Strolling through Edinburgh’s Old Town is like walking through the pages of a Harry Potter book.
Little wonder, since J.K. Rowling wrote at least part of her boy-wizard tales while seated in cafes near Edinburgh Castle. And it’s no coincidence the Royal Mile leading to and from the imposing fortress complex instantly evokes Diagon Alley – complete with The Witchery, where I totally expected to find wands and invisibility cloaks instead of an upscale restaurant and suites.
I could have wandered that area all day in my new favorite city.
But wandering wasn’t on the agenda when members of Chorale Midwest, family and friends – traveling as the Cedar Valley Choral Arts Ensemble – made a whirlwind musical tour of the British Isles from June 11 to 20. Sightseeing was wedged in between bus rides, a ferry crossing, a night in a haunted castle in Wales, nine scheduled concerts and two “flash mob”-style songs in old York. Phew.
When we did have free time, we hoofed it to various must-see sites in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. Here’s a snapshot of places to behold if you wander to our Founding Fathers’ homeland.
Edinburgh Castle: Forget the fairy tales. This 12th century castle complex is its own walled city growing out of volcanic Castle Rock, looming high above Scotland’s administrative and cultural capital. Its history is drenched in blood – not kisses from charming princes.
An hour or two is woefully inadequate to poke into all the nooks and crannies, but I did see a small stone room where scores of soldiers huddled from the wicked winter, only to die of disease, not enemy fire. The cobblestone streets wind around the various buildings, many of which are now museums.
The walkways atop the walls afford breath-taking views of the city and the Firth of Forth, a picturesque fjord of the River Forth, which rolls off the tongue and flows to the North Sea.
Cannons and soldiers and an ancient dog cemetery all capture your fancy, but nothing’s fancier than the Crown Jewels exhibition. Be sure to read the panels chronicling the violent history of Scotland’s royalty, where most heads of state lost theirs.
The castle also is the site for concerts, parades, festivals and the dashing Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo lasting nearly all of August this year, featuring military bands, pipes and dancers from around the globe. No one does pageantry like the Brits. (Edinburghcastle.gov.uk)
Royal Mile: The street leading to and from the fortress is lined with fabulous little shops and restaurants. I scooped up cashmere items at the tiny, trendy Ness Clothing Company, nestled in between kilt makers, whiskey merchants and other Scottish delights. Street performers add a medieval festival flair on what feels like a giant pedestrian mall. At the main intersection below the castle, you have to start sharing the space with cars, so don’t forget to look around the corners before stepping off the curbs.
Walk the entire Royal Mile, and you’ll end up at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Queen Elizabeth resides for a week each year, generally from the end of June to early July. Much pomp and circumstance ensues. Prince Charles also spends a week there, performing his official duties as the Duke of Rothesay. (Royal.gov.uk)
The royal yacht Britannia – the floating site of royal honeymoons and holidays for more than 40 years — is open for tours at the city’s Ocean Terminal. (Royalyachtbritannia.co.uk)
New Town: Princes Street is the natural divide between medieval Old Town, with its imposing castles, and 18th century New Town, featuring Georgian architecture and the boyhood home of writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Climb up Carlton Hill for panoramic views of the city, topped only by the views from Edinburgh Castle. The hill also is the site of towering National and Nelson monuments. This won’t eat up much of your touring time, and is worth the stone-stair climb.
Edinburgh Zoo: We stayed at the Holiday Inn by the zoo’s entrance, but didn’t have time to tour this home to giant pandas, penguins, koalas and many rare and endangered species. Next time. (Edinburghzoo.org.uk)
Unlike the rest of the British Isles, which are part of the United Kingdom, you’ll need Euros instead of pounds sterling for currency in this fascinating port. It’s the capital of the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state that isn’t part of the UK.
The city center is very pedestrian-friendly, with wide sidewalks, ornate lampposts festooned with flowers, and a gorgeous grand canal lined with shops and eateries.
