60 hours in Edinburgh (festival time)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Visiting a city you used to live in as a tourist is a strange experience. The first problem is finding somewhere to stay. The picturesque and quaint Stockbridge area was our choice - mainly because of The Raeburn. Many years ago when I used to live in Stockbridge, later the adjacent Comely Bank, we would head to The Raeburn Hotel for drinks.

Looking for positives – the beer was always wet. Negatives were easier to find, with the rundown hotel in desperate need of investment. Eventually it closed. Recently the magic wand of money has been waved and The Raeburn has risen again as a restaurant with rooms. The refurbishment is impossible to fault - the rooms have a grand feel to them and everything screams 'sophisticated Scot'. As with most hotels during the Edinburgh Festival season the rooms are over-priced, but our deluxe room at the rear of The Raeburn provided a quiet night's sleep. The breakfast was hearty and included everything there is to enjoy from a fry-up, apart from haggis.

Stockbridge isn't in the heart of Edinburgh, but it's either a moderate 20 minute ascent into the heart of the New Town (Princes St and George St) or you can catch one of the Lothian buses which take around 10 minutes.

Yes, and now to the Edinburgh Festivals. If you've never been you really should. Every year more venues appear and the Festival sprawl gets larger. There's the Fringe festival - Edinburgh's largest and home to big name comedians, plays and physical theatre - though there's still room for the small bedroom productions. There's also the Edinburgh Festival 'proper'. This is the more highbrow of the festivals, but there are always affordable ticket categories. Nowadays there are even more festivals: art, book, mela, etc. There's also the Edinburgh Tattoo which is an experience I'm happy to recommend. Truly something for everyone.

The Shows

Darren Walsh is the self-styled "pun master". He's even written a book. This was 45 minutes or so of fast paced word plays, silly gags and visual interjections. He won best joke of the festival with "I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans-free". Exactly my kind of humour! Non-native English speakers might struggle significantly, or the optimists amongst them may see this as an opportunity to improve. The only downside were the annoying photographers, who were taking shots of the audience throughout.

The Norwegian philharmonic orchestra were performing at Edinburgh's grand Usher Hall. The most interesting part of this was our seats in the Organ Gallery. We were literally seated on stage with the orchestra. The downside is we only saw the back of Scottish favourite Nicola Benedetti and her violin, but the seats were super interesting, as we saw every movement of the conductor and enjoyed an extreme close up of the entire orchestra. For just £12 a ticket this was a bargain. One downside here was the crowd – a lot of them seemed to be the "old Edinburgh money" who were making disparaging remarks about anyone they thought didn't belong in a philharmonic orchestra audience.

Blam! has been showing at the fringe for the past few years – it's a genuine crowd pleaser, which it needs to be to fill the enormous Pleasance Grand venue. The premise is office workers who bring some enjoyment to their dull days by acting scenes from their favourite movies. So pretending a coat stand is the chain gun from Terminator II or navigating the offices like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now are two examples. There are many more. It's energetic, never dull and good fun. Intellectually stimulating it isn't, but it would be a boring life indeed if everything needed to be a challenge.

Mark Thomas is the definition of Left Wing. His latest show is called "Trespass". He's had enough of "No Loitering" signs along the Thames walkway. He's had enough of public space being owned by private entities. Simply put he does the opposite of what the signs tell him to do. For an hour he explains his exploits. I might not entirely agree with him, but Thomas is an accomplished storyteller. The fact that lots of prime property is vacant (with the property owned as an investment by overseas landlords) is a real cause for concern. Good luck to him.

Daniel Kitson is the master. His shows sell out within minutes or hours if you're lucky. This year he moved to Summerhall - a former veterinary college - in the South of Edinburgh (it's adjacent to The Meadows, a large park). The venue for Polyphony couldn't be better - a white tent with seats encircling the small ground level stage. Kitson has 15 Bose speakers attached to iPod shuffles, which he hands out to audience members. I was the lucky recipient of one and had to sit with a speaker on my lap, as it made a stream of grumpy comments back to Kitson. I once remember trying to give a presentation in PowerPoint, with the slide transitions timed. That was a bad idea. But it's not a problem for Kitson - his brilliance ensures this works. He copes effortlessly with a technical fault towards the end of the show, by reciting what should have played from the iPod shuffle. It's not the best show I've seen from Kitson, but it's an original concept and Kitson's good is probably better than everyone else's best.

Food & Drink

In a former life I reviewed many restaurants via the Edinburgh Blog. On our return we first headed to Mother India Cafe - if I were King I would force every town and city to have an Indian tapas restaurant. It's a faultless idea. There are no bad dishes here, but the spiced haddock combines Indian spices with a local favourite. That's a must.

La Favorita used to be our favourite pizza restaurant in the city, but we didn't have time to visit their Leith Walk restaurant this time. Not to worry - as the wood fired pizza oven has gone mobile, with a stand on the Royal Mile. The haggis eluded me no further, as it popped up on top of my pizza slice. Whole pizzas can be ordered too – overall one of the best takeaway food stands you'll find.

Afternoon Tea seems to be an unstoppable at the moment. A newcomer to Edinburgh since our departure is the Colonades Tea Room at the Signet Library. The building dates back to 1822 and is home to the association of Scottish lawyers – in the entrance there are mailboxes for the various law firms. The setting is grand, but not intimidating. And the tea itself is one of the very best. The damage is £30 per person for the afternoon tea or £42 with a glass of champagne. They also offer a tray of four different Pommery champagnes to taste. The photo above really speaks for itself, but the desserts especially are impossible to fault. A truly brilliant treat and a much needed chance to recharge in the middle of so much chaos.

Ping-On is a traditional Chinese restaurant in every sense of the word. It's located in the heart of Stockbridge and has been here "forever". The same guy has also been there "forever". The menu offers little surprises, which is no bad thing e.g. prawns with cashew nuts, duck with pineapple and beef in a black bean sauce. Expect quick service and reliably good Chinese food in an intimate setting. As an alternative I recommend Kweilin on Dundas St (especially the wafer paper prawns) and their addictive "eight treasures duck".

The Bon Vivant has spread its wings from its Thistle St home and has brought its champagne by the glass to Stockbridge's Dean St. Candlelit and cosy – exactly the style of bar which succeeds with the Stockbridge locals. A good spot for a nightcap on the way back.

There's really too much to see and do in Edinburgh in a mere 60 hours. But we were particularly disappointed to miss out on fish and chips at Tailend or Pierinos. In fact we never visited the wonderful setting of Leith – though if you're there try the Teuchters Landing or/and Carriers Quarters pubs. A beer at the Brewdog bar in Cowgate was forfeited, as was a whisky at the Bow bar.

It was a privilege to live in Edinburgh for so long and the city has lost none of its appeal on our return.