Up until this point I had been staying in Scottish Youth Hostels Association (SYHA) hostels, because I felt it would be a good way to make the Hostelling International (HI) membership I bought in the winter more worthwhile (The SYHA is a member of HI, and as such HI memberships work at SYHA hostels). However, despite the friendliness of the people working at the hostels, there was a sterility about the hostels and the seemed more like a group of chain hotels than guest houses. In Edinburgh though I am staying at an independent hostel in some brick building in the Old Town, and it definitely has that "European" feel that one would expect from a European hostel.
For starters, all the rooms at the Royal Mile Backpackers Hostel are themed. My room is called the Fridge Room, and all the beds are named after different beers. There was a Guinness bed, Corona bed, Miller bed, and my bed, the Molson bed. Another room is called the Gotham City Room, and the beds are named after characters from the Batman comics: The Joker, Robin, Batman, etc.
I can't tell you much more than that though, since I just arrived, but in keeping with that absolute of hostel travelling: you will always meet a Canadian or Australian in every hostel, I have met both already today. Better yet, said Canadians are University students from the UofA (unfortunately my Alma Mater), and one of them was originally from Grande Prairie (small world?)
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For the first time this trip I arrived in at my destination in the afternoon and not the late evening, and so after checking in at the hostel I thought I'd go explore the Royal Mile outside my hostel. The Royal Mile is called the Royal Mile because on one end is the Palace of Holyrood House and the Scottish Parliament, and on the other end Edinburgh Castle. I'm going to see those places tomorrow though, so this time I was just trying to get the shops out of the way to make room for more important sight seeing in the upcoming days.
(My favourite sight in Scotland: vintage e-mail + text + phone booths.)
(A couple pictures of old, tall steeples/towers along The Royal Mile. I couldn't be bothered to learn the names of the buildings to which they were attached though.)
I had already suspected as much, but I can now say for certain that the Royal Mile contains nothing but overpriced souvenir shops and restaurants. It's the Itaewon (a street in Seoul that is nothing but a tourist trap) of Edinburgh. However, I did find a very interesting 3D movie documenting the history and "science" of trying to find the Loch Ness Monster. Then, after finishing the movie, I literally stumbled upon the entrance to The Real Mary King's Close Tour - one of the tours I had been looking forward to taking in Edinburgh, but did not know where to go to sign up for it, so this was a lucky break.
"Closes" in Edinburgh were the very narrow streets between the six to fourteen story buildings during medieval times. Mary King was a widow who, due to a unique loop hole in Scottish law, became a rich business woman/politician, and was allowed to vote and carry a gun back in the 1630s. It was such a great accomplishment that she had the close in which she lived named after her; the only time a woman has received this honour.
Some time later, when the government decided to build the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers), rather than levelling the close it just built the building on top of it in the 1700s. Fast forward a few hundred years, and modern archaeological work discovered that the buildings and streets under the Chamber were still in tact, and after some restoration work, an enterprising company developed a tour to see the homes and streets as they were back in the time of the Black Death.
(The underground closes are considered a government building, since they are underneath the City Chambers, so I was not allowed to take any photographs. However, I was able to take a picture of this model which shows you that the new buildings were literally built on top of the old homes.)
It just so happened that when I arrived at the tour office, a tour was set to leave in ten minutes, and so I signed myself up for it. Our tour was hosted by an actor playing a "foul clenger," whose job it would have been to go house to house and take people infected with the plague to a special colony to die.
One of the more fascinating parts of the journey was when we learned the secret of the weird costumes the doctors used to treat victims of the plague. Dressing in an all black leather and a scary beak mask, and generally looking like the inspiration for the MAD Spy vs. Spy comic strip, was supposed to scare away evil spirits, the supposed cause of the plague. Nonsense to be certain, but ironically they actually worked, because the real cause of the plague was the flies that were attracted to the human excrement lining the street, and the all leather costume kept the flies from reaching the doctor.
Come back tomorrow when I take a double-decker tour bus around Old Town Edinburgh, and up to the Royal Yacht Britannia - the former sailing vessel of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family.