Edinburgh: A literature lover’s paradise

“And yet [Edinburgh] establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson

If I had to choose a place where it rains more than half of the year to live in, it would be Edinburgh. The clouds there seem to be heavier, immune to the strong winds, forever set upon every turret and tower in the city.  Edinburgh’s Old Town just be one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places in the world. Great part of the city is built on mass graves and ancient graveyards, so it is no wonder that the city is still the centre of many urban legends and the “most haunted place in Europe”. However, it is also an astoundingly beautiful city, and it’s no surprise many writers have found inspiration while living there. I have been in Edinburgh two times now, during winter and Spring, and have visited some places that I’m sure any fellow book lover would love to hear about, so here we go:

The Elephant House

This is a big, comfortable café in which J.K. Rowling spent many hours writing and imagining the world of Harry Potter. There’s usually a queue to order and have a table, but if you’re a fellow potterhead, you just can’t miss it. Coffee and food are okay (the macchiato is really good), but it’s the vibe that is amazing. There are some locals there getting coffee or reading the table, but mostly there are HP fans looking around. The walls are covered in fan art (and elephants, hence the name) and the toilets are completely covered in quotes and messages from the fans. If you have some time to spare, it is a good idea to wait for a table, have coffee or breakfast and take a look around.


Greyfriars Kirk

This graveyard is both creepy and amazing. It is amazing because of all the centuries of history buried there and because its connection with Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling took some of the names for her characters from some graves here. You can actually see Thomas Riddell’s stone and the place from where Sirius Black’s one was stolen (presumably by a fan). To go during the day I recommend taking a free walking tour of the city offered by Kick Ass Hostels, that’s the one I took and it was amazing (and staying there is a good idea if you’re on a budget). There are many legends about the graveyard, my favourites include (and read at your own risk) grave-robbing and the Mackenzie poltergeist.

And if you’re a bit more daring, Greyfriars Kirk is also open for midnight tours. When I was there I took a tour with City of the Dead tours, which also included a night visit to the South Bridge Vaults. Needless to say, I was scared out of my wits. But hey, it’s fun if you don’t have a heart condition.


Bookshops

Edinburgh is swarming with bookshops. Whether they’re second-hand or not, most of them are really pretty and have a wide variety of titles. These are some of my favourites: The Edinburgh Bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare, Armchair Books, Transreal Fiction and Golden Hare Books.


Edinburgh Castle

The most famous landmark of the city. A 12th century castle built on top of an extinct volcano, Castle Rock.

The view you get from Castle Rock is pretty amazing too, so it’s worth the walk.


The Royal Mile, Victoria Street, the Grassmarket

These are the most picturesque and chic streets of Edinburgh. Rowling is said to have been inspired by the colorful and cramped houses and shops of Victoria Street to create Diagon Alley. Also, Princes Street has beautiful gardens and some of the finest architecture of the city, including Sir Walter Scott’s Monument.


Pubs, restaurants and cafés

Brew Lab Coffee and Edinburgh Larder are really cool for a morning cup. For pubs, I recommend The Last Drop and the Port O’Leith, both very traditional and picturesque. And to eat, The Witchery by the Castle for a fancy meal at this gothic hotel. and Tempting Tattie or The Haven for a cheaper, traditional meal. You can try Word of Mouth Cafe for breakfast too!

All in all, Edinburgh is an amazing city, a vibrant mix of the old and the new (see, for example, The Frankenstein, an old church converted into a nightclub). It is also city with a huge literary history and you can visit the birthplaces of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, or recognize some of the iconic places from Welsh’s Trainspotting.

What else would you recommend doing in the city?

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Bath

Great admiration for Jane Austen took me to Bath in the first place. After London, it was the first city I visited in England and my favourite until I went to Cambridge. The city keeps much of its original Roman architecture that  half shows like a partly unveiled coliseum surrounded by modern buildings, all enclosed in a Georgian aura, as if the city was the last vestige of a preindustrial England, before the coal mines, the vapour ships,  before the cinder-covered North and the foggy South that appeared in Dickens novels. Bath was founded there by the romans because of the thermal waters, and these gave origin to its actual name. Later on, during the Elizabethan epoch, Bath became once again a holiday centre and by the times in which Jane Austen lived, the last part of the 18th century and the beginnings of the 19th, people from all across the country fled to Bath because of the supposedly beneficial properties of the thermal baths.

