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TRAVEL: The perfect weekend (with the kids): Edinburgh

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Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 6/2018 vom 30.05.2018

Kultur-Tour mit Kindern? In Edinburgh kein Problem. LORRAINE MALLINDER erkundet mit ihren Töchtern die schottische Hauptstadt: ein Kontrastprogramm aus Trampolinspringen, Kronjuwelen, Geistern und Hexen.

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The city from Calton Hill: in the foreground, a monument to Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), a Scottish philosopher

Foto: Shalith/Shutterstock.com

Day 1

4 p.m.
We get off the bus in Princes Street, just as the Balmoral clock strikes four. Located in the heart of Edinburgh, next to Waverley Railway Station, it famously runs two minutes fast so that people won’t miss their trains. The first time I saw it, as a ...

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4 p.m.
We get off the bus in Princes Street, just as the Balmoral clock strikes four. Located in the heart of Edinburgh, next to Waverley Railway Station, it famously runs two minutes fast so that people won’t miss their trains. The first time I saw it, as a nervous high school student visiting the city for a university interview, I was running too late for the extra minutes to make any difference. Today, though, time is no problem. We’re on holiday — well, almost on holiday.

“Mummy, can we go to the castle now?” pleads Josephine, aged six, pulling on my arm. The sight of the city’s iconic landmark, sitting majestically on a rocky hilltop, is breathtaking.

“Not now,” says Tess, her teenage sister. “We have to check into the hotel first.”

“Oh, yes. I forgot about that,” says Josephine. “I hope it’s lovely.”

Judging by Josephine’s awestruck silence when we walk in, The Principal is suitably “lovely”. We’re greeted by Jamal, who shows us to our luxurious top-floor room, with its view over the pretty Georgian houses of the city’s New Town. No sooner are we alone than Josephine starts to jump on the big double bed. Oh, well, it looks as if my plans to relax before dinner have just flown out of the window.

5 p.m.
With dinner still two hours off, and an energetic little girl on my hands, there was only one place to go: the trampoline park.

A short taxi ride from the hotel, Gravity is a six-year-old’s dream: a sea of wallto-wall trampolines. Josephine launches straight into it with no fear, but it takes me a little longer to warm up.

I jump carefully from one trampoline to the next like a frightened bunny rabbit. Before too long, though, we’re both jumping off a high platform on to a trampoline, which projects us through the air on to a gigantic airbed. I don’t think I’ve done as much sport as this for ages.

Tess, sitting nearby with her book and a hot chocolate, is taking photos with my phone, a mischievous look on her face. (Note to myself: must remember to delete the embarrassing snaps later.)

7 p.m.
We dine at the hotel’s in-house restaurant, a chic, Levantine-inspired place called Baba. I have a giant prosecco-and-peach cocktail. Tess has a rose-and-hibiscus non-alcoholic cocktail. “That definitely looks like beer,” says Josephine, eyeing her sister’s drink. Back in our room afterwards, she is so tired from the trampolining that she’s out like a light. My clever plan has worked.

Day 2

9 a.m.
We wake up to a wet, but bright Saturday morning. No nice long breakfast for us: Josephine is ready to go. From Princes Street, we head up the Mound, a curving road leading to the Old Town. The cobblestone streets of the Royal Mile shine in the rain, reflecting flashes of the spring sky.

We take shelter at Camera Obscura, an Aladdin’s Cave of mind-bending experiences. We climb the stairs to the octagonal cupola at the very top, where the actual camera obscura, a revolving pinhole camera, projects live views of the city on to a wooden table. This is a great way for newcomers to orient themselves. We’re taken from the nearby castle, over the Pentland Hills, down the Royal Mile and, finally, over Princes Street Gardens to the New Town. Using a white card, our guide “picks up” some tiny people from the table and then slaps them back down again. Josephine takes hold of my arm, eyes wide.

“Did you see that?” she whispers.

The real fun, though, is to be found on the five floors below. We linger for ages at the face transformer, a booth showing us what we would look like as babies, old people and chimps. Another favourite is the Alice in Wonderland Room, which shrinks people at one end and turns them into giants at the other. I make my way through the vortex tunnel, walking between revolving walls that give me the sense of spinning round. I feel a bit ill afterwards, but the kids can’t get enough of it. They must have cast-iron stomachs. All in all, we spend three hours there, so it’s great value for money.

