Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Quirky World: A wee jaunt to Edinburgh

It’s the Easter holidays and my daughter and I are on a £20 flight from London to Edinburgh. That’s £20 total. For the both of us. There and back. (You can knock Ryanair but they get us places other airlines aren’t cheap enough to get us!).

Then a 25-minute ride on the new swanky tram that runs from the airport to the city and there we are, slap-bang in the centre of all things Scottish.
We discuss what bagpipers might or might not wear under their kilts, try on some See-You-Jimmy hats, contemplate the idea of a deep-fried Mars Bar, and then set off to sniff out some of the quirkiest things to do in the city.

1. Go to a cat cafe
I am not a cat lover. So the idea of a cat cafe – a cafe with resident cats to pet, play and chill out with – wasn’t that tempting to me... Cat-hair sandwiches? Eau de litter tray? No thanks. My daughter, on the other hand, is definitely destined to be a dotty old cat lady, and I knew this would be a real treat for her.

So I booked an hour’s slot at Maison de Moggy and printed out the names, pictures and personalities of their twelve cats from the website for her to read on the plane. (“Look mum! It says Marcel likes having a chat!” Mmm. Really? I look forward to that.)

The owner greeted us with a quick run-through of the cafe rules before we were let loose to interact with the cats.
And I have to say the place was in fact very enticing. Halfway between a comfy living room...
...and an adventure playground for cats.
It was also spotlessly clean and odour-free. I loved the entrance to the tunnel which led to the cats' separate toilet area.
We were even asked to take our shoes off to keep the carpet clean for the cats. And actually, padding around in our socks just added to the relaxed, living-room vibe.

Drinks and cakes were available though there was no obligation to buy them as “some of our cats really like cake and you may not want to be pestered!”.

My daughter didn’t even stop to glance at the menu. While I sat on a sofa and sipped tea, she skipped from cat to cat, adoring them all. As did everyone else. It was like some sort of Feline Love Fest. Elodie, the Sphinx kitten, was particularly popular (ew).
My daughter's clear favourite though, was the more ordinary-looking Marcel.
Perhaps it was because he was such a good conversationalist.

2. Have your head served on a platter
The Camera Obscura & World of Illusions is five-floors of eye-tricking, mind-bending, body-distorting exhibits. One of those places you spend the whole time saying to each other, "Come and look at this!" and "You have to try that!"

Apart from having our heads chopped off, we swapped noses with each other, captured our shadows, shrunk our hands, stumbled around in the mirror maze, met our twin, drew with light, walked through the spinning tunnel, changed our faces to a chimp's and re-sized ourselves in the warped perspective room.
We couldn't even walk past a picture on a wall without it sucking us in. Can YOU see the hidden tiger in this picture?
At the top of the building, in a Victorian rooftop chamber is the camera obscura itself. This rather ingenious piece of equipment from the 1850s projects live moving images of the streets of Edinburgh through a pinhole camera in the roof. You can watch people and cars going about their daily business on a viewing table right in front of you.
Photograph: Edinburgh's Camera Obscura 
“19th-century technology!" said our guide. "The Victorians must have been pretty pleased with themselves, don’t you think?” Then he gave us all a piece of paper and showed us how we could play around with the images, like scooping people up onto the paper, or making a paper bridge for the traffic to drive over. “This is really fun!” said my daughter, with a slightly evil giggle.

We got even more excited when we discovered that the World of Illusions also had its own modern equivalent of a camera obscura – webcams spying on the people on the streets below that you could control yourself with a lever and a button.
Choose your spot, choose your victim and zoom on in, lip-readingly close. Catch someone swigging a can of Irn-Bru – or maybe eating a bogey! It was incredibly addictive. I did wonder about the ethics of it though.

My daughter was obviously thinking along the same lines. Because when we got back to our Novotel and were getting undressed for a swim, she suddenly stopped in her tracks, looked around the walls of the changing room and said, “Do you think there's a secret camera in here? People could be zooming in on us right now!”

3. See the UK’s only pandas and koala bears
Edinburgh Zoo has the honour of having the only Giant Pandas and Koalas in Britain.

All the koalas were actually fast asleep. They sleep 18 hours a day after all (there’s not a lot of calorific energy in eucalyptus, you know!). But we didn't mind. I mean, does it get any cuter than this?
The pandas, a male called Yáng Guāng (Sunshine) and Tián Tián (Sweetie) are on a 10-year loan from China. Being just inches away from a panda – sat in the teddy-bear position munching its way through a mountain of bamboo like every cartoon panda you've ever seen – was pretty special.
Although my daughter quickly spotted a difference. "You always think of pandas as perfectly coal black and snow white, but they're not, are they?” she said.

We only got to see Sunshine because the zoo likes to give the pandas turns at having time-out from the public eye. “They need private time,” explained the panda keeper. “To do things they’re uncomfortable doing in front of us. Just like you wouldn’t pick your nose in your living room if people were peering in your window.” At that very moment Sunshine entertained us all by going into a handstand and doing a huge gush of a wee-wee.
The rules of etiquette clearly weren't quite the same as for humans then. I always do my upside-down wees in private.

You can watch the pandas here on Edinburgh Zoo’s live web cam.

4. Go underneath the city
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
I love the idea of a secret world beneath our feet. A city under a city. And what do you know, Edinburgh has one! 

The Real Mary King’s Close is an underground warren of narrow 17th century streets and houses. Originally, the streets would have been open to the skies, winding downhill from the Royal Mile. But in 1753 the Royal Exchange was built on top of them and the houses used as foundations for the new buildings.

I'd worried that the one-hour underground tour by a costumed guide might be too scary or too over the head of my 10 year old. I needn’t have. Although it was incredibly atmospheric, the focus was definitely on educating rather than scaring, with enough Horrible Histories type humour and grossness to keep kids entertained.
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
In fact, our guide Agnes, a 17th-century maid, said it was her job to empty the household bucket of poo and wee twice a day, 7am and 10pm. She chucked it down the street like all the other maids from all the other houses and over the years, a lake of excreta formed at the bottom of the hill. Nice.

My daughter did jump at the sight of the life-like models of plague victims and she refused to go into “Annie’s room” where the ghost of a sad, abandoned, young girl was detected by a Japanese psychic as recently as 1992. Now visitors often bring her her toys.
Photograph: The Real Mary King's Close
But what most stuck in both our minds was the punishment of a woman found guilty of murder. She was tied up into a ball and with a little push sent tumbling down the hill to drown in Poop Lake. Apparently, it took her 40 minutes to penetrate the surface. Urgggh. 

"So how would you rather die?" asked my daughter on the flight back home. "Drown in Poop Lake or die of the plague?" 

"Drown in Poop Lake," I answered. "It's quicker." 

"Okay," she said. "Empty the poo and wee bucket, or have your face licked all over by a Sphinx cat?" that's a tricky one.

If you like this, you might like Warsaw, the cheapest family foreign trip ever!


  1. What a great trip. I've ever only been to Edinburgh during the festival so it's amazing to see another side to it.

  2. That's next on the list - Edinburgh at festival time, without kids!

  3. What an amazing trip. I really want to go now. The world of illusions sounds fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing with #LetKidsBeKids

  4. Yes, that was probably my favourite thing of the four - or maybe the pandas!

  5. I will definitely come check this place again with some other awesome friends of mine! It's one of best places for having a good time with a joyous feeling. And Los Angeles event venues fascinates me with its great style and vibrant atmosphere.