Scotland’s Capital City is Festival Capital of World.
By David Leiberman
To appreciate just how big the Edinburgh Festival is, consider that one of the seven festivals that go on virtually simultaneously during most of August, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is so large that the “program” of events is actually a 200-plus page catalog the size of Vogue Magazine.
Granted, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest of the festivals, but the stunning array of themes, styles and subjects represented by the independently-organized events that all go on during most of the summer make Edinburgh, Scotland, most properly the “Festival Capital” of the world.
The Edinburgh Festival is a generic term used to describe the cultural explosion that takes place in August each year. Since the late 1940s Edinburgh has become a hotspot for artistic talent beginning with the International Festival and the Fringe. The summer program has grown with the Edinburgh Book Festival, the largest book festival in the world, the Edinburgh Film Festival, a world renowned showcase of cinematic talent and the Military Tattoo in the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. The Jazz Festival starting in late July and the Edinburgh Mela in the last days of August bookend a phenomenal six weeks of arts and culture in the city.
In addition, Hogmanay is the world’s most famous celebration of New Year, the Edinburgh Science Festival is a springtime journey of discovery in its own right and the Children’s Festival starts the summer with playful exuberance.
Among these amazing festivals, The Edinburgh Fringe is unique, breaking its own record every year as the largest arts festival on the planet (it is even listed as such in the Guinness Book of Records). Each year, it brings thousands of performances of hundreds of shows in nearly 200 venues across Scotland’s capital city, plus scores of street performers who add to the festive atmosphere. More than 1.2 million tickets were sold at last year’s event. Last summer, we were counted among that number.
To appreciate how incredible The Fringe is as a cultural event, consider that we saw Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” performed in a hotel room for an audience of 50 people. We also saw David Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” and a production of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
A kind of Fringe Festival within Fringe are the “C Venues”-12 performance spaces at five locations presenting brand new plays from all over the world; innovative, international physical theater; revivals of ancient ad modern classics; dance crated by young choreographers; Comedy; new musicals and revivals; bands. (One of the shows we saw was Cambridge University ADC’s “An Evening with Joe-Stalin the Musical” (the program quoted the tyrant, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”); another was “A Chorus Line.” The C venues even have their own website, www.CtheFestival.com, and an offer to see five shows and get the sixth free.
To give you an idea of just how massive and extraordinary the Fringe Festival is, during our visit, there were some 15,000 performers in 1,695 shows from 735 companies, giving a combined total of 25,000 performances spread over 236 venues.
Theater events come from places as far-flung as Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kosovo, Monenegro and Bahrain; comedy comes from Sweden, Japan, Denmark and Bahrain, plus the usual flood of performers from the USA and Australia.
We were able to experience The Fringe’s tradition of odd venues: such as the DJ Minicab, a theatre in the back of a truck and one in a Maserati, plus “Curry Tales” performed in an Indian restaurant. The longest show on the Fringe during our visit lasted a full 24 hours. And there were four different “Hamlets” being performed.
One of the prettiest venues is the Royal Botanic Gardens. Founded in the 17th century as a ‘Psychic garden’ for growing medicinal plants, the Gardens are a popular destination all year round for both tourists and city residents alike, attracting over 660,000 visitors per year to see the second richest collection of plant species in the world.
The Fringe performance ticket prices are about $10 to $15, but there are discounts for students, seniors, unemployed persons, box office specials, on-line ticket offers; you can purchase tickets in advance online, or queue up hoping to get one, but many sell out.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe takes place in August. For information, visit the website, www.edfringe.com, contact firstname.lastname@example.org; you can purchase tickets at www.edfringe.com/shows/.
