Here’s what I love about Edinburgh: It’s not just one city, but layer upon layer of entangled cities. Old Town, the original medieval city, is an unpredictable labyrinth of alleys, stairs, streets, bridges and underground passages that stack, overlap and connect in unexpected combinations. You’ll be walking on a street and suddenly you realize the street is actually a bridge and you’re looking down into the fourth-floor window of a building in the street below you.
New Town, the 18th-century “new” expansion of the city, at first seems dull and colorless compared to Old Town. The buildings are all in the same pompous Georgian style: rows and rows of severe gray stone facades (now blackened by coal and car fumes) rising up along straight cobble-stone avenues that were planned by ambitious men with order and empire on their minds. But when you look down over the cast-iron rails at the base of all these stately buildings, you’ll notice that down below there are little gardens and basement apartments, and that below these basements, there are more basements, under which there are other basements, stacking down into an subterranean city. And then you see little doors that lead from the underground gardens to spaces below the sidewalk on which you’re standing, and it becomes clear that the city that really matters is not the one that first meets the eye.
I think I already visited Edinburgh many years ago, when I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The book made a deep impression on me, and for years I dreamed about cities almost every night. But back then I thought it all just existed in Calvino’s mind. I never expected to reach one of these cities myself.