Updated: Jun 18

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Carcassonne



David was half Irish- his father was from Cork. I wondered what he was doing working in a music shop in the South of France, so far from home. He'd spotted the 'Change The World' sign on my guitar as he'd been inspecting the damage. The words had been cut out from a clothes label from Oxfam and blu-tacked to the head-stock three years ago, by a very optimistic, seventeen year old me.


'So you're going to change the world?'


'That's my plan... I'm just not sure how.'


As the words left my mouth I realised that the last bit wasn't exactly true, so I added,


'We can change it in small ways. Just by being a good person.'


I'm still not sure whether this inspired him or if he simply felt sorry for the poor, travelling musician girl because he said,


'Bring your guitar case here.'


I brought it over and he slipped a packet of strings into the front pocket.


'Nobody needs to know.'

Following a hand-drawn map, proudly presented to me by a friendly old lady working in a supermarché, I'd finally found SOS music and introduced them to my broken guitar.


One of the tuning pegs had worn out and needed replacing. A discovery I'd made that morning, just as I'd finally summoned enough courage to busk outside the old city of Carcassone.


The string wouldn't tighten and I'd ended up having to take it off completely. It was the first time I'd ever tried playing with only five strings. It felt like walking through a city you know like the back of your hand and finding some of the streets are missing.


I'd left rainy Glasgow the day before and been welcomed by humming Southern sunshine. After dumping everything I owned off at the Auberge de Jeunesse, I'd wandered around marvelling at how surreal it felt to be lost in this little, fairytale world, hidden within ancient walls and towers. The medieval city was a beautiful muddle of narrow stoned streets, tiny ivy-edged doors and windows and endless nooks and crannies.


That morning I'd set up at La Porte Narbonnaise; one of the main gates leading to the fortified city. It was too early to be busy but the few people lingering around seemed to be reacting positively- both tourists and locals. It was my first time busking in a non-English speaking country and I felt conscious that I wasn't singing in French. I tried to make up for it by saying 'Merci' every time someone threw in a coin.


A few songs in and I'd just been getting used to the one string thing when the silent, solemn presence of une gendarmette materialised beside me.


'Here it's not possible.'


'Is it because I need a permit?'


She ignored me. Her Walkie-Talkie had started crackling and it was probably more important.


Then something happened that had never happened before but has happened many times since. It's secretly grown to be one of my favourite Being-Stopped-By-Police-Whilst-Busking scenarios, simply because it makes me feel like less of a criminal and more like a welcomed and appreciated street musician.


A man carrying cardboard boxes who'd stopped to listen and had witnessed me being shut down mid-song, marched towards the Gendarmette and over the mountain in his arms, he started arguing with her in French. She put down her Walkie-Talkie. All I caught all of his angry speech was 'musique' and 'plaisir'. I think he was saying I should be allowed to play there because the people are enjoying it. At least that's what I hope he was saying. He definitely disagreed with her anyway because in the end he marched off with his cardboard boxes.


I didn't feel like getting arrested so I packed up and went to the tourist office to ask where I could busk. Apparently busking is completely forbidden in the old city, unless the act is related to Medievalism. I could apply for a permit at the 'Mairie.' I wasn't in the mood for dressing up as a knight or learning the harp or the hurdy gurdy and having already made enough money for food, guitar repairment fees and that night's hostel, I decided to call it a day and find the music shop.

Below the Castle topped hill, beyond the River Aude, lays Carcassone's new town. I considered busking in a square called 'Place du Carnot' but it being a midweek day at the beginning of May, it was almost empty. There were also groups of Gendarmerie patrolling the streets and I didn't want another confrontation. Perhaps on some evening in July it would be perfect. But for now, in the words of the police lady,


'Here its not possible.'


Itching for a good old busk, I decided to leave Disney Land behind and head North-West, to the pink city of Toulouse.



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Toulouse


'Happiness is sometimes found in the unknown.'


I was feeling disheartened.


I'd chosen France because after years of learning French at school, numerous Jacques Brel albums, a language exchange to Lyon, countless Victor Hugo quotes and too many French films about boarding schools, strange waitresses and Edith Piaf, I'd fallen in love. The reason I'd been in such a hurry to leave magical Edinburgh and it's old volcanoes behind was because my heart was already in France.


