Travel: Bonny in Clyde

This weekend, thousands of US delegates are descending on Scotland's largest city for a travel agents' convention. How do you explain Glasgow to the Americans? Simon Calder tries
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The Independent Travel
You're overworked, overtired and over here. The 1990s have not been kind to you, the American travel agent. Squeezed by airlines' commission cuts and undermined by the Internet, your future looks as bright as a wet weekend in Wichita. But at least your association has chosen the venue wisely for its 1997 gathering: after London, Glasgow is the most intriguing city in Britain. But unlike the UK capital, Scotland's largest city is concise, friendly and manageable. Imagine the best bits of Boston, Minneapolis and Portland Oregon combined, and you're about there.

First impressions are unlikely to be entirely favourable, mind. A generation ago, it was felt that the best plan to improve Glasgow would be for a freeway to rip through the city. The M8 motorway that brings you in from the airport sweeps across the River Clyde (look left for the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, site of the convention) and just keeps ploughing relentlessly through the community.

To realise the true substance of Glasgow, get out of the car and on to the streets. (Use the subway, too, if you like: Glasgow has a cute little orange Underground, with just one circular line.) The city's centre comprises a handsome collection of Victorian buildings, the best of them ranged around George Square, the real heart of Glasgow. The tourist office is here; you could sign up for a tour of the city, but I recommend you just pick up a free map and envelop yourself in the eloquent folds of art and architecture.

You know the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC's collection of free and fascinating museums? In Britain, it is Glasgow, not London, that boasts a full hand of gratis galleries. Start half a block west of George Square, at the latest addition to the repertoire: the Gallery of Modern Art. Though the contents are not universally applauded, the venue itself resembles a tasty piece of cake - a highly decorated mercantile confection.

From here, the direction you choose will depend on how highly you rate antiquity versus architecture. For the former, wander through the East End to Glasgow Cathedral - where building began in the 12th century. The tangled clerical tale of the city is unravelled in the adjoining St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Admission is free, courtesy of the strong socialist tradition of the city that insists upon equal access for all. Even when Margaret Thatcher was preaching free enterprise most zealously, Scotland's largest city retained its commitment to cultural provision for the community. The crystalline epitome of this vision rises from the lawn beside Clyde: the People's Palace tells the story of the rise, fall and resuscitation of what was once the Empire's second city. The Anti- Poll Tax Union, whose banner is displayed, commemorates a peculiarly cruel piece of local taxation that disappeared when Margaret Thatcher was replaced.

If instead of social history you want to see why Glasgow has been chosen as the UK's City of Architecture and Design for 1999, go north-west from George Square. Sauchiehall Street is the main shopping thoroughfare. You will soon see the familiar golden arches announcing McDonald's (where the special this week is two burger and fries for pounds 2, or $3.20). Glance inside, though, and you will see the ceiling bearing a design that owes much to strong lines and curves, and nothing to corporate image. This is a note of respect to the local hero, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A century ago, an artistic revolution was happening in a city implausibly enriched by industry. Mackintosh was the chief rebel, turning his inspired hand to anything from prim, high-backed chairs at the Willow Tea Rooms to the bold triumph of the Glasgow School of Art.

Both of these are on the tourist circuit. The Tea Rooms at 217 Sauchiehall Street sells a continent's range of teas, but if you'd prefer something a little more familiar then pancakes and maple syrup cost pounds 2.75 ($4.40). The School of Art on Renfrew Street offers guided tours, where you mingle with art students while marvelling at one man's extraordinary power of vision.

Return to Sauchiehall Street to compare our travel agencies with the ones back home. Going Places and Trailfinders state their purpose clearly enough, but the biggest chain in Britain is mysteriously called Lunn Poly, an amalgam of Sir Henry Lunn's Public Schools Alpine Sports Club and the Polytechnic Touring Association. You'll also spot AT Mays (the "AT" stands for "All Travel"), a Scottish-based chain now part of the global Carlson travel empire - some of your compatriots got here first.

"Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night" was once rather unfair shorthand for a drunken, disorderly evening, but a pint of heavy (actually the same weight as Budweiser, though warmer and tastier) at Lauder's will persuade you that civilisation prevails. You could continue to the Tron Theatre, where Macbeth is showing, in case you don't feel there is enough blind ambition and brutal revenge inside the ASTA Convention.

If your professional duties in the debating chamber allow you little time to explore, at least make the most of your lunch break. Nip across the road (actually the Clydeside Expressway) to Glasgow's greatest concentration of free culture. That huge and ruddy Edwardian pile, as cavernous as a railway terminus and garnished with superfluous turrets, is the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. Though exuding a severe paternalism, the museum also captures the scale and ambition of a city at the peak of its power.

To find out why America, not Scotland, is now the wealthiest country in the world, make your final call at the Museum of Transport. It begins with tales of maritime catastrophes like the sinking of the Comet ferry "... by which melancholy circumstance 70 human beings were in a single moment precipitated into Eternity". Journalism is not what it used to be.

Having started with transportation disasters, the museum continues in the same vein with the Sinclair C5 - a miniature plastic car about a millionth the size of a Cadillac. That only slightly larger, curiously squared-off vehicle is a Hillman Imp. You might be surprised to learn that this Scottish- built car sold nearly half a million, presumably all of which had the usual modification of placing a couple of house bricks in the front boot (trunk) of the rear-engined beast to impart a degree of road-holding.

The British make do; Glasgow will make you welcome.

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