgh on Princes Street, the view of the verdant and hilly areas of the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site has tourists flabbergasted by its genuine natural beauty.
Princes Street is full of youthful quirk, trendy shops and a centuries-old culture which is reflected in the architecture. From this main shopping road, a range of monuments hover over the city.
The National Monument, on top of Calton Hill, is Scotland's very own take on the Parthenon. Calton Hill is peculiarly exotic with its Greek-style monuments, reminding visitors that Edinburgh was dubbed the "little Athens of the North" for the intellectual climate that reigned in the city during the 18th century. Again, the view from the hill, especially from the Nelson Monument _ a lighthouse-like commemorative memorial _ will not disappoint. The Scott Monument _ the largest monument to a writer in the world _ is in homage to Sir Walter Scott, located in the serene Princes Street Gardens, and is worth the short walk from Calton Hill.
And about a 15-minute walk down Princes Street, the impressive Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park give a glimpse of greenery similar to that of the Scottish Highlands hundreds of kilometres away. Peaking at 251m, Holyrood Park is the perfect place for a hike. Its height should not deter tourists _ the view is absolutely incredible. It can also make a nice break from the sometimes hectic sightseeing programmes.
From there, busy Princes Street and its gardens, as well as the neighbouring hills of Holyrood Park, can be admired. The North Sea keeps summer tourists cool with its pleasant breeze.
But the most surreal sight is without a doubt Edinburgh Castle. Built on volcanic rock, the castle has dominated the skyline of this medieval town for an unknown amount of time. There is evidence of human occupation of Castle Rock dating back as far as 900BC.
LOOKING UP: Edinburgh Castle with the Ross Fountain in Princes Street Garden.
The castle has been home to several illustrious monarchs, including the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots.
Nowadays, despite being the main tourist attraction _ meaning a modern-day invasion of millions of visitors a year _ the castle has not lost its grandeur. Its historical value rests not only on the Honours, the Scottish crown jewels, and the Royal Palace, but also on all of the castle's buildings that recall Scotland's military past. This impressive monument can get sleepy, though, with an educational reconstitution of 19th century prisons and the unfortunately unimpressive 1pm firing of a canon _ recalling London's stodgy Changing of the Guard. But the wait for the latter attraction on the western side of the castle will, however, give you an opportunity to stop and admire the refreshingly green view _ and like the Changing of the Guard, the canon is a tourist staple.
Also not to miss is the Scottish National War Memorial. The sheer number of names of Scottish casualties and of those serving in Scottish regiments dating back to World War I _ hundreds of thousands of them _ will turn your blood cold.
After having visited the landmark attraction, stroll down the Royal Mile and its touristy shops, scrub Scottish philosopher David Hume's toe next to 12th century St Giles' Cathedral and prepare yourself for a "real" Scottish ghostly experience. While Thai film-makers capitalise on the country's mystical beliefs by copiously releasing horror films, the Scots have made a business out of ghost tours. From the more history-based tours in vaults, to the graveyard tours and dark and gloomy theatrical bus tours of the city _ some are even restricted to over 18s only _ there is something to suit every macabre taste.
At the entrance of the Tron Kirk church, a group of tourists of all ages waited anxiously and smiled awkwardly at one other. At dead on 8pm, the bells of the church rang out over the Royal Mile. And then came our guide, Euan. For readers unfamiliar with the British Isles, correctly pronouncing his Gaelic name might be their first horror story. Dressed dramatically in a long black coat, Euan's humour and sunny personality didn't convey the spooky feeling we all expected _ until he brought us down to the vaults. Following him to a narrow and empty street a few steps away from the lively Royal Mile, we were guided to a building where the experience would properly start. For about 40 minutes, thrill-seeking visitors were stuck in a torture exhibition room where, with all his Scottish charisma, Euan passionately told us the history of Auld Reekie, as Edinburgh is nicknamed.
Upon entering the torture exhibition the eccentric host warned of the stuffy atmosphere of the room, advising those who felt strangely hot to take off their jackets _ and adding that some tourists have even fainted there in the past.
Euan, half-jokingly, constantly warned of a young pickpocket who enjoyed tripping visitors down the stairs, and about a creepy-looking man who might stroke female tourists' hair. Euan guaranteed that on his tours, there are absolutely no actors involved. Some tourists, he told us, joyously took pictures with a caped woman they thought was an actress _ chilling.
Eventually, after a long wait, it was time to descend a winding staircase to the vaults, which have been kept in their original state since the 18th century. Down in the vaults, it was humid and surprisingly warm; drops of water fell from the ceiling. The lights were dim, tricking your eyes into seeing shadows from afar. I will stop the description here _ I don't want to spoil the experience.
On your trip to Edinburgh, be ready to face the sometimes moody Scottish weather to explore this hidden gem of European culture. Despite its bad meteorological reputation, the city is without a doubt worth visiting in the summer, with its multitude of cultural festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, and also in winter, under the snow that sumptuously coats the rooftops.
But no matter how cool some days can be, Scottish kindness and friendliness will warm your heart. The encounters you will have in this legendary Celtic land will be something to boast about when returning home _ be it the ghost-busting tour guide or the friendly whisky connoisseurs you met in a Scottish pub.
Scottish national pride is so contagious that seeing Fiona's father wearing his kilt at her graduation was a sweet reminder of my love for their country.
Direct flights from Bangkok to Edinburgh start from around 35,500 baht.
PILLARS OF SOCIETY: The National Monument on Calton Hill.
BE INSPIRED: Edinburgh Castle from the Scott Monument.
About the author
Writer: Wipula Paquet