With successive crops of edgy Scottish-made movies turning up at art cinemas all over, you might imagine that traveling here is like jumping through the screen into the bleak, urban landscapes of "Trainspotting" or "Shallow Grave." And as far as Scotland's biggest city, Glasgow, is concerned, even the peat-smoky sound of the word evokes images of vast red-brick slums and empty berths at once-bustling shipyards.
Imagine what you like, but Glasgow has been busy brushing the soot off its sandstone and washing behind its post-industrial ears. What has emerged after two decades of careful restoration is a Victorian-style city where you can breathe the air--not of coal furnaces, but of a sort of Mary Poppins, British Empire grandeur. Where you can wander in parks full of holly trees and odd glass-paneled follies. And where you are tugged along in the currents of a street life more vibrant than Edinburgh's and more authentically offbeat than a lot of what you find in London.
The name Glasgow literally means "dear green place," and the city claims to have more park land per square mile than any other its size. If you choose your parks carefully, you can get views of most of the spires you may have missed during your touring, and leave with at least a good feel for the city's layout.
For instance, Glasgow Green, Britain's oldest park, is edged by the River Clyde, and its northern tip points you to the city center and the glowering Tollbooth Steeple, where the heads of hanged criminals were once impaled on spikes. The Botanic Gardens places you in the thriving, university-centered West End and delivers you to the Kibble Palace--not, alas, a mansion devoted to dry dogfood but an elaborate Victorian-style winter garden with walls and domes of glass.
The grandest green space of all is Kelvingrove Park, also in the West End. Following one of the paths that winds across it, you climb steep hills as if you were on a moor and pass ponds chattering with magpies and ducks. When you come over a rise near the park's western side, the sky is suddenly crowded with the almost Kremlin-like cupolas of the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.
Here, more than any place I can think of, the city's angular shapes stare in at you, even if you try to lose yourself within the softness of so many hedges and trees. I am world-class art, the museum seems to say. I am the power of sharp iron and slabs of enormous stone. I am a castle for the Second City of the British Empire--which, in 1901, when the Glasgow Art Gallery was completed, was making a fierce run at London thanks to its million-plus population and resilient, trade-fueled economy.
But then, ready or not, you put your head down and walk away from the view. You turn up your collar against Glasgow's rain. It is time to move farther along the path and find the gate that will take you into the heart of the town.
Here's the Bird that never flew
Here's the Tree that never grew
Here's the Bell that never rang
Here's the Fish that never swam
Bird, tree, bell, fish. These images show up on Glasgow's coat of arms, on weather vanes, on decorative ironwork, even on city lampposts. And because the mysterious rhyme refers to the miracles of Saint Mungo, Glasgow's patron saint, even in this disbelieving day local people are delighted to recite it to you if you let them.
Stopping off in this river-calmed part of southwest Scotland in the sixth century, Saint Mungo built a church and brought religious prestige to what had been a not-very-noteworthy salmon fishing village on the banks of the Clyde. By the mid-1400s, the Oxford-like University of Glasgow added academic clout to the city's growing ecclesiastical standing.
But it wasn't until Scotland turned to the Atlantic for trade in the early 18th century that Glasgow grew mighty. The city's "Tobacco Lords" became the nation's first millionaires by elbowing out English ports and grabbing more than half of the American tobacco crop. When the American Revolution snuffed out that lucrative import, Glasgow's merchants turned deftly to bringing sugar from the West Indies, and, by the mid-19th century, to cotton importing, textiles and shipbuilding.
Many of Britain's most imposing naval ships were launched from Glasgow shipyards, and ultimately, state-of-the-art ocean liners such as Cunard's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. My aunt remembers being taken down to the River Clyde as a little girl to see the flagship Queen Mary as it was being soldered together. A welder strolled over to tell her her first off-color joke: "Why do fish swim up the Clyde?" he asked. "To see Queen Mary's bottom."
Between 1870 and 1915, Glasgow not only excelled in shipbuilding and international trade, but ranked as one of the wealthiest, most community-minded cities in Europe.
It was during this "golden age" that a nearly unknown local architect named Charles Rennie Mackintosh went about the business of creating--through public and private buildings, furniture and graphics--a kind of design universe that, when you look at it today, rivals what Frank Lloyd Wright was producing in America.
Because Mackintosh's commissions were regional and his reputation even now isn't as widespread as Wright's, you stumble on his structures around street corners all over Glasgow, without waiting in line or enduring any hype, and in out-of-the-way alleys as well as on major promenades. Largely because of his work, as well as the neoclassical buildings of Alexander "Greek" Thomson, Glasgow is a pilgrimage destination for the architecturally inclined.
Coming across Mackintosh's remarkable Glasgow School of Art (1899) on Renfrew Street downtown, you'd swear from certain angles that you were looking at something dreamed up in the late 1950s. But walk around to the front, and the building turns into the perfect blend of graceful art nouveau curves and the straight lines of pure modernism--as if Mackintosh alone knew how to marry old-world decoration with the spareness of the new.
