Thursday, September 23, 2010

Literary-Soaked Edinburgh

Sipping a latté in Elephant House, the coffee shop where a destitute J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter novel, I realized I had gone astray. Scotch whisky had lured me to Edinburgh, but instead I found myself immersed in literature.

Everywhere I found reminders that Scots love stories, and began to understand why, in 2004, Edinburgh was selected as the first UNESCO City of Literature. Only three other cities (Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin) have gained this distinction, which recognizes publishing, writing, festivals and encouragement of the written word.

Meandering through Old Town along the Royal Mile that joins Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, I stumbled upon the Writers Museum, a cozy rambling old house accessed via a medieval close or laneway. The Museum celebrates Adam Scott (The Wealth of Nations), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Robbie Burns (Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae), who is widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet. Portraits of the authors gazed down from the walls, dusty original manuscripts peered up from glass cases as I learned how these gentlemen lived and wrote. I hoped that some of their talent would rub off on me.

Piercing the skyline to the north, and a constant reminder of Edinburgh’s literary heritage, is an ornate Victorian Gothic statue commemorating Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, Lady of the Lake). Known affectionately as Edinburgh’s Rocket, it is the world’s tallest statue to honour an author.

Farther down the street I came upon the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where “the story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.” The Centre celebrates Scotland’s strong oral tradition. The curator described the long list of events they host and how the Centre is integrated with other story-telling venues and events throughout the city. My favorite event was Tall Tales Oscar, where the silliest yarns are told with deadpan or surrealistic conviction.

For lunch, I savoured an ale and a dram at the Oxford Bar, the pub of choice for the gruff Inspector Rebus in Ian Rankin’s internationally acclaimed murder mysteries.

At the Scottish National Library I was led into the stacks. Amazingly, the international Dewey Decimal System of organizing books is shunned. Instead, books are shelved by size! A Library official explained, “We reorganized and saved five kilometres of shelving.”

That evening, nursing a nip of smooth, peaty single-malt, I day-dreamed about returning in August for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the biggest celebration of books and the written word in the world. Authors range from up-and-comers to Nobel-prize winners and have included Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Al Gore, John Irving, Salman Rushdie and more. Perhaps it was the quality (or quantity?) of whisky, but I pictured myself at the Festival reading to a mesmerized audience from one of my books.

Previously, I had thought that Scottish literature consisted of quoting Robbie Burns in a dusky pub. But now I realize literature permeates the very soul of Scotland — and nowhere more than in Edinburgh.

If You go
Scotland info:
Edinburgh info:
Edinburgh International book Festival:
Scotch Whisky Experience:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cardiff: A World-Class City

It’s unofficial, but I rank Cardiff among the top ten cities on the planet. How can you not love a city full of pubs, with a crenellated castle at its centre, where a bizarre language is spoken and with a confusingly large proportion of males named David? Cardiff — population 325,000 — is caught in a tug of war between the urbanity of a large capital city and the friendly casualness of a small rural centre. I love it.

I checked in at the Angel Hotel, my home for the next few days. From the window I ould see the stolid walls and colourful clock-tower of Cardiff Castle. I set out to explore and was pleasantly surprised that Cardiff is designed around pedestrians not cars. And being flat, it’s perfect for cycling and — get this — they provide bicycles for free. The downtown encompasses St. David’s Shopping Centre and broad, open walkways that contrast with the surrounding delightful narrow lanes, arcades and cobbled streets. The Gatekeeper, the City Arms, the Old Arcade, the Owain Glyndwr and numerous other pubs kept interrupting my wandering, luring me in with foaming pints of Brains cask ale, the local brew.

Bilingual signs are everywhere. The Welsh are proud of their language, although I was baffled by its consonant-filled, tongue-twisting words like Cymraeg, wrthgyferbyniadau and Etifeddiaeth.

Next day I toured Cardiff Bay, a beautifully restored former dockland, where the sun sparkled on waves and the tang of salt water drifted in the air. I strolled along large open plazas, rode an old merry-go-round and explored the Wales Millennium Centre, a spectacular huge opera house. It is one of the finest in the world and celebrates the Welsh love of music. Nearby sat the Senedd, the National Assembly of Wales, an ultra-green, new (2006) building featuring Welsh slate and acres of glass. Time flew by as I jostled with crowds who were drawn by boat tours, cafés, art exhibits and, of course, pubs.

