Glasgow travel guide
Author: Richard Cooke
Photography: Sharyn Cairns
Some cities you don't visit idly: travel to them and you take
sides in a rivalry. Spend time in Beijing and you'll leave with an
opinion on Shanghai, whether you make it there or not. Sydney and
Melbourne are each flecked with traces and shadows of its bastard
sibling. Rome manages a harem of nemeses, stretching from Naples to
Milan. It's not only locals who barrack for their favourite, but
travellers as well. They can't help it when the cities aren't just
different, but competing visions of how to live. And few compete
harder than Glasgow against Edinburgh, the local derby from which
Scotland is born.
It's the proximity that makes these two different; just 70 kilometres apart, they're in each other's faces, on each other's toes. The taxi driver was trying to sway me to his camp before we'd even left the airport. "Edinburgh, ai it's beautiful but…" he said, hitting "beautiful" like it belongs on the capital's long list of ills, which include (but aren't limited to) snootiness, weirdness, being boring, being a Scottish Disneyland and, worst of all, being English. In Glasgow not even the language is English - the brogue winds up subtitled on television.
Like the Glaswegian accent, the city needs some accommodation, some adjustment to its pacings and contours. It's an acquired taste, Scotland's difficult second album. It prides energy over power, authenticity over appearance. I got it wrong on my first visit a while back, too abbreviated to take it in, one of those daytrips you somehow spend trapped in a shopping mall. "Don't forget to look up!" is the tourist advice (it's also the tourist advice for New York), but all I saw was the signage.
Don't forget to look out is good advice, too, away from the clenched city centre to the thick parks on its outskirts, or down the steep streets to the rivers. The beauty, as with so much in Glasgow, is the product of labour. All that industry used to be of the heavy kind - the legacy of sugar traders, slavers and shipyards lingers in place names such as "Jamaica Street" and "Plantation". It's there in the skyline, too, the silhouette of what was once the second city of the British Empire.
Architecture tours take their time eyeing that horizon. Glasgow produced two world-renowned architects, then forgot them for a spell. Alexander "Greek" Thomson was the first, a 19th-century nut for ancient civilisations who turned sections of Sauchiehall Street into a homage to monuments he would never see. It's a strange sensation to stand with students and seniors, feeling the cold through the soles of your shoes, and peer at lumps of Karnak and Persepolis against the sharp Caledonian sky. It's like seeing a theme park in sandstone.
Thomson's magpied rooflines are all over Glasgow, but it's Charles Rennie Mackintosh who draws the pilgrims, the sketchpad enthusiasts and the fame. Mackintosh was so far ahead of his time the city is still catching up with him. On our tour, the guide passes around a photo of the student architect with a group of female fellow art students in the 1880s, all of them giving a thumbs-up to the camera. They were emancipatory, sure of themselves, and almost immediately forgotten. Mackintosh died in obscurity, leaving behind an abbreviated career and a residue of influence in Europe. But his legacy includes what might be the first piece of modern architecture in the world: the Glasgow School of Art.
From the outside, it's a kind of answer to Edinburgh Castle with a bit of parody thrown in, borrowing crenellations, dovecotes and unhewn stone. But while the castle casts a regal eye over the capital, the art school is down in the crowd, jostled by its neighbours. Building it was a nightmare. Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret McDonald, blew a scrimped budget by obsessing over everything from the fireplaces to the sound of students' feet on the floor.
Today one of those students, Callum Rice, guides a group through the school and into the famous library. "We get people here from all over the world and they often say it reminds them of a religious place. A temple, or a mosque," he says as we enter the cloistered wooden space. "But look at these lights - they still look modern now. Some people say they're like something out of Metropolis, but this was years before." The detail might have maddened the penny-pinchers, but it was worth it.
This is more than just Glasgow's most famous building. It's also an incubator for the creativity that runs through the city. The curator and critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist went as far as calling that phenomenon "the Glasgow miracle", trying to account for the number of Glaswegian-trained artists inhabiting the contemporary art world. Since the early 2000s, almost a third of the nominees for the UK's Turner prize have been GSA graduates, including three winners, Martin Boyce, Simon Starling and Richard Wright. But almost everyone here dislikes the "miracle" tag.
It implies an accident of fate, instead of the hard graft and camaraderie responsible. It also doesn't account for the music. When David Harding, founder of the GSA environmental art course, was asked to explain the phenomenal success of his charges, he boiled it down to "the singing" - Robbie Burns nights and recitals where the avant-garde would belt out old Scottish dirges from their childhood. Not long ago Time magazine placed Glasgow's musical output on par with Motown-era Detroit: Franz Ferdinand, Churches, Belle and Sebastian, Primal Scream, Mogwai; even Australians have to grudgingly grant the city Jimmy Barnes and Angus Young. Oasis were discovered here, the undercard on a show at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. It bills itself as "Britain's best small venue", a rare example of self-promotion as an understatement.
Even locals have a hard time explaining why a city of 600,000 has hothoused so much talent.
