Monday, September 5, 2011

Edinburgh's Seaside: The Good, the Bad, and the Bathrooms

Edinburgh is not exactly what you’d call a beach town.  While the Firth of Forth flows into the North Sea on the city’s northeastern border, cold and wet Scottish weather doesn’t accommodate days in the sun. Nonetheless, the beach village of Portobello is mentioned in most Scottish travel guides. So I thought I’d check it out.

Historical Significance
Portobello has as much history as it does sand. Throughout the 18th century, it was a resort for Edinburgh’s middle class because it featured rare and fancy “bathing machines.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century growth of railways that working -lass citizens flocked to the beach “fun fairs” were erected.  In time, these “fun fairs” Americanized to become arcades and ice cream shops.  Kitzchy-fun, unhealthy food, you can imagine why I just had to visit!

Safety Concerns
While I was excited to visit, I was also a little apprehensive about travelling to Edinburgh’s Northeastern outskirts. Though several bus lines run from the city center to Portobello, buses back are infrequent.  Planning my trip, I was careful to avoid being stranded in the beach town.  Portobello is close to Leith, a “dodgy” area with drug activity made famous by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

And indeed, the further my bus traveled from the city center, the dodgier the neighborhoods looked.  Rather than trees and gardens, the streets were flanked with greasy bars and crumbling sidewalks.  Out here, the bus stops were covered in graffiti- and not graffiti of the artsy sort.  Out here, there weren’t any tourists taking photos, just locals smoking or carrying groceries home.  Out here, I was completely out of place.

When I stepped off the bus at King’s Road, the first thing I saw was a large pub with peeling green paint and signs plastered across the front door:  “Absolutely NO Under-21s Served,” and  “No Football Colours  Allowed Inside.”  Fantastic, I thought So there’s definitely lots of brawls here.

I resolved to catch the next bus to the city center, which gave me 30 minutes to explore.  Then, I followed a sign for the Portobello Beach Promenade toward a red cobbled street.   When I came closer to the red cobbled boardwalk, I spotted a girl with a backpack taking a photo- another tourist!  Feeling a lot safer, I set off for a short walk.

Impressions of the Coastline
Altogether, Portobello beach was underwhelming.  Fish-and-chip shops littered the walkway and gave the air a greasy smell.  The sand was damp and orange-hued; I didn’t feel inclined to walk through it.  And don’t even get me started on the toilets! I was unfortunate to need to use one, and was again reminded of Trainspotting and the film version's worst-toilet-in-Scotland scene (don't watch this if you have a weak stomach. Seriously).  Gross!

This isn’t to say that Portobello is without charms.  It is possible to imagine- given nicer weather and a coat of paint- having a pleasant day with friends strolling beside the firth. Old-style arcades and ice cream parlours might provide hours of retro-style fun.  Also, I was impressed by lots of well-behaved dogs running off the leash while their owners took an afternoon jog.  I must have seen 15 dogs running free, but not one of them chased or barked at me!

Despite the cute puppies and retro-flair, I headed home without stopping for dinner.  Intuitively, I felt I’d be safer to leave before nightfall, and none of the pubs looked all that appealing. Still, I hope that Edinburgh’s city council will reinvest in the place- maybe on a sunny day in a few years I’ll return to a livelier Portobello beach.

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