We have been moving quite a bit in the last several days, so it has been a challenge to keep up with the blog, but we are now stopped for a few days at the foot of the Alps in Bled, Slovenia. I hope to catch up with the images and ideas that have been sparked by 4 or 5 days on the road. I will begin with a montage of pictures and ideas from Edinburgh, a city we visited briefly on our way to Cairngorms National Park and then again for a few days after we returned.
Like so many great European cities, most encounter them first by a transportation hub. In the case of Edinburgh that would be Waverley Station pictured here. It is at the heart of the city in a channel that used to be filled with water as a Loch (Lake) where accused witches were thrown to see if they would float. It seems they have found a better way to use the landscape since then. One of Edinburgh’s residents in the 19th century (Patrick Geddes) suggested, “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” It is not hard to see how he might have come up with such wisdom in Edinburgh which wears history like layers of clothing piled on to brace against the cold. The buildings and streets act as a stage for the unfolding drama. Some images are iconic and quite old, like the Edinburgh Castle sitting on a hill overlooking the entire city.
But even in the shadow of such iconic images, there is the constant scene change as history and “progress” marches on.
The roof tops look as if they set the stage for a Mary Poppins revival with chimney sweeps about to appear in a lively gait, and yet the cranes in the distance bring in materials by the hour to transform the city anew.
Edinburgh has been a city for a long time, and as such, its leaders have had to constantly figure out ways to provide services for the people who live there. This can be quite a challenge with so many people living in one place adding their stories to the drama over time. In the 17th century there were already so many people living in the city, that the designers had to develop a system to get water for the residents to drink and use so they wouldn’t foul the surrounding water sources. They build a series of cisterns to dispense water throughout the city. Some still stand now as monuments to a public works department that is over 350 years old.
Today one of the biggest challenges for any city is the congestion of traffic. This is particularly true with cities that started in a time long before cars were ever dreamed of, let alone planned for. This describes almost every European city we have been to so far. The streets are narrow, often winding, and not generally conducive to the individualized habits of a modern auto-focused culture. To counteract this, and to fight the emissions of those cars (both ground based ozone and atmospheric carbon), most European cities have developed reliable modes of mass transportation such as buses and trains, and they have worked hard to develop a culture of alternative transportation through the creation of pedestrian malls and public relations campaigns.
Issues like sanitation, public water supplies and transportation systems can seem rather mundane, but they are at the heart of what makes city life possible. Cityscapes are as much about the ordinary as they are about the iconic and the extraordinary.
In the picture above (taken from the top of a double-decker public transportation bus), the ordinary landscape of city life is very much on display. My American friends might note that the cars are driving on “the wrong side” of the road, but that is simply a matter of perspective. Note how small most of the cars are, this is not the land of the SUV. Gas (petrol as they call it) is almost four times as expensive as it is in the US. The streets are narrow, and the residents do not see the need to consume so many resources simply to move one’s body through space. There are clear lanes marked for the preferred method of transportation, the bicycle. A group of students walk toward some learning opportunity (they take their students out into the world far more than we do in the states, to learn about the city and world around them). There are certainly old buildings and monuments in view from past centuries of city life; but some buildings just “look old” such as the 50 year old building on the left. The weather and pollution from the city has a way of prematurely aging the buildings so they turn gray long before you might expect them to. There are some people I know that fall into that same category….
Edinburgh is the seat of political authority in Scotland. They are proud of their independent heritage of self-rule that came to an end with the expansion of the British Empire north in 1707 when Scotland was officially incorporated into the United Kingdom. For almost 300 years, Scotland housed symbols of the British political and cultural rule such as this Anglican Church, complete with the seal of the royal house of Windsor, to mark the church that the monarchs attends when they visit the city and stay in the royal palace just down the road.
However, in 1997 the Scots voted to devolve from the British direct rule and manage their internal affairs through the renewed Scottish Parliament. In 1999, it was official, the Parliament of Scotland met again and began to carve out their own identity while remaining part of the United Kingdom. They built the modern building (pictured below) across the street from the royal palace as if to show the distinctions between the old (represented by the monarch’s palace above), and the new (represented by an modernist parliament building for the new seat of government). The architecture of a city gives it its unique character, and while they kept the gray-tone building colors, they modernized the character of the building as if to say, this is a new experiment in government to match the ever changing drama of Edinburgh throughout time.
Sometimes the old and the new get mashed together in the story of a city. Edinburgh is the birthplace of a new international phenomenon known as the Harry Potter novels which were written here by J.K. Rowling. She started writing them in coffee houses such as the Elephant House (which has become a pilgrimage site for any Harry Potter fan),
and she finished the last book in the Balmoral hotel across town.
The books of Harry Potter are set in a fictitious time inspired by a medieval age of witches and castles, and it is not hard to see where J.K. Rowling drew her inspiration as you wander the streets of this city. Perhaps this street gave rise to Diagon Alley…
It certainly gave rise to my heart rate climbing from the bottom to the top of it. There is no flat ground in Edinburgh, it seems to be endless hills, and somehow they are always moving up from wherever you are to wherever you are going. Often curving to follow the meandering of cattle in days gone by rather than the orderly grid system that facilitates traffic and navigation in most modern cities. Gray skies and gray buildings still don’t dampen the spirits of these sojourners in this space.
J.K. Rowling is right, Edinburgh is a magical, inspiring place. If the grays get you down, there are always other colors inside to brighten your spirits…