The Willow Tea Rooms (1902-04) on Sauchiehall Street are slightly less mind-boggling, but even the distinctive Mackintosh lettering on the sign is enough to please your eye and, in any case, what could be better than having a plate of cakes and crumpets in a bright, balconied dining room dressed up with a not-too-dense population of high-backed, lacquered chairs?
Contemporary Glasgow seems to me a rare treat because it has its own way of talking and eating and arguing and strutting around. Traveling here is like visiting Prohibition-era Chicago or Brooklyn, in, let's say, 1956, with the Dodgers in the thick of yet another heart-wrenching Series.
This is a city that thrills to its own news stories, not those of celebrities across an ocean or those of its relatively buttoned-up English neighbors to the south. Every other Glasgow street corner has a paper man hawking the Scottish Daily Mail or some other tabloid advertised in hastily printed banner sheets that tell you the scandal of the day.
"Fake One Pound Coins Flood City" yelled out one little kiosk that I passed, and less than two blocks later, I almost fell over another: "Skinny Dip Teacher Cleared of Having Affair With Pupil." But whether you're riding on the city's ear-splitting bright-orange underground or trying to hail a cab or double-decker bus, the news hawkers are sure to be drowned out by other Glaswegians offering you a friendly tip or otherwise gunning for your attention.
One bus driver I rode with swiveled around to shout that we were passing "Glickman's Sweetie Shop," which, he claimed, was run by "two lovely older ladies." In fact, he said, "Mrs. Glickman is waving to us as we speak." Sure enough, I thought I saw the vague outline of a waggling palm behind a window stacked with Cadbury chocolates and McVities shortbread, although I couldn't be sure. "They're quite modern, too," the driver confided to me (though I hadn't asked for elaboration). "If you can't get to Glickman's, you can look them up on their Internet address."
And then there are the one-of-a-kind expressions that pop out of the mouths of Glaswegians, the sort of words and phrases that are not heard elsewhere in Scotland and, thus, may send you scrambling for a language dictionary that does not exist. (See the glossary on this page for a few translations.)
"D'you not want a pokey hat?" I heard a mother asking two unhappy children who were standing on the sidewalk in front of a museum. As the moment played itself out, I learned that a "pokey hat" had nothing to do with dressing up, but referred to ice cream cones that you can buy, here and there, from vendors driving funny wedge-shaped vans.
Eavesdropping inside a fish-and-chips shop, I guessed that "Jimmy" was the Glaswegian word for "buddy" or "pal" and that "Hen" was the city's verbal pick for when an American might say "honey" or "dear." But my interest in linguistics was drowned out by the smell of malt vinegar and by my amazement at what two strong-armed women behind the counter were heaving into bubbling fryers.
Besides sections of breaded plaice and cubes of potato, in went "turkey steaks," racks of spare ribs, entire personal-size pizzas and local delicacies like mutton pie, haggis (a sausage filled with organ meats and oatmeal) and black pudding. Some Glaswegians don't feel up to a second course after chowing down on one or two of these crispy, crunchy entrees. Those who do--and I kid you not--ask to have a Mars bar fried up for dessert.
This kind of meal is meant to be washed down with a can of Irn-Bru, an orange-colored caffeinated soda that is native to Glasgow. Since it was first sold when local mills produced the steel to frame out Glasgow's ships, it boasts, with a wry sense of marketing, that it is "Made from Girders."
Even if you attempt a swallow or two, you still won't have tasted the real Glasgow until you drop into a neighborhood pub like Tennents or the Three Judges, both in the alive-at-night trendy West End. Britain's Campaign for Real Ale, a grass-roots lobbying group of militant beer drinkers who don't like bland national brews, has found an unofficial base of operations in places like these.
The Three Judges was dominated by a blackboard on which the bartender had chalked the 15 or so locally brewed "real" ales that you could buy. "Northumberland's Cat & Sawdust," I read. And next to this, the numbers "4.21" and "1.84." When I asked whether these were prices, everyone had a jolly laugh, since as I found out, they referred to the alcohol content of the beer and to its "specific gravity."
I tried to keep these helpful figures in mind, hoping to plan my beer drinking, like the locals do, as the evening wore on. But as my relatives brought me from pub to Glasgow restaurant to nightclub, I have to admit I lost track.
The next morning happened to be my last one in Glasgow, and when I awoke I was aware of two things: That my head was splitting and that I still had at least a day's worth of sights left to see. Sun was pouring through one of the stained-glass windows that seem to be everywhere here and, at breakfast, my cousin laid out pictures of another Mackintosh building and a detailed map with green patches for yet more parks. "Oh, and this should help the head," she suggested, showing an understanding Scottish smile.
I should have known it. In her hand was Irn-Bru, in its orange-and-blue can.
Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about Montpelier, Vt.
A Glasgow Glossary
Bahookie: A person's rear end
Clockwork Orange: Local nickname for the Glasgow underground (because it's orange, and because one of its main lines is circular)
Glasgow kiss: A head butt
Low flyer: A shot of Famous Grouse-brand scotch
Lumber: A bar pickup, as in "Did'ya get a lumber last night?"
