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April 12, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                            Da Vinci Code: Scotland

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Cheers from Scotland! In case you missed the past few newsletters (here’s the link to our archives), we’re at the end of our three-country trek through Europe. We followed the path of Dan Brown’s novel and upcoming motion picture The Da Vinci Code. This week we close out our amazing trip as we travel from Lincoln, England to Edinburgh, Scotland. If you’re in a hurry or have ADD (like me), there’s another 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.

The best way to reach Edinburgh from Lincoln is by train. If you purchase a BritRail pass from, you won’t have to buy expensive point-to-point tickets. There are no direct trains from Lincoln, so you’ll need to take a 30-minute commuter train to Retford, England, then transfer to a GNER (Great North Eastern Railway) train for Edinburgh. The Edinburgh leg takes just under 3 ½ hours. The ride goes by quickly, as the seats are comfortable (even in coach) and the scenery is amazing -- especially the last hour. You travel along the rocky seashore, and see sheep grazing in the lush green hills. Talk about picturesque!

This was my first time to Edinburgh, and the first thing I learned was how to pronounce it the correct way: "ED-in-burra." I also learned that although Scots speak English, I could hardly understand what they were saying. Boy, do they have a strong accent! I loved it, although it wasn’t easy to find an actual Scot – especially in the city. The city is nearly as multiethnic as New York, particularly in the service industry. I met lots of Irish lads, Poles, Swedes, Canadians, even New Zealanders – along with many other nationalities. It kind of bums me out that the world is slowly turning into one big melting pot. As for money: Scotland is part of the UK, but it is a separate nation. So Scotland does issue its own bank notes, but English pounds are accepted everywhere. However, you might have a hard time using Scottish pounds outside the country, as some places in England won’t accept them. (£1 = $1.74).

Arriving at the Waverley train station in the heart of downtown, I felt like I was trapped in a classic movie. I almost did a double take to make sure I hadn’t gotten out of a time machine, rather than a train. Everything appeared almost black and white. It must have been the high white dome ceiling and legendary black Londonesque cabs all lined up just a few steps from the train. It was weird -- although the station was covered and appeared to be indoors, it obviously wasn’t. Hundreds of taxis sped through the center, dropping off and picking up passengers.

I was fortunate to stay at one of Edinburgh’s nicest hotels. The 5-star Balmoral has been a city landmark for over 100 years. This is where the Da Vinci Code cast and crew stayed while they filmed at nearby Rosslyn Chapel. No one can miss the hotel, as it sticks out proudly amid the amazing Edinburgh skyline, with its distinctive clock tower. The Skyline is so awesome because it’s not filled with modern tall skyscrapers, but rather medium-sized historic buildings that resemble a fairy-tale picture book. I’ve never seen a skyline so charming in my life.

The Balmoral hotel is conveniently located around the corner from the train station. If it had not been raining I would have walked the two blocks; instead I paid £3 ($5) for a taxi. The hotel is elegant and comfortable, with 168 rooms and 20 suites. My room, 628, was was both stylish and contemporary; it had a work desk with a high speed internet connection for £15 ($26) per day. Normal room rates begin at £270 ($470). However, the Balmoral has unveiled a special Da Vinci Code package that includes overnight accommodations, a welcome gift, full Scottish breakfast (yum!), private trip to Rosslyn Chapel with a champagne picnic, and complimentary use of the Balmoral Spa. The price for the DVC package during the high season (May to October) is £455 ($792). The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-556-2414 (outside UK 44-131-556-2414); e-mail:

For something a bit cheaper, try the nearby Radisson SAS Hotel. It’s also centrally located, and prices begin at £91 ($158). However, they don’t have a DVC package deal. Radisson SAS Hotel, Edinburgh, 80 High St., The Royal Mile, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-557-9797 (outside UK 44-131-557-9797).

My two meals at the Balmoral could have been used on the TV show Fear Factor. The first test -- I mean, dish -- was at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, appropriately named Number One (it has won all kinds of awards). This was where I tried sweetbreads for the first time. Of course, I didn’t know I was having sweetbreads because I was dining with a bunch of tourism people. When the fish appetizer came out I asked the waiter if I could have something besides seafood. He promptly brought out what looked like chicken ravioli. I didn’t think anything of it until he came back around and asked, "How are the sweetbreads over the ox tail?" I had one more bite left, and my jaw (and stomach) dropped. My face turned white. I felt like standing up and start yelling, "You just served me cow balls?!" But before I did that I whispered to my seatmate, "Excuse me, what’s in sweetbreads?" She assured me they weren’t cow balls (phew!), and said I had just ate either the pancreas, neck or thymus gland. That didn’t make me feel better, but the beef and pecan cheesecake did.

