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George Mitchell: Inverness is the perfect city for a short break

The sun shines over the beautiful Highland capital. Images: Shutterstock.
The sun shines over the beautiful Highland capital. Images: Shutterstock.

It was after being asked by a reader in a well-known supermarket last week: “So, where you off to next?” that I replied: “Inverness!”

He looked at me with intrigue, and commented: “I’ve read articles by you recently on Banchory, Carrbridge and Perthshire – is it all not a bit of a comedown after where you usually go?”

I presume by that he meant Russia, Ukraine, Palestine and such like.

“Not at all,” I said with total honesty. “I doubt if anyone will try to arrest or detain me, question my political or religious beliefs in any of my Scottish destinations.”

For me, Inverness is like Banchory, as in I know where it is, have driven through it, but never spent any time there, apart from my uncle’s funeral a few years back.

It was only last Sunday morning, feeling a growing sense of cabin fever, that I decided to book a stay away.

Why Inverness? I have absolutely no idea, it just “happened”.

No passport, no visa needed, and no corrupt border guards – sounds good to me.

I bought my train ticket for the very good price of £22 return. No complaints there, but then hang on – what about strikes? Thankfully there were none.

After a quiet two-hour journey through lovely countryside, I arrived at Inverness train station.

Outside, I walked in roughly the general direction I thought my hotel was.

How could I have got it so wrong? How can I make my way solo through the likes of Iraq, but get lost in Inverness?

George enjoyed his morning walks along the pretty River Ness.

After walking for 20 minutes, it was getting dark and starting to rain. I stopped and asked a young woman if she knew where the Glen Mhor Hotel was. She looked at me quizzically, as if to say, “you’re miles off”.

She started to point directions, but then out of the blue said: “Get in the car, I’ll give you a lift.”

Pleasantly surprised I thanked her, but as I was putting my bag in the back seat of her car, she glanced me up and down then asked: “You’re not going to murder me, are you?”

We shared a joke before this kind lady dropped me off outside my hotel, on the very banks of the River Ness.

This turned out to be the perfect spot for me, and I enjoyed a 45-minute walk every morning along the bank, down one side, crossing over on old chain bridges, through a small woodland in the middle, and back up the other side.

Not a bad start to the day, and the weather – although cold all week – stayed dry. I then sat down in my hotel and enjoyed a cooked breakfast every morning without any guilt whatsoever after my morning walk.

The friendliness of the lady who gave me a lift continued all week. I lost count of the number of people who said good morning, or just a simple hello as I walked the river. There is without a doubt a real genuinely friendliness to the people here.

With a population of around 50,000, and being designated as a city only in 2000, Inverness, in the old town centre, reminds me of Edinburgh. Down by the River Ness with its old chain bridges, which seem to divide the city in two, I am reminded of Budapest, where I lived for five years.

And this is a compliment by the way, not a criticism.

Inverness, while officially a city, doesn’t feel like one. It has a town feel to it. Like I said, a compliment.

The striking Inverness Town House has a Bavarian feel to it.

On the High Street, I came across the Town House. The foundation stone was laid in 1878 and it was officially opened in 1882. With its stunning Gothic style, it would not look out of place in a German Bavarian town. Statues of wolves outside seem to guard it, a reminder of when these animals roamed the Highlands. It is, rightly so, a Category A listed building.

A beautifully sculptured stone wolf guards the entrance to the Town House.

I peeked in through the glass on the front door – wow. But sadly, no entry unfortunately. How I wish I could have gone inside and explored this building.

Originally built in the 1870s, the Victorian Market is a covered market standing in the city centre. It is a joy to walk through. Lined on both sides by local shops offering quality products, it oozes old world charm and is a must if you visit Inverness.

The walls are adorned with photos of years gone by, and don’t forget to look up and marvel at the cast-iron and wooden domed roof.

The adjacent food hall has recently undergone an impressive £1.6 million refurbishment. It is hoped that this will entice many more people into the city centre.

I wish it well.

The Victorian Market is well worth a visit.

Inverness is stuffed full of churches, but of course it was St Andrew’s Cathedral that caught my eye. Situated just the across the river from my hotel, I walked in one cold morning and stepped into another world. Warmth, peace and tranquillity washed over me.

A friendly official told me I was welcome to wander at will and take photos. It was cosy inside and I said: “I can’t even begin to imagine your heating bills.”

“It’s a big problem, huge in fact, but we do what we can,” he replied.

Proposed in 1853, the foundation stone was finally laid by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1866, and the first worship took place in 1869. However, the building was not consecrated until 1874, when they finally paid off a debt of some £8,000. That was a lot of cash back then.

It is truly spectacular inside and out. I spent well over an hour in there, admiring the stained glass, the roof, the altar; everything to be honest. Despite not being a believer, I always come out of a well-appointed church, or mosque or synagogue, with a sense of calm. Interesting.

Intricate sculptures on the exterior of St Andrew’s Cathedral.

I met my friend Colin for lunch one day; he drove me out of the city to a wee pub restaurant on the banks of Loch Ness (more about this iconic body of water next week). It was good to get out of the city and we chatted over a superb lunch of chicken and mushroom pie.

Later, after having put the world to rights, Colin drove me north over the Kessock Bridge, just for a wee tour. On the other side I got out and took photos. Standing underneath, it really is an impressive structure.

Colin told me that prior to its opening in 1982, you had to take the ferry to get from Kessock over to Inverness, or a 20-mile journey via Beauly. A bit of a chore doing that twice a day when heading into town to work, I’d imagine.

The impressive Kessock Bridge connects Inverness to the Black Isle.

I’m sure there are art galleries and such like to visit in Inverness, but to be honest, I was just happy to be walking the streets of this charming city and being smiled at by locals who said hello or good morning.

With so much history, stunning architecture, a beautiful river running through it, clean air, friendly locals, lots of good pubs, restaurants and shops, and an international airport close by, I could think of worse places to live.

I highly recommend a trip to Inverness. Drive, take the train or even the bus. It has much to offer, you won’t be disappointed.

Having done all I needed to do for a single column, I still had a full day to kill. I walked up to the central bus station and asked if there was anywhere interesting I could go on a day trip.

“Loch Ness, of course!” came the reply.

I think the last time I went there was with a group of Russian dance students many years ago. Not really my thing, too touristy. Having said that, it’s winter, so I thought it should be pretty quiet.

Bus ticket booked for the following day, I started to do my homework on Loch Ness, Castle Urquhart and of course its world-famous resident…

Next week – Loch Ness