Sunday, 10 July 2011

City Sightseeing: Glasgow, Scotland, Part I

Let's face it, there's nothing worse than really obviously looking like a tourist when you travel. People give you disgusted looks, honk their horns and ride your bumper when you drive around looking for your next turn, and roll their eyes behind your back every time you consult a map or whip out your camera or open your mouth and speak with an accent. At least, that's what I always do to tourists in my town, so I assume that other people do it elsewhere.

I always try my very hardest to fit in when I travel, to the point of hesitating to photograph things I really like, or taking a ridiculously long trip around the block rather than double back and go somewhere I accidentally passed, just because I can't bear to stand out as an out-of-towner. Well, last week I had to push all of those emotions aside so that I could do one of the absolute most tourist-y things possible: a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of a city--in this case, Glasgow.

In my defense, I had spent most of my time in Glasgow working very hard to meet a work deadline, and I just didn't have any time to explore the city until my last day in town. I didn't need to leave for the airport until 4:30 PM, and I couldn't think of any other way to cover that much of the city in the few hours I had. Plus, the bus had a stop right outside my hotel, so it practically seemed preordained. In the end, as cheesy as I felt doing the tour, I'm glad I swallowed my pride. The city was really beautiful and I learned a lot--partly because I whipped out my notebook and took notes the entire time, so that you, Dear Reader, could benefit from my new-found knowledge.

(Glasgow's Riverside Museum)

The first stop was the brand spanking new transportation museum, which was located just a short walk away from our hotel on the banks of the Clyde River. In the water next to the museum, you'll notice a tall ship that was originally built on the Clyde, shipped somewhere in mainland Europe, forgotten about, rediscovered, and then sent back to Glasgow. According to my tour guide, the museum staff have a stuffed "ship's cat" that they hide in a different place each day. The first visitor to find it every day receives a certificate and a lollipop. As we drove past the transport museum, I noticed two people dressed as gulls, running around in the outdoor seating area in order to scare off actual gulls that were attempting to steal food. What wouldn't I have given to have obtained a photo of that scene?

We then passed one of only 2 remaining shipyards in Glasgow, where work is currently underway on an aircraft carrier for the British Navy. Originally there had been plans to work on part of the ship in Glasgow and part somewhere in England. This was previously attempted on a submarine, which builders were unable to fit together because the different temperatures in the two cities had caused the ship parts to be different sizes. Thus, new plans need to be made for the aircraft carrier so it can avoid the same fate.

As we made our way into town, we passed one of the oldest bars in Glasgow (although, judging by comments form my two different tour guides, Glasgow is full of "oldest bars"). Supposedly, the person who invented square-toed shoes is from Glasgow, and frequented that bar; when asked why he thought that would be a good design for footwear, he replied that the square toes allowed him to get closer to the bar. There were several Indian restaurants on the street, prompting our tour guide to tell us about the invention of chicken tikka masala, the most popular dish in Britain. It was first made in Glasgow after a customer in an Indian restaurant asked for gravy to go with his tandoori chicken. The cook used what he had on hand, including a can of tomato soup and a handful of traditional Indian herbs and spices. Glasgow, like many other parts of Britain, has quite a bit of international flavor; while we sat at a stoplight, I looked over and saw a mosque on the corner, which is continues to be a bit of a surprise for me since I never saw any during the first, say, 20 years of my life.

Soon, we passed the University of Glasgow, which was founded in 1451 and is the fourth oldest university in the UK. The campus is really beautiful, partly because it is composed of lots of attractive old buildings set up on a hill and is surrounded by picturesque woodland. As we turned into the main campus, we passed a statue of Lord Kelvin, who invented the concept of absolute zero. Kelvin's name, and the name of many other noteworthy former students, was written on the university's memorial gate, which lists quite an honor roll of outstanding individuals.

(University of Glasgow. Thanks to for the photo.)

As we drove around the streets near the university, I couldn't help but notice patches of soot that were left on the old buildings where cleaners couldn't quite reach. They were remnants of the filth that covered Glasgow, and many other industrial cities, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Seeing the buildup on these structures makes you wonder what it looked like inside of the residents' lungs. Another interesting architectural note concerns the materials out of which the buildings were made. The city is full of stately old buildings constructed from red stone, as well as more recent ones were made of white stone. The former is a type of stone created in the distant geological past, when Scotland was a desert. After supplies of this material ran out, the Scots had to switch to the latter, which was formed under water during an ice age, when the British Isles were forced into the ocean under the weight of the glaciers.

After leaving the University, we passed stops for the Glasgow subway, affectionately called the "Clockwork Orange." It is the third oldest subway in the world, after the London and Budapest lines. Pretty amazing to think that 19th-century builders were capable of such things without all the technological advances that aid construction today.

We also passed the beautiful Glasgow Botanic Gardens, which I would have loved to wander through on foot. Their original purpose was to provide a place to grow medicinal herbs, but now the gardens are full of all sorts of species.

(Greenhouse at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. Thanks to for the image.)

