Enchanting Edinburgh part three

Morning all. Happy Sunday. It’s a bit of a miserable day outside today so it’s ruined my plans of getting out in the garden. Apparently Storm Freya is on her way. She’s not headed our way but I guess we’ve got her to blame for the pants weather. It feels a world apart from this time last week when I was headed up to Edinburgh.

Speaking of which, here’s the third and final instalment of my Edinburgh trip. This one will be mostly pictorial I think.

I had some work to do first, so I was up early and headed back over to Waverley Station to get the Airlink 100 back out nearly to the airport where I was meeting some colleagues. That went well and before I knew it I was back on the Airlink 100 again headed for the zoo, which is in between the airport and the city centre. I’ve mentioned my quandary with zoos before. I don’t like to see caged animals, but I do find myself drawn to zoos and safari parks because I just love to see animals in the flesh, and I know that zoos work incredibly hard to maintain endangered species and that they need entrance money to do so. I have to say, on this sunny day the animals seemed to be loving basking in the rays, even the penguins to whom it can’t come naturally.

The zoo has lockers available to rent which I made use of to store my laptop bag whilst I wondered round. I’m so glad they have this facility because my laptop bag is pretty heavy, and the zoo is built on quite a steep hill so I’d have struggled if I’d had to carry it all afternoon. My back was really achy as it was by the end of the day.

First port of call was a cafe! It was about one o’clock by this point and all I’d had to eat was Belvita Breakfast biscuits on the bus so my tummy was somewhat rumbly. I grabbed a sandwich and a scrummy piece of rocky road and headed outside. Picnic in the sun, in February, in Scotland! Bet that doesn’t happen often. I was sat in my shirt sleeves and the sun was beating down on me. Bliss!

My train home was just before five o’clock so I prioritised the animals that I really wanted to see most in case I didn’t have time to get round the whole zoo. Edinburgh Zoo is the only zoo in the UK which has koalas and giant pandas and I was very excited to see them so I headed in their direction first.

There are two adult koalas, a male and a female. I couldn’t get a clear photo of the female because she was hidden up safely at the top of her enclosure because she has a tiny joey that she’s very protective of. The zoo keepers don’t even know yet whether the joey is a girl or a boy.

The male koala was in the next door enclosure, and he was just hanging around in a tree seemingly unperturbed by all the people gawping at him.

Their enclosures weren’t huge, but I’m sure I’ve read that koalas don’t have a big territory in the wild. I remember images of them in wild fires in Australia where people were having to climb trees to rescue them because they were too lazy to bother moving. Amazing that they found the energy to make a joey really! Having seen them in the flesh now, I’m even more convinced that they should officially be called koala bears even though they’re officially marsupials, because they just look so cuddly like bears.

Next off to the giant pandas. There are two, a male and a female on a ten year loan from a Chinese zoo, but I only saw one of them. They’re in identical adjacent enclosures, but they only come together for the small mating window between March and May. Giant pandas on average only spend two to four days a year with a potential mate – this could be the secret to a happy marriage! She’s perfectly free to arrange her bamboo however she fancies with no one to mess it up!

I made my way over to the penguin enclosure next. At two fifteen every day they do a penguin parade. This was accidentally started in 1951 when a keeper inadvertently left the gate open and the penguins followed him round the zoo in single file! The keepers don’t encourage the penguins out using food so it’s entirely up to the penguins if they want to come out or not. I wasn’t in luck – apparently it was vaccination day the previous week and the penguins were still wary of the keepers. There are some great videos like this one on YouTube though if you want to have a look.

I headed over to the grey kangaroos next. There are four of them, an adult mating pair and their adolescent offspring and, I was delighted to see, a joey still living in its mother’s pouch. I haven’t got a photo of it, but I saw the joey poke its head out and have a look around. It was just like a scene from Winnie the Pooh with Kanga and Roo. I stood there, camera poised, for ages after this hoping to catch it on film, but it didn’t reappear. You can see from the first pic below though that there’s definitely a sizeable joey in that pouch.

I also saw the mother and the teenager have a boxing match over some minor disagreement. Maybe he’s annoyed that he’s having to play second fiddle to the new baby!

