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Short Breaks from Dundee

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Ever needed to just get away, but you can't go for too long? Please tell us about your short breaks away (e.g. day trips, road trips or weekend breaks), whether it be for ultimate relaxation, or to be active and practice hobbies you may have (fishing,

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      24.01.2003 18:18
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      Far below Edinburgh Castle, down in the deep, dark canyons of the 'Auld Toon', lies THE GRASSMARKET. Now, I have no doubt that it's possible to buy some pretty good Northern Lights around here, I but the grass referred to has more to do with feeding livestock than getting off your face. Still, had you going there for a bit, eh?

      The Grassmarket was the site of an open air market for at least 500 years, right up until 1911. In recent years, this tradition has been restored, with a fair taking place on the first three Saturdays in August around the time of the Edinburgh Festival.

      Even today, The Grassmarket has the unmistakable appearance of a medieval market-place (well, it would if you demolished a couple of the more modern buildings, did away with cars, removed electric lighting and...you get the picture). Tall, crow-stepped tenements rise up on all four sides, enclosing a large open area which is shaded by poplar trees, and all of it overshadowed by the dark, brooding castle towering solemnly above.

      It's not so much a square, as a long and broad cobbled area which is accessed by five streets at the four corners, as well as various wynds and steps which are only suitable for pedestrians - and fit ones at that, due to the steep surroundings.One of these stepped wynds is called The Vennel, and a quick investigation will reveal a stretch of one of the old town walls (several were built as the city expanded), the Flodden Wall (1513)

      These streets are:

      WEST PORT was at one time The Portsburgh Port, the western gate to the city. It was through here that Robert the Bruce victoriously entered Edinburgh after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
      Also at the western end, is KING'S STABLES ROAD, leading to Princes St via Lothian Road - with a royal castle above it, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to work out where this name came from.

      At the eastern end, is the WEST BOW, now called VICTORIA ST. (although locals still refer to it by its older name). This used to be a ridiculously steep, S-shaped street which snaked it's way labouriously up to the High Street, but was altered and improved in the 19th century, although it's still fairly inclined.
      At the bottom of West Bow lies Bowfoot Well - the first outlet for piped water in Edinburgh which dates from 1674. Nearby, there's a low walled area with a tiny garden and a plaque which, together with the stone markers in the centre of the roadway, commemorates the place of execution of around 100 Covenanters who were put to death in the 1680's because, among other things, they would not recognise the Bishops appointed by Charles II

      This corner was also the scene of many a common criminal's public hanging, and the site of that gallows is also marked by a plaque. A couple of the many pubs adjacent still recall the grisly history of this corner - The Last Drop is only a few steps from the site of the execution - a pub name with just a touch of 'gallows humour' about it. Next door is Maggie Dickson’s - named after one of the victims of the gallows who, when thrown on the burial cart after her 'execution', could be heard moaning. After some resuscitation, she survived and lived out the rest of her life down in Portobello where she was known as 'Half-hangit Maggie' !

      VICTORIA ST/WEST BOW is one of the most photogenic streets in the Old Town, and features on many postcards and images of the city. It's lined with shops, pubs and restaurants but the most interesting thing about this street is the architecture. Many of the buildings have the dark, blackened look that comes from centuries of soot-laden grime which is endemic to Scottish cities, others have been sand-blasted back to the original rich golden colour of Fife sandstone. Some, particularly on the lower reaches of the street, have been painted in electric blue, vivid scarlet, pink, green and...in fact, all the colours of the rainbow - and then some. What makes this even more striking, is the fact that these 4-6 storeys of colourful, 16&17th century buildings, only make up the lower level. There's a terrace above them, and another 4-6 storeys of more austere,Victorian buildings.

