Posts Tagged ‘edinburgh’

Notes on 7 European Churches: 4 to See, 3 to Skip

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Going to Europe for the first time? The twelfth? You will see cathedrals, you will. And basilicas. And abbeys. And chapels. Despite what the guidebooks say, they aren’t all awesome, and they aren’t all worth seeing. Here are some that are worth seeking out. And some that… aren’t quite.

4 to See

The Weirdly Articulate Marble Feet of Dead King Francois I

Basilica Saint-Denis, Paris
Most visitors spend their churchgoing time in Paris winding around the nave of Notre Dame in a slow-moving river of tourists that runs about 10-deep on weekends, or annoying the priests at grim, cobwebby Saint-Sulpice with questions about The Da Vinci Code. Your first visit to Paris? By all means, go to these places. Your second? Take metro 13 to just beyond the peripherique and visit the incredible, and sorely overlooked, Basilica Saint-Denis. Flying buttresses? Check. Classic Gothic architecture? Check. Splashy stained glass? Check. You’ll see beautiful examples of all three, but the most important things you’ll see at Saint-Denis are the tombs. The entire French royal line was buried here from the 10th to the 18th centuries, and they’re entombed in everything from incredible marble sarcophagi (Francois I, Catherine de’ Medici and Louis XIV are given particularly grand treatment) to tiny gold boxes (what they could find of Marie Antoinette after the dust settled). Go on a weekday when the sun is out and enjoy this serene (and serenely uncrowded) place.

Muskrat Love

Thistle Chapel at the High Kirk of Saint Giles, Edinburgh
The church—located in the heart of Edinburgh’s famous (and famously touristy) Royal Mile—is just fine. It’s what’s in the back that really matters. It’s easy to miss, but don’t leave before you see the amazing Thistle Chapel, where Scotland’s Order of the Thistle convenes. Every inch of this shoebox-sized room is covered in ornate carvings, all of them symbolizing the members of the Order—Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry. Animals, ancient crests, and angels abound. Even the ceiling ribs are lined with thistles in full blossom. It’ll take you a minute, but don’t forget to look for the tiny carving of the angel playing the bagpipes—one of the only portrayals in Edinburgh.

From Those Who Were Shipwrecked

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
Here’s an easy way to find this wonderful church when you get to sunny, seaside Marseille: Look up. It is the most distinctive feature of this teeming city, crowning the hill just above the old city. The gold statue of the Notre Dame on the spire glimmers at midday and is visible almost everywhere. Take the bus to the top of the hill and visit this incredible place. A relatively small church, its insides are covered with glittering gold mosaics, and more, with the gifts and dedications of townspeople whose families have lived and died by the ocean. Model ships hang from strings on the ceiling. Tiny oil paintings portray men carried miraculously from shipwrecks. Prayers from seafarer’s wives and mothers are inscribed on plaques. Outside on the terraces, the view across the city, and the very blue Mediterranean, is incredible. From there, see if you can tell the difference between the real Le Corbusier, the architect’s iconic apartment building in the new city, and it’s many nearby imitators, or just watch the cruise ships lumbering by.

The Cathedral of Our Lady

Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
There is something about this cathedral. It’s stuffed with famous Rubins paintings, yes. And the bells in its tower make a noise that glistens and shimmers like a fairy tale. But something beyond that makes this church so wonderful—a lovely combination of restrained and ornate. On the inside, its walls are painted white, and the light streams through on even the grayest days (like the one on which I visited, in March). On the outside, its single dark spire towers over the city, every inch covered in Gothic flourish. Have a hot chocolate at one of the cafes and admire the view outside, explore what’s behind the doors.

3 to Skip


Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
Yeah, it’s big. And it’s famous. And you have to see it, right? Right? Well, no. Not if you have little patience for clamoring, camera-wielding tourists, who jam themselves into every corner of the Pope’s church and then conspire, I swear, to all shout at the same time in 15 different languages. Add that to the staff’s charming tendency to let three times as many people up to the top of the dome as should safely and sanely be there, and the basilica’s oppressive ugliness (It’s pink. And gold. Lots of gold.) and you have yourself a recipe for a frustrating, exhausting day in Rome. And oh yeah, you have to wait in line for three hours during high season to even get in the door. Take pictures from the square and ask a security guard where you can get good pasta and call it a day. Or a lifetime.


Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Really? This is the best Dublin can do when it comes to its most famous cathedral? Chilly and dark, this big stone church contains statues of dead people you’ve probably never heard of and some flags. For a better bet, grab a book and people watch on the lovely strip of green right outside the church. (Note: I took exactly zero photos in and around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The snapshot above is from the graveyard at the way-more-interesting Saint Audoen’s church.)