I was right to prioritise the animals that I really wanted to see because I didn’t have time to make it round the whole zoo before it was time to head back to the bus stop unfortunately. I won’t bore you with every animal that I did see, but here’s a few of my favourite photos that hopefully need no explanation.

So here endeth my Edinburgh ramblings. I had such a fantastic time and I would love to spend some more time up there. I was so so SO lucky with the weather and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do so much if it’d been wet or super cold, but really, there’s a lot of indoor stuff to do as well so it really is an all weather destination. Five stars to Edinburgh!

Enchanting Edinburgh part two

Hello, it’s me again, harping on about Edinburgh some more!

Day two and I woke up in my hotel feeling refreshed and ready for a full day of sightseeing. I got ready, grabbed my Belvita Breakfast Biscuits and headed off down Princes Street to the tour bus stop outside Waverley Station.

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I prebooked tickets for a hop on hop off bus with Edinburgh Bus Tours. It was £55 but I could hop on and off three routes, the red City Sightseeing bus and the green Edinburgh tour which both concentrated on the central sights, and the blue Majestic route which went all the way out to Leith. I also got fast track entry into three attractions, Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse Palace and the Royal Yacht Britannia, and it just so happened that these three were top of my wish list.

I decided to start furthest away from the city and work my way back, so I jumped on the Majestic bus and grabbed a seat on the open top. Admittedly there was a roof over about a third of the top deck, but it was mostly open, and I was warmer than I was on top of the open top bus in Malta! Bizarre weather for February, in Scotland! I was given headphones so I plugged in and listened to the commentary as we drove.

Soon we arrived in Leith and I hopped off excited to see the Royal Yacht. The way they’ve arranged this is really good. The entrance is on the top floor of the adjacent shopping centre and you enter the Yacht via a gangway straight on to the top deck. As you finish on each deck you go back down the gangway and down a flight of stairs to the gangway on to the deck below. An audio guide is included which gives you loads of interesting info.

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On the top deck, fairly obviously you find the bridge and an open deck which must’ve been fab for all those honeymooning Royals in warm climes. Four Royal couples chose to start married life aboard Britannia. Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones sailed around the Caribbean for six weeks on her following their wedding in 1960 and Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips endured twenty foot high waves and severe sea sickness on their 1973 honeymoon also to the Caribbean. Prince Charles and Princess Diana sailed round the Med and the Greek Islands for sixteen days in 1981 after they tied the knot. The state room that they slept in is the only one to have a double bed, which Prince Charles specifically requested for their honeymoon (somewhat ironically given subsequent events!) Finally Prince Andrew and Fergie enjoyed five days cruising round the Azores following their 1986 nuptials. I would recommend that anyone considering marriage doesn’t go anywhere near Britannia in the weeks following their marriage given that in the working lifetime of the Yacht, all those Royals who honeymooned on her ended up divorced!

Next deck down are the state rooms of the Royal Family. The Queen and Prince Phillip had adjoining rooms, both with single beds.

Both were decorated specifically to each occupant’s preference.

Throughout the ship you will also find various reception rooms, some of which are available to hire. I imagine it costs quite a few pretty pennies, but how cool would it be to hold an event on the Royal Yacht? I did wonder how they vet the requests because I noted that there were plush carpets throughout most of the rooms and I don’t think they’d take kindly to some raucous hen do spilling red wine everywhere!

Speaking of alcohol, there was no shortage of opportunity to enjoy a few jars or tots. On the upper decks there were sophisticated bars where the Royals could’ve relaxed before dinner.

And further down you find your pubby type drinking establishments more aimed at the navies where they could wind down after their duties were done for the day.

There were more than two hundred and fifty crew on the Royal Yacht including a military band, all headed by an Admiral.

Their living quarters were somewhat less palatial than those of the Royal Family.

Except the Admiral, of course, who had his own separate quarters near the bridge that were much more suited to his rank.

The ship was built with the dual purpose of being used as a hospital ship in times of need, and it could be completely converted within a week if the need arose (which it never did).

I loved wandering, and wondering, around the Royal Yacht but I had a lot to fit it, so I headed back to the hop on hop off bus, which turned up bang on time, and headed back towards the city and Holyroodhouse Palace.