Like Edinburgh and Iowa City, Dublin is a UNESCO City of Literature, hometown to playwrights Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, authors James Joyce, Bram Stoker and Jonathan Swift, as well as poet William Butler Yeats. Museums abound.
The Book of Kells: You don’t have to be a word nerd or a Christian to enjoy strolling through this exhibition at the Trinity College Library. Giant panels outline the history and the artistry behind this 9th century book of Gospel s, written in Latin and adorned with intricate scrollwork and calligraphy. Monks on the island of Iona, west of Scotland, toiled over these highly decorative pages that were whisked to Dublin for safe keeping around 1653, then presented to Trinity College in 1661. They’ve been on display since the mid-1800s, and visitors today can see pages from two of the four volumes, along with other ancient artifacts. Another treat is exiting through the college’s massive Old Library, where books line shelves from floor to ceiling in a room that will remind Harry Potter fans of the main dining hall at Hogwarts. (tcd.ie/Library/bookofkells)
Guinness Storehouse: From grain to brew, this eight-story “visitor experience” is a full-bodied sensory sensation, from the ground floor to the top-floor Gravity Bar, a round room where glass walls offer panoramic views of Dublin’s quaint rooftops and rolling hills.
The building served as a fermentation plant from 1904 to 1988, but now, 250 years of history are on tap there, along with gift shops, restaurants and a free pint of frothy brown brew in the Gravity Bar. The Steak and Guinness Stew is fabulous, dished up in the Brewer’s Dining Hall. Slainte! (Guinness-storehouse.com)
Music: We capped our first tour day with the best kind of cultural experience: the Belvedere Hotel’s Irish Nights show, a rollicking evening of dinner, traditional music and dance. The three musicians were top-flight and the dancers were “Lord of the Dance” veterans, with feet that flew faster than my camera shutter. (Belvedereirishnight.ie)
No trip to England would be complete without a stop in London. Stay as long as you can – it’s impossible to explore this city’s regal wonders in a couple of days or even a week.
This was my second trip to London. I sought out different sites, repeated a couple – I just can’t get enough of Buckingham Palace and West End theaters – and have plenty left on my list for “next time.” Like the London Eye – a giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the River Thames. No chance of falling out as riders travel up 443 feet in 32 sealed passenger capsules, for breath-taking views of the city.
Buckingham Palace: If your invitation to the annual State Banquet was lost in the mail, you don’t need an official summons to stroll the grounds of this majestic working palace, built in 1705 for the Duke of Buckingham, now the London home of Britain’s royal family and functions.
The gates, the fountains, the galleries and stables – all beckon, but short of a royal wedding kiss, nothing draws the crowds like the Changing of the Guard. All pomp and pageantry, this 45-minute ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. daily from May through July, and alternate days the rest of the year, weather permitting. I actually saw the Queen enter the grounds in a carriage, along with a visiting head of state, back in 1997.
Tours of the State Rooms, exhibitions and gardens are offered in various combinations. (Royalcollection.org.uk)
Covent Garden: Eliza Doolittle sold her posies here in “My Fair Lady,” and now every day is like a fair in this bustling shopping district in the heart of the city. It’s like a farmers market on steroids, with open-air stands, eateries and street performers, surrounded by fabulous shops, pubs, restaurants and the Royal Opera House. (coventgardenlondonuk.com)
Tower of London: “Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress” more aptly describes this 11th century complex on the north bank of the River Thames. An imposing wall and moat ring the grounds, dotted by a castle, towers, gates, museums and execution sites. Anne Boleyn was beheaded there in 1536. Today’s royal heads wear the Crown Jewels, on display there, along with the opulent gold table service used at coronations. (hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon)
West End: London’s Broadway is home to a seemingly endless array of theaters, shops, restaurants and other entertainment amenities, as well as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus (a roundabout, not a big top). Head to Leicester Square for half-price ticket booths to score “cheap seats” – some of which are front and center – for London’s biggest shows. I saw Jerry Lewis and the Broadway cast of “Damn Yankees” there in 1997 and the marvelous, old-fashioned musical “Top Hat” this year. (Westendlondon.com)
— Cathedrals: Do not miss an opportunity to tour a cathedral or two – or two hundred. Even small, out-of-the-way burgs like Ripon and Selby have impressive stone structures, the likes of which are no longer being built. Music rings through the rafters, providing a thrill for musicians and listeners, alike.