The city was also a famous social centre and, even when it wasn’t London, it had numerous ballrooms and tea rooms, all kinds of shops and a warmer weather than the capital. For me, Bath is mercilessly humid, hot during the summer, windy and rainy the rest of the year, but undoubtedly charming. Despite what one might think and in spite of the many events in Bath related to Jane Austen (see the bottom), the portrait of the Southern city portrayed by the author in her novels seems to point out that she didn’t fancy it very much.

Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and the city is the main setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, although it is also mentioned constantly throughout all her work. Being from Hertfordshire, the Austen family moved to Bath for health issues, giving the young writer the chance to depict the chic sceneries and the eclectic way of life of the city in her work.

In the Austenian imaginary, Bath was a beacon to well-off young ladies that wanted to socialize (and to young men in possession of fortunes of course, who were in want of a wife), some kind of small-scale London in which life went by between thermal baths, tea rooms, dinners and balls. It is in Bath were Anne, form Persuasion, and Catherine, from Northanger Abbey, meet their future husbands, but it is also living in Bath that leads the young heroines to make poor choices: Anne, persuaded to try and find a better match, rejects Captain Wentworth’s affection even when she loves him, and Catherine gets carried away by her new socialité friend, Isabella, which almost costs her her happiness.

Bath is portrayed in both novels, with the subtlest irony, as the embodiment of the superficiality that surrounded the well-off families of regency England, the superficiality that Austen criticizes in all her novels. The ballrooms with their music, canapes and drinks; huge chandeliers and candle-lit, hazy atmospheres; crowded streets filled with people rushing to buy ribbons and dresses; the frequent arrival of single soldiers— all of this seemed to plunge Austen’s heroines into a moral stupor from which they recovered just in time. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine arrives in Bath to stay with some better-off friends of her family and immediately becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, a young lady who shows her the ways of the city and who also happens to incarnate all social vices.

Northanger Abbey is a critique of many things —including mansplaining— and  a fervent defense of the novel as a worthy literary genre, and as such it couldn’t have a better setting than Bath. The superficiality and mannerism considered fashionable by urban societies are a complete mystery to Catherine, who is more of a tomboy and a country girl, and her inicial enchantment transforms into disappointment. Catherine is also a somewhat quixotic figure, suffering from latent bovarism, who is obsessed with gothic novels— deemed as low literature and read mainly by women— and who begins believing she lives in a novel by Anne Radcliffe.

Austen’s intertextual game is clever, being her work a parody of the popular gothic novel in which, as in all of her novels, it is easier to detect irony by the psychology of the character than by looking for the author’s own voice. There are no negative words about Bath (that is, in the novels, but we could find some in Austen’s personal correspondence), but all the praise for the city is spoken by the most naive and superficial characters. What made Bath such an unattractive place for a woman who dedicated her work to the criticism of imperialism and the political position of women? Perhaps Bath was the equivalent of the actual touristic complexes that pollute natural reserves and whose luxuries are really paid off via exploitation. And nevertheless, it seems like Bath never experienced the decadence of such places. It would seem that the industrial age never set foot in the city and, if it were not for the expensive cars parked on every driveway, Bath could seem stuck in the regency, an almost aristocratic town still filled with tea rooms, galleries and expensive restaurants; a brick fortress traversed by the Avon river, where one feels it would be perfectly likely to see Austen herself round the corner, coming out of a ribbon shop, or peering out of a window, behind a pile of paper and ink. Bath is, I think, the perfect city to write a novel.

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What I mean when I say the time seems not to have passed here.
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Roman buildings.
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Living my best life: drinking matcha and writing in Bath.
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The city centre. Bath Abbey.
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February. Freezing and rainy yet pretty.

Jane Austen’s family live in 4 Sydney Place, although the Jane Austen Centre is now in Gay Street. There is also the Regency Tea Room, where you can have lunch or a cuppa in true Austenian style. You can check opening times and the address here.

In Bath you can also visit the Assembly Rooms, the beautiful ballrooms where Austen probably danced (Catherine and Isabella certainly did) See that here, and feel like a true Georgian heroine. Also, the Pump Rooms, where the Northanger Abbey ladies reunited for tea during the day and which belong to the Roman Baths, are a fancy place for lunch, check that out here.

Bath is also where the Jane Austen Festivaltakes place every September, when there’s also a Regency Ball and Supper in the Assembly Rooms.

Have you been to Bath?

Did you like it? Which places do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!