Holyroodhouse Palace is the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh, and she spends a week there every July (lucky lady) to undertake Royal engagements and investitures. The photo above is the fountain at the entrance to the palace. The water only flows when the Queen is in residence or on special occasions to save it from damage. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the palace so I’m struggling to remember everything that I saw, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of awe. It’s a wonderful place to visit, full of history and legend. Its walls are covered with the most fantastic tapestries and paintings.

Mary Queen of Scots is probably the most famous former resident. She lived at Holyroodhouse Palace from 1561 to 1567. I walked through her bedchamber with its tiny bed (which must’ve been uncomfortable given that Mary was six feet tall) and through to the outer chamber. This is where Mary was eating her dinner on 9th March 1566 when she witnessed the brutal murder of her private secretary David Rizzio by her jealous husband Lord Darnley and his henchmen. He was stabbed fifty six times! Clearly jealousy is a powerful weapon!

Bonnie Prince Charlie also resided here for six weeks in 1745. He came to claim the throne of Great Britain. It seems he was quite a character! You can walk through the Great Gallery which he used to greet his audiences by day, but then transformed it so he could party the night away in the same space. He slept in the Lord Darnley chamber and the very bed he slept in is still there.

Back outside, I came to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. This was a grand mediaeval abbey, and although it is now in ruins, from what is left, you can imagine how grandiose it once was. The photo ban is lifted for the abbey, and you don’t have to tell me twice!

There’s a great view of Arthur’s Seat from the front courtyard of the palace. Next time I find myself in Edinburgh, I will definitely attempt to get to the top because the views must be stunning.

Next stop, Edinburgh Castle. So, back on the hop on hop off bus, this time the green Edinburgh Tour. This one had live commentary rather than prerecorded. I wasn’t on the bus long, but I learnt about Greyfriars Bobby.

Bobby became famous because after his owner of two years died and was buried in Greyfriars Cemetery, Bobby slept on the grave every night until his death fourteen years later. He is commemorated in this statue and his grave can be found in Greyfriars Cemetery also, not far from his owners.

Isn’t that heartwarming?

Edinburgh Castle looms over the city. There’s not many places you can’t see it from. It was a Royal residence as early as the twelfth century right up to sixteen thirty three, but from the fifteenth century it was used less and less as a residence and it was principally used as a military base.

There’s evidence inside of the Royal connection, not least through the presence of the Scottish Crown Jewels. No photos allowed, but they’re pretty impressive, although perhaps not as much so as I anticipated. I think I was dreaming of something like this.

I peered into the tiny tiny room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI (and I of England). It’s got incredible painting on the walls and ceilings.

I’m sure she wasn’t really paying attention to that whilst in the throes of labour!

The castle was fortified to the hilt. This cannon could send its contents flying two miles away. TWO MILES!

I have to include this next photo of another cannon purely because I like the photo!

I don’t think I did the Castle justice. I paid for the audio guide, but having spent all day listening to audio guides and absorbing oodles of interesting information, I’d reached saturation point and I couldn’t take much more in. Perfect excuse to go back!

Now, after all this historical culture, I decided it was time for some more up to date exploring – Harry Potter! Of course! Edinburgh is the home of JK Rowling, and Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are fictionally (I think, although as a muggle, I may just not be able to see them) located somewhere in Scotland.

I’d already seen for myself where a lot of the inspiration behind Harry Potter must’ve come from. As soon as I arrived in the centre of Edinburgh, I said to myself (actually out loud I think) as I trotted down Princes Street ‘Hogwarts could NOT have looked any different!) This is what you see as you head away from Waverley Station.

Doesn’t it just look like Hogwarts could be hiding behind the more modern buildings?

Then as I looked around Edinburgh, I saw the spires, turrets and arches of Holyroodhouse Palace …

… the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle …

… and the Scott Monument in Princes Park …

… and I knew without a doubt that Harry Potter could only have come to life out of the imagination of someone who knew and loved Edinburgh.

I found the elephant house which is the cafe where JK Rowling wrote some of the early books.

I didn’t have time to go in – another thing on the list for next time. Apparently the toilets are daubed with Harry Potter themed graffiti.

I sauntered down Victoria Street which is said to have inspired Diagon Alley …

… and I searched Greyfriars Cemetery for the grave which allegedly gave rise to Tom Riddle, who as any devotee will know, became Lord V …. nope, can’t do it! He who must not be named!