Josephine, one of the author’s daughters, enjoys a world of illusion at Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura

View of the Princes Street shopping mile and the Balmoral Hotel clock tower

1 p.m.
We emerge, eyes blinking, into the real world. It has stopped raining, but the skies are thick with clouds. We hurry back to the New Town for some lunch at Dishoom. Recommended to me as the best Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, this is no ordinary curry house, but a kitschy replica of an old-fashioned Bombay cafe, with a warm, yet worldly atmosphere.

Seated at the window, we look out on to the gardens of the illustrious St Andrew’s Square. The philosopher David Hume, one of the main figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, lived just a few doors away from where we are now.

Tess, who loves Indian food, dives into the black dal and roti. Josephine goes for the non-spicy chicken and potatoes. We’re all very taken with the bhel, a combination of Bombay mix, puffed rice and pomegranate that I could eat all day long. Being a tea addict, I have three cups of chai.

3 p.m.
It’s time for our visit to Edinburgh Castle, which is located at the start of the Royal Mile. This is the “spine” of Edinburgh, which runs all the way down to Holyrood Palace — the Queen’s official home in Scotland — at the other end of town.

The reason why the castle was built on such a high rock was to protect it from the invading English armies. It’s already a little foggy when we arrive, but as we climb the cobbled path into the castle fortress, we find ourselves in a thick cloud.

The castle, which has served as a royal residence and a prison, has a dark past. During the 16th and 17th centuries, hundreds of women who were accused of being witches were burned alive there. Others were thrown in the lake next to the castle, now the site of Princes Street Gardens. I say “lake”, but Nor Loch was a stinking cesspit where citizens threw their waste. Being born a woman back then was truly dangerous.

We visit the crown jewels, passing wax figures from different periods of Scottish history on our way, some so realistic that Josephine is convinced they are alive. After the union of Scotland and England in 1707, the jewels were locked away in the castle, and their location was forgotten for more than a hundred years. Now, the crown, which is the oldest in Britain, is on display in the heart of the Royal Palace. “It looks like a toy crown,” says Josephine, and she’s partly right because two of the diamonds are false.

It’s time to go now. We’re getting wet in the thick cloud, and the skies are darkening. I also remember hearing about a lost bagpiper who went down into the tunnels beneath the castle, never to be seen again.

6.30 p.m.
It’s nice to be back in the modern world again, eating burgers in a warm restaurant with the comforting sounds of 80s pop music in the background. The girls are looking forward to more spookiness tomorrow.

Day 3

11 a.m.
Edinburgh Dungeon, as its name might suggest, is not for the faint-hearted. At the entrance, we’re greeted by a poster titled “Disease-ridden Edinburgh”, full of tales of death and decay. Hmm! Maybe I scheduled our visit a little too soon after breakfast.

As we walk in, we bump into a terrifying figure. It’s a “plague doctor” dressed in a long black cloak and a beak-like mask. When the plague struck Edinburgh in the mid 17th century, many believed the disease was spread by bad smells. The doctor’s beak was filled with dried flowers and herbs to protect him.

There are rats everywhere down here. We hear them scuttling about as we go down into the bowels of the dungeon to a live witch trial. In the corner, local shopkeeper Agnes Finnie, executed for witchcraft in 1645, shakes her chains and lets out a blood-curdling scream. At one point, she rises up into the air, her hair flying around her. “She can really fly!” exclaims Josephine, suddenly worried and burying her head in my coat.

Bhel (or bhelpuri), an Indian snack served at Dishoom restaurant in Edinburgh

The Ross Fountain in West Princes Street Gardens with Edinburgh Castle in the background

We’re all nervous as we move on to a boat in search of Sawney Bean and his carnivorous clan — one of Scotland’s most gruesome legends. It’s actually a madeup 17th-century cannibal story. Still, this knowledge is of no help when the boat comes to a standstill, and we’re suddenly thrown into darkness with the cries of Sawney Bean’s victims all around.

