I slide through the doors of St. Giles Cathedral and exhale a great cloud of breath. The March sun does little to heat the Edinburgh air, which holds a perpetual dampness that tickles the nose with the scent of iodine. It’s not an unpleasant effect, but it’s damn hard to get warm once your bones start shivering. Edinburgh’s bones rest beneath my feet. The Old Town, a living medieval city, never fails to fill me with child-like wonder. And the Royal Mile, the spine of this dark and complicated skeleton, is always my first stop.
The Royal Mile’s cobbles run to my left and right, grumbling at the periodic car as it weaves its way between pedestrians. Tourists and citizens speaking Chinese and Italian and German stream past me at different angles. You learn quickly that leaning forward means you’re on the way up to Edinburgh Castle while a recumbent stride proves your destination is down toward Holyrood Palace at the foot of the Mile. It’s the kind of medieval guided-by-stars navigation that would be useful if the castle didn’t loom so conspicuously over the whole city.
I pivot to the left and hike up to the castle. The Royal Mile is actually four different streets linked nose to tail, of which Castle Hill, obviously, is nearest to the castle. Castle Hill gives way to the esplanade, which is effectively a great paved parking lot where tour buses unload their cargo, though in August it’s the site of Edinburgh’s weeks-long bombastic Military Tattoo. I’ve come for the astounding views to the north and south. Edinburgh’s lineage is visible in the neighborhoods that gather around the Old Town like children at the feet of a storytelling grandfather: New Town, Stockbridge, Leith, Marchmont, Bruntsfield, Morningside.
The sun races through its low arc. I decide to skip the over-priced cafés built into the attractions and head a couple blocks off the Royal Mile, down George IV Bridge, to The Elephant House. Not only is this a funky tea house that serves tasty bites, its back room possesses one of the best views of Edinburgh Castle in the city. J.K. Rowling gave birth to Harry Potter in this café and it makes me wonder if Edinburgh Castle didn’t give birth to the idea of Hogwarts.
Back on the Mile, there’s an element of claustrophobia. It’s hemmed in between neutral stone facades with colorful ground floors occupied by newsagents, pubs, restaurants, and souvenir shops. If I didn’t know better, it might just be a very historic street with a bit of climb to it. The views that should accompany such elevated terrain are gone, a result of conflict with the English (yes, them again). Being only 50 miles from the English border, Edinburgh was encircled by walls that required the city to grow up rather than out – 13-story wooden skyscrapers crammed with people were not uncommon.
As I drift down the Mile I spot a side effect of this development: closes, narrow and dark alleys, perforate the sides of the Mile like irregular vertebrae. This is where the people lived, often in appalling conditions. In one close a pigeon claps its wings as steam billows from vents. Slick mossy pavers tumble down the vertical sides of the Mile. Another close is barred. Then, a breath-stealing view blasts through the cluster of stone and sordid history; there’s New Town, the Sir Walter Scott Monument, the Firth of Forth sparkling in the sun, even Fife peering through the bones of the Old Town.
Today the closes hide attractive pubs and restaurants and connect the Mile with the Cowgate and Market Street in the valleys below. Hidden courtyards spread out behind the Mile’s shopfronts. Homey smells of stews, sausages, and fish pour out of restaurants’ back entrances.
Edinburgh is a city of time travel where a simple view can rocket you hundreds of years into the past or the future. The Royal Mile itself runs like an umbilical cord between two eras: medieval castle and modern royalty. But it’s also a city where time has been subdued. Medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and 21st-century buildings unblinkingly gaze at each other. And it’s a city where I’m constantly waylaid by pubs. I suppose Robert Louis Stevenson and I share that vice. The Mitre, Whiski, the Tass, and the World’s End call to me now and I’m only halfway down the mile. I won’t be winning any marathons at this pace.