Once upon a time in a faraway land overshadowed by a clock tower called Big Ben, there lived two friends, Ilze and Claudia. Every rainy day – basically always – the companions dreamt of escaping the slow-walking tourists in Oxford street and the smelly people on the tube to set sail for a new adventure in a distant place where they didn’t have to queue 5 times a day and pay £7 for a trendy ale. One eventful day came when the girls came to the realisation that Ilze’s 22nd birthday was approaching and right then and there they came up with a brilliant idea: a weekend getaway at a place where the rivers were made of whiskey and dreams could come true… Edinburgh. It wasn’t that long ago, yet no one can remember.
This story may have a fairytale beginning but that is not quite how it ended.
Let me start by describing Ilze. Dotted with long blonde hair and an Americanised accent, Ilze is a beautiful and extremely enthusiastic Latvian girl that would make Zoolander look hopelessly dull, whereas I take after Mr Bean in all his awkward glory. Although her plus me plus whiskey is a blatant recipe for disaster, we are not ones to miss out on a chance to defy destiny.
The trip started badly. We hadn’t left home and Ilze wouldn’t stop singing Taylor Swift’s “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22.” It dawned on me that she might not make it to 22 after all.
While repressing my BTK’s instincts, we rushed to the bus station. Through drops of sweat – or tears – we arrived at the station with a million of excuses, namely the train was delayed and “the dog ate my ticket”.
Once we shut our mouths, the seller told us the bus to Edinburgh hadn’t arrived yet. With a sigh of relief, we pointed at where we would be seated and begged him to let us know when the bus arrived because we were the kind of people that would miss it. Although he promised to inform us, the bus came and went while we were oblivious chatting about cupcakes and Harry Potter. As a response to our complaints, he assured us he called out our names on the speakerphone a few times and unfortunately the insurance doesn’t cover idiocy. Despite his sense of humour, he was kind enough to book the next bus which was actually going to Glasgow. “This is the last bus due to Scotland today. Make sure you don’t miss it”, he said giggling. Save it for your stand-up-comedy act, pal! I said to my insides because there was no way I was going to wake up at 5 to miss yet another bus.
The bus was departing at midnight and just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, a man who had obviously flipped his lid started talking to us. His ramblings were reaching ridiculously weird heights when our bus arrived, so we hurriedly said goodbye and ran towards it. We sat on the top deck at the front. “Finally! I’m going to sleep through the whole trip,” said Ilze as she kicked back on her seat. “I don’t think there will be much sleeping happening tonight,” I said, pointing at the aforementioned hobo who had just emerged from the stairs and was making his way towards us, took the adjacent seats and started talking about conspiracy theories, aliens, David Cameron and the Third World War.
We arrived at Glasgow after a sleepless night only to find out there were no buses going to Edinburgh from the company we were travelling with until late afternoon. After asking everyone at the bus station and getting no help, we found a bus that was going to Edinburgh with another company. Ilze suggested we should ask the driver if he could take us.
“This is not a nightclub in London, Ilze. You can’t get in by wearing a fairy costume”. “That only happened once”.
We didn’t finish our discussion because the hobo materialised out of thin air, prompting us to sprint towards the bus. Our voices intermingled as we explained our predicament to the bus driver in a rushed manner: the ticket seller, Ilze’s birthday, the lousy information desk, how Scotland’s traffic infrastructure was better than the English one, the hobo and something about the end of the world. Whatever it was, the bus driver just replied: “I don’t care. Just hop on.”
We arrived at Edinburgh with red eyes and falling eyelids, so the first thing we did was find a coffee shop just to make it to our hostel, Castle Rock. The place did its name justice. Let’s just start with its location, right by Edinburgh Castle – talk about delivering what’s promised. But the comparison doesn’t end there. The hostel is decorated like a castle with knights’ armours on display, tall windows, medieval paintings and decorations. It has a music room with a record player to accommodate any bohemian or artistic traveller. The hostel also has wonderful views over Edinburgh.
Even the receptionist was an attraction on his own, resembling Thor or Chris Hemsworth in all his godlike glory. We thought maybe this is what Scots look like, however he contradicted our assumptions when he said he was from London.
“But we live in London and we haven’t met anyone quite like you”
“Like me how”
“There are plenty tall people in London”
“Can I see your passports? Well on your form it says you are Venezuelan but your passport is Spanish”
“I work for the CIA,” I said and then an awkward silence followed. “I have dual citizenship, but I don’t have the Venezuelan passport on me.”