If that wasn’t bad enough, when I sat down the next morning at the hotel’s Hadrian’s restaurant I ordered the "Full Scottish Breakfast" (£18.50 = $32 ouch!). It sounded good, and I figured what the heck, When in Rome, I mean Scotland… Anyway, when the waiter brought my plate I realized why Scottish men have one of the shortest life expectancies (69.1 years) in the world. These guys seriously need to change their diet. My plate was filled with eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding (fried pigs’ blood) and haggis -- along with baked beans, cooked tomatoes and mushrooms. I knew haggis wasn’t made of anything I wanted to eat, but what the heck -- it couldn’t be as bad as what I ate the night before, right? Wrong! That’s what I get for trying to be cool and fit in like a local. I was later told that nobody eats haggis anymore except tourists. To find out what Haggis really is I logged onto, and found: "Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish. Although there are many recipes, it is normally made with the following ingredients: sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver, windpipe and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour." Now if you’ll excuse me a minute, I’ll go get sick...

Before going out and looking for the Holy Grail at the Rosslyn Chapel, you should relax and explore Edinburgh. The Royal Mile is located just beyond the hotel. It comprises five streets, and is called the Royal Mile because over the ages Scottish and English kings, queens and other royalty have used it to travel between the Palace of Holyrood House (the royals’ official residence in Scotland) and Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Mile is actually just over a mile long, and is heavily commercialized today. It’s full of tourist shops selling tartan pattern clothes and shortbread. Like a fool I bought both.

I didn’t have time to see all of what Edinburgh has to offer (I had to hunt for the Grail), but I did see Edinburgh Castle. It’s the most popular tourist attraction, and is only a 15-minute walk from the hotel — down the Royal Mile, of course. It’s sat atop the famous Edinburgh rock for over 1,000 years; the oldest part (St. Margaret's Chapel) dates all the way back to the 12th century. After a stroll to the top I took in the killer views of Edinburgh (you can see the sea, two miles away). There were lots of buildings and exhibits to explore, but it was way too crowded. I did see the main attraction: the Crown Jewels of Scotland (also known as "The Honours of Scotland"). The jewels consist of a crown, sword and scepter used in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne. It would have been much cooler without the painfully slow-moving line that began out the door, then weaved around the inside of the building and even up the stairs where the jewels are on display. Next time I’ll get there early, so I can go at my own pace. Admission: adults £9.80 ($17), children £3.50 ($6), seniors and students £7.50 ($13).

After the castle you’ll probably be hungry, because the haggis you ate for breakfast didn’t fill you up (you took only a bite, just so you could tell your friends back home that you tried haggis). A few blocks from the castle, tucked away off the Royal Mile, is The Grain Store -- a cozy second-floor restaurant. They use local produce: Scottish beef and lamb, market-fresh fish and seafood, venison, game birds, and fresh fruits and vegetables in season. I went with the pea soup and quiche but a friend ordered pigeon carpaccio. That’s right, pigeon! I figured since I was on a roll, I might as well try it. Stick with the quiche! The Grain Store, 30 Victoria St. (1st floor), Edinburgh; tel.: 131-225-7635 (outside UK 44-131-225-7635).

In all honesty the food in Scotland was very good. Even though they serve some crazy dishes, there are plenty of places to get the good stuff. For a special occasion, and great views of Edinburgh's Castle, go to Tower Restaurant on the rooftop of the landmark Museum of Scotland. It’s owned and run by James Thomson, who has been called "Edinburgh's star restaurateur" by Time Out. The food was very good; service was a little spotty, but the atmosphere was memorable. Tower Restaurant, Museum Of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-225-3003, (outside UK 44-131- 225 3003).

If you’re really into the Da Vinci Code, you might want to hit St Giles Cathedral before heading out to Rosslyn Chapel. St Giles was founded in the 1120s, and is on the Royal Mile. It wasn’t mentioned in the book or used in the movie, but the St. Giles Cathedral is a good precursor to Rosslyn Chapel because it too has pagan medieval carvings. Check ‘em out: St. Giles Cathedral, Royal Mile, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-225-9442 (outside UK 44-131-225-9442); email:

Now for what all Da Vinci Code fans have been waiting for: the big daddy, and the reason I was in Scotland. The Rosslyn Chapel was featured in both the book and movie (they spent four days filming 10 hours a day in late September); this is where Langdon and Neveu uncover the truth of the Holy Grail. Dan Brown writes in Chapter 104: "The chapel’s geographic coordinates fall precisely on the north-south meridian that runs through Glastonbury. This longitudinal Rose Line is the traditional marker of King Arthur’s Isle of Avalon and is considered the central pillar of Britain’s sacred geometry. It is from this hallowed Rose Line that Rosslyn – originally spelled Roslin—takes its name."