Now I was beginning to realise that the reality was; poetry and romance aside, France unfortunately has much stricter busking laws than Ireland and the UK.


The first thing I did upon arriving in Toulouse was find a music shop to ask about busking. I was gravely informed that amplifiers are banned all over the city. My plan was to busk anyway and if the police came to stop me, I'd simply say I didn't know.

Toulouse is one of my favourite cities in France. As soon as I'd stepped off the bus I'd felt something. The people are warm and friendly, buildings the colours of sunsets, street art on every corner, it smells like flowers and spices.


I knew just by looking at the earthy clothed, unconventional folk smoking cigarettes outside the funky bars and cafes and the fact that the hostel had a piano in the basement, that this was a place where people would be open to street music. Despite a discouraging beginning, I had a strong feeling that I should persevere and try to busk here.


Remembering the words of Todd, the escape artist I'd met in Edinburgh;



You have to be able to adapt to the street, be open to change. You have to be malleable.

I realised I had to improvise.


I think this was my second lesson. It wasn't helpful to compare Toulouse to my hometown and be angry and sad that there were rules here preventing me from doing what I do, in the way I'd do it back home. I shouldn't expect things to work in the same way everywhere. Different cities have different codes.

I found the narrowest street with the most foot traffic and started singing and playing acoustically. Nobody was really listening, my voice was so quiet unamplified. I was just considering crying and giving up and when a girl stopped to smile encouragingly, dropping a tenner into my case. I saw it as a sign.


I looked up to see this lively group of old, smiling, white-haired men standing across from me. They came over and told me about this French singer I should listen to. They started singing jollily whilst clumsily showing me songs on Youtube and making declarations of 'une belle voix'. I gave them a CD and things started looking up.


I really got into it. I was standing in front of this graffiti covered door, there was a ledge so I decided to stand on it to help my voice carry. That's when I let go. I had no choice but to let go. It felt so freeing, pushing my voice as loud as I could. The few people that stopped to listen were really listening, I could feel it. Without a microphone or a microphone stand, I felt much closer to them. I started feeling emotional.

I met a photographer who took some wonderful photos, he bought my CD and promised to send me them as a souvenir.


A man called Nino also bought a CD and told me he knew of a place where there would be more people. He brought me to La Daurade, along the Canal de Garonne. A patch of grass and concrete beside the river, swarming with groups of young folk soaking up the sun. I set up and sung two songs but nobody could hear me.

I decided to take the risk. We were a few streets away from the Capitole (the centre) and the place was packed. I figured the chances of me being noticed were slim so I took out the amplifier. It was amazing. I had a crowd the whole time. Nino stayed to watch and listen and offer nods and smiles of encouragement every now and again.


After lots of clapping, CD sales and receiving an invitation to sing at a wedding in November. I got a bit carried away. Completely forgetting the fact that I had a cold, I failed to remember my plan to only sing for an hour or so. It wasn't until I tried saying 'Merci' into the mic that I realised I was losing my voice. That was my last busk in Toulouse. My voice was gone. I'd had such a beautiful time that I didn't care. It was worth it. However I resisted the temptation to play again until I could speak without croaking.


Never busk with a cold was lesson number three.


That evening I made spaghetti with lentils and ate it on the hostel balcony. Watching the sky turn the colour of the brickwork, pretending I was sitting in a treehouse in a rainforest as a thunderstorm brewed and rain began pouring down over the leafy courtyard, I felt at home within myself.


My heart sank when the receptionist informed me in the late afternoon the following day that there'd been a mix up with my booking. They were fully booked and I couldn't stay there that night. In the heart of Arnaud Bernard, it was a colourful, welcoming place with a courtyard downstairs and mini-kitchens in each of the rooms. I was disappointed and slightly worried that I'd have to find elsewhere to sleep.


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Colomiers


After two metro rides and fifty minutes on a bus, I'd complicatedly reached Colomiers. Twelve kilometres away, in Toulouse's largest suburb, the Friendly Auberge was the nearest and cheapest accomodation I could find at such short notice. The slight problem was that it was in the middle of nowhere.