“Then you need to fill out a new form.”
“You just lost 3 points.”
“Give me that form!”
Ilze had the idea of ordering a Scottish continental breakfast, so I copied her. The breakfast was massive and it included eggs, mushrooms, baked beans, tomato, sausages, ham and black pudding. Ilze tried this and asked me what it was.
“What is it made of?”
“It’s a type of blood sausage”
“It’s made of pork fat and pork blood”
“You mean there’s blood in this… What’s wrong with the Scots?”
“What are you talking about? Blood sausage is popular everywhere, particularly in Spain”
“It’s not popular in Latvia.”
“Well don’t eat it”
But Ilze only ate her bread and eggs for breakfast, so I asked her why she didn’t eat the rest and she replied veggies and beans are not meant to be eaten in the morning.
“Then why did you order the Scottish continental breakfast? You could have just asked for eggs on toast”
“Because it’s part of the whole tourist experience”
“No, if you don’t eat it, it isn’t.”
We started our day with a free tour of the city. Despite being warned about Scottish accent, it was very easy to understand the tour guide.
“He speaks way clearer than Geordies.”
“Much easier to understand than Cockney accent.”
“Perhaps we are more attuned to Scottish accent than the rest of people.”
We were lucky our tour guide was from Edinburgh, because then we did the Dark Side of Edinburgh Tour with a younger guy from Glasgow and we had to focus really hard to keep up. We thought it was because he is young and uses more slang words.
“Is he still speaking in English?”, asked Ilze.
“I heard the word ‘wine’ or maybe it was ‘wee’”
“What if we don’t understand English anymore?”
“Then how are we communicating?”
“Let’s just take lots of pictures to prove we were here”
“Isn’t it strange that the only tour we understood was the free one?”
“That’s the whole point. It’s a way to get people to buy the others”
One way or the other, the tours were exceptional. Edinburgh has an impressive History and an air of mystery that encapsulates the city. From the underground vaults to the haunted cemetery and the witch trials of Nor Loch, there is mystique to captivate any underworld magic lover. And when it comes to magic, well, I had my expectations regarding this place. That is why in the course of the day tour when the guide starting talking about this lady who used to live in Edinburgh with her brother after getting divorced from a Portuguese guy, I couldn’t contain my excitement and yelled “I KNEW IT!” when he finally mentioned J. K. Rowling. When all the tourists turned around to look at me, I said completely flushed: “That wasn’t supposed to come out that loud”.
We saw the tomb of Thomas Riddle at the cemetery Greyfriars Kirkyard, which inspired the character of He who must not be named. Then he pointed at George Heriot’s School (1628) which served as an inspiration for Hogwarts. As loyal fans of the wizardry world, we later visited the Elephant House Café, where J.K. Rowling wrote the first and second book of the Harry Potter series since it was cheaper for her to pay for a coffee than the electricity bill at home. There we celebrated Ilze’s birthday with a piece of cake.
Then we took a stroll around the city, said hi to the statue of the dog who is a local hero, and proceeded to play Geocaching. The clues led me to closely examine the pavement of a street while a bunch of Muggles stared down at me from the glass window of a gym. Once the night fell, we booked a pub crawl for only £12 which entitled us to unlimited entries and with drinks included. In London you probably pay £20 just for an hour of pub crawl and with tap water included… with luck. So far Edinburgh was agreeing with us.
We headed to town all dressed up and singing Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time.
The pub crawl started at a bar which was the meeting point. There we power-introduced ourselves to people wearing the pub crawl bracelets. Everyone seemed opened for socialisation except for a long-blond-haired guy reading a newspaper. This guy was later on named Thor by two Californian girls we met there. What can I say? Thor was big back then. I’m a shooting star leaping through the skies like a tiger defying the laws of gravity. In the next place we went to, there was a bachelor party. Then I saw the groom motorboating a girl and she clearly wasn’t the bride. She left and then their gaze turned to me in perfect synchronisation. They came over to ask me if I could help them complete their dare list.
“Does the list include dares like what you just did to that girl?”
“Then I pass.”
“Claudia, what are you doing?” Ilze asked me. “They are just trying to complete their list. How would you feel if people hadn’t helped you with your birthday dares list in the Notting Hill Carnival?”
