My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

The Other Side of Edinburgh: The Georgian New Town

Edinburgh’s New Town, across a big valley from the Royal Mile, was purpose-built to allow the city to expand in the 18th century. As if city planners were overcompensating, it’s as rigidly regimented as the Old Town is higgledy-piggledy. Many travelers get Royal Mile tunnel vision and miss the New Town altogether — which is a shame, since this neighborhood offers a glimpse of a very different and (marginally) less touristy side of Edinburgh.

 

New Town View

The New Town was carefully planned and plotted, right down to the way its main cross-streets coincide with viewpoints that make the city’s landmarks line up — in this case, combining a museum, an old tenement building, and a church tower into one mega-Gotham City vista.

 

New Town Rose

The New Town plan was designed to suck up to English royalty. (It came about just 20 years after the failed Jacobite rebellions that attempted to topple the English crown and re-install a Scottish monarch.) The main drags are named “George Street” (for the king), “Queen Street,” “Princes Street,” and so forth. Here on Rose Street, the sidewalk is even embedded with a giant Tudor rose — the symbol of the English monarch. Come on, guys, we get it. Enough is enough.

 

Royal Mile Georgian

The architectural style of the New Town is Georgian. British for “Neoclassical,” the style is named for the kings who ruled during that age. The best museum in the New Town is the Georgian House, where you can go inside one of these elegant town houses and see how the upper crust lived during the 18th century. By the way, as I work on our new Scotland guidebook, I find myself comparing every aristocratic manor house to Downton Abbey. As a travel writer, it’s dangerous to rely too heavily on one comparison point…but that show really does a perfect job of capturing the upstairs, downstairs life behind these genteel facades. (I’m sure that once I get to the Highlands, it’ll be all about Outlander.)

 

New Town Concert

While back home in Seattle, Pacific Northwesterners are enjoying the warmest summer in a generation, here in Scotland it’s the opposite. I was told that in Scotland, the month of June was the coldest in 43 years. But even in an unseasonably chilly summer, Edinburgh is carrying on with its slate of outdoor activities. Heading from the New Town back toward the Royal Mile, I stumbled upon a row of food trucks, a beer garden, and a casual outdoor stage where a talented trio was playing modern Celtic music with a stunning Edinburgh backdrop…howling winds and dark clouds be damned.

The Offbeat Royal Mile

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile — the steep street leading from the Queen’s Palace of Holyroodhouse up to Edinburgh Castle, capping the bluff at the top of town — mesmerizes tourists. It’s atmospheric, historic, and studded with a mix of great landmarks and “tartan tat” souvenir shops. While researching for our upcoming Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, I enjoyed some of the Royal Mile’s offbeat details.
Edinburgh Castle Line

You can’t come to Edinburgh without touring its historic castle. But you’re not the only one. Rushing through the castle to update our guidebook details, my heart sank at the long line of tourists waiting to see Scotland’s crown jewels. I prepared myself for a long wait. Then I remembered that I was using a good guidebook, which told me this: “In summer, there’s a second option that avoids the line: Head to the left as you face the main entrance and find another entry. This route takes you through the Honors of Scotland exhibition — an interesting, Disney-esque series of displays (which often moves at a shuffle) telling the story of the crown jewels and how they survived the harrowing centuries.” Following this tip, within minutes, I was standing in front of the crown, sword, scepter, and Stone of Scone. When training our guidebook researchers, Rick emphasizes that clever line-beating tips are like gold. From a purely practical perspective, it may be the most important thing we can do for travelers.

 

Royal Mile TrafficStanding at a Royal Mile corner, a local pointed out how aggressively drivers — particularly cabbies — plow through the cross-intersections. Visitors, enjoying the mostly pedestrianized Royal Mile, don’t always notice the traffic lights. And motorists, who can’t get from one part of the city to the other without crossing the Mile, have zero patience for daydreaming tourists. It only makes things worse that traffic comes from the opposite direction than we foreigners are used to. “I’ve actually seen cabbies speed up when they get a careless tourist in their sights,” the local told me. “Every year you hear about many people who get clipped or knocked down by cars here.” Don’t be paranoid… but do wait for the green light.