I started to panic a little when I got off at the bus stop and realised I had to walk alongside a main road for another 20 minutes with a backpack, a rucksack and a trolley full of busking gear. It was getting dark and there was nobody about except for the occasional passing car.


Exhausted but relieved, I finally reached the colourful signs for the hostel. It looked warm and homely, the building was surrounded by nature. There were tents under trees and the shutters on the windows were painted blue, red and green. The reception housed a piano and towering bookshelves.


That's where I met Hanas and Helen. At first I thought they were French but as it turned out they were Germans who'd been living in France for ten months. They were my roommates for the night and they inspired me. We strolled to the supermarché for baguettes and other things, chatting about France in French.


Their level of French was insane. To my ears, they sounded like native speakers. After meeting them, I downloaded Duolingo, a French storytelling app and 'borrowed' a French children's book from the hostel. (It wasn't really stealing because I left the sunglasses I'd been given back in Edinburgh in the room on purpose, so it was more of an indirect exchange.)


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Strange encounters


Leaving Hanas and Helen behind, I returned to Toulouse the following day, resisting the temptation to busk. It was 26 degrees and the river banks were full of life. I was sadly still croaking so I forced myself to leave my busking gear in the dorm and explore the city.


I was walking barefoot in Prairie des Filtres, a park along the river, when a man sitting on a bench asked me where my shoes were and 'Is that a sketchbook you're holding?'


I ignored the first question and replied,


'No, it's my writing.'


He asked if he could draw on a page in exchange for me drawing on a page of his. I was wary at first. I was nineteen and travelling alone, my first reaction was to be suspicious. Then I noticed he had paper and a little black box with him. He must be an artist, I thought.


We sat down on the grass and drew.


His name was Claude and I couldn't tell if he was a genius or insane. He opened his little black box, revealing a row of black, red, blue, orange and green Chinese ink sticks. He casually strolled over to the water's edge and came back with two blue bottle caps filled with water. He ceremoniously dipped the ink sticks in the water, then rubbed them on two stones.

He wanted to draw over something I'd written so I opened my journal on a page of a song I'd scribbled back in Carcassone. He gave me a square of paper, the size of a tile, in exchange.

I thought, 'How am I supposed to draw on this? It's way too small.'


I over-analysed my drawing and tried too hard. Feeling frustrated with the small square, I started to unfold the paper to make it bigger but Claude insisted I keep it how it was. Despite my best efforts it turned into a black smudge and I wished I could start again. Hearing me sigh, he suggested I was finished. Of course I disagreed and kept on drawing. I ended up making it worse.

Afterwards, I realised that I should have listened to his suggestion. Sometimes you need to know when something's finished. You've got to know when it's time to put your Chinese ink sticks down.


When we'd finished our drawings, before we parted ways, Claude told me he'd done many drawing exchanges with people over the years, both with strangers and with friends. He had heaps of those small white squares at home. He revealed that he kept every single of them.


'How many do you have?'


'Hundreds.'


Claude was one of the many characters I met in Toulouse. It's one of those cities that opens you up and makes you meet people. The lady sharing my dorm with me, Céleste was another. Ecstatic to hear that I was a foreigner, travelling and learning French she insisted on giving me a 23,425 steps tour of the city completely en Français.


Céleste was so excited to speak that she barely heard a word I said. Seeing as my voice needed a rest anyway, I thought her company might be good for me. We wandered around Toulouse, stopping as she spoke animatedly about every second stone, bridge and church. She didn't have a word of English and I struggled to decipher her racing French. After an hour of nodding and smiling, I was exhausted.


Céleste delighted in including passing strangers into our excursion, declaring proudly that she was giving me a tour of the city, that I was from Ireland and that 'She's not wearing shoes because that's what people in Ireland do'. I didn't have the heart to correct her so I just smiled and nodded at the bewildered strangers who stared at my feet in confusion and disbelief.


I'd been in France for a week now and I'd only busked twice. It felt like being in hibernation. I was patiently waiting for my cold to go and my voice to return. This is what I was scribbling in my journal in the hostel basement, beside the piano when somebody sat down beside me.