1 p.m.
We flee the dungeon and go back to Princes Street for a traditional afternoon tea at the Sir Walter Scott Tearoom. This place is as Scottish as it gets, from the tartan carpets to the pipe music in the background (aptly enough, playing “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”). Tess and Josephine smile when our order arrives on a tall stand bearing sandwiches, cakes and scones with clotted cream and jam. We dive in with gusto, looking out on to the fairy-tale skyline with its towers and turrets. Seagulls are sailing in the wind. Even against a grey sky, Edinburgh is beautiful.

3 p.m.
We explore the Royal Mile, stopping at a metal statue of poet Robert Fergusson clutching a book to his chest, his coat-tails flying. To my mind, the most touching poet in Scottish history, Fergusson died at the tender age of 24 after falling down some steps and hitting his head.

Tess spots Unknown Pleasures, a record shop in the Canongate. Addicted to music, she is a big fan of vinyl. And this Edinburgh institution has plenty of rare specimens from the 60s, 70s and 80s. We leave 45 minutes later with a T-shirt of her favourite band.

7 p.m.
We sit down to a well-deserved pizza at O’Oliviero in the Grassmarket, the city’s traditional marketplace just behind the castle. It has always felt like the heart of Edinburgh to me, full of students on pub crawls, couples on romantic dates and tourists wandering around looking lost.

Day 4

12.30 p.m.
Finally, the part of the trip I’ve been looking forward to most: The Real Mary King’s Close, a tour of underground streets and houses that were sealed off in the 18th century. It shows how people used to live in this city. Our guide introduces himself as Stephen Boyd, a local merchant living in the year 1635. He leads us downstairs, below the Royal Mile, to what is called a “low house”. Two families would be squeezed into this dank room.

In the corner is a bucket, says the guide, looking pointedly at Josephine. The youngest in the family would be charged with taking it to the window twice a day and throwing its contents out into the street with a cry of “Gardey loo!” (from the Frenchregardez l’eau , or “watch the water”), to warn passers-by to take cover. The raw sewage from all the houses would run down the streets, straight into Nor Loch.

Later in the tour, we visit a wealthier home, which still looks like a prison to us, but which would have been the height of luxury at the time. There is still a little of the red paint on the walls, where the residents printed roses as a kind of wallpaper.

In the 1990s, a Japanese psychic visited this home to see if she could sense any presences. She turned around to find herself face-to-face with a weeping girl whose parents had died of the plague. She bought a doll for the little girl, whom she named “Annie”. Touched by the tale, visitors now regularly bring gifts for little “Annie”. We laugh to see a toy Pokémon, a Barbie and a DVD of pop sensations One Direction on a pile at the end of the room.

“Can we get something for her?” asks Josephine. “Next time,” I say. And I’m sure there will be a next time, for this fascinating insight into the past is definitely worth repeating. If only all history lessons were like this!

2 p.m.
We walk down the steep hillside of Advocate’s Close to Princes Street, finding ourselves back at the Balmoral clock, where our adventure began. Nobody is in the mood to go home as we walk through Princes Street Gardens, which are filled with colourful flowers. Strange to think this used to be Nor Loch. The soil, they say, is very fertile…

Victoria Street, said to have inspired Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books

If you go…

Where to stay

The Principal, Charlotte Square.www.phcompany.com

What to do and see

Gravity.www.gravity-uk.com Camera Obscura.www.camera-obscura.co.uk Edinburgh Castle.www.edinburghcastle.scot Edinburgh Dungeon.www.thedungeons.com/edinburgh The Real Mary King’s Close.www.realmarykingsclose.com

Where to eat

Baba.baba.restaurant Dishoom.www.dishoom.com Sir Walter Scott Tearoom, 62 Princes Street Burgers and Beers.www.burgersandbeersgrillhouse.co.uk O’Oliviero.www.olivieros.co.uk

More information


Fotos: Lorraine Mallinder; Mario Guti/iStock.com

Fotos: subodsathe, Wanaruk Chaimayo/iStock.com

Fotos: eAlisa, Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock.com