Not too far away was an old church that had been converted into a pub called Òran Mór’s. Here, you can pay a flat fee to indulge in "a play, a pie, and a pint" which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like--a steak pie to eat, a pint of beer to drink, and a play to watch while having dinner. Just down the road was the Curlers Rest, the oldest pub on Byres Road, one of the main thoroughfares in Glasgow. A tavern is reported to have stood in that location since the 17th century, before Glasgow was even a proper city. The current pub derives its name from the fact that a curling rink used to be located nearby, and after games, players would relax there and have a pint (or few).

Glasgow is famous for having an obscene number of city parks (90--more than any other city in Western Europe), which became a necessity with the advent of the tenement, a housing option that deprived residents of any personal garden space. In the park bordering the beautiful Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, preparations are currently underway for the Commonwealth Games. The Games aren't until 2014, but gardeners have already been working on installing bowling greens for the past 9 months. Obviously, it takes quite a lot of time and TLC to create world class bowling greens.

After we passed by one of the many places in town in which a criminal had once been hanged, our tour guide told us the (supposed) origin of the expression "getting off Scot free." Apparently, the Scottish justice system has (or had; I'm not clear on the time line of this fact or, in fact, its veracity) three possible verdicts: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. Basically "not proven" means that everyone knows you are guilty, but there is not enough evidence to convict you. Thus, if you get off "Scot free," you have been given a verdict of "not proven" and have received no punishment despite your actual guilt. I don't know if that is accurate, but I like the story anyway.

As we made our way towards the center of town, we passed an old tenement building with a large clock facing the road. Evidently, its hands have always pointed to 12:00, so residents always assumed it was broken. However, during a recent restoration of the building it was discovered that the clock actually isn't a clock--there is no time-keeping mechanism at all, but simply a numbered face with hands. You have to wonder whether that was intentional, or a mistake made during the building's construction.

I noticed that there were many Art Deco buildings around Glasgow, including both hotels and theaters. I suppose that's not entirely surprising in a city filled with old, well-kept buildings, but for some reason Art Deco always seems hard to come by--I've only ever seen a couple original (though restored) examples of this particular style, which is a shame because it has a sleek, suave sort of feel. Several of the Art Deco buildings in Glasgow were theaters, and, in fact, there were many theaters, in general (both the cinema type and the kind use for live performances); our tour guide mentioned that at one point there were over a hundred operational in the city at a single time. One locale was "The Pavilion," which originally opened in 1904 and is currently being restored. The building has a sliding roof, which I gathered is now being returned to functionality, and the slogan of the theater was "If you want to see the stars, come to the Pavilion." Again, a pretty impressive building achievement given the era.

(The Beresford Hotel, Glasgow--just one example of many Art Deco buildings in town. Thanks to for the photo.)

Speaking of interesting constructions, we drove past the Buchanan Bus Station, outside of which is the famous Glasgow running clock:
(The running clock outside Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow, Scotland. Thanks to for the photo and background info.)

The clock was commissioned by Radio Clyde in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Placing it outside the train station, which I'm sure has seen its share of rushing people, was an inspired choice.

Our next stop was George Square, named after the British King George III. Interestingly, none of the many statues there is of him. The area was laid out around the time that George lost the American colonies, and the Glaswegians absolutely hated him--their economy at the time was based almost exclusively on potato imports from Ireland and tobacco imports from the Americas. Thus, it was decided that while the square could bear his name, no further commemoration was necessary or appropriate.

(A turn-of-the-century photocrom print of George Square. Surprisingly, though this image is from the US Library of Congress, I found it via the Russian version of Wikipedia...and it pictures a place in Scotland. How bizarre.)

However, there are many other statues in the square, including Sir Walter Scott perched atop the obelisk (he's so popular in Scotland that he's prominently featured in both Edinburgh and Glasgow and, I'm sure, many other places, as well). Another statue pays tribute to the long-standing, and oldest (in age) British Prime Minister, William Ewert Gladstone. The statue shows Gladstone holding a book in one hand, seemingly keeping his place by sticking his finger between the pages. In reality, however, he was actually missing that figure (it had been blown off in a hunting accident when he was a boy), and this pose was suggested by the sculptor after Gladstone requested that his disfigurement be disguised. If our tour guide hadn't told us that, I would never have noticed. You kind of have to feel sorry for Gladstone that the very feature he was trying to hide is the thing that everyone discusses when they see his statue.

In the background of the print you can see the Victorian-era City Chambers, inside of which can be found the famous mosaic of the city's coat of arms. The Chambers were modeled after a famous Venetian building (I didn't catch the name and Wikipedia isn't helping me), and many different Italian architectural styles can be found at play on its exterior. Americans might notice a small statue of liberty atop the building, apparently even older than the one in New York. Even more exciting is the building located at the near end of the block on the right side of the picture. Its bottom floor houses Jamie Oliver's restaurant, jamie's italian. Oh, the things I could have eaten if only I'd had more time. And money.

Since this was the point in the trip when we paused to switch bus drivers and tour guides, it seems like a good time to have a pause in the virtual tour, as well. Tune in next time to find out about the terracotta fountain, the Clydesdale horses, the cathedral, and much more.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Fantastic monster there. The urbanity monster striding forth, as it does in most cities of the world. Nice hand-drawn banner too. Something like this image, , by French painter Fernand Léger, maybe effective painted large on a wall too, acknowledged as a copy of course. It can be seen at and a canvas print of it can be ordered from there.