 

Royal Mile Owl

At Gladstone’s Land, a fascinating 16th-century “skyscraper”-turned-museum, a live owl was posing for photos out front. A local falconry center solicits donations with their birds of prey here each summer — and it’s a huge hit with Royal Mile-wandering tourists.

 

Rodney Relax

The dated but endearing People’s Story Museum in Edinburgh works hard to describe the lifestyles of people from various walks of life throughout the city’s history. Dioramas of Dickensian homes offer insight into the congested conditions back when the city was called “Auld Reekie.” Less successful is the museum’s attempt to sum up the city’s punk culture in the 1970s: “Rodney Relax, a 17 year old punk, has recently left school and is unemployed. Like all punks, Rondey enjoys being different and shocking people by his appearance. … His parents do not approve of the way he dresses or that he drinks and takes drugs.” Thanks, Dad. Tell me what you really think. (I can’t wait to see them try to explain hipsters.)

 

Canongate List

The Canongate Church is where the Queen and her clan attend services whenever they’re in town. Entering the church, I was warmly greeted by a pair of old gents who were really enjoying catching up with each other — and chatting up tourists who happened by. When I tried to confirm the church’s hours for our book, they explained that it’s open whenever volunteers from the congregation sign up. This is their sign-up list. I found it sweetly small-town that even here, in one of the Queen’s home churches, it’s a community affair.

 

Worlds End

Uh-oh.

Whisky at the Breakfast Buffet and “Tartan Tat”: Welcome to Scotland

Not yet fully awake, and struggling through the “where am I?” haze of just arriving in a new country, I stumbled downstairs to the breakfast table. As I gathered cereal, yogurt, and juice from the buffet, my eyes fell on a bottle of whisky. And with a jolt, I remembered: I’m in Scotland.

Scotland is a wee land, with just five and half million people. (That’s half the size of Hungary.) But its cultural impact on the world stage is massive. Everyone, it seems, understands what it means to be Scottish. But much of what they know are clichés: Whisky. Bagpipes. Kilts and tartans. Haggis. Golf. Like most clichés, these are rooted in reality. But in an attempt to attract tourist income, these cultural icons have been exaggerated, romanticized, and exploited. In Scotland, the traveler’s challenge is tuning into that fine line that separates the real deal from trumped-up tourism.

Take the tartan. Everyone knows that each of Scotland’s clans (families) has its own, specific plaid pattern. And on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, every other shop specializes in helping you find your family’s tartan…and selling you all manner of souvenirs stamped with it.Royal Mile

It’s a nice story…one that was concocted in the Victorian Age, to appeal to tourists very much like today’s. But, like any tall tale, it does have a kernel of truth. In Edinburgh, I visited Gladstone’s Land, a perfectly preserved 16th-century merchant’s home-turned-museum along the Royal Mile. Britain seems to specialize in chatty museum docents, who love to corner you as you enter a creaky old room and talk your ear off about all of the fascinating little details. And at Gladstone’s Land, the docent in the former cloth merchant’s shop on the ground floor was particularly engaging.

“Here’s the real story behind the tartan,” he said. “Going way back, local dyers throughout the Highlands only had access to natural dyes. And that meant plants that grew in their specific area. They only had so many options for combining those few colors. And, naturally, family members lived in the same area. So it’s true that members of a clan tended to dress in similar colors — very muted colors. But all of these rigidly designed, brightly colorful clan tartans you see at shops around here, they’re only about 150 years old.”

Tartan Tat

As for those stores: I love getting the local gossip in a city like Edinburgh. And during my time here, several people have told me, conspiratorially, that one very wealthy family owns dozens of shops along the Royal Mile. While the shops look different to create an illusion of variety, all of the profits go into the same big pot. The family has been very aggressive about gobbling up as much property as possible along the Mile, and in the process, they’ve made a lot of enemies out of mom-and-pop shop owners.

The term Edinburghers use for these tacky tourist shops is “tartan tat.” These are the shops displaying cheap, knockoff kilts in their windows. Wanting to find some better-quality shops to recommend in our new Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, several people pointed me in the direction of Gordon Nicolson.

