“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he comes to see.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Some people prefer to have a strict itinerary with all the Top 10 lists included. Others prefer the complete opposite, choosing instead to wake up in a strange city and wander out the front door of their temporary abode, completely unaware of what or who awaits them.
What about my own travel style? Well, since you asked, I prefer something in the middle. I usually have my must-see sights and sites (always open to discussion) but I prefer not to plan too much. After all, one has no idea what the world has in store at home let alone somewhere comparatively unfamiliar.
On this particular trip, Kristen and I seem to have agreed to an unspoken pact to at least spend as little time as possible indoors, regardless of our more specific plans. We wanted to see the world in all its expanse and glory, not simply more familiar walls.
Now, this might seem strange to those who know me as I work in a national museum here in Canada, something distinctively walled-in. And don’t get me wrong, museums can be absolutely breathtaking and mind-boggling when done right. Let me be perfectly clear, I am not knocking the museum experience. I did once spend the better part of a day wandering around the densely-lined rooms of the British Museum, happily losing myself entirely in the immensity of human history.
On this trip, however, we simply chose a different route. And, in this way, we found ourselves moseying our way up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, perfectly content with out morning exertions to the top of Arthur’s Seat, dreamily passing by museum after glorious museum.
I would not be surprised if you thought this rather daft – I mean we didn’t even step inside Edinburgh Castle! Though we took some great external pictures of it. But what we did see was striking in its own right.
Fueled by tea and scones from a local tea shop (its frilled table-clothes and intimidatingly-delicate china perfectly embodied my vision of “high tea”) Kristen and I spent the day wandering up and through the Royal Mile.
As we strolled up the street, sometimes shouting at each other over the din of crowded streets, other times standing in silence as a young man serenaded a street corner with the lonely, haunting cries of his bagpipe, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the Auld Reekie. A little rough-and-tumble in its planning, perhaps, but that’s what you get when navigating a city filled with layer-upon-layer of history.
The architecture everywhere we looked was spectacular but I must say my favourite moment of the day probably would have made no top-ten lists, though it is firmly entrenched in my own. It was a wee graveyard, tucked away behind an old church. I couldn’t even tell you its name, though I will fervently insist that it is worth looking for.
We were drawn to it by the thick powder of pink blossoms that covered its ground everywhere we looked. Stopping first to take a picture of this beautiful, ethereal scenery and then of the rather otherworldly (in a creepier fashion) statue to the right of the entrance, I was attracted by some graves along the church wall that looked to be enticingly ancient.
Sure enough, they were a couple of centuries old and the moss-covered engravings on their aged faces told a story that took some rather vehement convincing from a hungry Kristen to tear myself away from.
I’ve always found graveyards irresistibly interesting, chalk it up to my undying (no pun intended…OK pun intended) fascination with humanity and its individual intricacies. To me, graveyards are like the index of human history. They give you the basic information and you’re expected to hunt down the details yourself. Unfortunately, the metaphor becomes less useful when one takes it any further as there is no definitive text to flip through after checking out this index. But the mystery is part of the fun, is it not?
Take this particular grave-stone for example. Look at the dates and ages on it. In the Duncan family you have Mark, a merchant, who lived to the decent (for the 19th century) age of 53 and his wife who surpassed many if not most in those years and reached the ripe old age of 76 years. Not bad for a couple from the rising middle class. Remember, much of Edinburgh at the time, especially the Old Town where this graveyard was situated, was a dilapidated, overcrowded slum with a disturbingly high mortality rate…
Now look at the dates engraved for Mark and Christian’s kids:
Sarah, 11 months
Christian, 9 years
Mark, 19 months
Abigail, 17 years
Margaret, 25 years (my own age)
Only William made it to age 40, presumably taking over his father’s Merchant business.
One of the most touching lines from the Lord of the Rings series, in my humble opinion, is when Theoden chokes out the words “No parent should have to bury their child” before succumbing to his heartbreaking display of grief before his son’s tomb. As raw and human as this moment was, it wasn’t something you would have heard people utter in the 19th century, let alone the viking civilization Rohan was based on. Infant mortality has been more than common throughout much of human history (and, unfortunately, still is in some areas of the world) but this doesn’t change the fact that the family must have been devastated at the untimely end of each fresh new life.
This particular display of young demise inspired so many unanswered questions: Were the babies simply not healthy from birth? Or did they contract something in the teeming streets of 19th century Edinburgh? Was the 17-year-old Abigail struck down by a fever? Or something more sinister? And Margaret? What caused her death at 25, having survived whatever tore her siblings from this earth? I can speculate on their possible stories based on historical context, such as the typhus epidemic which ravaged Edinburgh in 1817 and may have spirited young Margaret away, but I can never know for sure.
This is why I can spend hours in graveyards. Always peaceful, and filled to the literal brim with enduring stories, I’m not sure they’ll ever lose their appeal.
This appeal, however, is not for everyone. Case in point: Kristen soon grew tired of my glacial movements in amongst the innumerable graves and she, rightly so, eventually dragged me out of there in the search of a well-deserved pint.
Leaving the graveyard, we climbed down the steep stone staircase from the castle’s entrance to the lower levels of this great city, choosing an enticing little pub which could provide both a thoroughly appreciated pint and a place to hold a long chat about what we had seen. And you know what? Neither of us regretting having skipped all the indoor attractions. It had been the perfect final day in the Athens of the North.
The sky was bright, the weather fine, and the company perfection.
We may not have seen what the tourists covet but we saw what we saw and what we saw was unforgettable.