I spotted various miscellany dotted around Edinburgh that made me wonder if JK had seen the same and used them in her writing.

In the castle I saw this crest …

Slytherin?

In Princes Park there’s a statue of Allan Ramsay, the poet.

See his headwear? Did JK see this and imagine a creature living in that scarf? Is that how Professor Quirrell came to be?

A unicorn at Holyroodhouse Palace. This is not an isolated unicorn. They’re all over Edinburgh because, I learnt, the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland! Did this spark all the magical beasts (and where to find them!) in Harry Potter. You saw in part one all I learnt about faeries on my walking tour. It seems perfectly natural now that JK’s imagination gave rise to all these magical, mythical animals.

By now I’d clocked up nearly twenty thousand steps so I was feeling in need of a quick pit stop and then my bed! I found Makar’s Gourmet Mash Bar which I had previously researched on tripadvisor so I gladly fell into a window seat to rest my weary bones.

When in Rome and all that! I had to give haggis a try while I was there. I’d already enjoyed several Irn Brus (although they were in plastic bottles and I’ve since learnt that it tastes much better from a glass bottle) so I upped the Scottish ante and ordered mini haggis, neeps and tatties (otherwise known as haggis, potato and turnip) which promised to be a perfect beginner’s option for those new to haggis.

Yum! It didn’t last long! I followed this up with Bonnie Prince Charlie char-grilled chicken in a whisky, peppercorn and mustard sauce. You get to choose from eight different kinds of mash and I opted for Scottish cheddar/chive cheese mash.

Double yum! I couldn’t finish it, although I really tried hard, and I had no room for dessert.

It would appear that I had rather a lot to say about Edinburgh, and I haven’t even mentioned the zoo yet! I think I’ll save that for another day because regular animals (impressive as some of them were) seem rather misfitting next to unicorns and other magical beasts. Suffice it to say that I had an amazing, awesome, outstanding day. Thank you Edinburgh!

Marvellous Malta

We have just got home from a fantastic break in Malta. Regular readers will know that this was something of a last minute trip designed to chase away the new year blues, and it really did, while we were there at least. I’m feeling somewhat dazed to be back actually. Why is it that travelling makes you so tired? This morning we were picked up by a taxi right outside our front door for a twenty minute journey to Luqa airport, then we sat on a plane for three and a bit hours to Birmingham where we were whisked home by my Dad. Doesn’t sound overly taxing, does it, but gosh my eyelids are feeling heavy. It’s all worth it though.

Where do I start? At the beginning I guess. It doesn’t seem like it was only Wednesday that we headed off up the M42 to East Midlands airport, but I’ve checked and double checked, and it was! The flight out, considering it was Ryanair (you can read about my opinion of Ryanair here) was actually very relaxing. Hubby and I were sat twenty two rows apart because of said airline’s policy of trying to force you to pay to sit together. We even boarded at different ends of the plane! I took this photo from the top of the front steps, of hubby waiting to board at the back!

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Once on board, we both had three seats to ourselves. We could have moved, but it made a pleasant change to have plenty of room and meant we both got a window seat, so we didn’t bother. I was quite content with my crochet and episodes of the Crown that I’d downloaded from Netflix. The time flew by (pun entirely intended!)

We arrived a few minutes early and got straight through customs and met our pre-arranged taxi driver who took us to our little studio apartment. It actually rained most of the way there, but had stopped by the time we arrived and we didn’t see more than a couple of specks of rain for the rest of our trip.

We booked our accommodation through Airbnb and it didn’t disappoint. It was, I assume, a house converted into separate apartments and we were on the second floor with a balcony overlooking the road. We had a decent sized kitchen, a very modern bathroom and a living room with the sleeping section off it.

The tiled floor was amazing.

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We did partake of a few alcoholic beverages (well we were on our holibobs!) but I wouldn’t want to tackle the stairs up to the apartment after too many!

On day one of our holiday we broadly followed a walking tour of Valletta that was in our guide book.

We strolled past the Triton Fountain to enter Valletta …

… and started to wander down Republic Street.