On my final day, I embarked on the Cardiff Centenary Walk under another cloudless sky. I meandered through markets rich with the colours and aromas of vegetables, flowers and fresh fish. I passed St. John’s Church from the 12th century, narrow arcades, remnants of the old fortified city walls and Millennium Stadium, the home of the Welsh passion: rugby union. I entered the gate of Cardiff Castle, which dates to Roman times, and toured through lavish apartments and an interior Norman keep. Soon I was at the City Hall in Cathays Park, one of the most impressive civic centres in Britain. The clock tower rises 60 metres with a Welsh dragon roaring at the top. The interior is ornate with a domed council chamber. Next door are the Law Courts and National Museum of Wales.

My tour continued through Alexandra Garden with its War Memorial and bronzed figures of a soldier, sailor and airman. I gazed across the street to the imposing main building of Cardiff University, a reminder that Cardiff is a university city with a boisterous night life.

Back at the Angel, I savoured a pint of Brains and pondered the long history and proud culture of this Welsh capital. Cheers, all you Davids!

If You Go

Thursday, September 16, 2010

London: The Eternal City

I stepped off the train in Paddington Station and struggled through the pandemonium. Was it really more than 30 years since I had last been in London?

I bumped my suitcase along narrow crowded streets enveloped in the smells of restaurants, the sounds of British accents and the blaring of traffic. Everything seemed so compact, old and, well, grimy. The ubiquitous black taxis I remembered were now emblazoned with gaudy advertising. Double-decker buses rumbled past. I was excited.

After unpacking in a room barely larger than a closet at the Olympic Hotel, I strolled to Hyde Park. The Albert Memorial soared skyward like an over-decorated rocket whose carvings and elaborate wrought-iron-work still celebrate the halcyon days of the Victorian empire. Across the street the rotund Royal Albert Hall watched sedately.

I crossed Exhibition Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum and visited the Nehru Room to see an unusual and controversial exhibit: a model tiger eating a British soldier. A short walk took me to the cathedral-like Natural History Museum. An enormous dinosaur skeleton dominates the huge domed lobby.

Next morning, I took the tube to the Tower of London, the home of the British crown jewels. The ramparts gleamed in the sun as I imagined the many bloody executions in centuries past. I meandered across the colourful Tower Bridge. Up river, the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel, turned slowly, an in-your-face modern landmark.

An amble westward along the Thames took me into the business section, where the crowded streets were full of people in natty suits. I went into the Guildhall and said hello to Gog and Magog, the mythical founders of Britain.

Another brief saunter carried me to Christopher Wren’s awe-inspiring St. Paul’s Cathedral. I planned to climb to the dome but, sadly, it was closed.

What a city! Simply too much to see! The tube transported me to a crowded Covent Garden where I savoured lunch at the White Lion pub. At Leicester Square many booths offered cut-rate tickets to the numerous West End theatres.

Then I found myself in the pigeon-infested Trafalgar Square with its towering statue of Nelson and bordered by the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Field church. Soon after I arrived at one of my favourite places, the Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall. Sabres flashed and horses whinnied as the guard of bright-red-coated soldiers and horsemen changed.

At the Houses of Parliament I pushed through the heavy crowds and yellow-jacketed constables of a protest march. Big Ben chimed from above as I strode onto Westminster Bridge, which offers the best views of the splendid Gothic architecture of the parliament building.

The next two days flew by in a blur: Portobello Market on Saturday morning; the British Museum and the famous Elgin Marbles; Little Venice Canal, a peaceful quiet oasis lined with long, narrow houseboats; dinner at an Indian restaurant; Buckingham Palace.
Too soon it was over and I was at Paddington Station. As the train pulled out, I thought of how little London has changed. Perhaps it’s more polyglot, with more foreign accents, but just as exciting as always, bustling and bursting with history and culture. Only we people change, we revolve through this grand city in our brief lives. But London endures. London is eternal.

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