We started chatting and I soon discovered that it was a fellow busker. He was from Northern Italy, high up in the mountains where they speak Ladin. It was the first other busker I'd met in France and it was lovely to chat to someone with such a similar perspective, someone on the same sort of journey. There was no need to explain how or why we were doing it. There was simply a mutual understanding on what the other was experiencing.


It made me feel less alone. It was a reassuring reminder that there were other wanderers out there doing what I was doing!



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journal scribblings


Nothing inspires me more than travelling

It fills my eyes with wonder

My ears with song

My heart with wholeness

and my Soul with Sun

-May 6th, 2018.



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En bref



Carcasonne


Busking spots:

  • Inside the old town or outside La Porte Narbonnaise (get a permit from the town hall, but only if you play the harp, hurdy gurdy, etc. or dress up as a knight, jester, etc.)

  • Place du Carnot, the new town, in summer (not sure how this would go down with police, perhaps better if unamplified)


Explore:


Accomodation:



Toulouse


Busking spots:

  • La Daraude, along La Canal de Garonne

  • Nowhere near La Place du Capitole if you've got an amplifier!

  • Acoustically in a narrow yet busy street such as Rue Saint-Rome


Accomodation:


Explore:



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Coming soon:



La France - Part Two


Including: Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Nantes, Rennes...


*Some photos were taken from Pixabay and Unsplash, as I sadly lost all the photos from this period of my travels in a fatal computer-SD card transfer.



#france #travel #busking

Updated: Jun 18

Seeing as travelling and busking aren't possible right now, I've decided this is the perfect time for me to start that blog that's been on my to-do lists for the past two years. I'll be reminiscing through old journals, photos and videos and sharing my experiences of busking and travelling my way around Europe!


One of the most exciting yet often overwhelming parts of arriving in a new place, loaded up with all of your busking gear, is finding the right place to play. I've often found myself sitting on buses, frantically googling the best busking spots and sifting through old busking blogs from 2009 (where the information has been helpful but sadly too out of date to be of any use) or wandering up and down streets, dragging my busking trolley behind me with aching arms, trying to trust my busking instincts and determine the best place to set up.


I'd like to use this space as a place where I can share what little knowledge I have of playing music and busking around Europe so that other travellers or travelling musicians may find something that may help them on their own future crusades or musical endeavours.


❛Wander off lightly into the wild unknown.❜

If you're dreaming of travelling but don't feel brave enough to do it, I think the best thing to do is just book a ticket. Stop overthinking.

Choose the cheapest date, pay for your ticket and tell yourself 'I'm ready. I'm doing this, no matter what.'


In 2018 I decided I wasn't feeling fulfilled because I wasn't focusing on what I loved. One day in April, tired of daydreaming, I finally quit my college course and flew to Edinburgh with my guitar, my amplifier and my lovely friend Liam.


We stayed at the Castle Rock Hostel. Eleven pounds a night. Free tea and coffee. Breakfast for £1.50. A music room and art all over the walls. A few cobble stones away from Edinburgh Castle (built on top of an extinct volcano!) and the Royal Mile. It's one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in and all the windows are huge. Liam even ended up volunteering there for a few hours a day, in exchange for a free bed.


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Busking


My first day of busking in Edinburgh was terrible. No matter where I tried to play, I kept getting shut down. The first place I set up was at the side of St. Giles Cathedral. After a few songs a man came out and told me I was disturbing him and his holy work. I moved to the Grassmarket- a huge square surrounded by quaint little shops and pubs.


Ignoring the intimidating signposts displaying pictures of amplifiers with large red lines going through them, I set up my amp between two trees and started singing. To my surprise, people started sitting down on benches to listen. Sadly, after an angry old lady with a rebellious glass eye appeared for the second time, informing that she was going to call the police if I didn't go away, I had to pack up.


The Grassmarket is a residential area who's residents have been 'plagued by buskers for years' the glass-eyed lady croaked bitterly, pointing her crooked, wrinkly finger in my face. I burst into tears. It felt as though my whole 'busk and travel the world' plan was completely failing. I remember thinking 'I've just left everything behind to play in the streets and they're not letting me do it'.


