Scotland: Glasgow gets it right

By Pamela Wade

Kelvingrove art gallery. Photo / iStock
Kelvingrove art gallery. Photo / iStock

Quick, Glasgow food: what do you think of? Battered Mars bars? Deep-fried pizza? Post-pub vindaloo? You're partially right - although the Mars bar thing was never a menu-board staple and is, in fact, easier to find at my local takeaway than in Scotland's largest city - but you're also very far from the truth.

Food is not the only thing that people get wrong about Glasgow. It's a much classier place than many realise. I was wrong, too.

My previous visit had shown me people carrying away cheap tat in blue plastic bags from the Barra market, fat girls in skimpy clothes man-hunting in high heels on a chilly Saturday night, drunken men gathered loudly outside pubs and, on Sunday morning, the remains of takeaway fish suppers thrown down - and up - on the cobbles. It was certainly lively but not what you'd call elegant.

This time I saw the other side of the city, the one with sophisticated food, refined architecture, art galleries and marvellous museums. I discovered some of the treasures that lie behind the sometimes sooty facades of the buildings and have come away with an entirely different impression of Glasgow: less Billy Connolly, more Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Er, Charles Rennie who? I don't apologise for my ignorance - isn't this one of the main reasons for travelling, after all, to educate yourself? - but I do recommend taking a walking tour of the city with enthusiastic locals as a way to remedy it.

Few guides could be more eager than Kitty and Jack, architecture students at the Glasgow School of Art, where fire damaged its Charles Rennie Mackintosh building last year. They spent a couple of hours filling in gaping holes in my knowledge and opening my eyes to the glories that surrounded me.

That's almost literally, as I realised when Jack pointed out a frowning bust of Beethoven on a frontage I'd walked past minutes earlier without even noticing. He got me looking up, and starting to make connections, see themes and appreciate the art in stone, brick and stucco that's one of Glasgow's prides.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a favourite son of the city in this respect, a poser in topiaried moustache and floppy scarf who scorned such pedestrian concerns as comfort and practicality in his designs.

He filled his dainty art nouveau buildings with light, white carpet and chairs that are stunningly beautiful - and torture to sit on.

To me, who sprawls every evening in an ugly but squashy armchair, the reconstruction of his looks-are-everything home at the Hunterian Art Gallery was a revelation in different priorities. Again, isn't that why we travel?

The streets of Glasgow are very lived-in - tourism-speak for somewhat littered and sooty - but there are delights wherever you look, and not just architecturally. I never expected to be reminded of Vancouver in this gritty city, but on a long, warm summer dusk, the people were outside, children playing in the parks as their mothers gossiped under the trees, dogs were being walked and there were people jogging who had clearly never consumed a deep-fried Mars bar in their lives.

Things were similarly cheerful and relaxed at the museums I sampled - free entry will do that. It means you can dip in and out without feeling obliged to work through every exhibit, to get full value for your money.

Which is just as well, because Glasgow's museums are crammed with more treasures than even the most diligent visitor could appreciate in one go.

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, for example, is an imposing building with a huge organ in the entry hall - free recitals daily - and galleries juxtaposing such disparate exhibits as an elephant, Queen Victoria, an aeroplane and even, yes, a haggis in its natural state, complete with fur and feathers, tail, teeth and talons. There's something very appealing about a museum that's not above the odd joke.

There's a similar eclecticism at the wonderful Riverside Museum. Basically, it's a transport museum. Ho hum? No way. There are bicycles on the ceiling, several looming locomotives, including one built in Glasgow, used in South Africa and now home again, all sorts of cars, a tram, boats, horse-drawn vehicles and a Sinclair C5. But there are also frocks and shops, food and caravans, toys and testimony.

A lot of it is hands-on, including a painted piano, and city tram No 3, to the delight of an old woman on sticks who unexpectedly revisited her youthful self, leaping on to it with a sudden burst of energy, exclaiming, "I used to take this one to work." It's a brilliant place but beware: as well as a lot of time, you do have to have a tolerance for lime green.

Back to the food. I'll admit to a meal of fish and chips - but Old Salty's does it with feather-light batter, encasing the freshest of North Sea cod. With salad. Then there's Finnieston's, where the sea trout comes with al dente samphire and Bunty, the barman's white scottish terrier, sits and gazes at him adoringly.

And finally, Cail Bruich, a dimly lit place whose maitre d' comes straight out of Dickens and the food from somewhere far more magical than a mere kitchen - although even the chef is not above the occasional small disaster. A murmured explanation of "a collapse in the kitchen" from Uriah accompanied an interim dessert before the final glorious appearance of a rhubarb crumble souffle in individual copper pots that was worth every minute of the wait.

Checklist



• Explore the architecture on a Glasgow School of Art walking tour.

• Visit the Kelvingrove and Riverside Museums, and others.

• Eat at Old Salty's, Cail Bruich, The Finnieston for gin cocktails and seafood, and many others.

• Stay in elegant opulence in a Victorian townhouse, the Drawing Room particularly recommended.

• More information on visiting Glasgow at peoplemakeglasgow.com
Pamela Wade was hosted in Glasgow.

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