Friday, February 17, 2012

Incomparable Edinburgh

For those of you who haven't been to Edinburgh, you really should. Really. Truly.

Here's why.

People talk about cities like Paris, Venice, Rome, St Petersburg, Prague and Istanbul as being amongst the most romantic cities in Europe, if not the world.
But what makes a city romantic, evocative, and distinctive?

For those who adore Paris, they talk about the sights (the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Champs Elysee, Notre Dame, etc.), the River Seine, and the overall beauty and gracefulness of the city. Now, all this may be true, but there are also many people who have also been to Paris, and leave feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. I tend to sympathise more with the latter view: as much as Paris is beautiful, the Eiffel Tower, once you take a photo, is nothing more than a photo opportunity; the Champs Elysee is incredibly over-rated; and the city is horrendously expensive and populated with an irritable and pretentious population. Only the Louvre, in my view, is a truly outstanding destination, rightly famous for its art and a place to while away hours on end.

Well, I don't want to go through each of the places I mentioned; after looking at Paris, I guess you get the point I'm making: many of the most famous "romantic" cities in the world can be a disappointment; it depends on your perspective.

Which brings me to Edinburgh.
I've been to this city three times now in my life, the last just a few days ago. To those who don't know the geography of the city, Edinburgh's centre is a few miles inland from the sea, south of the port of Leith (although this is these days just a suburb of the city itself), with a vista of several hills in varying directions from the city.
The old city (what is called "Auld Reekie") is built on a hill, more like a ridge, that slopes up from the east to the west on a gradual gradient, reaching a cliff-top summit at the western end, on which is perched the castle. The old city, therefore, was built on this long but fairly narrow ridge, about a mile or so in length. The main street, called the "Royal Mile", runs right down the crest of this ridge, from the castle in the west, to Holyrood Palace, at the eastern extremity of the old city.
The old city slowly grew from its beginnings in ancient times, around two thousand years ago, to gain most of its current size and appearance about four hundred years ago. By the early eighteenth century (around the same time that Peter the Great of Russia was building St Petersburg), it was decided that Edinburgh needed to be expanded, as the old city was becoming dangerously overcrowded with tall medieval tenements. Therefore, north of the old city, just beyond the loch that then lay beneath it, a New Town was built.
The New Town was designed on classical principles, as St Petersburg was, with wide and straight streets, squares and parks, and rows of spacious housing. As an aside, it should not be forgotten that Edinburgh's classical legacy (of being called the "Athens of the North") owes as much to the city being the birthplace of the Enlightenment, as to its architectural classicism.
Over the following centuries, additional features like statues were added in squares and at intersections, and while the city was further expanded again as other suburbs were added over the next two hundred years, those same classical principles were not forgotten. The loch separating the old city and the "New Town" was eventually drained and turned into a park, giving the city centre a further dose of character; finally a bridge was built over the basin that separated the two parts of Edinburgh's centre.
For that reason, Edinburgh remains a city steeped in history, with much of the city, proportionally much more than London, looking more or less the same as it did one or two hundred years ago. Not only is there the medieval old city, dramatically perched on an angled ridge that rises to a summit crowned by the castle; the old city also overlooks the so-called "New Town" below - acting as the contemporary centre of the city, but in fact a grandiose eighteenth-century creation of classical urban planning and architectural ambition.

So that leads me to the comparisons.

If you look at the old town and new town of Edinburgh separately, Edinburgh's new town can be compared architecturally with cities like St Petersburg or Paris, or the Scandinavian capitals of Copenhagen and Stockholm; though it makes the most sense to fairly compare it to St Petersburg as they were near-contemporaries when they were built, and with the same classical ideals and scale of ambition in mind.
If you look at the old city, it compares quite well with some of the old European cities such as Krakow (an old city with a castle on a hill) or Prague (ditto, though with a river separating them), or even Tallinn (like Krakow, an old city beneath with a castle on a hill). But I know of no major European city that has a medieval centre built on a ridge with one long main street, as the "Royal Mile" in Edinburgh. What is unique about the Royal Mile is that its length has been used to emphasise its status as a royal capital, lined with suitably impressive medieval buildings; no other medieval city in Europe is able to show off its stature on such a long, straight thoroughfare. The length of the Royal Mile also allows it to have, as I see, two different "characters": the western (higher) end, mostly "High Street" and up to the castle, retains the most impressive buildings; the eastern (lower) end ("Canongate"), is narrower, has more modest buildings, and so feels cosier, like walking through an ancient country town.

The combined city centre of Edinburgh as a whole reminds me in an odd way of Istanbul, albeit with some role reversal. In Istanbul, Beyoglu/Taksim, sitting on a ridge across the water from the old city, is the commercial centre; in Edinburgh, it is the old city that sits on a ridge, with the "Royal Mile" comparable to (if a little longer than) Beyoglu's famous "Istiklal Caddesi", while it is the commercial centre (the "New Town") that is beneath the old city; separated by a park, or accessed by the North Bridge (the Galata Bridge in Istanbul serves a similar function).

Looking at the wider geography of the city, though, Edinburgh as a city in its entirety shares some characteristics with Athens. Athens has its most famous ancient area on a cliff-top hill in the city centre, the Acropolis; Edinburgh has its castle and medieval city on cliff-top hill in the city centre. Athens' suburbs are punctuated by hills; as are Edinburgh's. Athens itself sits close to the sea rather than next to it; since ancient times the port of Piraeus, a few miles distant (though now a suburb of the Greek capital) acted as its link to the sea. In Edinburgh, the port of Leith serves the same function as Piraeus does to Athens. So in more ways than one, Edinburgh can call itself the "Athens of the North".

But, as I've said, after going through all these comparable cities, none fit Edinburgh's mould exactly. Edinburgh is just unique, and for that reason, deserves more respect and attention than it gets on the tourism circuit.
Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, Istanbul, and others, all have something to offer; but Edinburgh manages to have a heart than contains the spirit of them all.

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