Duomo at Sunset

The Duomo, Florence
If you see it for the first time at sunset, like I did, your heart will probably fall out of your chest at the sight of its unfathomable beauty and elegance. Its perfect (and perfectly constructed) dome is Florence’s signature; its colored marble seems too intricate and harmonious to be real. And then you walk inside and it’s just a big empty room with some candles in it. Really. Save your money and your time and don’t even bother going inside the Duomo. There is some art, yes. A venerable painting or two. But it’s not worth braving the crowds and the real wonder—the thing worth seeing—can be had for free just by looking around you.

Volcano Underfoot

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

That's Me

I walked up and down the summit of a dead volcano today in the wrong shoes.

This volcano is so dead that it’s overgrown with a slippery layer of grass from top to bottom as though the whole thing is wearing a handsome green sweater. I choose to walk up to the summit from the West side, which is steeper and craggier than the rolling East side but the views out to sea and up to the peak are better.

I was about halfway up and I turned to look out at the water, the snarl of buildings below—two castles, tiny cathedrals, more dead volcanoes in the distance like giants toppled off their feet. At one point it was me and the ravens and the breeze and the nodding yellow flowers on prickly bushes.

There are the remnants of two Iron Age forts atop the volcano and another, later fortification. The summit is called Arthur’s Seat.

At one point in my life, I devoured every piece of King Arthur literature I could find, from classic poems to cheesy rehashes. I have seen all the Discovery Channel specials in which they debate whether he was real. (He wasn’t, but oh how my heart hangs on every speck of encouraging evidence.) I can recite Tennyson. I sat through that Richard Gere movie.

If you to go London, you can see where Mrs. Dalloway walked and check the solidness of the wall at King’s Cross Station. If you go to Italy, you can see the stones that Ulysses hurled at the cyclops . And if you go to New York, you can take the Sex and the City Walking tour. So why, then, shouldn’t I be allowed my little fictional history on a rare sunny day in spring in Scotland?

It was freezing at the top. I spun in a circle, careful not to fall, on the highest spot in Edinburgh. And you can look at these same pictures online, I guess. And you can see the curves of that volcano, the ripples of its green rivers, on Google maps. And you can read all the poems you like. But for me, it was important to breathe that air. As opposed to this air. To nearly fall four times on slippery shoes, to feel my muscles ache, out of practice. To check and see if everything they wrote—about the hill, the lake with the sword, the ruins of castles—was true. It was.

In Edinburgh, Me and the Pig

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Pork Sandwich

We are all supposed to know where our food comes from, aren’t we. We’re supposed to have a healthy appreciation for the labor of unseen farmers and the science of hybridization and the ticking mechanisms of megaproduction and the living, breathing creatures we kill every year by the millions and millions.

I imagine Jaime Oliver saying this to me with his arms crossed, wearing something stupid like an acid-washed jean jacket and Raybans. Talking in that charmingly lispy way, like he has six too many teeth in his mouth or maybe four not enough. In this culiary fantasy land, Mark Bittman is there too, scowling and shaking his head in frenetic agreement a few feet away. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t need to.

And I can imagine what they would have said, rolling their eyes, counting the swift and significant—if hardly detectable, at first—stretching of my poor, bloated carbon footprint while I bit into an enormous roast pork sandwich yesterday in a shop on a curving Edinburgh street once known for being its belly of sin, its street of prostitutes and drunks and petty crime.

Count me in good company, then, because the sandwich was good. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, like the mind-blowing pork sandwich—I have no idea where they hide all of its flavor; it’s literally pork on a piece of bread and nothing else—at Porchetta in New York City. I had to add salt to this one, and if the onion relish I requested was on it somewhere, I couldn’t taste it. But it was wonderfully sloppy and satisfying after two hours of pacing around Edinburgh on a walking tour led by a genial Australian.

Here’s the thing, though. The pig from whence this sandwich came? It was in the window of the shop. After you order, you will literally watch as a teenager pulls the meat out of the pig and put it on a piece of bread, as she meticulously pulls up the quarter-inch wedges of crispy skin and adds it to the top.

And That Was Lunch

And this is good, right? This is exactly what all the local-is-best, organic, pro-food-education folks love, allegedly. (The swine in the window is touted as local, as uniquely Scottish.) If that’s not knowing where your food comes from, I’m not sure what is.

But here’s my problem. I don’t care.

