Thursday, January 19, 2017

Walking in the City - Edinburgh

Looking out towards the Firth of Forth

Apparently, on average, Edinburgh gets 192 days of rain per year. Which means you take your chances with the weather if you go for the day. I'm not sure how many windy days the city averages, but unfortunately the day we visited it was both wet and windy. So wet and windy that we decided to head straight for the Castle in the hope we'd find some shelter. The Castle dominates the city skyline meaning even on an overcast day you can see for miles from the battlements.

Our first stop was a peep into St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in the castle. Dedicated to the memory of Queen Margaret who was later canonised for her charitable deeds, it's believed to date from 1130.

St Margaret's Chapel

Then we attempted a walk around the grounds. It was definitely a day for holding onto your hat.
The Royal Palace courtyard

And getting inside as soon as possible.

Fortunately there are lots of indoor exhibitions to see - so many that you could easily spend a full day here. We had a limited amount of time so were only able to take in the National War Museum and one of the Regimental exhibits before heading to the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace

The Crown Room is home to the jewels used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots, making them the oldest crown jewels in Britain. Apparently during the second World War the crown was hidden beneath an ancient latrine for safekeeping from the enemy!

The Great Hall
The Great Hall dates from the 1500's in the reign of James IV. While some of it has been restored the roof is the original. I was fascinated to read that it was built using wood from Norway as suitable timber was difficult to find in Scotland by the late 1400's!


The Argyle Tower was a later addition to the castle (1887) but named after the unfortunate 9th Earl of Argyll whose last night is recounted on a plaque:

There was no obvious explanation as to why the spellings of the name differed.

During our time indoors the weather had only worsened so we decided to head back into the city center. As we made our way down we realized there weren't many other people around. It turned out that the castle had actually been closed to further visitors due to the high winds and we were one of the last to leave!

The Lang steps

How windy was it?  The picture below might give you an idea:

Can't be fun trying to play the bagpipes in those conditions.

We took refuge at the Cafe Royal for lunch. Given we were in Scotland I thought it only fitting to dine on haggis, neeps and tatties. (That's haggis, turnip and potato for those not in the know.) Delicious!

Well fortified, we ventured out again to take in some of the other sights of the city. Part of Edinburgh's charm is the number of beautiful old buildings which add a strong sense of history to any stroll.  

St Giles Cathedral

The Balmoral Hotel 

 Even the main shopping streets are lined with grand buildings. (Our visit was two days before Christmas hence the decorations.)

As we walked along George Street, one of the main thoroughfares, we could see an impressive light display at the end of the road. 

It was only when we reached it that we discovered it was a 3D display with a tunnel running through the castle of light.

Next stop was the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with its spectacular Grand Hall:

It features statues of prominent Scots including Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.

Robert Louis Stephenson

Robert Burns

On the first floor, one gallery was dedicated to the entries for the BP Portrait Award 2016.  The portraits ranged from artist's family members to celebrities using techniques from sketching to photo-realism. There are some stunning works, so lifelike that from a distance they appear real. I'm not a huge fan of art, but these were well worth seeing.

As darkness fell the weather improved slightly. Or at least the rain stopped and the gale subsided to a tolerable wind. We took this as an opportunity to have a quick look at the holiday market which had taken over Princes St Gardens. With a fun fair, a Christmas tree maze, an ice-rink and a huge array of vendor and food stalls, even the awful weather didn't deter visitors. 

The fun fair and holiday market

The Christmas tree maze 

 The Big Wheel and  the Star Flyer had presumably been deemed too dangerous to operate in such a wind as they remained stationary, but the rest of the market bustled with activity adding a festive end to an enjoyable day out.

There is so much more to see and do in Edinburgh, it really deserves a visit longer than a day. Maybe next time, And hopefully next time the weather will be better. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Walking in the City - Christmas Lights in London

A recent early evening walk from Gloucester Road to the South Bank in Central London gave me the opportunity to take in some of the city’s Christmas Lights.
Outside the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum the trees were decked with lights and a small ice-skating rink had been set up in the grounds adding a festive spirit to the grand buildings.

A short stroll further on and we reached Knightsbridge and a palace etched in lights:

Which, surprise, surprise, turns out to be Harrods, a popular tourist destination at any time of the year, but, judging from the number of people taking pictures, a photo-op too good to miss.

Knightsbridge borders the south-eastern side of Hyde Park which, this year, happens to be the location of Winter Wonderland, a holiday market complete with fun fair, vendor stalls and a huge Bavarian village.

There were lots of rides for those who enjoy being spun around and tipped upside down at great heights!

We decided to keep our feet firmly on the ground with a stroll around the Bavarian village.

And a refreshment break for a Gluhwein at one of the heated outdoor bars.

The predecessor to Gluhwein?

We weren't certain what relevance this giant had to the holiday market but he certainly was an impressive size!

Where to put the Christmas tree when you're running short of space.
There wasn't anything like this at Christmastime when I used to live in London (many years ago!)  

Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland is just one of several Christmas markets in Central London this year, with Leicester Square, the Southbank and Tate Modern all hosting their own versions. 
After visiting the Hyde Park event, the others were disappointing in size and variety of offerings, although the blue lights on the trees between the Southbank and the Tate made the riverside walk even more spectacular. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Walking in the City - The Christmas Lights of Mid-town Manhattan, NY

It's hard to believe that Christmas is almost upon us once again. This year I'm spending the holidays in England but wanted to fit at least one trip into New York City to see the lights before I leave. Yesterday's relatively mild weather offered the perfect opportunity for an evening stroll.

My first stop was the Lord & Taylor store on 5th Avenue at 39th Street. Famous for its elaborately staged Christmas windows it is a delight for children and adults alike.  This year the store is surrounded by scaffolding, but the designers didn't let that detract, turning the sidewalk into a grotto of lights and greenery.

How to conceal scaffolding.

The theme for this year is the Enchanted Forest with gorgeous animated settings depicting families of owls, foxes and geese in a winter wonderland. Instrumental music adds the finishing touch.

My next stop was Bryant Park between 5th and 6th Avenue. At this time of year the park becomes a Winter Village with an ice-rink, a holiday market and an outdoor bar.
The holiday market

the place to relax after all the shopping

skating amidst the skyscrapers
The Winter Village wouldn't be complete without a Christmas tree. While it doesn't quite match the size of the Rockefeller tree it is always beautifully decorated. I discovered I was a day early in terms of the lighting ceremony but even unlit it's pretty impressive!

Then it was onto 6th Avenue where the large forecourts of office buildings provide another venue for some out-sized decorations. 

Across the street is the iconic Radio City Music Hall. From mid November to early January it is home to The Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, an integral part of New York City's holiday festivities. 

Just around the corner is Rockefeller Plaza, the location of the city's official Christmas tree. 
This year the tree is 94 ft tall and decorated with 50,000 lights!  Despite heavy rain on the 1st December, thousands turned out to watch the show that precedes the switching on of the lights. 

 It's quite a sight but almost outdone by the light show on the front of the Saks building opposite. Set to booming music the crowd-stopping display runs at regular intervals.

But Saks doesn't just stop at the light show.  The windows have been exquisitely decorated with a Nutcracker theme. The detail that goes into each window is amazing, I can only assume it must take months of planning and preparation. 

In all, I spent about two hours taking in the various sights, but only covered a tiny section of the city.  New York is a fun city to walk around at any time of year, but in December it really does become magical - assuming, of course, that you don't mind the large crowds!