On The Fringe

Scotland continues to impress. A solid pseudo-country all the way through. Edinburgh is one of the most visually impactful cities we’ve ever seen. Walking around the downtown area is honestly mind-blowing. One might venture to say that it feels like walking through Gotham city. Gasp – did I just make a Batman reference? First the Scotch drinking, now this? Someone keep an eye on me before I start enjoying the Hobbit or Star Trek or some other retched thing (apologies to the large majority of you people in the world who actually enjoy action movies, manly drinks and/or fantasy).

Part of the reason we hit up Edinburgh when we did was for the festival timing. Our visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Military Tattoo (though we sadly didn’t act fast enough to get tickets), and – most important – the Fringe. The International Festival offers an impressive selection of shows through which you can enjoy the finer arts (e.g. dance, music, art). We attended one show of the International Festival variety. Having seen the movie Pina a while back and being obsessed with her work and the soundtrack ever since, we went to see the Pina Bausch directed and choreographed show, Sweet Mambo, at the Edinburgh Playhouse. While it was so artsy as to be on the verge of artsy-over-our-heads, it was absolute beauty and a complete steal at only £12 a ticket. If you’ve not heard of Pina or seen her work, rent the movie Pina immediately. What she does with the human body and the stage are just breathtaking.

The Fringe, on the other hand, is where things get weird. In a really good way (almost always). The Fringe is essentially a humongous collection of shows throughout the city. This ranges from street performers to comedy shows, to theater performances, burlesque shows, live music and more. A lot of shows are paid and require advance ticket purchases, but a huge number of them are absolutely free of charge. And while some may be worth their entry price, we visited many free shows that were a delight. In fact, I think we hit up a total of seven shows while at Fringe, five of which were free.

It feels like the city was practically built for this festival. The Old Town area is dotted with venues, ranging from bars and pubs, to a warehouse turned barnyard themed music venue, to these large multi-storied event halls with show rooms and pubs on each floor. I’m not sure if these venues are open year-round or how they are utilized outside of the Fringe, but they are some seriously cool event spaces. There are also outdoor areas with venue spaces set up in small pop-up style tents and buildings, with food trucks and bars spread out around them. One we checked out even had an astro-turf lawn for hanging out on.

We are big fans of comedy (I mean, who doesn’t enjoy laughing, right?), and so we attended many comedy shows in various forms. Highlights included what amounted to, essentially, an incredibly weird play. Comedy theater? I’m not entirely sure what to call it, but it was most certainly strange, and parts were hilarious. The show, called Grandees, was performed by three people in a small room with minimal props. One of my favorite comedy shows was Northern Ireland’s stand-up comedian, Luke McGibbon (#luketony). We were two of six guests in attendance. I couldn’t tell if his embarrassment at the small crowd was part of his act, but I literally cried from laughing at what he claimed was once reviewed as the worst part of his show. Check him out, though be warned I am a sucker for see-what-I-did-there kind of jokes and Alan often teases me that the worse a movie or TV show is, the more likely I am to enjoy it…that said, Alan enjoyed as well. And it’s pretty cool to chat with the comedian pre- and post-show. A Room With A Jew by Joe Bor was good entertainment as well, and Alan somehow got roped into an on-stage interactive bit during the performance, as well as getting called on a few times throughout the act. Ahir Shah’s show was also terrific, in a somewhat stand-up, spoken-word combo, or, as he calls himself, an incredibly funny lecturer.

We only saw one horrible show and it was at 11:30 pm in a bar quite far from the Old Town area. So, I guess our advice would be to steer clear of the free late night shows in sub-prime venues. We are almost certain that these two guys got up on stage as part of a dare or a fraternity-pledging related hazing. And I literally fell asleep in my chair to spare me from the pain.

We switched it up a bit for a blues and burlesque show called Hotter than Hell. Awesome. We did little music since the options were too overwhelming and unknown, but we did enjoy some time at the Cow Shed in between comedy shows one evening. Overall, we were blown away by this festival. Highly, highly recommend a visit to Edinburgh while the Fringe is on.

While we spent a large part of our time in Edinburgh enjoying the entertainment that the various festivals had on offer, we took a break to explore the rest of the city. The long walk to Leith is maybe not worth the journey (at least if you’re just meandering, as opposed to walking there to enjoy one of Leith’s many F&B options), but it was interesting to see all the “Yes” campaigners out to educate the Scots about why they should become an independent state.

