February 3, 2014 | 10:19 am
[caption id="attachment_595731" align="alignright" width="270" caption="The Witchery, just steps from Scotland's Edinburgh Castle, doesn't sell wands and spells. It's an upscale restaurant and lodging along a cobblestone. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
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.
[caption id="attachment_595733" align="alignright" width="270" caption="The mighty Edinburgh Castle is actually a fortress complex built atop the volcanic Castle Rock. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
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
[caption id="attachment_595727" align="alignright" width="270" caption="The Royal Mile leads from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen Elizabeth's official residence in Scotland. The succession of streets making up the Royal Mile wind through Old Town and are lined with shops and eateries. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
: 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
: 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.
: 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
More information: Edinburgh.org
[caption id="attachment_595728" align="alignright" width="270" caption="The 18th century Old Library at Dublin's Trinity College is a marvel to behold, with books shelved floor to ceiling, an ornate spiral staircase and marble busts of important authors. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
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
[caption id="attachment_595756" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The midday sun cuts a swath across the hillsides of Dublin, as viewed from the top-floor pub at the Guinness Storehouse. Visitors can hoist a free pint of the signature ale while enjoying a panoramic view from floor-to-ceiling windows in the circular room. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
: 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
: 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
[caption id="attachment_595830" align="alignright" width="208" caption="Dublin?s Christ Church Cathedral, founded in 1028, is a major tourist stop in the heart of medieval Dublin. The cathedral?s stone bridge leads to an exhibition of the city?s Viking and medieval history. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)"]
This street performer hovers above the sidewalk with no visible means of support, other than the staff in his left hand. Magicians, mimes and colorful characters add to the charms of Covent Garden in the heart of London. (Diana Nollen / The Gazette)
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
– 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.
: 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. (
: 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. (
: “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. (
: 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. (