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Vacation Recap: Scotland, Part 4

{Holyrood Abbey}

[Note: This is a continuation of the recap of my recent trip to the United Kingdom. To view Part 1, click HERE. To view Part 2, click HERE. To view Part 3, click HERE.]

Day 9, cont.: After driving through Glen Coe, Dave and I made one final stop before heading into Edinburgh at Stirling Castle. Strategically situated atop an extinct volcano along the narrowest part of the United Kingdom, Stirling has been an important military fortress for the Scots since the early middle ages (though the castle itself primarily dates from the 16th century, when it became the primary residence for the Stuarts).

What was once the royal residence of the Stuart household (and the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots) is currently closed for restoration work, but we were able to tour the chapel, banquet hall and the grounds. I was most impressed though with the location: the view is truly spectacular. Unfortunately, with our late afternoon arrival we were only able to spend a few hours there and we were kicked out at 6pm for what appeared to be a student bagpipe competition. (I'm not a fan of bagpipes but I did enjoy seeing all their various highland regalia). But in any case, we were itching to make it on to our final destination of the day: Edinburgh.

After a long day of driving and sight seeing, Dave and I finally made it into Edinburgh in time for dinner. During our long weekend in the "Athens of the North", Dave and I had the good fortune of staying at Hotel Missoni, which is everything I had imagined it to be and more. Situated just a few hundred yards from Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile, it's incredibly well located for walking all over Old Town. In short, it was worth every penny and should I ever find myself in Edinburgh again, you can bet I'll be booking a room at the Hotel Missoni. If a room isn't in your budget, you should at least visit their bar, to take in the ambiance and enjoy any number of really wonderful drink options.

Day 10: Of course, almost as soon as Dave and I arrived in Edinburgh, we headed out again, this time northeast to the Kingdom of Fife and the university town of St. Andrews. When I visited Scotland last in 2002 our most memorable day was probably in St. Andrews and this time around it was just as picturesque and idyllic as I had remembered it.

The climb to the top of St. Rule's Tower was long, narrow and a bit claustrophobic, but the spectacular view of the town, surrounding countryside and Firth of Forth more than made up for it. Between the scenery and the perfect weather, I was just about ready to emigrate to St. Andrews. But, alas, after a few peaceful moments taking it all in, it was time to head down and on to our next stop: St. Andrews Castle, which is situated directly next to the Abbey.

St. Andrews Castle, like many of the castles we toured in Scotland, is little more than a ruin (after all, the English couldn't take any chances that those pesky Scots wouldn't up and revolt again!). What makes St. Andrews Castle a bit different though is that it was owned by the church and not by the state. Before the Scottish Reformation, St. Andrews was the epicenter of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and the castle was home both to the bishop and to the church's military forces. During the Scottish Reformation itself, the castle imprisoned many of the protestant reformers and passed violently between Protestant and Catholic hands for decades. Evidence of these bloody times remain and you can walk through the mines (and countermines) dug by the attackers (and the besieged). While Dave crawled through one of these mines that goes from the castle to the outer walls of the town, the tight, narrow dark spaces were just a bit too much for my latent claustrophobia. And so I have to take Dave's word for it when he dubbed it "really cool".

Day 11: After four consecutive days of perfect weather, it was inevitable that the rain would catch up with us. And, on Sunday it finally did. Nevertheless, we were determined to make the most of our one full day in Edinburgh so we braved the cool, drizzly weather and set out to explore Old Town, which is dominated by the Royal Mile, the steep road connecting Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace (the official residence of HRH Elizabeth II when she comes to Scotland). Our first stop was Edinburgh Castle, where we fought the throng of tourists to explore the grounds and buildings. Despite the madness, it's well worth a visit.

After finishing up at the castle, we wandered down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (or Holyrood Palace), which is nestled next to its namesake (and yet another romantic ruin) Holyrood Abbey in a beautiful park surrounding Arthur's Seat (a group of hills overlooking the city). [By the way, Holyrood simply translates to "Holy Cross" in Old English.] Since the palace is still a royal residence, we were only able to tour the public apartments (and not take any photos!), which were initially decorated by the Stuarts but updated by Victoria. Mary Queen of Scots' apartments, however, retain their original Tudor look and it was great fun getting to explore them as well as the Victorian-era cabinets of curiosities collected from the period (including a lock of Mary's hair!).

The palace is built practically on top of the remnants of Holyrood Abbey, which in the rainy Scottish weather and amidst their lush garden surroundings take on a truly romantic/Gothic air. After seeing the many, many ruined abbeys and castles scattered about Scotland, I can see why a belief in ghosts and spirits was so pervasive -- it's all very foreboding!

In stark contrast to the history of Holyroodhouse stands the very modern (and very controversial) Scottish Parliament. Dave and I were trying to decide what precisely the architects were going for. While the lines of the building clearly echo the hills of Arthur's Seat just a few hundred yards away, I'll admit that the rest of the building's unique facade was somewhat lost on me (and certainly Dave, who declared it hideous).

After catching the French Open final (which was remarkably hard to find on the BBC), Dave and I enjoyed a quick dinner before enjoying an evening tour of the Real Mary King's Close (the long-buried but recently discovered 17th-century neighborhood underneath Mary King's Close). To say the tour was creepy would be a serious understatement, but it was also fascinating and a whole lot of fun. I highly recommend.

So that about wraps up our recent trip to the UK. Dave and I had an absolutely fantastic time. Should you find yourself in Scotland or the greater-London area anytime soon, please feel free to contact me and I'd be happy to share with you my recommendations on where to stay and dine and what to see.

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