Our first port of call was the National Museum of Archeology. This was really interesting and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Valletta. It really put the island into context. The oldest artefacts displayed date back to 4000BC! That’s really REALLY old.

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I’m always amazed that ancient civilisations created items such as this that are more decorative than essential to staying alive (although I guess they may have felt they were essential in keeping them safe from external forces). In the words of Dr. Ross Geller they had concerns such as ‘gee that glacier’s getting close’. That’s not the right time period, but you get my point. I love the fact that there’s proof that humankind has always been creative.

After this we went into St. John’s Co-Cathedral. I’m not sure what a co-cathedral is – I’ll have to google it – but blimey this one’s impressive! It’s full of gold!

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The floor is completely covered by three hundred and seventy five tombstones, underneath which the Knights of Saint John (rulers of Malta from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth century) are buried.

We took the opportunity to go up some circular stairs to a viewing gallery where we got a stunning view of the ceiling of the Co-Cathedral.

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We carried on away from the main touristy parts of Valletta taking our time and wandering down what looked like residential streets. Everywhere in Valletta is beautiful. I’d describe it as dilapidated chic. There’s paint peeling off walls, weeds sprouting up between cracked paving stones and rusty balconies, but it all adds to the charm.

Eventually we ended up on what I guess is a peninsular. There were fabulous views of Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities, over the sea.

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We watched the Malta Experience here, which is advertised as a light show, but it’s actually a series of photos on a big screen. It was a really interesting whistlestop tour of Malta’s history and I’m really glad we watched it. We got a combined ticket for this and the War Museum. I don’t think we did the War Museum justice – we were a bit museumed out by this point, and I was starting to get hangry! I don’t think we missed out because the exhibits basically told the same story that we’d just watched in the Malta Experience.

On day two, after an epic sleep, we caught a local bus to Mdina, the old Capital. First we went to St. Paul’s Catacombs, a network of underground tombs dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries.

If anywhere’s going to be haunted, this place is it! It’s quite eerie down there, especially as, being out of season, we were often the only ones down there (or were we?!)

You can see how much smaller people were by the size of each resting place, and it was very sad to see how many baby sized plots there were. Indicative of the time, I guess.

We strolled over to Mdina Gate after this and entered the city. It’s very atmospheric and very beautiful. The King’s Landing scenes of Game of Thrones were filmed here, and as fans of the show, we could really imagine Cersei or Tyrian appearing round every corner. I was so busy looking at everything that I completely forgot to take photos around the streets!

We went for lunch at Fontanella Tea Garden which has a roof terrace with stunning views.

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This was complemented by the most amazing cocktail called a Bric Royale.

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I’m not a hundred percent sure what was in it, but I think it was some combination of pomegranate liqueur and rose wine and I’m fully intending to acquire both and do some experimenting!

Unfortunately I made a poor choice for lunch and was still hungry so I took this as a perfect opportunity to find another lovely cafe to have some cake and an Aperol Spritz!

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On our last day we decided to make use of the hop on hop off bus. There are two routes you can take, north or south, and we chose south.

On our way down to the Valletta Waterfront to catch the bus, we happened upon this little fella who seemed reasonably happy to pose for photos.

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The bus went through Vittoriosa which looked really pretty …

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… but we continued on the bus until we arrived at Marsaxlokk. This is a really pretty fishing village and we loved it! There’s not a lot to do here, but we really enjoyed  having some lunch gazing out to sea and then strolling along the front in the sun, looking at the little boats.

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We carried on round the route on the bus until we got to the Blue Grotto. There’s a series of caves here which you can get a boat into and the water is very blue and crystal clear. Unfortunately we arrived too late to catch a boat, we didn’t realise they stop earlier in winter, but we got to see the grotto from above and it gives us an excuse to go back!

It was really beautiful.

On the way back we got to meet this little Miss.

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So, that’s our little mini break. We had a brilliant time and will definitely go back some time because there’s a lot that we didn’t get chance to see/do. It was soul restoring to get a little bit of winter sun. It wasn’t really hot, but it was warm enough at times for short sleeves and to feel the warmth on our arms was just what we needed. Maybe we’ll go back in the early summer or autumn so we can experience some of the beautiful beaches and maybe even do some diving off Gozo. I would recommend Malta to anyone.