“My list didn’t include motorboating anyone”
“It was in London, not Brazil”
But that’s another story and shall be told another time, like Michael Ende would write.
I’m burning through the sky yeah! Two hundred degrees. That’s why they call me Mr Fahrenheit
We bar hopped from one bar to another getting a drink or two until we reached a place where they specialised in shots. The pub crawl staff welcomed us with a tray full of free whiskey shots. When we reached the desk, it hit us why we were getting free drinks. It’s because the shots were only £2. And these were proper shots, equivalent to a double shot in London, whilst you pay thrice as much for a single one in the big city.
I’m travelling at the speed of light. I wanna make a supersonic man out of you.
After that, everything becomes fuzzy. Our memories are like a silent movie of our lives. At some point, we were talking to the Californian girls, then one of them was making out with Finnish Thor, then she was making out with some girl. Apparently Thor was boring and a lousy kisser. Then Ilze was wearing a crown and everyone was calling her Kate. I woke up the next day at the hostel with the song “22” in my head. I looked up on the bunk bed and saw Ilze sleeping with her crown on.
“Why were people calling you Kate last night?”
“That’s my name when I’m drunk”
“Where did you get a tiara from?”
“Someone gave that to me when I told them it was my birthday”
“Did I do karaoke or I just dreamt that?
“You are a soprano”
“What are those purple dots on your arm?”
“Those are bruises from when were playing at spotting a beetle car”
“Oh yeah, you suck at that game”
“You have practice”
“How many bars did we go to last night?”
“Hmmm 5 or 6”
“I remember 4”
We stopped for pizza at a place in the city centre which faced the street. As we looked out the street, fighting hangover, Ilze and I were going over what happened the night before.
“At least we won’t have to see the people we met at the pub crawl again” I said.
“Claudia, this isn’t London. That is why I don’t like going out in small cities. You always run into the people that saw you dancing on a table the night before”
But her words worked like magic – dark magic – because not long after she said so, a considerable amount of last night’s squad appeared walking on the street. Before we could run or hide, they caught a glimpse of us and thus came over to say hello. “AWKWARD!” said Ilze as if she was reading my mind. The strange thing is that nobody remembered how many bars we had visited the night before. Someone even said 2. We decided to go to the pub crawl again that night not only because it was free but also to retrace our steps… and really what else could go wrong? We asked the tour guide how many bars we had visited and he said 7. We were all baffled. Nobody could remember that many. Damn you, generous whiskey shots! “So this is where the amnesia started,” he said when we arrived at the shots bar.
Somehow the pub crawl took us to the cemetery, the mysterious Greyfriars Kirkyard. During the Dark Side Tour, we learnt -from the parts we understood- that this cemetery was haunted and there was a restricted section, the Covenanters’ Prison. People could only enter with the City of the Dead tour. The entry to this area was restricted by a tall gate. Accordingly, this section was used as a prison back in 1679 for over one thousand supporters of the National Covenant. The cemetery harbours the grave of Sir George MacKenzie, who persecuted the Covenanters in the most ruthless manner and has become “the world’s most recorded poltergeist”. Since somebody desecrated his tomb in 1999, there have been hundreds of incidents, including people suffering physical attacks from an unseen entity resulting in scratches, burns, bruises and even broken bones. Apparently this is one of the most haunted areas in the world. Our heart came to a sudden halt when we saw a light on the restricted area.
“Did you see that?”
“Do you think it’s the Mackenzie Poltergeist?”
“Let’s go before we become part of the tour guide’s itinerary”
But then we saw a bunch of people walking inside and they weren’t spooky at all, but were part of the City of the Dead tour. Ilze and I laughed in relieved, I stopped praying and started walking the other way until I felt somebody grabbed my arm. It was Ilze. “They still haven’t seen us. Why don’t we try to frighten them?”
Ilze was wearing a red coat, so she put the hood on and stood outside the gate motionless as they approached the gate. She positively looked like the Red Riding Hood. I suppressed my chuckles as they kept walking towards Ilze, while I stood hidden on the side watching their reaction. Once they reached the gate, the tour guide stood in front of Ilze who kept staring at her with a eerie expression. The tour guide broke the silence and said “Can I help you?” BURNT.
It was a long weekend full of blurred memories. With the subterranean world of the vaults, the hero dog, the ghosts, the wizards, the heart on the floor where everyone spits on, the witches, the skyline and the whiskey, Edinburgh is a gothic city to remember.