Edinburgh - Abe Segal, Wimbledon and South African tennis legend, shares some of his favourites haunts in Edinburgh.
THE BALMORAL: It’s no exaggeration No 1 Princes Street is the best address in Edinburgh. This landmark hotel used to be owned by British Rail and was close to the main station. On account of so many first-class passengers staying here, the architect, Hamilton Beattie, decided to build a 58m clock tower, so resident guests could see the time from any vantage point and be sure not to miss their trains.
The station has gone and so has the old habit of “train spotting”. Instead you cannot miss the tower, which reminds me of a cross between Rapunzel’s hair and the Big Ben in London: You don’t have to take your watch on an early morning jog to see how long you have been running (or climbing) – you just glance upwards.
Each room has sky high windows allowing a bird’s-eye view of the city, stretching from Castle Rock across the park to the Obervatory; you are perched between the Royal Mile and Princes Street, with everything you want to see or shop for within a stone’s throw. This would be a great place to hang glide – it’s a pity the Stuarts were more into hanging.
JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and The Deadly Hallows in Suite 532 – probably the result of looking out her 3m window on to Edinburgh Castle, scene of a few headless parties, except for Mary Queen of Scots’ execution. The Queen would have been much better off dumping Rizzio and getting locked up with Edward in one of the Rocco Forte suites, which are definitely not made for midgets.
The Balmoral’s indoor swimming pool is as long as the nearby bridge, in case it is too cold to exercise outdoors. We arrived on the famous red carpet on a Sunday, serenaded by a friendly Scottish piper from the Black Watch, dressed in full regimental regalia. The minute he heard my South African accent, he told me his ancestors fought in the Siege of Mafeking and burst into a famous Boer War jingle. I didn’t recognise the tune and I didn’t like to tell him my Polish parents missed that war and only arrived in time for World War II.
THE WITCHERY: Edinburgh, mainly because of the gloomy weather and dark history, can feel a bit spooky and you feel as if you could easily be dragged by your locks down one of the back alleys leading off the cobbled streets. But it is in these back alleys that some of the city’s best attractions lurk: The Witchery, a five-star restaurant in the bowels of a Royal Mile basement, has been going strong since I played the Scottish Tennis Open.
I generally don’t eat anything I cannot pronounce, but Angus Beef steak tartare, seafood platters straight out of the Firth of Forth and Scottish haggis are witches’ brew I can handle. Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently also loves the joint. I guess the decor – a glamorous dungeon – is similar to the set of Phantom of the Opera. Ralph Fiennes and Westlife are regulars.
If you read as many historic novels as my girlfriend and are into mile-high candelabra and medieval fireplaces, this is your scene. While she pored over a wine list almost as long as her hair, I paged through the massive leather-bound guest book which has some great self portraits scribbled by even madder people like John Cleese.
THE EDINBURGH CASTLE: You cannot go to Edinburgh and not clamber up the steep Castlehill towards the castle, home of the famous Military Tatoo. It is built on volcanic rock and is considered to be the most haunted place in Scotland, which makes sense when you think how many heads have rolled down the ramparts. Legend has it that if you walk under the drawbridge as a university student you will fail your finals, which didn’t scare me too much, having never written any.
I tried to get a few of my early tennis opponents to head this way before the St Andrew’s tournament, in the hope they might lose their matches, but the curse never seemed to translate to sport too well. They always came back to haunt me.
There is a fantastic shop in the courtyard where, if you are of Scottish origin, you can order embroidered and framed clan crests with your medieval motto attached. They research your maiden name from old books and 12th century manuscripts. I discovered my girlfriend Deborah’s (who’s a McDougal) was “Conquer or Die”, which seemed very authentic.
THE SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY: Being an artist, I am always curious to see what is considered classic or contemporary in other parts of the world. The best thing about the Scottish National Gallery (just off Princes Street) is they don’t rob you at the entrance – you walk in Scot free, into a building modelled on the Parthenon, in a great location overlooking the park.
Scotland, in the build-up to the Ryder Cup, is showing off her resources and artisans. En route from the airport we discovered these magnificent steel “Kelpies” or horses’ heads (larger in scale than War Horse) relating to Scottish folklore and strategically placed along national roads. The Scottish government unveiled them earlier this year, having commissioned appropriately named artist Andy Scott to erect them as part of a £43 million redevelopment progamme, with possible independence from England in mind.
Thus the National Gallery has a walk-in classic section chock-a-block with floor to ceiling paintings depicting Scottish life and landscapes, to rival The Tate, while the lower floor is reserved for modern art, including a childrens’ school collection.
Another unexpected source of inspiration on the same level was the award-winning Scottish Café and Restaurant, serving colourful organic dishes and spectacular city views.
THE ROYAL MILE: If you have never been to the Edinburgh festival, or watched some of the cutting-edge fringe theatre that gathers here from all over the world, every September, then follow in King James’s footsteps along the mile. Many of the festival performers take to the streets “waiting for the Americans to wade in, pockets full of dollars”, during the festive season.
Forget London’s underground buskers, these Scottish acts are the real thing. We stood for half an hour in the cold watching an amazing trapeze artist juggle flaming torches, women out of the audience and fruit. He could have set local wool shops alight if it had gone pear-shaped. We were too busy cracking up with laughter to notice the danger, or the first signs of frostbite.
Further towards the palace, outside an old whisky distillery, a “Scottish Rocker Pig”, not to be confused with Rod Stewart, kept us equally electrified on his guitar strings.
LITTLE RED: Virgin Atlantic has recently launched a domestic route from Heathrow to Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh respectively.
There is only one class, yet anything revolving around Richard Branson is never going to be dull or ordinary, be it economical.
The sight of a post-box-red uniform coupled with a film-star-white smile, transports one in fairy-tale comfort, faster than a Hogwart on a broomstick.
And best of all, your golf bags for those pre-Ryder Cup rounds travel free. - Saturday Star