The Rosslyn Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair, and is located seven miles outside of Edinburgh. The chapel -- also known as St. Matthew's Collegiate Church -- was originally a Catholic Church. Today it is a working Episcopalian Church, wrapped in scaffolding to protect the roof from the elements. This place has garnered so much attention because of its connections with Freemasonry. It is often called one of the most mysterious places in Scotland, because inside is a variety of stone carvings related to biblical, Masonic, pagan and Knights Templar themes.

Dan Brown wrote: "For centuries this stone chapel had echoed with whispers of the Holy Grail's presence. The whispers had turned to shouts in recent decades when ground-penetrating radar revealed the presence of an astonishing structure beneath the chapel -- a massive subterranean chamber. Not only did this deep vault dwarf the chapel atop it, but it appeared to have no entrance or exit. Archaeologists petitioned to begin blasting through the bedrock to reach the mysterious chamber, but the Rosslyn Trust expressly forbade any excavation of the sacred site." Our guide did admit there is a mysterious chamber directly below the main room. He said the trust might excavate it a few years from now. But he also said the Da Vinci Code book had "little truth to the chapel." I will let you figure out what those inaccuracies are for yourself, but I will say there is no Star of David. Note: St. Clair family descendants do not believe they are direct descendants of Christ.

Although the chapel is only seven miles from Edinburgh, because of traffic it takes 30 minutes by car. If you drive, take the Edinburgh bypass: Straiton Junction A701 to Penicuik/Peebles. Follow A701 to the sign for Roslin (3 miles). Once in Roslin Village, follow signs to the chapel. Two bus services operate to Roslin: Lothian Buses service 15A (not 15), and First service 62. This place used to be lucky if five or six people visited each day. Now you can hardly move. And just wait until the movie opens -- Rosslyn will become a major tourist destination. Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland; tel.: 131-440-2159 (outside UK 44-131-440-2159).

I didn’t want to tell you back in my Paris newsletter, but I cracked the code on my second day in Europe (at least I think I did). As you know, Dan Brown always plays on words with his anagrams. The Swiss bank where Langdon and Neveu go to find the cryptex was supposedly located on 24 Rue Haxo. But there is no such street in that area of town -- the real-life Rue Haxo is on the other side of Paris. Dan Brown was trying to tell us that Haxo is an anagram for "hoax." We have all been suckered! But it sure made for a fun read and enjoyable trip.

Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Scotland (if you missed videos 1 and 2 of the trip, here’s the Paris video and the England video). With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks. For more Paris tips, check out past Johnny Jet trips to Europe in the newsletter archive.

We travel from Scotland to New York to somewhere warm!

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From

The Trip


Commuter Train




Train To Scotland


Seat On Train


Balmoral Hotel


Edinburgh's Skyline


Balmoral Doorman


My Room


SAS Hotel


Waitress At Balmoral




Pecan Cheesecake




Around Town


Famous Street


Edinburgh Castle


View From Top


Phone Booths


Pigeon Carpaccio


Tower Restaurant


St Giles Cathedral


Drive To Rosslyn


Rosslyn Chapel






Inside Chapel


Close-up of Ceiling


Tour Guide


Stone Carving



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  • I never read the Da Vinci code but I did a Harry Potter thing in England a couple of years ago, although I did it on my own (not a tour). England was a lot of fun. I really enjoy your trip journals. I've been getting them for a couple of years, now. Love your stuff -- keep it coming! And thanks! Laurie B - Iselin, NJ
  • I think it's a GREAT newsletter. Lincolnshire really IS an undiscovered jewel of England. A little more discovered now, thanks to you ...
  • John Males - Lincoln, England
  • Outstanding....Thanks! T.W. - San Antonio,TX
  • I loved reading these. Your photos – especially of the Lincoln cathedral – are remarkable. Tamara D – Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  • It's been fun reading your DaVinci Code reports. I took the tour when I was in Paris a year ago and enjoyed it. However, I wished that I had read the book right before the tour rather than two years or so before. Joan S. - Rockford, Illinois
  • You have a wonderful travel site. But I was truly moved by your Dad's poetry. Amazing little gems of insight that brought tears to my eyes. He must be an amazing and sensitive guy. Chris S – Philadelphia, PA
  • Wow! I just checked out your web site, Johnny...It is truly comprehensive. Joyce W - Los Angeles, CA

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