Nicolson

Nicolson Kiltmakers‘ modest shop is tucked along the Royal Mile, just steps away from several “tartan tat” outlets. Gordon himself greeted me as I waked in the door, and shared his passion for kiltmaking. He explained that many kiltmakers have simply given up the old ways — these days, they find a bigger profit margin selling machine-made kilts. But Gordon is on a crusade to keep traditional kilt making alive. He takes particular pride in bringing along the next generation of kiltmakers. “I’ll be honest: The industry is top-heavy these days, age-wise,” he told me. “That’s why I want to show young people that making kilts properly is still a viable business.”

A top-quality kilt will run you about £400-500 — that’s around $620-775. Figure another £500 for the jacket and accessories, and you’re at about £1,000. Most of the expense is in the material of the kilt itself. A proper kilt is made of woven fabric. (The cheap “tartan tat” kilts are printed on.) But there’s a lot of labor required, as well. I watched one of Gordon’s kiltmakers painstakingly pin, then stitch, each precisely measured pleat.

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Gordon took out a leather sporran — the pouch that’s worn around the waist. Opening it up to show me the seams, he explained that this one was hand-stitched by a country gentleman who’s well into his 80s. He then pulled out a couple of particularly fine, hand-carved daggers that are worn around the ankle, called sgian dubh — literally “black knife.”

Gordon also custom-designs tartan patterns. He’s very proud of the one he recently designed to honor the new John Muir Trail — a countryside walking route through Central Scotland that was just inaugurated to honor the Scottish-born American conservationist.

Kilt Shop interior

By the way, while they do carry some kilts in-store, they’re very unlikely to have your tartan in your size, available off the rack. To get a quality kilt, stop by for a measurement — they’ll ship it to you when it’s done.

Across town, in Edinburgh’s New Town, I met another Scot who’s trying to make kilts viable in the modern age. On funky and artistic Thistle Street, Howie Nicolsby runs a shop called 21st Century Kilts. He’s taking things in a very different direction from Gordon — updating the whole notion of the kilt to fit contemporary styles. Virtually everything he does is “bespoke” — fancy Brit-ese for custom-made. He explained that he’s encountered a lot of resistance (from traditionalists like Gordon, I’m guessing), but that he feels strongly that if the kilt is to survive, it needs to keep up with the times. He realizes that he’s filling a small niche, but that works fine for him. Since he does everything himself, he only needs about 400 customers a year to stay in business. Checking out the fun wedding pictures of dapperly kilted grooms, I found myself wishing I were Scottish, engaged, and rich enough to hire Howie to outfit my groomsmen. (My wife’s maiden name is “Scott.” Does that count?)

Gordon and Howie are taking things in different directions, but deep down their priorities are perfectly in synch: Kilts are a cliché, but they are also a very real and vivid part of Scottish culture. It’s a culture that has weathered many challenges across the centuries, but it has always persevered. And talking with people like Gordon and Howie, it’s clear to me that it always will.

Au Revoir to France, Heading to Scotland

A little housekeeping, and a confession: On my blog, I’ve been writing about my travels Italy and France for the last several weeks. But in the real world, I’ve already been home for about a month. To fill my stateside gap, I’ve been slowly doling out my backlog of blogs. Now I’m heading to my next destination…but I’m not finished blogging about the last one.

So here’s the plan I’ll bid a temporary au revoir to France (though I’ll circle back at a later date with my reports from Normandy). This will let me hop forward to the present day: This week I landed in Scotland, where I’ll be spending the next month or so updating and expanding our guidebook material to create a new, stand-alone Rick Steves Scotland guidebook for the first time.

Starting tomorrow, come along with me to the world of bagpipes, haggis, kilts, golf, and whisky at the breakfast table. But I’ll also try to go beyond those clichés to explore a side of Scotland that visitors on a quick pass might otherwise miss.

Meet me back here tomorrow, and we’ll head to Edinburgh.

CameronRoyalMile

Loving the French (What’s Not to Love?)

I’m always a little intimidated when first arriving in France. I suspect living in America has programmed me — against the sum total of my actual life experience — to think of French people as being stuffy and snooty and unkind to outsiders. With each visit, I have a million mini-epiphanies about how wrongheaded that is. And then I go home and forget all that I’ve learned.

