By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist
The Croft Magazine // Milan Perera describes his experience among Edinburgh's microclimate of culture during his first time attending the Edinburgh Fringe festival this summer.
Peter Grunert, the former editor of the trusted travel publication, Lonely Planet, gave the stark warning to budding travel writers to refrain from using adjectives such as “vibrant” from their writings at the pain of sounding schmaltzy. But when it comes to describing Edinburgh, there is no other word that encapsulates the essence of the Scottish capital than “vibrant.” It is a cornucopia of wonders that is waiting to be discovered, not only by an amateur but also a seasoned traveller. In my case, I firmly fall into the former category due to my reluctance to travel. Though an avid reader of travel magazines, I always tend to find a cogent last-minute excuse even for a prior planned tour. For me it is fair to assume the dreaded epithet “armchair traveller”, who admires the beauty of a place from this side of the bank where “the grass is always greener” on the other side. But with my newly appointed role as the Critic Columnist of Epigram, it was incumbent on me to travel to Edinburgh Fringe to follow the exploits of ensembles from our alma mater at the prestigious art festival. What a revelation it was!
I still remember the cold chill that ran down my spine as I stepped out of the Waverley station in Edinburgh at midday to a pleasantly cool breeze in the air. I felt as though I was in the middle of a picture postcard surrounded by towers, arches and narrow cobbled streets. I had the task of finding my way to Pleasance Dome for a theatre piece by the Anglo-French theatre collective, Voloz. Feeling totally disorientated, not knowing where to go, I had my unshakable faith in Google Maps. I was walking further up the Royal Mile and felt I may be heading in the wrong direction. I plucked up the courage to ask a young man who was leafleting for a different show. My initial hunch proved to be right. I was way off the grid.
It is not entirely a bad thing to get lost in a new place both literally and metaphorically. As much as I love my immediate surroundings in Bristol, it felt refreshingly nice to enjoy that sense of anonymity while you roamed the cobbled street soaking in the breath-taking architecture alongside the sights and sounds of the city. You feel as if you have been living in a cosy cocoon until you open your senses to somewhere away from home. It is not really the destination that will turn you into a better version of yourself, it is challenging yourself and opening up to all possibilities that come with it. For example, when I booked my accommodation on Booking.com, I had no idea that my digs at Beaverbank is nearly 3 miles away from the city centre. To walk to my destination amidst a plethora of shops, restaurants, traditional pubs and some famous landmarks such as the National Portrait Gallery was definitely not a waste of time and energy.
Travel destinations are kaleidoscopes of venues, people, monuments built by humans and marvels created by nature. It is akin to a huge whirlpool, twirling you in its deep layers of knowledge. To travel means to discover. To discover new and unknown facts and images, which are so drily described in books and on television. Someone like myself used to say that there is no difference between visiting a place and reading about it. But imagine what will be the feeling when you read about Scott monument in a travel brochure and seeing up close the larger-than-life figure of Sir Walter Scott, seated under a ornate high-vaulted dome a just a stone throw away from the main train station which is named after his series of novels, Waverley. It is nothing short of awe-inspiring as one sense the homage of a nation to its greatest writer. It is near impossible to put to word the magnificent vista from the Princes Street where a beautiful marriage of tradition and modernity comes into view as cathedrals to modern architecture are dotted among old cathedrals. I was feeling slightly self-approving about Bristol’s standing as a beacon of culture and innovation but this certainly opened my eyes to the possibility that there are more places to discover.
To travel means to commune with places and people. To meet lots of unique individuals who bring with themselves the knowledge for their culture, traditions, habits, preferences and ideas. It is evident that the people of Scotland take great pride in their arts, crafts, folklore and ideas. With an informal conversation you struck up with a total stranger they provide a glimpse into their view of life, likes and dislikes even. For example, in one souvenir shop on Royal Mile which sells traditional Scottish tweed, the elderly shopkeeper was happy to give me a brief introduction into the “mysteries” of tweed weaving on how they are produced. It was no surprise to me that he was using a brand of cash register that has been obsolete for many years. Even a mundane thing as this has its charming side. And all of it is special, broadens your own sight towards the less or more important things, which surround us. You begin to observe places and people more clearly than ever before.
I enjoyed my sojourn in Edinburgh and tried to see as many shows as possible at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe. Dotted around the city were many groups of travellers with tour guides of varying degrees of eccentricity and that definitely brings a smile to your face. Unbeknownst to me was I was treading on the hallowed grounds of the Harry Potter world. It came as a total surprise that an insignificant looking underpass called Potterrow Port with blinking lights and unglamorous graffiti is an important landmark in the “Potter Trail.”
I refrained from reading brochures of the city, but I let myself loose among the neo-classical sandstone edifices that stood proudly which was no doubt a time capsule. Niddry Street of the Royal Mile meant to be one of the most haunted areas in Edinburgh and home to the most haunted pub in Scotland. Yes, I did go for the haunting experience. It was haunted, not with ghouls, but by students with deep pockets.
On my way home, I was already making arrangements for the Fringe next year and possibly a flying visit to Ireland before that. What a transformation for a reluctant traveller!
Featured image: Milan Perera
Want to read more about what Edinburgh (and Scotland beyond the capital) has to offer? Click here.