A completely different experience awaits at The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Scotland’s stunning annual outdoor military spectacular, and truly a highlight of this stellar series of events. Set against the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, it features Pipes & Drums, Massed Military Bands, display teams, dancers and acts from around the world. You can now book tickets for the spectacular 2004 Edinburgh Military Tattoo, taking place Aug. 6-28 (which sells out quickly and is one of the hardest tickets to get). Over 600 musicians will feature amongst the 1,000-strong line-up for the 2004 show (one of the biggest casts ever assembled for the Tattoo), which also marks a decade of the event being helmed by Tattoo Chief Executive & Producer, Brigadier Melville Jameson.
Using the latest sound and lighting techniques, the event typically features the Royal Air Force and its Massed Bands and renowned silent drill display team, The Queen’s Colour Squadron.
“It is with immense pride,” remarked Brigadier Jameson, “that each year the Tattoo is able to present the finest Massed Pipes & Drums that anyone will witness anywhere in the world.”
Tickets can be obtained from the Tattoo Ticket Sales Office, 32-34 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1QB, by facsimile on 0131 225 8627, by phone 08707 555 1188, and online at www.edintattoo.co.uk.
Each year the Edinburgh International Festival stages one of the greatest celebrations of the arts, attracting audiences from around the world to the city’s thrilling atmosphere. The festivities offer a unique opportunity to experience the excitement of live performance by internationally renowned artists as well as the joy of discovering new and unfamiliar works. Some of the events are free for those 26 years and under, during the Gateway Weekend. For information, visit http://www.eif.co.uk; email email@example.com.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival may well be the world’s largest celebration of the written word. It offers a wide and varied program for adults and children, including discussions, readings, lectures, debates and workshops. This event offers free entry to one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful spaces, the Charlotte Square Gardens (http://www.edbookfest.co.uk).
The Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival is the longest running jazz festival in the UK. Concert halls, theatres, clubs, pubs, open air events, featuring all styles of jazz from international artistes, which draws some 50,000 attendees (www.jazzmusic.co.uk).
The Edinburgh Film Festival offers an amazing range of movie premiers. For information, http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For on-line info about all Edinburgh’s festivals visit: www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk and for a list of events and dates, go to http://www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk/festivals.cfm.
With all the excitement underway in Edinburgh, you can find respite in a gigantic greenspace right in the middle of town (by the museums and near the train station), very serene, quite, picturesque and peaceful. We found people lounging, taking a break from the festival happenings.
We really occupied our time in Edinburgh enjoying the festival, but there is much to enjoy in the city and on daytrips outside: We were able to take in Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions, located next to the Edinburgh Castle, which delights visitors, as it has for 150 years, with a camera obscura show, live moving panorama of the city, a magic gallery of illusions, holograms (www.camera-obscura.co.uk).
Of course a highlight of Edinburgh is the Edinburgh Castle (open daily), the home of the Scottish Crown Jewels. Visitors also can see the restored Laich Hall, the giant medieval siege gun, the room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James the VI. Also, you can climb the 298 steps to the top of the Scott Monument, or the 143 steps of the Nelson Monument for a stunning view of Edinburgh.
Take a tour to uncover The Real Mary Kings Close. Beneath the City Chambers on the Royal Mile lies Edinburgh’s deepest secret-a warren of hidden streets where real people lived, worked and died through the centuries.
Opened in Spring 2003, this new attraction allows visitors to walk through the underground closes and witness 17th century life in plague-ridden Edinburgh and discover some of the dramatic episodes and apparitions of the past. Many of the closes and spaces had remained hidden for centuries, but The Real Mary Kings Close presents a historically accurate interpretation of what life in the narrow alleyways was like. Costumed characters such as Foul Clinger and the daughter of Mary King, bring history to life, and visitors can step into the home of a plague-ridden gravedigger’s family, a grand 18th century townhouse and an urban cowshed (www.realmarykingsclose.com).
Where to Stay
Getting accommodations in Edinburgh during the festival can be the hardest part. The Edinburgh tourist board has a huge accommodation database of hotels that have been fully inspected by the Scottish Tourist Board. You can search through this list via their website: www.edinburgh.org, or by calling them on +44 (0)0845 22 55 121.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Glendale Guest House, one of the bed-and-breakfasts in Edinburgh. It was truly a home away from home–just the perfect place that really hit the spot after weeks of backpacking and living fairly rustically in hostels or sleeping on trains.
