There's probably only one thing in Edinburgh more popular with tourists than the hoary old Harry Potter inspirations, and that's the concept of an 'underground city'.
I have written before about the various areas of the city centre that might qualify as 'underground' attractions, but the best and most genuinely subterranean attraction of all is one that remains a hidden gem, a little further from the tourist trail than the vaults of South Bridge or Mary King's Close.
Gilmerton is an Edinburgh suburb a short bus ride south of the city centre, and beneath its streets are a network of tunnels cuts into the rock that remain a genuine mystery to local historians and archaeologists.
Gilmerton Cove, as it is known, is accessed through a small shop front adjacent to a bookmaker's, on the crossroads of a busy arterial transport route to the city centre. Step inside this unassuming looking building and you'll find a narrow staircase descending below the level of the street, and into a weird and wonderful world of hand-carved passageways and mysterious chambers hewn from the rock.
A significant stretch of these tunnels has been excavated, and a local guide will take you down with hard hats and torches to give you an introduction to the various features of the cove, along with some of the known history of the area. Then you're free to explore by yourselves - as far as you dare!
The passageways are believed to be at least 300 years old, but there is speculation that their origin goes back as far as the Roman period.
In the nineteenth century a local man claimed to have carved the tunnels himself by hand, but the extent of the network - there are unexplored areas still filled with rubble that are considered too dangerous or unstable to excavate - suggests his story was no more than a bold boast to impress his neighbours.
Certainly whoever was responsible for digging the tunnels must have dedicated considerable time to the task. Some chambers of the tunnel have been carved with seating areas and tables, along with ledges and shelves that would have been useful for storage, and a room that appears to have functioned as an altar or chapel space.
Various suggestions have been expressed about the people who may have once utilised these mysterious spaces.
There are plenty of questions but no solid answers at Gilmerton Cove, and the sense of genuine mystery is something that gives it an appeal to those whose appetites are unsatisfied by the ghost tours or the artifice of the Edinburgh Dungeons.
Even Mary King's Close lacks some of the darkness and mysterious atmosphere of these chilly, slightly damp, strangely quiet tunnels and chambers.
So if the glare of the sun is too much for you, or you have an urge to get up-close and personal with the world beneath your feet, take the trip to Gilmerton Cove for a truly unusual, unsettling and unique experience.
For above-ground thrills, my private Edinburgh walking tours can show you more of the city and its history!
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