      Also at the eastern end, is the junction with COWGATE and CANDLEMAKER'S ROW. The Cowgate tunnels its way below most of the Auld Toon, running parallel to the Royal Mile, before linking up with Holyrood road and the Palace. Daylight never seems to touch this narrow street, and it can be rather gloomy and oppressive.With roads crossing high above, it has the feel of a subterrainean passageway.
      Candlemaker's Row rises up towards Greyfriar's Kirkyard and on towards the university.

      The GRASSMARKET has always been a less than salubrious area, but a couple of the more infamous inhabitants were Burke and Hare. During 1827 and 1828 they suffocated around twenty or so men and women in their lodgings in Tanner's Close, in the West Port. This was their way of speeding along the natural processes when people weren't dying fast enough and providing bodies for the university's lecturing anatomists, who didn't ask too many questions.
      Burke was hanged at the Lawnmarket and ironically, his body was dissected at the self-same university; Hare escaped the rope, after turning King's evidence. Today, a pub at the top of the West Port is named for these two 'characters', although if seedy lap-dancing bars aren't your idea of entertainment, it's probably best avoided.

      Speaking of pubs, while not the den of iniquity of earlier years, this area is packed with drinking establishments of all kinds and while it's very safe and almost sedate during daylight hours, it can become somewhat noisy and lively come the night. There are far too many pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes to list here, but suffice to say that pretty much all tastes are catered for.

      These days, The Grassmarket is taken over by pavement cafe-style culture where it's sometimes easier to get a double latte than a pint of heavy. Changed days indeed. I still remember the days when the area was home to a number of places like the Castle Trades Hotel, a grotty doss-house. In those days the air was rank with the 'heady' mix of urine, meths and bel-air. a carelessly tossed match and the whole shebang would have went bang. Happily, it's not like that anymore and instead of being mugged for cash by some half-jaked dosser, you're more likely to be relieved of your cash for some half-filled mug of coffee.

      As for shopping, a trip to Victoria Street, the West Bow, Candlemaker Row, Grassmarket and the West Port is definitely worth the effort of trudging those steep, cobbled streets. This characterful and colourful area sometimes goes unnoticed by those who stick rigidly to the touristy Royal Mile, or the High St names and department stores of Princes St. But that's their loss. This collection of historic streets radiating from the Grassmarket are home to some of the best quirky, and eclectic shopping anywhere in the city. And apart from during the height of the tourist season, where everywhere in Edinburgh is jam-packed, it can be relatively free from crowds .

      There's everything here. From luxurious leather luggage to silversmiths and goldsmiths specialising in Scottish precious metals. The West port specialises in antiquarian books, while Candlemaker's Row is home to a clutch of retro clothes shops selling everything from Jester's costumes to Shaft-like, funky 70's gear - just the place for those Afghan coats, winklepickers or Loon pants. There are designer fashion and knitwear shops; kite, boomerang, yo-yo and circus shops; shops selling fossils, stained glass, Nepalese nik-naks, Peruvian pullovers and Ecuadorian earthenware. Gift shops, joke shops, cheese shops, delicatessens, food take-aways and corner-shop grocers.
      Byzantium is located in an old church building on Victoria St. It's a collective of stalls with antiques, clothes, books, rugs, prints, and a coffee shop in the gallery. Also on Victoria St is Robert Cresser's brush shop, selling brushes of every conceivable shape, size and purpose - an Edinburgh institution.

      There are far too many shops to list here, but fortunately, some kind person has listed them here:

      In conclusion, this is a fascinating area of Edinburgh's Auld Toon. Steeped in history and almost buried in stunning architecture, these days it's shaken off it's dowdy, slum-infested past somewhat and has a quite Bohemian feel. There are endless shopping and dining opportunities,and more atmospheric pubs than you could spill a pint over. if there's a downside, it's that it's probably a little on the boisterous side at night, but having said that, it's still a lot safer that most inner cities.
      So, next time you're in Embra, escape the blandness of Princes Street's malls and High St stores, and the twee, tartan tourism of the commercialised Royal Mile, "an' tak a daunder doon the Gressmairkit". Go for a laugh - come back in stitches!



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