Over a beer at King Tut's, local DJ and promoter Alan Miller offers some theories. "It's somewhat of a cliché that anyone who is musically inclined in Glasgow is likely to be in about three bands at the same time," he says. "Here the framework is one heavily based on collaboration and support. There are a small number of music venues on a very small geographical area, and the audiences are open-minded and supportive." There's some deeper energy at play as well, an element of the irrepressible. "Gallus" is the word for it in Scots, something unstoppable and unswayable.
Glasgow's internationally renowned nightlife didn't have a promising start. On opening night in 1764, the city's first concert hall was denounced as a house of Satan, then burned down by a mob. But beneath the purse-lipped Presbyterianism, there's a bedrock of Celtic commitment to good times. Traditional céilidh dances are still held here; there are rumours even the local temperance society leaves a bin for bottles around the back afterwards.
My evening on the tiles here makes other, much larger cities feel sober and anaemic. What starts as a short amble down the road winds into a vintage speakeasy hidden behind the façade of a pawnbroker's shop, lingers in highlander bars with unpronounceable names and whisky collections worthy of a Chinese millionaire, and finishes at a thick line of music venues, all crowded and sweaty. If you're from a place where evenings are blighted by poker machines and neo-wowserism, it's enough to make you envious.
The night culminates at a legendary club event called Optimo, which is guarded by a bouncer with a mouth like a vandalised cemetery. At first it seems like a mistake, almost empty, with naked cement walls and a handful of patrons. Could this really be one of the best dance nights in Europe? It takes until midnight for the crowd to come but then it all comes together, a bizarre Christmas truce between students, rural ring-ins, office workers, the beautiful people and the not so blessed. The only attitude on display is an egalitarian friendliness, the music as eclectic as it gets, but pressed through a sound system others travel the world to study. Only Glasgow could create something like this out of nothing more than a concrete box and the compost of its culture.
The next tender morning begins at the docks, where it's still foggy. I'm standing beneath architect Zaha Hadid's tribute to the city, the Riverside Museum. The building looks like a skyline in miniature, or the rhythm of a heartbeat, outlined in steel and glass.
It's not a surprise to find that when Hadid first visited the city she went clubbing, and she has captured something of that energy in her forms. The Riverside fits neatly into a tradition of hospitable, slightly anarchic museums, from the Kelvingrove, milling with Spanish tourists in awe of Salvador Dali's Christ of Saint John of the Cross, to the People's Palace, a bolshie wunderkammer set in the grass of Glasgow Green.
The Riverside houses part of Scotland's history of transport and
invention, buses and drays strewn like the toys of a giant child. A
glass case holds what might be the first pedal-powered bicycles,
another curious addition to Glasgow's frenetic collection of
firsts. People from Edinburgh say it's not a coincidence the
medical scale for measuring the depth of unconsciousness was
devised here. The first Daft Punk record was pressed in the city,
and the first chicken tikka masala eaten, although that still
sparks heated debate. The first long-distance television broadcast
was watched here, pictures of a face beamed into a room at the
Central Hotel near the station. Surrounded by gadgets, you can feel
the febrile inventiveness that has garnered the city so many
titles: European Capital of Culture (1990), UNESCO City of Music,
UK City of Architecture and Design, and a former Curry Capital of
Its curry might win acclaim, but the rest of Glasgow's cooking has rarely reached the world-beating heights of the city's other endeavours.
A "Glasgow salad" is shorthand for a pie with beans and chips. This is the home of the deep-fried pizza, and Buckfast caffeinated wine, which earns its moniker of "commotion lotion". Gordon Ramsay is the most famous culinary export, but the streets here formed his character, not his cuisine, and his kitchen underlings can blame football for the result. He was rejected as a player by his boyhood heroes Glasgow Rangers, and never recovered from the primal trauma. In a city so riven by team partisanship that the homeless have been known to refuse a light if the lighter is rendered in the wrong team's colours, that wound cuts deep.
There's always been good food in Glasgow; it's just usually been in transit to somewhere else. Now it stops in the city instead of being shipped out, and local palates have broadened beyond calories in search of flavour. You can see it in the windows of West End providores, full of meat and game from the Highlands, feathered pheasants, real haggis, venison and one with a pair of rabbits so big the butcher wonders if they "neid saddlin". Nearby two cheese nerds do battle, IJ Mellis and George Mewes, providores who draw their wares from local artisan producers and hobbyists with expensive obsessions and long-suffering partners.
Foraging and stalking have also taken off and the next morning I'm driven to the forest by Chris Charalambous, the chef from contemporary Scottish restaurant Cail Bruich, past the Auchentoshen Distillery and into the foot of the Highlands. "I got interested in local ingredients here," he says. "We have amazing stuff - some of the best fish in the world - but it just wasn't being used as best it could." He picked up the taste for foraging while working at Noma, then honed his skill rambling with a local expert on fungi. Today he's taking me to look for sorrel, mushrooms and berries. The mushrooms are elusive, the weather just starting to turn.
Our walk is a timely reminder - there's something so studied and industrial about Glasgow you can forget how close it is to nature. Its parks are clipped, its rivers bridged and locked, even the hills on its horizons are busy with wind farms. It's not until you get into the fields and forests on its outskirts that you see how the city sits in its surrounds.
