On top of the world at Arthur’s Seat.
On top of the world at Arthur’s Seat.

Yon Empress of the North: A Weekend Getaway

Friday. 11 a.m. I was polishing off my morning coffee and readying myself to begin the day in earnest, when the fire alarms went off. This BEEP BEEP BEEP served as a fittingly frantic soundtrack to my somewhat frazzled attempts at packing for a weekend away. “Tan sweater or grey?” I asked my nearly empty cup of coffee. The key here is to go with clothes that A) go with everything and are B) easy to carry. Finally satisfied with my selection, I headed to the train station, ready to see (in the words of Sir Walter Scott) “yon Empress of the North.”

Arcadia organizes trips throughout the semester for students studying abroad on their programs. For an added fee, students can supplement their academic experiences abroad with cultural excursions. Edinburgh was the first Arcadia-sponsored trip I’d taken this semester, and I was overjoyed to be going.

As a kid, I had the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I distinctly remember finding Edinburgh among the listings, reading about Edinburgh Castle, and falling utterly in love with the place. Being 12, the only course of action available at the time was to write “I ♥ Edinburgh” (accompanied by my best rendition of the castle) on the whiteboard in my locker and dream of the day I could see it for myself. At the risk of sounding melodramatic: Finally, that day had come.

The expedition began at King’s Cross Station in London where the Arcadia staff was waiting. The Arcadia London team invests so much time and energy into getting tickets, planning itineraries, and findings tours. So, after a four-hour train ride, we arrived in Edinburgh and seamlessly made our way to a hostel, ate dinner in a local pub, and settled in for the evening, prepared for the full day ahead.

The street rumored to have inspired Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels.

The street rumored to have inspired Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels.

Or, I should say, we thought we were prepared. The morning kicked off with an hour-long walking tour led by a kind, older gentleman clad in loud plaid pants and jazz-style shoes. When he asked, “No one has a problem with hills or stairs, right? Good, there’ll be a few of those,” we didn’t understand what he meant by “few.”

Edinburgh is a hilly city. You’re probably aware of that already, but you don’t really know it until you’ve been on a walking tour of the historic and cultural highlights. Calves burning, we took in the breathtaking sites, walked the Royal Mile, and passed the street that inspired Diagon Alley, all with interjections from our quirky tour guide.

“You see that spot across the valley?” We nodded. “That’s where a husband threw his wife down the mountain on their honeymoon to collect the life insurance,” he said nonchalantly, and then merrily climbed more hills.

Finally, we reached Edinburgh Castle: an amazing series of structures overlooking the city, enclosed by stone walls and covered in ivy. We took in the crown jewels and where prisoners of war were kept. What most struck me was just how old these buildings were. Yet, among these all of these impossibly old, strong buildings, the oldest standing structure, the only one that hadn’t been torn to pieces in raid after raid, was a tiny chapel with a few, precious stained glass windows. St. Margaret’s Chapel, this comparatively tiny Romanesque structure, did not behave as it was expected to. It was surprisingly strong.

The resilient St. Margaret's Chapel.

The resilient St. Margaret’s Chapel.

The following day, like St. Margaret’s Chapel, I acted in a way counterintuitive to my nature: I climbed Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano. I say “counterintuitive to my nature” because I’m not usually one to climb… anything. Hiking is not a pastime of mine (this you may be able to tell from the way I describe a simple walking tour). But, at the insistence of a friend, I trekked up this mighty landmark.

With a little huffing and puffing, we made it to the top of Arthur’s Seat and found the most glorious view of sea, city, and sprawling countryside. A million tiny surprises in view. This unexpected venture could very well be the highlight of my trip. I’m newly inspired to leave time for the activities not in the plan and to explore activities I’m not naturally drawn to. There’s so much to see in the world! I don’t want to miss a single frame.