By Katrine Carstens
Once a prime engine of the English empire, Glasgow spiralled into grime and despair as the glory of colonial Britain faded into grey. Lately however, with a foot firmly on the accelerator of progress, the city is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, emerging into a new kind of brilliance, one of thrilling contrasts.
With the Commonwealth Games this summer putting the city firmly on the map, Glasgow is settling into its own idiosyncratic stride. In Gaelic, Glasgow means “dear green place”, referring to its lush vegetation, courtesy of a wet climate, and indeed, the city still has many green spaces along with blotches of neglect, scattered like scars across town. These are all integral parts of the baroque fabric that is Glasgow.
A City in Transformation
That most eco-conscious of transport modes, your own lovely legs, are the perfect way to get around Glasgow. I clocked up close to 30 km in three days and hardly noticed. If this is your first visit, I definitely recommend engaging those leg muscles and covering some ground. I would go so far as to say it’s the only way to get a real impression of a city impossible to generalise.
The stylish Merchant City with its glistening cocktail bars and restaurants and the bustling West End are the more obvious choices to explore and shouldn’t be missed. The real up and coming gems however are to be found jostling in curious juxtaposition with the more rough and ready spots.
Slightly schizophrenic in nature, the face of Glasgow can change in the blink of an eye. Light and dark snuggle up, telling the tale of a city in flux. The shadow cast by the post-industrial downturn still looms, yet opportunity cheekily peeks out from behind unexpected corners with a Glaswegian glint in it its eye.
To experience an area where the fashionable surreally mingles with the deliriously derelict, head for Shawlands in the Southside where past and present brush shoulders. Pierrot et Coco is a perfect example of this; a tiny but achingly chic shop selling gifts, toys and home ware, a Hansel and Gretel fairytale comma in between sentences of fatigued facades.
The area straddling the River Clyde around Pacific Quay and the SSE Hydro, a huge entertainment and sports venue, has been heavily regenerated leaving behind its ship building past and making way for modern, almost otherworldly structures. Around there you will find the Glasgow Science Centre, BBC Scotland and the Glasgow Riverside Museum. Moored near there is also the last ocean-going paddle steamer, the Waverly, lovingly restored and still operational, once one of hundreds.
Where to Eat & Drink
For a city in a nation of staunch meat-eaters, Glasgow has an astonishing array of vegetarian and vegan places to eat and a deep well of foodie knowledge. Ask a question about food and you’re met with an enthusiastic flow of information. Local produce is king, and Glaswegians are proud to talk about it.
13th Note – Vegan/Vegetarian
13th Note in the city centre got its name from the note above the octave that doesn’t exist. Be it a nod to Spinal Tap or not, it has a hint of “turn it up to 11” about it. Trading since 2001 in the current location, owner David Disbrowe knows the business inside out. Products are sourced from local supplier Green City Wholefoods, a community focused co-operative committed to healthy ingredients and ethical values. The results that reach plates at 13th Note are filled with evolved flavours, delivered with a friendly and competent service. That the customer base is made up of confirmed carnivores on the hunt for something different speaks volumes. I also learnt something new there. There is such a thing as vegan wine! In the basement of 13th Note is a music venue where bands spanning many genres strut their musical stuff.
Mono Café & Bar – Vegan/Vegetarian
Also in the City Centre is Mono Café & Bar, a multi functional space boasting not only a vegetarian and vegan restaurant and music venue, but also a book and record shop and micro-brewery (currently making lemonade, but beer is on the cards). Hearty food in generous portions and unusual brews like Seaweed Ale will guarantee to keep you interested. It’s the perfect place to chill out for a couple of hours before your next stroll about town.
Gamba – Seafood
Gamba is the ultimate setting for sustainable seafood. Not only were they the first in Glasgow to join the Sustainable Restaurant Association, they were also awarded an outstanding three star rating from them in what the Sunday Times dubbed the “Michelin Stars of Sustainability”. Located in a cosy basement I was not disappointed. General Manager, Jim Kerr, used to be a chef and his knowledge shone brightly throughout. The service is attentive, yet unobtrusive and our meal was outstanding. The menu is a medley of traditional and modern dishes, concoctions of the very best ingredients. The stars of the show had to be the Cumbrae oysters, quite possibly the biggest and tastiest I have ever encountered!
Where to stay
The Radisson Blu and Park Inns have great eco credentials, as does Citizen M design hotel, but I stayed at the Blythswood Square Hotel. It was an excellent choice.
Set on a gorgeous square, now an oasis of green but once a hub for revellers seeking to quench their carnal thirst, this is a place of paradoxes. The former home of the Royal Automobile Club, this hotel has been reincarnated and retrofitted as one of the most environmentally friendly in the United Kingdom. To give you an idea, the hotel emits 43% less carbon than other buildings of its size and age. This is achieved by a combination of roof top solar panels, geothermal heating, micro double glazing, high efficiency lighting and rain water harvesting.
Peter Taylor, owner and Chairman of the Town House Collection built his own home in Edinburgh according to the latest in sustainable standards and wanted to take this vision much further with Blythswood Square. He succeeded, creating not only an environmental sanctuary, but also a place where the most luxurious elements of Scottish heritage are featured, such as the creative use of Harris Tweed on a range of luxurious floor-length curtains to bespoke lampshades, chairs and even on waiters’ uniforms.
Not to be missed is the hotel’s elegant spa. Several wonderfully detoxing treatments are on offer here, such as the Thermal Experience – a seven stage journey of alternating temperature experiences to soothe, relax and detoxify the body either before a spa treatment or as a restorative therapy on its own. The spa boasts the UK’s first indigenous Scottish treatments designed in conjunction with luxury organic skincare house, ila, and special Seaweed Bath complete with organic hand-harvested seaweed sourced direct from the Hebrides.
After a long day exploring this wonderful city, I chose to have an Ishga facial. The Ishga range was developed on the Isle of Lewis from sustainably harvested seaweed, a truly local product that is full of anti-oxidants. After being gently cleansed, massaged and masked, my complexion, emerged from dull grime and blossomed into vivacious radiance. Kind of like Glasgow itself.
Katrine Carstens travelled to Glasgow on Virgin Trains, an eco-friendly way to travel.The journey takes 4.5 hours and fares start at £42 return in Standard Class and £102 return in First Class.