I am in no way moved by a dead carcass in the window of a shop. It doesn’t make me want to eat less meat. It doesn’t make me have any greater or lesser appreciation of the foodmaking process. It does not make me think of our precious environment and its rapidly depleting resources. Mostly it just reminded me that pork is, most of the time, pretty delicious, and that I really like eating it.

David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about a lobster cookoff in Maine, about how there is real science proving that lobsters feel pain as they die. That maybe carnivores are callous, vaguely sociopathic, and that vegetarians are the only truly compassionate ones among us.

Well, I clearly fail at being compassionate, because I had no qualms about eating that sandwich while sitting within 10 feet of the animal it was just carved from. In fact, I expected everyone on our tour group to feel similarly. I expected to fight off my fellow tourists, to wait in a New York City-style line around the block, when our tour guide happily endorsed the pork sandwich shop, which is called Oink. This is, of course, my favorite kind of food shop—the shop that does one thing, and does it really well.

My friends think I love cupcakes. I actually don’t. I like them, but what I really love is a shop that gets really, really good at a single dish, that has a specialty. In a New York City that’s turning more and more into a string of high-rise glass apartments and Best Buy stores, this is the realest, small-scale, authentic cuisine in the city, whether it’s cupcakes or cheeseburgers or Vietnamese Spam sandwiches, or a slab of pork on a bun. This, to me, is the real food of New York City.

So why wouldn’t people be fighting each other for a pork sandwich on a sleepy downtown street in Scotland? Some were grossed out. (I watched the faces go by the window. Some guffawed. Others snapped photos and made faces.) But most of my tour group opted for panini sandwiches and cardboard tankards of chicken soup at the juice bar down the way. How this is different from my pig is unclear, except this: I could see mine sitting there. He was even smiling a little.

Clearly I am a poor example of culinary responsibility. But maybe wanting to know, knowing, and than eating anyway is preferable—if only subtly—to choosing the food that is chopped up, put in a box, and indecipherable from the thing it was. Or maybe, when I think of Jaime and Mark, throwing up their hands, groaning their inevitable, “Oh God”s, when I think of David Foster Wallace sitting out there in the cosmos, chuckling to himself, it’s not.

New Travels

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Elephant Shortbread

Everything in Edinburgh is green and brown and small. Doorways. Mountains. Knotty-limbed trees. My nose and fingertips have been cold all day. The sun didn’t completely set until 10:00 pm. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 48 hours.

Today I took a walking tour and had shortbread cookies in the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote The Sorcerer’s Stone. I wandered graveyards and took pictures. I ate a pork sandwich, drank Australian ginger beer. I wore a big sweatshirt under my coat because it’s that cold, and walked a slow ring around Edinburgh Castle at sunset.

So far, I want to write about. My Scottish dance teacher. How some travel destinations should suck but just don’t. How I love volcanoes. Like, enough to add it to my Facebook “interests” list, if I ever used Facebook, which I don’t anymore. How being here reminds me, inevitably and somewhat embarrassingly, of my intense teenage Mists of Avalon phase. James McAvoy in a kilt. A news report from 1989 about a New Kids on the Block concert in Edinburgh that I have taped on VHS in my house somewhere. And a woman on the airplane and her crazy body spray. Actually, let’s talk about that one right now. It can’t wait.

I arrived at dawn and the first thing I noticed is that the control tower at the Edinburgh Airport is shaped like a bong. The second thing that I noticed is that the middle-aged, heavily accessorized Irish woman in the row in front of me, at the instant we touched down, started spraying herself everywhere with a flowery-smelling aerosol body spray. And spraying. And spraying. Like, two whole minutes of spraying.

It’s one of those things. One short spray in a confined space with a probably-prohibited substance (it was aerosol and definitely more than 200 cl) that smells like a terrorist bombing at a Sephora, is rude. Long, continuous spraying with this same substance, however, has deeper implication. It conjures—in really incredible detail, even at that hour of the morning, the thick-necked boyfriend on the receiving end of all this hissing and stinking.

So that’s how my day started.

Also, I want to write about the weirdness of this hostel. Which has a lovely, friendly vibe (and free WiFi, so who’s complaining) but looks like it was decorated by homeless people who spent a lot of time in Thailand. Take right now, for instance. I’m sitting here with nice people enjoying the free WiFi and watching Behind Enemy Lines on an enormous TV. (Which, honestly, is probably not the film I should be watching on my way to Croatia…) But if I pick my head up from this screen, I sort of wonder if we’re in a fallout shelter and not on vacation.

Not that it’s a bad sensation?

I think that means it’s bedtime.