Travel

Visit Edinburgh in August and you're sure to find a festival

Edinburgh Castle, built on a dormant volcano, is Scotland's top tourist spot.
Edinburgh Castle, built on a dormant volcano, is Scotland's top tourist spot.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — In the space of a few blocks, I encountered Napoleon Bonaparte, Darth Vader and the Invisible Man, glasses bobbing up and down in what appeared to be thin air.

There was a colorfully garbed Korean dance troupe, a woman carrying a kitchen sink, and "Queen Elizabeth," crown atop her head, giving all passers-by her queenly wave.

But my favorite had to be the dancing hot dog, handing out bottles of ketchup and mustard to giggling children and encouraging them to fire away.

I was on the Royal Mile, which links Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, the official home of the British monarch in Edinburgh. These performance artists were all participants in the city's Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world.

As entertaining as the Fringe was, it was just part of the reason for visiting Edinburgh in August.

This year, for the first time, six of the city's 12 major festivals were held during the same period (Aug. 7-31.) In addition to the Fringe, visitors could go to the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Mela Festival of World Music and Dance, the Military Tattoo, and the granddaddy of them all — the Edinburgh International Festival.

The International Festival rose from the ashes of World War II, when Britain's defiance of Hitler came at a high price. Unbowed but very bloody, the island set about remaking itself. One such effort was the International Festival, inaugurated in 1947 to enliven and enrich the cultural life of not just Britain, but all of Europe. To say that it succeeded is an understatement.

The three-week Festival offers the best in theater, dance, opera, cabaret and orchestral music. And when I say best, I mean it. Current British superstars Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Jude Law and Hugh Grant were among those who performed at the Festival before achieving stardom, and this year's headliner was French actress Juliette Binoche in Antigone.

Of the performances I saw, the highlight had to be a richly reimagined production of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. The music remained the same, but almost nothing else did. This wildly inventive version combined animated and live action (the singers were real) in a kaleidoscope of 1920s silent movies, cabaret, Disneyesque imagery (think Fantasia) and Cirque du Soleil-type stage antics.

The Fringe began the same year as the International Festival, when eight theater companies that wanted to perform weren't invited. They came anyway, and they've been coming ever since, with 3,000 performances in venues across the city this year.

Many of the performances feature solo artists who stake out a space, but others are world-class offerings. One such was Limbo at the Underbelly's Circus Hub on the Meadows. Described as a circus-cabaret extravaganza, the illusions and breathtaking physical feats had me on the edge of my seat. Apparently, they also had Madonna on the edge of hers, as she reportedly saw the show twice.

Books, art and the Tattoo

Of newer vintage are the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the world's largest celebration of the written word, and the Edinburgh Art Festival, the newest festival, initiated in 2004.

It is only fitting that Edinburgh, the world's first UNESCO city of literature, host an annual book festival attended by nearly a quarter of a million people, who flock to Charlotte Square Gardens to hear authors discuss their work. It was here that J.K. Rowling gave a public reading of her first Harry Potter book for a group of schoolchildren.

The Art Festival is indeed a moveable feast, with exhibits in museums, churches, galleries and public buildings, as well as outdoor spaces such as the Waverly Train Station, site of my favorite piece: a whimsical sculpture resembling a series of bathroom showers.

The prospect of attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo was one of my primary reasons for wanting to come to the festival. I had seen pictures showing the pomp and pageantry of the Tattoo set against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. I knew it was a demonstration of military musical skill and precision that had morphed into pure theater — all those kilted bagpipers and drummers from royal regiments throughout Britain.

They were all there — the Pipes and Drums of the Highlanders and the Black Watch of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, The Massed Bands of the Royal Air Force and the Queen's Color Guard, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo Highland Dancers — it was all that an Anglophile could have expected.

What I didn't expect was the rest of the evening's entertainment, which ranged from colorful Chinese Lotus Dragon and Bollywood dance spectacles to a stirring 75th-anniversary observance of the Battle of Britain, culminating in fireworks and the Union Jack flag projected on the exterior of the castle.

By the time we linked arms in a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and the Lone Piper appeared on the castle battlement, there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

Other attractions

It's easy to see how Edinburgh, a city that native son Robert Louis Stevenson described as "a dream in living masonry" inspired Rowling. The city spills in layers from what was once an active volcano to underground cellars, and there are more nooks and crannies than one could explore in a lifetime. But here are a few must-sees while in the city.

Edinburgh Castle. Perched atop craggy Castle Rock, another extinct volcano, this is Scotland's No. 1 visitor attraction. Most head directly for the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Scone, also called the Stone of Destiny. However, don't miss the ancient banqueting hall and the birthing chamber where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son, who later became James I of England, thus uniting the two kingdoms.

Holyrood Palace. Speaking of Mary, if you're fascinated with her dramatic and tragic life, then a visit to her royal palace is a must. Located at one end of the Royal Mile and set in exquisite gardens, the Palace's 16th-century historic rooms are open to the public except when the royal family is in residence.

The most lurid is the oratory, where in 1566 Mary's private secretary, David Rizzio, was dragged from the table where he was dining with the Queen and was murdered by her husband, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Today, overwrought tourists often claim that they can still see blood on the floor from the 56 stab wounds inflicted on Rizzio.

Royal Yacht Britannia. For a more benign royal experience, go aboard the yacht that Queen Elizabeth II said was the only place she could relax and shed her official role. Now permanently berthed at Edinburgh's Ocean Terminal and open to the public, the yacht took the queen and the royal family more than 1,000,000 miles around the world over a 40-year period.

Scotch Whisky Experience. On the Royal Mile near Edinburgh Castle, this is the best place to go for a taste of Scotland's gift to the world. During any time of year, guests can view the world's largest collection of Scotch whisky, and during the Tattoo, they can buy a package that includes a "taste of Scotland" dinner and whisky-tasting along with tickets to the performance.

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