Travel: Life beyond the Fringe

Fiona Sturges visits Edinburgh out of festival season and finds a thriving arts scene to rival that of its bigger neighbour, Glasgow
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The Independent Travel
WORD HAS it that the residents of Edinburgh are losing pride in their castle. As waterproofed tourists head for Castle Rock to take in the military memorials and admire the view, the shadow of Scotland's finest fortress looms larger than ever across the town, depriving its more modest attractions of much-needed trade.

And the festival. Don't mention the festival. As autumn recedes into winter, it seems that Edinburgh's annual Fringe celebrations have exhausted the appetite for the arts, reduced hotel proprietors to staring forlornly at their empty foyers and left visitors under the impression that there is nothing left to do.

"We really wanted to come for the festival, but all the hotels were booked up," said a visitor from Dorset. "We've done the castle and the palace. Now we're off Glasgow to do the galleries."

This is the just attitude that gets Edinburgh's tourist board frothing at the mouth with rage. In fact, they are so determined not to be eclipsed by Glasgow's glitteringly arty reputation that they have created a new incentive to keep you from jumping ship. The Ultimate Arts Pass offers a spectacular range of discounts at more than 20 venues across the city in conjunction with a handful of hotels, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the city's rich cultural life, taking in anything from dance and theatre to painting, photography and film.

It was this golden ticket that lured me to Edinburgh on a drizzly October weekend and, having faithfully promised that I would not under any circumstances visit the castle, I prepared to embrace Edinburgh's panoply of hidden treasures.

The art world is often of the opinion that there is an inherent parochialism to be found in galleries outside London, but scraping beneath Edinburgh's conservative veneer I discovered a prolific art scene frequented by people who would have been equally at home in London's Hoxton, the relentlessly hip hub of young British art.

The National Gallery of Modern Art, for example, is a light, laid-back venue despite its rather severe exterior. Crammed with 20th-century paintings and sculpture, including work by Magritte, Matisse, Picasso, Mir and Dal, it is frequented by chattering students, who also take advantage of the prestigious touring exhibitions which are winging their way down to London.

There is also a relaxed feel to the galleries that is rarely encountered down south. A child in a pushchair leant towards an installation by Mona Hatoum that consisted of 240 wire cages each containing flickering light bulbs emitting amplified crackling noises. As he tugged on the wire, I scanned the room for a fire extinguisher and waited for the inevitable telling-off, but the gallery attendant simply chuckled, remarking how a child had appropriated it as a climbing frame on the previous day and had to be gently disentangled from the cables. But the real thrill factor of the gallery lies in its approach via the picture-postcard Water of Leith walkway. This meandering and overgrown path serves perfectly to clear the head before grappling with the complexities of 20th-century art.

The Old Town above Market Street, exotically known as the "gallery quarter", is a haven for tiny boho studios as well as the national museums. The Fruitmarket is a lively affair particularly tailored for a young audience, with its breezy cafe and startlingly loud music. The erstwhile market building cast off its gloomy exterior when it was given an expensive makeover back in 1992 and now boasts two storeys of light and airy spaces. It hosts touring exhibitions and the current show, "10X98 European Commissions", is well worth a look.

A group of virtually unknown photographers vividly capture the changing notions of Europe through deliberately cliched images of different countries, from England's bone china and bowlers to the back of a copiously gelled Italian head, capped with Ray-Ban shades. This is not the most soothing of spaces - during my second visit a gaggle of young people in the bar resolved a music dispute by changing the tape every 30 seconds - but is refreshingly unsnooty and should perhaps be visited in the morning, before the students arrive bestowing their musical gifts.

For those with more sober tastes, the National Gallery of Scotland boasts early Florentine and Northern and Italian Renaissance art, plus an array of work by Scottish luminaries such as Wilkie and Raeburn. Entry is free but your pass will afford you a 10 per cent discount off the shocking array of Raeburn mugs, T-shirts, stickers and fridge magnets available in the shop, should you want them.

The sea of beige and brown baskets at the Royal Museum sent me scurrying straight outdoors to admire the immaculate new Museum of Scotland. This project was nearly abandoned after Prince Charles expressed reservations, but the building's trustees eventually went ahead anyway. Made from local sandstone, the building is a welcome departure from the classical solemnity of other museums and will be open to the public on 1 December. If appearances are anything to go by, this is sure-fire competition for anything Glasgow has to offer.

With a restorative fix of whisky still sloshing about in my belly, I am swept off to the Traverse Theatre for the evening. This venue is always filled to the rafters throughout the festival but appears to be the town's social epicentre out of season, with its industrial-style bar and an alarmingly trendy though perfectly friendly restaurant.

The play we saw was unconvincing to say the least, with feeble performances, but again I warmed to the theatre's air of geniality. But I was warned by the theatre critic of the local arts magazine not to let the play put me off. "There are more good plays here than there are bad, and the bar makes up for it," he assured. "You don't see young people flooding to the National Theatre in London for a piss-up, now do you?"

The Ultimate Arts Pass is available when you book your trip through the Edinburgh Tourist Board's 'Short Breaks' brochure. Special offers include two tickets for the price of one in all major theatres, up to 50 per cent discounts for galleries and gallery shops and a 50 per cent discount on pre-concert lunches. For more information, call the Edinburgh Tourist Board (tel: 0131-473 3855).

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