The Glendale Guest House is situated in the conservation area of Craigmillar Park, just about two miles from the Edinburgh Castle and Princes Street at city center and is an ideal base. Elaine and her husband have completely renovated the majestic, stone mansion-looking home and it is a most charming and elegant place with wood carvings, a lovely backyard with gardens. The bedrooms at Glendale Guest House, mostly en-suite, are all named after Scottish lochs and are furnished with comfort in mind; all have central heating, remote controlled television, direct dial telephones (Internet access is available), hair driers, tea and coffee making facilities, Scottish mineral water and shortbread.
Elaine served a grand Scottish breakfast each morning, freshly made sunny side-up eggs and ham. The couple were so helpful and delightful to chat with as we would be going out to the festival events or to explore the city. The Glendale Guest House is located on the south side of Edinburgh, close to a bus which provided easy access to the city center and the festival activities (Glendale Guest House, 5 Lady Road, Edinburgh EH16 5PA Tel/Fax: +44 (0)131 667 6588, e-mail: email@example.com,
A selection of bed and breakfast and hotel accommodations in Edinburgh and the rest of United Kingdom, with no booking fees can be found at www.bedandbreakfasts-uk.co.uk. For hostels, you can consult Euro Hostels, tel. 0845 4900 461, www.euro-hostels.co.uk
Other sources: Tour Britain (Edinburgh): www.tour-britain.com; Dickin’s Festival & Short Lets, www.dickins.co.uk; Factotum: www.factotum.co.uk; Festival Beds: tel 0131 225 1101; Festival Flats, tel 01620 810620; The Festival Partnership: www.edinburghfestival.net; Mackay’s Agency: www.mackays-scotland.co.uk.
You might consider University accommodation: Carberry Conference Centre: tel 0131 665 3135; Edinburgh First Accommodation: tel 0131 651 2184; Napier University: tel 0131 455 3738; and Queen Margaret College: tel 0131 317 3310.
Arriving in Style: The Caledonian
We came into Edinburgh in style-traveling on the overnight sleeper train from London, the Caledonian (actually, you can get to Edinburgh from London in four hours on the regular daytime rail and at a fraction of the cost, but we wanted to experience The Caledonian and it was more fun less expensive than getting a hotel for the night).
Each Sleeper coach has 12 single or 12 twin berth cabins, with washing facilities. A welcome pack with toiletries and other items is provided. In the morning, we had complimentary tea and coffee and snack served in the cabin. During the trip, you can get snacks in the Lounge car or even order room service.
The Caledonian departs from London’s Euston station (first class customers can take advantage of the Virgin Trains Lounge; Standard Class customers use The Network Rail Passenger Lounge), and comes into Edinburgh Waverly station about eight hours later.
You can get schedules and information about The Caledonian, ScotRail and all the Britail services at www.britrail.net. Though sleepers like The Caledonian are not included in the multi-day rail passes, there are many money-saving travel passes to take advantage of, including the BritRail pass (which allows unlimited travel in England, Scotland and Wales on any British rail scheduled train over the whole of the rail network during the validity of the Pass without restrictions, including Heathrow Express, Gatwick Express and Stansted Express). (RailEurope now offers a discounted version of the BritRail England Consecutive Pass for those 26 years of age or younger, 877-257-2887, or Rail Europe).
For further information about visiting Edinburgh, contact the Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board, http://www.edinburgh.org/. Also, check out the online travel guide and directory: Edinburgh Information Online, www.britinfo.net. For further information about visiting Scotland, contact the Scottish National Tourist Board, http://www.visitscotland.com/
David Leiberman was a college sophomore when he and two pals backpacked around Europe and attended the Edinburgh Festival.
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