After being encouraged to leave for the third time, this time by a fellow busker; a man with his face painted blue, who told me I needed a 'permit' to busk during the day, I wandered hopelessly down the Royal Mile, tears in my eyes, thinking I should never have left home.


I had stopped on the side of the street and was wondering what to do next when a kind looking, red-headed and bearded magician waiting for his turn to busk spotted me and asked if I was alright. His name was Todd Various, an escape artist. I told him I was having trouble finding a place to play and that I'd just encountered a mean, angry old lady. When I mentioned the glass eye he laughed and said he knew who I was talking about. She was infamous for causing trouble for street performers. Todd gave me a tissue and some sunglasses and offered me his suitcase to sit on. As he explained how the busking scene works in Edinburgh, I realised this was my first lesson.


When you get to a new city and aren't sure how things work there, the best thing you can do to get an idea of the busking scene, is to ask other buskers. (Preferably buskers who aren't in the middle of a performance- buskers who are hanging around, writing poems, drinking coffee and scratching their beards whilst waiting for their turn to play.) Most of them will be delighted to impart their knowledge on travellers from faraway places. Chatting to them immediately gives you a sense of connection to the city and busking in a spot that they've suggested to you, gifts you with a sense of security.

Apparently amplifiers are banned in Edinburgh so I was advised to busk in the evening when there's less of a chance of being stopped by the police. I found the most magical spot. At the very top of the Royal Mile, just below Edinburgh castle. The sun would set in the evenings, casting the castle's shadows on the cobbles. Couples and families would stroll by, arm in arm, hand in hand. I had many beautiful, peaceful evening busks there (once all the bagpipe players had gone home) and it soon made up for all the misfortune I'd experienced on my first day.


The top of the Royal Mile became my regular busking spot for the rest of my two weeks in Scotland. One day I thought I'd change things up a little, so I wandered over the railway tracks to Rose Street. Edinburgh is split into two parts; Old Town and New Town. The former; a bustling, cobbled, hilly maze of tartan kilts and scarves and tourists. The latter; more local, a bit sadder.


I only tried busking once on Rose Street, somewhere near Primark. It didn't go well. It was eerily quiet, a grey Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it was me, maybe it was just the wrong time of the day, the wrong day of the week, whatever the reason was, nobody was listening. After a while, an old man came over and like a Scottish Prophet declared; 'the rain is coming'. Two seconds later it started lashing and all of my busking gear got soaked. Perhaps Rose Street on a sunny weekend would have been better.

Busking at the top of the Royal Mile.


Another place I tried was 'The Meadows'. A wide open space of endless green lawns, laced with cherry blossoms. There was a man busking acoustically along the long, lampost-lined walkway so I set up far away from him, near the park entrance, where two paths crossed. It was a beautiful spring weekday afternoon and the park was peaceful and quiet. Too peaceful and quiet. Asides from the occasional jogger, cyclist or strolling couple, the walkways were deserted. I didn't mind though, I played for myself and drank up the pink blooming blossom trees.


Apparently in summer, the Meadows are heaving with brightly coloured picnic blankets and the smoke from barbeques dances between the trees. Perhaps busking on a warm summer's evening in The Meadows would have been more successful.


As for other busking spots, I didn't try anywhere else. My courage had been knocked and I didn't fancy another encounter with glass eye. I did see a lot of buskers playing on Princes Street though and they seemed to be doing well. One of whom was Megan D. Their soft, unique voice and alternative takes on covers stopped me right in my tracks and forced me to buy a CD.

Buskers near Princes Street



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open mics


My favourite open mic was Out of the Bedroom. It's held in a cosy, nest of a bar called 'Woodland Creatures'. The music room is surrounded by trees made out of ropes and fairy lights and flowers. The best part was every act gets a whole 15 minutes and only original material is allowed.


Full of enthusiasm, I played at a different open mic nearly every night so it's difficult to remember them all but two others of my favourites were The Wee Pub and The Outhouse.

