Edinburgh City, Scotland

Festival time. Fireworks explode in fizzing starbursts of ruby and emerald above the smoke-swept battlements of Edinburgh Castle, while cascades of sparkling fire stream down the castle walls. Swooshing rooster-tails of rockets fill the sky ever more thickly, lighting up the rapt faces of the crowds, as the thundering music swells to a climax. And you’re standing there in the midst of it all, face turned towards the sky; transfixed, mesmerised, seduced, wondering what’s going to happen next. Edinburgh does that to you. Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid described the city as ‘a mad god’s dream’, but even the maddest of gods couldn’t have dreamt up a more inspiring setting for the world’s biggest, most exhilarating, most over-the-top festival.

Edinburgh is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the sea. It’s a town intimately entwined with its landscape, with buildings and monuments perched atop crags and overshadowed by cliffs – in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘a dream in masonry and living rock’. From the Old Town’s picturesque jumble of medieval tenements piled high along the Royal Mile, its turreted skyline strung between the black, bull-nosed Castle Rock and the russet palisade of Salisbury Crags, to the New Town’s neat grid of neoclassical respectability, all columns and capitals, porticoes and pediments, the city offers a constantly changing perspective. And it’s all small enough to explore easily on foot.

You can always tell the character of a place by the nicknames it has earned. Appropriately enough for the city that inspired The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Edinburgh has two contradictory – but complementary – ones. The Athens of the North, a name inspired by the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, is a city of high culture and lofty ideals, of art and literature, philosophy and science. It is here that each summer the world’s biggest arts festival rises, phoenixlike, from the ashes of last year’s rave reviews and broken box-office records to produce yet another string of superlatives. And it is here, beneath the Greek temples of Calton Hill – Edinburgh’s acropolis – that the Scottish Parliament sits again after a 300-year absence.

But Edinburgh is also Auld Reekie, an altogether earthier place that flicks an impudent finger at the pretensions of the literati. Auld Reekie is a city of loud, crowded pubs and decadent restaurants, late-night drinking and all-night parties, beer-fuelled poets and foul-mouthed comedians. It’s the city that tempted Robert Louis Stevenson from his law lectures to explore the drinking dens and lurid street life of the 19th-century Old Town. And it’s the city of Beltane, the resurrected pagan May Day festival where half-naked revellers dance in the flickering firelight of bonfires beneath the stony indifference of Calton Hill’s pillared monuments.

Like a favourite book, Edinburgh is a city you’ll want to dip into again and again, savouring each time a different image or experience – the castle silhouetted against a blue spring sky with a yellow haze of daffodils misting the slopes below the esplanade; stumbling out of a late-night club into the pale gold of a summer dawn, with only the yawp of seagulls and the thrum of taxi tyres over cobblestones to break the unexpected silence; heading for a café on a chill December morning with the haar (fog) snagging the spires of the Old Town, and the dark mouths of the wynds (alleys) more mysterious than ever; and festival fireworks crackling in the night sky as you stand, transfixed, amid the crowds in Princes St Gardens.

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