The British Empire isn’t what it used to be, but Great Britain is feeling pretty, well, great about itself in 2012.
The Summer Olympics are about to begin in London, the Queen just celebrated her Diamond Jubilee on the throne, and the Isles are celebrating the 50th anniversary of a bar band from Liverpool recording its first album.
Last month I spent a week in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh, Scotland, just goofing around, seeing the sights and eating fish ’n’ chips more times than I should have. You know why their fish ’n’ chips taste so incredible, right? They fry them in beef fat. A vacation means a vacation from healthy eating, too.
Roger Miller had a hit in 1965 called “England Swings”:
“Now, if you huff and puff and you finally save enough,
“Money up to take your family on a trip across the sea,
“Take a tip before you take your trip; let me tell you where to go,
Go to England.”
The song is still right.
I did all the London tourist spots: the Tower of London, the British Museum, Kensington Palace and the EDF Energy London Eye. (They sell naming rights in England, too.) The London Eye is a huge Ferris wheel on the banks of the River Thames. It’s become to London what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris – a place that offers a great view of the city, a cool meeting-up point, and an inspiring bit of architecture. It’s the most popular paid attraction in London, with about 3.5 million visitors each year.
I also experienced the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. It starts at 11 a.m. and lasts about an hour. It’s very pompy and draws a huge crowd. I got there an hour early and had to jump over tourists from somewhere – from their accents I’d guess Poland – to get photos. If you got up early for the royal wedding on TV and enjoy watching soldiers in tall furry hats stomping their feet, the Changing of the Guard is an experience. That’s some “palace” the Queen has, by the way.
Abbey Road, in St. John’s Wood in northwest London, is a major tourist attraction without trying to be one. It’s still a working recording studio. It seems every major act wants to make an album there at some point in its career. In addition to the Beatles, the roster includes: Pink Floyd, Green Day, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Placido Domingo, Taylor Swift, Jimmy Buffett, Miley Cyrus and hundreds more.
Every day, a stream of visitors comes to Abbey Road just to stand outside the iron gates and look at the front door, maybe to catch a famous band arriving or copping a smoke during a break. This is where the Beatles recorded “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This is hallowed ground of rock ’n’ roll. Tourists pose for pictures on the famous crosswalk, just like the Beatles on the cover of the “Abbey Road” album. C’mon move it, people, you’re holding up traffic. Abbey Road is a functioning street, with busy traffic. Click on abbeyroad.com. There’s a 24-hour camera and microphone trained on the crosswalk. Watch goofy tourists decide who’s going to be John, who’s Paul, George and Ringo, and then walk across the street. If you listen closely, you’ll hear mostly U.S. accents. We love our Beatles.
Tourists aren’t exactly encouraged, but it’s OK to scribble on the concrete wall at Abbey Road. Look all the way on the right, on the last pillar, for my name.
My train from Liverpool pulled into Waverley Station in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and one of the prettiest cities in the world. I grabbed my luggage, jumped off the train and checked my travel guide. It said, “Take a taxi to your hotel on the Royal Mile.”
But I am a cheap traveler. I walk when I can. I’d rather blow my budget on food and fun, plus you see more when you walk.
The Royal Mile is the main tourist street in Edinburgh, and its actual name is High Street. It really is about a mile, from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Abbey. The pedestrian-only street is lined with shops, bars, restaurants, street performers and magnificent churches and office buildings. You can spend a terrific afternoon just walking from one end to the other, back and forth, ducking into pubs and buying souvenirs and watching magicians. I saw an escape artist dazzle the crowd for tips. The Royal Mile is like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, without drunk strangers telling me I’m the greatest guy they’ve ever met, and me fearing what comes next.
Outside the train station, I was told the Royal Mile was “across the street, you’ll see an entrance by an arch, it’s just right up those steps.”
Twenty minutes later, I was resting – halfway up those stairs – dragging my bag bumpity-bumpity up stairs that were so steep it felt like I was walking up a wall. They don’t call it High Street for nothing.
If you’re visiting Edinburgh and you’re coming in by train and you’re staying on the Royal Mile, take a cab. Listen to the travel guide. It was written by someone who knows that High Street is high up.
Here’s how steep those steps to the Royal Mile are. The steps are lined with small shops. About three-quarters of the way up, I stopped at a barber shop and got a haircut – just so I could I could sit in a chair and rest. I asked the barber for a good lunch spot. He told me about Oink, in the Grassmarket neighborhood, a short walk from Edinburgh Castle. This time it’s a short walk, no fooling.
Just as High Street isn’t kidding about being high, Oink’s name tells you everything you need to know. The tiny shop sells pork sandwiches. End of story.
There is a large slow-roasted pig lying in the window. Or what’s left of the pig after the long line of customers gets through consuming it, sandwich by sandwich.
It’s a little off-putting to see, yet customers take photos of their sandwich being made so friends back home can see this poor pig get whacked by the inch. When a customer orders a sandwich, either a Piglet (small for $4), an Oink (medium, $5.50) or Grunter ($7), the friendly sandwich artist takes a cleaver and slices meat all day long. Oink will go through six whole hogs on a good day, each weighing about 150 pounds. You can crunch the numbers. Oink is doing OK.
Before Oink closes shop each night, they put a few pigs in the oven. Porky and Petunia cook all night. By morning, the pigs are tender and mild, nothing like a smoky, U.S. Southern-style pulled pork sandwich dripping with barbecue sauce.
Each Oink sandwich has a small bit of the pig’s crackling, crunchy skin on top, like the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Applesauce is the smart condiment, haggis the sucker’s play.
I stayed two days in Edinburg. I went back to Oink the second day, too.
A Scottish accent is called a burr. I’ll use it in a sentence.
Brrr, it’s chilly in Scotland.
I was there in mid-May, and the high temperature barely hit 50 degrees.
Buying a cashmere or woolen scarf in Edinburgh is like buying a T-shirt in Orlando, Fla. There’s a shop selling locally made wool products only, oh, every 50 feet on the Royal Mile.
In fact, there’s a small battle being waged between owners of upscale restaurants and clothing stores on the Royal Mile and the ever-increasing number of “Tartan Tats,” shops selling inexpensive sweatshirts, T-shirts and Loch Ness Monster toys (see Orlando).
Edinburgh Castle, at the top of the Royal Mile, is the symbol of Edinburgh. Built in the 12th century, it’s the oldest structure in Scotland’s capital and its image is everywhere – on postage stamps, on the back of money, in the logos for soccer teams and newspapers.
Originally built as a military fortress and home to the Royals, Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s No. 1 tourist attraction, with 1.3 million paying visitors (about $26 for adults, $16 for kids) each year.
The castle is a beautiful structure and Edinburgh takes care of it and keeps it vibrant.
The Ministry of Defense still uses the castle for its headquarters. Museums inside the castle invite tourists to learn the history of Edinburgh. And they don’t mind if you buy a T-shirt in the gift shop.