I noticed there were regulars at these musical evenings and they brought a warm, familial atmosphere with them each night in their guitar cases. The singer-songwriter scene there seems strong and I found the other musicians to be friendly, open and inclusive.


If you're looking for further information on Edinburgh's Open Mic night's here's a Facebook group you can check out or visit this open mic website.



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Adventures

If you're planning a trip to Edinburgh, I'd say go during Springtime. I can't speak for the other seasons as I've only ever seen Edinburgh at the end of April; an explosion of daffodils, daisies, cherry blossoms and tulips. The days are slowly warming up and there are far less tourists than in Summer.


If you find yourself there on April 30th, you can't miss The Beltane Fire Festival; a Celtic celebration of the birth of Summer. With all the wonder of children, Liam and I climbed Calton hill under the full moon, following the rumbling drums, losing ourselves in the blazing fires, the wild dancing and a world of weird and otherworldly characters.

Beltane Fire Festival, April 30th, 2018.


Climb an extinct volcano called 'Arthurs Seat' in the early evening. Watch the Sun spread fading orange all over the city, hold the Moon in your hands as she slowly rises, guiding you safely back down the hill and home to your warm hostel dorm.

Liam holding up the Moon, Arthur's Seat.


Spend some time perched in a tree in the Royal Botanic Garden, take a free tour up North, through the wild highlands ('free tour' means you pay your tour guide whatever you think the tour was worth) and laugh at the other tourists jumping off the tour bus to frantically take photographs of famous castles, read the words written all over the walls of The Writer's Museum, visit the graveyard behind Flodden Wall, where half the character's names from Harry Potter are carved onto tombstones, see the Gothic buildings in the distance transform into Hogwarts before your very eyes.

Wander around the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (make sure you get there before it closes or else you'll end up just walking around the building looking for an unlocked door or sneaking into the vegetable patch to check out whats growing just to make the journey feel worthwhile).


Pretend you've been invited to a college art exhibition- snack on the free food and sip pink champagne whilst casually admiring the artwork and smiling at suspicious strangers, stroll along the river to the charming Dean Village and Gardens (I wouldn't recommend following the music into a random building or up the creaky stairs because the violin players might get angry with you).


Hop on a bus to Portobello beach and fall asleep on the sand wake up hungry and wander sleepy eyed to the nearest chipper or simply lay in the almost Irish-green grass of Princes Street Gardens or The Meadows.


'Just a Song' outside the Writer's Museum


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almost The end


I know the world today is in a state of uncertainty. (There's enough being said about it already which is why I didn't want the current pandemic to be the focus of this writing.) As time appears almost frozen, now is the perfect time to reflect on the past and make plans and dreams for our freedom-filled futures; when things slowly return to normal and travelling and playing music on busy streets and in cosy, beer-filled bars becomes a possibility again.


I hope you enjoyed reading some reflections from my past and maybe you'll take something from it that will be of some benefit to you in the future!


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journal scribblings


Life was a page,

You were the pen.

Will we ever live as intensely again?

-April 19th, 2018.


(I've just realised that last line was stolen from Eavan Boland, oops.)



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En bref


I thought I'd include a summary here, for anyone who'd like to skip my ramblings and get straight to the point...


Busking Spots:

  • The top of The Royal Mile (evenings)

  • The Meadows (summer/weekends)

  • Rose Street (not on a rainy weekday)

  • Princes Street

  • The Grassmarket (only if you're unamplified, really brave or invisible)


Open mics:

Edinburgh's Open Mic's Facebook group

Edinburgh Open Mic Nights - The Top 10


Explore:

  • Edinburgh Castle

  • The Meadows

  • Arthur's Seat

  • Beltane Fire Festival (30th of April)

  • Royal Botanic Garden

  • The Highlands free day tour

  • The Writer's Museum

  • Greyfriar's Kirkyard (Harry Potter tombstones)

  • Scottish National Gallery

  • Dean Gardens and Village

  • Portobello Beach

  • Princes Street Gardens


Accomodation:


* If you believe any of the above information to be inaccurate, or if you have further advice that I can add to update this post, do contact me and let me know!



#busking #openmics #edinburgh

© 2018 by Sonny Casey. All rights reserved. 

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