The walk to (and up) Calton Hill was definitely worth the excursion, as it afforded some phenomenal views of this epic skyline. They even have a national monument up there that looks vaguely Parthenon-esque. Not for nothing is Edinburgh called “Athens of the North.”

On the way into Edinburgh we stopped in the town of Stirling to do the whole castle thing. I’ve never really been one for history, or tours, or ancient things in general, but this castle was next level crap. Well, the building itself, its historical significance (especially for Braveheart fans) and the location are great, but the castle is this gigantic impressive hunk of old stone set on a phenomenal site, and they’ve gone and plastered the walls inside and painted them with an interpretation of a medieval (also, how awesome is the British pronunciation of medieval?) castle that might be used to decorate a second grade classroom. What the funk?

Anyway, the town of Stirling was quite lovely, and we enjoyed a quick meander around the cobblestone streets and old gothic buildings before and after our tour of the fake-interior castle. For a sense of the castle’s historical significance, consider this quote on display there: “Over the course of 50 years Stirling Castle changed hands eight times between the Scots and the English. Because of its strategic position above the River Forth, where Scotland narrows between the Forth and the Clyde estuaries, Stirling Castle has always been fought over. But never more than in the 1300s when, during the Wars of Independence, the Scots were fighting for their freedom. If you held the castle you held the crossing. If you held the river, you could hold the realm.”

Practical Info

Edinburgh is a stunning city, at its most dramatic in and around Old Town. August is jam packed with festivals, most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (billed as the largest arts festival in the world). If you like comedy, theater, cabaret and more, it is well worth going out of your way to attend. We found the festivals a little overwhelming at first. Note there are multiple contemporaneous festivals and their listings will appear in separate places. So e.g. the Pina Bausch dance we saw was part of the International Festival, while everything else was part of Festival Fringe. Fringe itself has an extraordinary number of shows, from early morning until the wee hours. I think I searched online for free comedy or cabaret for one single day and got 400+ results. There are street performers plus venues all over the city, with most of them in Old Town. Some of these venues are year-round brick and mortar, but might be regular theaters or pubs or instead might have five floors with rooms on each floor. Some are like pop-up areas created for the festival, perhaps with several little theaters and some F&B options. We found a book purporting to list four major companies/venues. These are Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Pleasance. The Cow Shed is a covered space with bands and bales of hay. The Three (aka Free) Sisters was a fun venue. I would suggest a mix of free and paid shows to sample greater variety of talent and production expense; and I do not mean to suggest the paid shows are always better! Note that at all “free” shows they will pass a bucket or wait at the door, and you are expected to pay something if you enjoyed the show. If you only want to visit one city in Scotland, and leaving festivals out of the picture, we would say choose Edinburgh for sheer beauty and history, and choose Glasgow for partying and a more cutting edge vibe.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Dufftown, with a long stop in Stirling on the way. We returned our car on arrival, figuring it would be more hassle than help. We departed on a train to London King’s Cross (~4.5 hours). It seemed you could buy tickets online at the National Rail site or the Virgin site, among others. We walked everywhere in Edinburgh. There is no underground, but there are buses and trams.

Accommodation: We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb apartment at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row. I think this is on the edge of the Stockbridge neighborhood. It is residential and attractive, with a cluster of cafes and shops nearby. Most of the top sights are in/closer to Old Town, thus you might prefer to stay over there. Some places I came across that are well-located include The Balmoral, Motel One, Radisson Blu and Hotel du Vin. We didn’t mind our location because we enjoy walking and got to see more of the city.

Food and Drinks: Breakfast at Roamin Nose was great; at Cuckoo’s Bakery it was OK. Lunch at Soba was pretty good. The lasagna at Giuliano’s was tasty. There are tons of options in the Old Town, and outside there are many clusters of restaurants/bars, including: Rose Street; Hanover Street; Thistle Street; Broughton Street; Commercial Quay and Shore in Leith. Some places I wanted to try include the dogs, The Vintage and The Shore (the latter two are both in Leith). Many Fringe venues have restaurants or food trucks.

Activities: We spent most of our time attending festival shows and walking around. There are plenty of museums, the Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile, Calton Hill, Holyrood Park, the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Royal Yacht Brittania, etc. On the way from Dufftown we spent a few hours in Stirling, a beautiful old town with cobblestone streets and home to Stirling Castle. While the castle’s location and historical significance are impressive, we found much of the inside rather bizarre in its cheap looking reconstruction. Tickets cost £14 each.

August 21-25, 2014 (Thursday-Monday)

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