On this trip, it didn’t take me long to remember how much I love this place — and especially its people. French folks aren’t rude and abusive. They’re reserved, and a bit formal. They believe in a certain orderliness to social interaction. They just want to be respected, and if you respect them, you’ll get more than your share of respect in return.

The typical “Howzit goin’?” American cowboy stampedes all over the French social order. We Yanks pride ourselves on our independence, on bucking convention, on being on an instant first-name basis with every stranger we happen to ride the elevator with. And, in their place, those can be wonderful qualities. But the fact is, it clashes with the French worldview.

One of my colleagues, who guides our tours all over Europe, recently confessed to me that she finds France one of the hardest places to bring Americans to. It’s not because the French are unpleasant; it’s because we Americans aren’t always the most adaptable when on someone else’s terms. And the French do expect us to respect their turf.

A few years ago, a Parisian shop clerk explained this dynamic to me with a sublime simplicity: “In France, we don’t want to be defined by our work. We want to be acknowledged as a human being first, and only then as a provider of services. So just say bonjour before telling us what you want from us. Treat our shop the way you would our living room. Would you walk into my house without saying hello?”

And that’s really all there is to it. When you interact with any French person, first acknowledge their humanity. It’s easy: Just say, “Bonjour!” Everyone can say that, without even practicing. For extra credit, throw in a Madame or a Monsieur. And when you leave, say “Au revoir!” If you do this, the French will instantly warm to you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we Americans are always in a hurry. Time is money, and impatience is a virtue. But in France, they’ve mastered the art of fine living — and that means savoring the moment. Slow yourself down to their pace (or, at least, meet them in the middle). They’ll appreciate it…and you’ll likely find that it’s more enjoyable for you, too.

And here’s yet another way to think about it: France is a country of introverts. As an introvert myself, I can appreciate how extraverts sometimes come on too strong — getting in my face with an aggressive chumminess that, to me, feels fake and exhausting. As a country that values extraverts, we need to empathize a bit with the French. Don’t bowl them over with your enthusiasm; give them a gentle smile and a kind greeting, and they’ll be on your side.

Putting this approach into practice, I’ve had exactly zero terrible interactions with French people. After two straight weeks of traveling in France — and talking to dozens of people each day to update our guidebook — I honestly can’t recall a single difficult moment. (In fact, I find the French much warmer than most of their neighbors.)

And what about that language barrier? Wait, what language barrier? I speak no French, beyond a few pleasantries, but it’s pas de probleme. I find more and better English spoken in France than in Spain or Italy. People here can be a bit shy. When I ask locals if they speak English, many say to me, “A little bit. I will try.” What a nice way to put it. And by the way, many of those who are “trying” express a mastery of English that eludes some native speakers.

Even when they don’t speak English, they listen patiently, with a sweet smile, while I mangle their precious language in front of them, as if stomping on a delicate carpet with muddy boots. (I accomplish this by speaking Spanish with a French accent. Yeah, I’m that guy…and they still seem to like me!)

If there’s one caveat to this, it has to do with Paris. Look, it’s a big, busy city. And, like New York, London, or Tokyo, it’s a mix of kindhearted people and  troubled cranks. Some Americans go only to Paris, have a couple of awkward interactions with surly Parisians, and extrapolate those to the entire country. I’ve met my share of grumpy Parisians, too. But overall, I’ve had many, many more positive experience there than negative ones.  (When standing on a street corner puzzling over a map, I’ve been approached by helpful locals offering directions far more in Paris than anywhere else in Europe.)

I recently ran into one stubborn American who embodies this cultural disconnect. Perhaps a closet Freedom Fry-er, he clearly came here with a massive chip on his shoulder — tightly wound and ready to pounce. Over breakfast, I was enthusing about how friendly the French are, and how well they speak English, when he cut me off. “Oh, yeah?” he snapped. “If their English is soooo great, then why do I have to tell everyone bone-joor all the time?” While his wife — a francophile who clearly had been coaching him on this — died a silent death next to him, I replied, simply, “To be polite. Is it really that hard to say bonjour?”

What I was thinking, though, was this: To not get along with the French, you pretty much have to be a jerk.