Craig Platt walks Edinburgh's Royal Mile, where basements, parks and alleys become the stage for 20,000 performers.
As I pass a block of flats in central Edinburgh, a man-sized fish wearing a tuxedo emerges from the entrance. I've been here a few days so, like the other passers-by, I don't bat an eyelid. It's festival time in Edinburgh and seeing an anthropomorphic fish on a Sunday stroll is par for the course.
By a quirk of fate, rather than design, almost all of the Scottish city's major festivals take place during August and September, when the city buzzes with tens of thousands of tourists.
Over a month, it hosts the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh Art Festival, the famed Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle and the mother of all arts festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe.
The Fringe takes over several blocks on the city's iconic Royal Mile (the series of streets leading from the gates of the Edinburgh Castle to the Queen's Scottish residence, Holyrood Palace). On the Royal Mile, hundreds of spruikers hand out flyers for their shows, while street performers try to impress the crowd.
Arriving in the city during August can be overwhelming - it's like stumbling into a non-stop New Year's Eve celebration. Edinburgh's Old Town, centred on High Street on the Royal Mile, is packed with people day and night.
But the festivals' venues extend beyond the centre of town, taking over squares, parks and halls all over the city. Then there are the bars, restaurants and "pop-up" (temporary) venues. The Fringe alone has events in 259 places.
The question is, with such an overwhelming choice of entertainment, where do you begin? I pick up a copy of the Fringe Festival guide - a 340-page volume freely available all over the city - and leaf through, looking for acts that catch my interest. While I recognise some names, most are unknown to me. With the Fringe, it's not about the size of the names but the volume of them.
The Fringe started in 1947 with a handful of acts and has grown to become the biggest open arts festival in the world. That first Fringe took place in reaction to the newly created Edinburgh International Festival, an event aimed at reinvigorating Europe's cultural life after World War II. Eight theatrical companies took umbrage at not being invited, so decided to stage their shows in the city anyway. Last year, more than 20,000 artists took part.
Kath Mainland, the chief executive of the Festival Fringe Society, which runs the event, says while the celebration has grown immensely, the fundamentals haven't changed.
"It's still a really well-respected arts festival and it's still seen as an important place to bring work to," she says. "And it still has the founding principle of open access at its very heart, which is a big part of its success."
The open nature of the Fringe is perhaps what attracts Australian performers, from relative unknowns to household names. Last year, 44 Australian acts performed, including comedian Asher Treleaven, who received a nomination for the best newcomer award.
Venues can be exceedingly difficult to find. Some shows are performed in public buildings or marquees in parks and squares. Others, though, can be hidden in basements, alleys or even apartment blocks (hence the giant walking fish I spot).
Central Edinburgh is split into two districts - Old Town and New Town. The latter is the shopping and entertainment district, laid out in a grid, which makes it easy to find your way around.
Old Town is another matter entirely. Built on two levels, it is a confusing maze of roads and staircases joining upper and lower sections. It makes sense to locate your venue well before the show.
In a few days, I'm able to experience a wide variety of shows from all the festivals (the exception being the Tattoo, which sells out months in advance). In one day enjoy street performers on the Royal Mile before lunch; attend a Q&A with Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin at the book festival in the afternoon; watch a new Scottish musical in the evening; then head down the narrow, deep spiral staircase of comedy venue Underbelly to finish the night with an eccentric British stand-up.
I see terrific shows and terrible shows but every part of the experience is worthwhile. Nevertheless, it's my first time here during the festivals and I feel that being overwhelmed has prevented me from making the most of my time.
For this, there can be only one solution - I'll have to return.
Craig Platt travelled courtesy of Visit Britain and AirAsia X.
AirAsia has a fare to London Stansted from Melbourne for about $1420 return, including tax — to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), then London (13hr); prepay meals, entertainment and baggage. Sydney passengers can connect in Melbourne at their own cost or fly to London's Heathrow on carriers including British Airways and Singapore Airlines.
Britain's National Rail network has hourly trains between London's Euston Station and Edinburgh (about 4½hr). Foreign visitors can book a BritRail pass providing access to all trains in England, Scotland and Wales, from $225 for a three-day pass; see britrail.com.
Hotel du Vin at 11 Bristo Place is ideally located between the Royal Mile and Bristo Square (home to three major comedy venues). A standard double room in August costs from £250 ($387); see hotelduvin.com/hotels/edinburgh/edinburgh.aspx.
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is on August 5-29. The program will be launched in June; see www.edfringe.com.
The Edinburgh International Festival is on August 12 to September 4; see eif.co.uk.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is on August 13-29. The program will be announced in June; see edbookfest.co.uk.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo will be staged in Edinburgh Castle on August 5-27; see edintattoo.co.uk.
The Edinburgh Art Festival is on August 4 to September 4 at various venues; see edinburghartfestival.com.
Take a chance
THE director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Susan Provan, is a veteran of Edinburgh at festival time and made her 28th visit last year. Here are her tips for making the most of the Fringe.
"Don't be intimidated by the size," she says. "Just take a punt on something. But, if you are into comedy, a safe and comfortable starting place is one of the major venues: the Assembly Rooms, the Stand, the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance or the Underbelly. They are managed by people who really know comedy and you'll probably find some really good shows.
"Take people's flyers on the Royal Mile and go and see something you've never heard of, in some weird venue down an alleyway. That's how a lot of great acts start out. And because Edinburgh is such a beautiful city, you'll go to one of these hidden venues and find it's the ancient cellar of a castle or something. That's an adventure in itself - to sit in these venues, among the ghosts."