February 16th, 2008
Central Edinburgh is laid out and considered along the traverse of busy, touristy Princes Street. North of the street are New Town and Stockbridge, where we made our temporary home last month. To the south lie the Castle, the Old Town, and a long sprawl of neighborhoods and villages all the way up to the Pentland Hills. The neighborhoods along the east and west ends of Princes Street, which is less than a mile long, are (quite surprisingly) known as the West End and East End. Our new neighborhood falls off the East End, a bit north and east of Princes Street. Getting here usually involves a short traipse up Leith Walk, a long, straight, busy road, currently a nightmarish traffic jumble, owing to the installation of a new tram.
One immediately apparent feature of Edinburgh architecture is that buildings are, to use Orlaâ€™s word, â€œsamey.â€ That is, in most neighborhoods, most buildings look very much alike. So it was in New Town with its imposing Georgian flats. So it is in the East End with long rows of Victorian tenements. This is not as bad as it might sound. There is a certain elegance and aesthetic tranquility in the consistency, like walking through an oak forest which suddenly gives way to evergreens.
At first blush, the East End doesnâ€™t seem to have all the interesting shops that made Stockbridge such a playground. That said, there are definite diamonds in this rough, all the more interesting when discovered, as the secrets are not given up so easily. One such diamond, the most easily spotted as it sits on busy Leith Walk, is Valvona and Crolla. V&C is an Edinburgh institution, an Italian deli, gourmet food Mecca and cafÃ©. In every one of these capacities, it is shockingly over-priced (the cafÃ© in particular could bankrupt you over lunch). That said, there can be no doubt that this is the place for fine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, charcuterie, fresh pasta and fine wine. V&C makes at least a couple of appearances in Alexander McCall Smithâ€™s 44 Scotland Street novels. It also serves as a popular site for meeting people in this part of town. Another great find was Manna, a bakery on nearby Easter Road which is not at all over priced; and moreâ€™s the pity, as this place could do serious damage to our waistlines. Manna sports a really delightful selection of bread and pastries. Orla and I have stepped inside several times already in the week weâ€™ve lived here.
Iâ€™m told that the East End is historically quite Catholic. Iâ€™m also told, and have observed, that it holds the cityâ€™s principal gay district (situated around an area â€“ and I swear Iâ€™m not making this up â€“ called â€˜Gayfieldâ€™). Whatever these other demographics, there can be no question that the people we see on the streets are working and middle class, probably less well off on average than the bankers and lawyers we saw every day in New Town. People are by-and-large friendly, though we have seen signs of youth gangs, possibly the restless sons and daughters of New Town bankers and lawyers.
One distressing aspect of the neighborhood is the amount of litter in the street. Orla, who has much more opportunity to wander the city, tells me this is not unusual. My previous account of Edinburgh as a clean city notwithstanding, she sees a lot of litter around the streets here. New Town, she says, is the exception rather than the rule.
Itâ€™s feels different here. Itâ€™s hard to describe exactly how or why, but perhaps itâ€™s a bit more like real life and a bit less like living in the museum. Whatever the reasons, weâ€™re very happy and looking forward to learning more about our new environment.