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Take the high road for odes; Travel Aranda Garrard heads to Edinburgh for a weekend break to discover more about the historic city - and takes in some pre-Burns Night celebrations.

HOGMANAY may be over, but I still managed to grab a CD containing Auld Lang Syne (albeit the Boney M version) for the two-hour car journey to Edinburgh.

My knowledge of the poet Robert Burns extends only to such quaint snippets as this, but even if my better half wasn't tapping his feet like me, and singing along for the second time since New Year, at least he was experiencing something originally penned by Scotland's "supper" hero.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth, and as a result, there is an impressive calendar of events planned with everything from live music to readings, traditional suppers to exhibitions for visitors.

Homecoming 2009 runs from January 25 to St Andrew's Day on November 30, when it is hoped that Scots across the globe will come home and join in the celebrations.

Until now, I always thought of Burns as the biscuit-tin bard, his face emblazoned across shortbread boxes, whisky bottles and tea towels inside souvenir shops lining the Royal Mile.

But as I discovered during my stay, Burns is more than just a grand advertising ploy. He is as important to Scotland as Edinburgh Castle, any tartankilted bagpipe player and even Mary, Queen of Scots, herself.

His poetry truly keeps the country alive, and I for one was going to gratefully respond by raising a glass - or two - to his memory, though I stopped short of eating haggis.

Although I refuse to eat this Scottish delicacy, I realise that haggis is a vital part of any Burns Night feast, and any food that has prose written about it is worth the continuing tradition.

Although I admit I was sorely disappointed as a child when I was told the haggis was not a small furry creature found in the heathers of the Highlands.

As part of our mini Burns celebrations, my better half and I polished off some Scottish shortbread, washed down with many glasses of single malt whisky during a visit to the Scottish Whisky Experience, at the top of the Royal Mile, near the castle. During our trip, we were given an insight into the making of whisky, including a tutored tasting session and information on how the master blenders come up with some of the most famous blends in the world.

As well as being hugely informative, it also proved an inexpensive way of staying warm in the wild weather.

Fun places nearby include Camera Obscura and World of Illusions which is a great stop-off for families with children, and the castle, though this was closed due to bad weather.

Places not to miss include the Writers' Museum, the Elephant House Cafe - where JK Rowling thought up Harry Potter, St Giles Cathedral, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Royal Yacht Britannia.

And no trip to Edinburgh would have been complete without going on one of the city's infamous ghost tours at the City Vaults. Although the Auld Reekie tour didn't touch on as much history as visiting the Real Mary King's Close, I've been trying to get my better half on one of them for the past couple of years.

We have always, rather conveniently, run out of time. Not this time though and, after a few drams of whisky in the cosy but cramped 17th Century Ensign Ewart pub on the Royal Mile, I talked him into it. The tour is not for the faint-hearted, revealing tales of Edinburgh's plague victims, murders and hangings.

And with only four of us on this excursion, it was certainly creepier than at peak times.

For those who aren't satisfied, and still want to see something really grisly, the Royal Mile's Tourist Information Centre offers a piece on graverobbers Burke and Hare in the form of Burke's Skin Pocket Book.

The Jolly Judge, down one of the alleyways off the Royal Mile, and Deacon Brodie's Tavern, offered us as good a spot as any to read Burns's poetry and we made toasts to anyone remotely Scottish, before heading back to our hotel for dinner.

We were staying at the Hilton Grosvenor Hotel which is in Edinburgh's fashionable West End.

It is perfect for those who like shopping as Princes Street is only a five-minute walk away. It costs about pounds 5 by taxi from the Royal Mile back to the hotel - although it's not too far to walk, and that way you can take in the sights and sounds as you go.

As you would expect of any Hilton hotel, the rooms had fine decor, staff were friendly and the restaurant served up some delicious meals. Bar 521 at the hotel also offers a fantastic whisky menu giving diners the perfect dram to accompany their meal.

The hotel is currently planning its Burns Night celebrations and is offering visitors a special package for the weekend of 24/25 January.

So eat shortbread and drink whisky, but don't forget the real meaning - and read Burns's work too!

TRAVEL FACTS

CELEBRATE the 250th birthday of Robert Burns at the Edinburgh Grosvenor Hilton Hotel with a delicious three-course Scottish banquet, the traditional Burns recital and then dance the night away with a ceilidh band. Prices cost pounds 29.95 per person.

Rates at the hotel in Grosvenor Street, Edinburgh, for the weekend of Saturday, January 24/25, start at pounds 75.50 per room, per night, inclusive of full Scottish breakfast and VAT at 15%.

Prices are based on two adults sharing and are subject to availability. Full pre-payment is required at the time of booking which is non-refundable and non-transferable .

Full terms and conditions at www.hilton.co.uk For information on Burns-related events in the year of Homecoming, log on to www.homecomingscotland2009.com

READER TRAVEL

EDINBURGH Military Tattoo - departs August 14 and 28. Three-day break from pounds 165pp.

This is your chance to be at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo this August.

Just imagine being there seated on the ancient and historic esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, a truly matchless setting, enjoying this magical event at first hand.

Massed pipes and drums, dancers and display teams from all over the world create a dazzling spectacle.

Each evening the spectacular show is brought to a close by the Lone Piper, who, high on the castle ramparts, plays a haunting and moving lament before the cosmopolitan cast march off the Esplanade to the accompaniment of the famous pipe melody The Black Bear.

Included in the price:

Coach travel throughout

Two nights accommodation in a hotel in the Ayrshire/Strathclyde areas

Scottish breakfasts

A seat for the Edinburgh Tattoo

Visits to Moffat and Gretna Green

The services of a Tour Manager.

To request a complimentary colour Edinburgh Tattoo brochure telephone The Journal Reader Travel Department on (0191) 201-6000 or Newmarket Travel on 0845 2267741, log on to www.newmarket.travel/nec, or call into our Front Reception, Groat Market, Newcastle, NE1 1ED.

CAPTION(S):

CONVENIENT The Hilton Grosvenor Hotel is ideally placed for shopping in Princes Street.; CLASSIC CITY VIEW The stunning panorama of Edinburgh from Calton Hill.; TAKE A SEAT Bar 521 at the Hilton offered a great menu of whiskies to accompany meals.; COLOURFUL A bustling Edinburgh street.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 17, 2009
Words:1194
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