I head to Loch Lomond, perplexed to hear that one of the islands in this vast body of water shelters a colony of wallabies, introduced by an eccentric noblewoman decades ago. A seaplane takes us high above it on a clear day. The loch is beautiful, but I can't stop looking at the slopes and ridges, rusty with grass and a tumble of stone, and out to the islands off the west coast. There's the island of Jura, with its three peaks called The Paps, and Islay, where the whisky tastes like a fire in a tyre factory. Something in the irrepressible nature of Glasgow, its wildness and its humours comes from here, some remnant of hill people not even the Romans could conquer. Rumour has it a mysterious reptilian beast in Loch Lomond has been eating ducks, but interest in Scottish water monsters is on the wane; at Loch Ness a tour operator admitted last year to planting a fibreglass hump in its waters.
When I return to town the Great Scottish Run is trickling to a finish (earning its nickname as The Great Scottish Walk), and there are still runners wrapped in space blankets pacing off their sprints. Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games next month and the sight of all these amateur athletes feels like a premonition. There will be a cultural program running alongside the sports, both as an adjunct to the games and as a rival to the Edinburgh Festival. It's part of an effort to bring art to the sports crowds while they're still in the streets - fitting for a city in a chronic state of low-level festivity.
There are efforts to brush-up and impose best behaviour, but it's a bit like getting the city into a pair of smart shoes that don't fit. I pass an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in the town square that, for once, is missing its famous traffic cone hat. The cone, or one like it, has been a fixture since the 1980s, and council busybodies have announced plans to raise the plinth to stop "revellers" from crowning the Iron Duke. The city is fighting back: "The cone on Wellington's head is an iconic part of Glasgow's heritage and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has," a petition reads. It has 10,000 signatures with 45,000 showing support on Facebook. Social media is full of pro-cone politics; poster parodies read "Yes We Cone" and "Coney 2014".
The council says that the cone paints a "depressing" image of Glasgow, a pre-game embarrassment, but I can't think of anything further from the truth. It seems perfectly raucous, political, lively and cheeky, the bright orange tip of an iceberg of "gallus". It's a landmark that says loudly: "More fun than Edinburgh."
Emirates flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane to Glasgow via Dubai. British Airways flies from Sydney to Glasgow via Singapore and London. For more information visit peoplemakeglasgow.com.
Blythswood Square Hotel
The best hotel in Glasgow. A period building with a contemporary fit-out, lively bars and engaging staff. Rooms from $220, including breakfast. 11 Blythswood Sq.
Hotel du Vin
A quietly refined exemplar of this impressive chain. Think vintage fittings, rooms overlooking gardens and clubby fireside leather lounges. Rooms from $195. 1 Devonshire Gdns.
Cameron House Loch Lomond
This baronial mansion on the shores of Scotland's most famous stretch of water has a championship golf course and four restaurants, including a Michelin-starred dining room run by Martin Wishart. High-season rooms from $270, including breakfast. Dunbartonshire.
EAT AND DRINK
Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery
This Glaswegian institution serves revelatory local seafood and is renowned for its Cullen skink - a smoked fish, cream and starch soup as memorable as its name. 652-654 Argyle St.
Noma-trained Chris Charalambous's refined food lingers on all the right notes of Scottish fare - game, seafood and farm-fresh vegetables -enhanced by foragings from forest and field. The fact it's a father-and-son operation adds to the warmth and wit of the service. 725 Great Western Rd.
This converted church is now a night-life temple and famous for its A Play, A Pie and A Pint lunches, where a noon crowd fills the huge basement for an extra course of culture. Byres Rd.
The Berkeley Suite
Hidden behind the façade of an old-style pawnbrokers', this speakeasy slings classic cocktails without getting lost in a pre-Prohibition time-warp. The reclaimed bucket seating and dimly-lit basement have too much contemporary vivacity for that. 237 North St.
George Mewes Cheese
Go for the tastings, stay to hear insanely knowledgeable staff rhapsodise their wares. 106 Byres Rd.
Glasgow School of Art
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpiece has lost none of its ability to surprise - it's still one of the most rewarding modern buildings to explore. There are three to five tours a day, which can be booked on the day or up to a week in advance. The guides are students with infectious enthusiasm. 11 Dalhousie St.
King Tut's Wah Wah Hut
A place to see bands before anyone has heard of them, King Tut has hothoused more UK musical talent than anywhere else. Even bands destined for obscurity play their best shows here. There's also occasional comedy. 272a St Vincent St.
Zaha Hadid's "heartbeat" roof stands over an upturned toy box of railcars, trucks, motorcycles and everything else with wheels. 100 Pointhouse Rd.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Worth seeing for the architecture alone, this is one of the most popular museums in the UK, a pleasing wunderkammer of high art, Stone Age objects and anthropological curios. Argyle St.
Loch Lomond Sea Plane
With stunning views of the famous loch and islands out to sea, this trip is punctuated with some gentle banter from the pilot. A high road worth taking. Departs Cameron House.