Ming: To smell badly
Pure dead brilliant: Truly wonderful
DETAILS: Exploring Glasgow
GETTING THERE: There are no nonstop or direct flights between Washington and Glasgow. KLM is offering a special deal--$348 round trip (including all taxes) from Dulles to Glasgow, connecting through Amsterdam. You must complete travel by the end of February and buy tickets by Jan. 26.
WHERE TO STAY: Pricey, but perhaps worth it if a very posh Victorian terrace town house is your cup of tea, One Devonshire Gardens (1 Devonshire Gardens, telephone 011-441-41 339-2001) has its own restaurant with a Michelin star. Rates: $212-$280 ArtHouse Hotel (129 Bath St., 011-441-41-221-6789) is a just-renovated downtown gem with stained-glass panels in the dining room and an original sliding-gate elevator. A rather elegant bargain at $130-$160 .
A bit more routine, but still quite spiffy, is the Stakis Glasgow Grosvenor (1-10 Grosvenor Terrace, 011-441-41-339-8811). Rates: $170-$245, and plenty of rooms in case other hotels are full.
The Kirklee (11 Kensington Gate, 011-441-41-334-5555) is a tiny inn with real charm, a lovely rose garden in front, and an electric trouser press in every room. Rates: $104-$123.
WHERE TO EAT: The oldest restaurant in Glasgow and an art deco paradise, Rogano (11 Exchange Pl.) was fitted out in 1935 by the one of the firms working on the Queen Mary's interiors. Superb seafood, too. Entrees start at $29.
What's this? A restaurant specializing in "Scotland's endangered cuisine"? No, it's not "Saturday Night Live," but the Ubiquitous Chip (12 Ashton Lane), where the entrees include "Scotch salmon smoked in Darjeeling tea with cured cabbage washed in Riesling and potatoes in truffle oil." Two courses for a prix fixe of $45.
Cafe Gandolfi (64 Albion St.) is a more relaxed spot that uses Scottish ingredients as a base for some interesting dishes. Entrees start at $12.
Babbity Bowster (16-18 Blackfriars St.) has fine, very simple fare such as "Stovies" (a traditional meat casserole), but come here for the fireplace and ancient wide-plank floors, and because regulars are likely to start belting out Scottish folk melodies at the drop of a hat. Entrees start at $5.75.
I wouldn't have believed it unless I'd tasted it, but Glasgow's sizable Italian community has seen to it that there are a couple of good local pizza chains. Try one of the various Di Maggio's or PizzaExpress outlets.
WHAT TO DO:
* Tour the various Charles Rennie Mackintosh buildings, including the Lighthouse (11 Mitchell Lane), which serves as Scotland's Center for Architecture and Design and has a tall tower you can climb for a view. Details: C.R. Mackintosh Society, 011-441-41-946-6600.
* While you're wandering around downtown looking at roof cornices and such, pass by the electrifyingly art deco Baird Hall (460 Sauchiehall St.), and stop in at Princes Square, a glass-topped shopping mall on Buchanan Street that has the art nouveau charm of a Paris Metro station, but on a grand scale, along with dozens of ultra-chic stores and cafes.
* Glasgow is a city of many fine museums, and entry to many is free. Among those that stand out: the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum in Kelvingrove Park (011-441-41-287-2700), one of Britain's most visited tourist sites because of its grand setting and superb collections of Renaissance and impressionist art. My favorite, however, is the Museum of Transport (1 Bunhouse Rd., 011-441-41-287-2720) because it has giant ocean liner models that evoke Glasgow's shipbuilding days, a wonderful collection of finely made Glasgow trolleys, and a better-than-Disney 1930s downtown street replica.
* Even if you have no Highland ancestry, duck into the below-street-level showroom of MacGregor and MacDuff (41 Bath St., 011-441-41-332-0299), one of Scotland's premier kiltmakers. Since I happen to be one-quarter MacGregor, they proudly hauled out obscure "ancient" and "hunting" MacGregor tartans that I'd never known about.
DAY TRIPS: Glasgow is well situated for a variety of day trips. Even if you don't have a car (and one isn't necessary in town), you can travel along the length of Loch Lomond by taking a Citylink bus from Glasgow to Inveraray, a pretty town in its own right. During June, July and August, the Waverley (011-441-41-221-8152), the world's last seagoing paddle steamer, sails to the islands in the Firth of Clyde. The town of Stirling with its mighty castle has been called a "huge brooch, clasping Highlands and Lowlands together." It's about 40 minutes away by car or bus, as is Glengoyne Highland Malt Whisky Distillery (011-441-36-055-0254) in Dumgoyne, where you can sit back with a "wee dram" while looking out over a loch and waterfall.
INFORMATION: Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley Tourist Board, 011-441-41-204-4400. British Tourist Authority, 1-800-462-2748, www.visitbritain.com.