A young man with a beaming smile puts out his hand in front of me, leaving me no choice but to collect yet another flyer from an (over) enthusiastic promoter. Before I get the chance to thank him, he dives straight into a spiel about a bunch of people having some sort of relationship crisis. It’s a pitch that is not unlike the ones I’ve heard so far, and therefore I find myself distracted by everything else around me: the pungent smell of fried fish merged with the aroma of Mexican food, the cacophony of voices which occasionally allows me to catch the name of a show and venue, and the group of Asian musicians getting ready for a street performance.
And while I absorb it all, I try to devise a mental route that would get me from my University campus to Princes Street without having to duck past more promoters and somersault my way over awe-struck tourists.
I continue walking towards Princes Street, tucking my newly-acquired flyer in my pocket to avoid coming across as an ardent festival-goer to the dozens of promoters in Bristo Square.
“Five more days and they’ll be gone,” I reassure myself as I fumble in my bag for my water bottle, which I find buried under a heap of flyers.
For the first time since moving to Edinburgh, I feel like a local.
A hotchpotch of shows and tricks
“Ladies and gentleman, it’s showtime!”
The opening line to every street performance has to be one of the top cliches of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Curiousity gets the better of me and I move towards the small number of people scattered around a shirtless man who has just started to take out some weird stuff out of a metal case. I decide that he’s either a fire juggler, a unicyclist or just another man who takes pleasure in sinking his back into a bed of nails.
This is my second Fringe experience, so it is safe to say that I have seen almost every street performance under the sun. I ignore the performer’s calls for the spectators to move closer and instead walk away. It would be rude to watch the show without giving the performer a tip at the end, and I have given my last few coins to a Japanese acrobat whose impeccable stunts wowed many spectators, including myself, in Bristo Square.
The Royal Mile is teeming with promoters and performers competing for my attention and that of the hundreds of tourists walking up and down Edinburgh’s historic street. A girl in a pink squirrel onesie hands me a flyer, and a few seconds later I find myself pulled into another pitch about a comedy show that is supposed to be year’s favourite among critics. As I try to weave my way through the slow-moving crowds, I nearly trip on a promoter lying completely still on the floor, his arm sticking up with a fan of leaflets in his grasp.
Further up the road, I come across a group of girls performing some sort of traditional dance, while on the other side, I spot a busker singing a sappy love song on his guitar. A magician posted by the side of St. Giles’ Cathedral seems to be the star performer at the moment. A sizeable crowd has gathered around him, oohing and aahing at his money tricks. I stand on my toes and crane my neck to try to follow his movements, but give up after a few seconds. Ah, the joys of being 5 foot-nothing.
The dull and the spontaneous
Exiting the Royal Mile through one of the hidden closes offers a brief moment of respite from the festival commotion. I slowly descend the narrow staircase, glancing at the flyers in my hand in case there’s something that sounds intriguing. Absurd titles like Cream Tea and Incest and Chocking to Death on a Currant Bun pique my interest, although one thing I learnt during last year’s Fringe is that one should never judge a show by its title.
I emerge into the Mound, and once again brace myself for the crowds. I join the queue at the pedestrian crossing, then dart across the street towards the steps that lead down to the Scottish National Gallery. One side of the narrow aisle has been taken up by stalls selling Celtic jewellery and expensive handicrafts. As a result, people heading in opposite directions funnel slowly through the remaining space. It is a warm day (by Scottish standards) and I stick my head up, gasping for air, as I try to navigate my way out of the narrow passageway.
The Mound is a hive of activity. There’s an acrobat doing some unimpressive stunts, another aspiring magician doing the same old tricks, and a busker with a guitar channelling his inner Ed Sheeran. The ice-cream truck has garnered a larger crowd than some of the performers. Resisting the urge to get a Mr. Whippy, I walk into East Princes Street Gardens, where things seem to be a bit calmer.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same path I walked along a few weeks ago. The Ferris Wheel that has been set up for the summer months towers over Princes Street alongside its permanent rival, the Scott Monument. The garden is dotted with picnic-goers and sunbathers, while a few other people have made themselves comfortable on the wee slope. The path that cuts across the gardens is lined with street performers and artists, including a Chinese martial artist and a puppeteer handling the weirdest and cutest puppets I have ever seen.
While I have spent the first few days of the Fringe walking around the festival hotspots and taking in the crazy atmosphere, I am now longing for those quiet autumn days when the streets remain crowd-free and quiet until Christmas. I get to the end of the gardens and decided to double back, knowing that I am more likely to find a quiet spot on the other side of Princes Street. Once again, I walk through a cacophony of sounds: traffic, cheers, clapping, tram bells, bagpipes and the occasional cackle of a hungry seagull.
A wee break
As I approach the National Gallery, I hear a familiar tune. I get to the pedestrian crossing that leads towards West Princes Street Gardens and spot Edinburgh’s popular buskers playing at the entrance. Although I never miss an opportunity to watch The Spinning Blowfish play, I feel discouraged by the large group of people occupying the pavement and spilling onto the road. Instead, I head down into the gardens, still within earshot of the uplifting tunes created through the ingenious combination of bagpipes, guitar and drums.
I head towards my usual spot in the gardens, and to my surprise it’s not as busy as I was expecting it to be. I sit on the gentle slope, take a few gulps of water and lean back on my backpack.
As I savour the warmth of the sun on my face, I remind myself that, despite the chaos that characterises the busy month of August, I am extremely lucky to live in such a marvellous and exciting city.
Visiting Edinburgh in August: What you need to know
Edinburgh gets some lovely sunny spells in August, and it can get quite warm in the afternoon. However, expect frequent drizzles and the occasional heavy rainfall.
Book your accommodation as early as possible. Room prices are very high in August. If you’re looking for a good central hotel, I highly recommend staying at the ibis Hotel in South Bridge.
There are hundreds of great shows at the Fringe, from comedy shows and street performances, to world-class plays and animal-free circuses. The standard fee for a good show is £5-20. Many first-time Fringe performers give free shows. You can get a copy of the Fringe programme from The Hub on the Royal Mile.
Things to pack:
1. An anti-theft backpack: The streets of Edinburgh are very busy in August, so make sure you keep your belongings safe.
2. A lightweight jacket: Scottish weather can be very unpredictable in summer. Carry a lightweight jacket with you at all time – even when the sky is completely clear!
3. A stainless steel water bottle: Tap water in Edinburgh is drinkable, so fill up a water bottle every morning before you leave your room to keep yourself hydrated. This is also a great way to avoid having to pay ‘festival prices’ for a drink. Many places in central Edinburgh put their prices up during the festival.
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