The architecture is magnificent, the history rich and colorful, and some even contain the final resting places of nobles and notables. They make cool resting places for weary tourists, too.
We sang in: Liverpool Cathedral (Gothic Revival, early 1900s); Lancaster Cathedral (Gothic Revival, mid-1800s); Ripon Cathedral (Gothic, 7th to 13th centuries); Selby Abbey (Norman, Gothic and Victorian, 1069); and my favorite: Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.
The massive Gothic/Romanesque structure dates back to the 11th century and was rebuilt in the 19th century. It features Britain’s largest crypt and an enclosed stone bridge that links the cathedral with a synod hall now housing an exhibition about medieval Dublin. Be sure to wander the crypt and check out the petrified cat and rat, trapped in an organ pipe in the 1850s.
We weren’t officially authorized to sing in York Minster, but we delighted tourists with a couple of songs outside the gigantic Gothic cathedral and sang one verse of “Ave Maria” inside. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries, it looms high above the city walls, where you can walk and view the beautiful gardens and homes of local gentry.
— Currency: Advised By seasoned travelers that ATMs give you the best exchang- rate for foreign currency, I didn’t get $50 worth of Euros and pounds before I left Cedar Rapids, which I sorely regretted. The first ATM I hit in a Dublin bookstore wouldn’t accept my card, but I was able to use the card to buy my lunch at the Guinness Storehouse. I had great luck at all the rest of the ATMs I used.
Be sure to give your bank and card providers a heads-up before you leave, so they won’t suspect international hackers and shut down your debit/credit cards. I used a debit “travel” card with a set limit, so if it were lost or stolen, the thieves wouldn’t be able to clean out my checking and savings accounts.
— Breakfasts: We stayed at mid-priced hotels, all of which served nearly identical breakfast bars with poached eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomato halves, sausages (bangers), bacon (fried ham) and pork ‘n’ beans and croissants. I accidentally ate blood pudding in Dublin, mistaking it for a muffin, but wasn’t tough enough to try haggis in Edinburgh.
— Sea legs: From Dublin to Wales, we crossed the Irish Sea on a ferry big enough to transport tour buses. I’ve traveled several times on ferries and hydrofoils, and always get queasy. The sea wasn’t too choppy, but the motion was too much for my head and stomach – even with motion-sickness wristbands — so I spent most of the three hours sitting silently or lying down.
— Plumbing: Even though our accommodations were very, very nice and completely modern, my roommate and I couldn’t figure out the showers. Most had multiple dials. Whomever went first got a cold blast in the face or gave up and let the other one try to figure it out. Our huge shower in London had two shower heads and half a door, so we each basically hosed down the whole bathroom.
— Castle: Our coolest lodging was Ruthin Castle in Wales, about 100 feet above the Vale of Clwyd and a storybook village with streets winding up to the narrow archway our bus cleared with inches to spare. Built in 1277, the fortress became Britain’s first private hospital in 1923 and was converted to a hotel in the late 1960s.
Peacocks patrol the gardens, sheep graze on the hillsides, secret gardens await your discovery and a haunted painting sends chills through one of the parlors. View the portrait straight-on and you see a beautiful young woman. Turn around, and view it in the mirror on the opposite wall, and you see a gray zombie. One person in our group tried to explain something about the texture of the oil painting reflecting poorly in the mirror. Blah, blah, blah. It’s haunted, plain and simple – and makes for a great story.