The stories of a couchsurfer

Glasgow: Redefining perceptions

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

With my exploration and discovery of Wales and Northern Ireland behind me there remained one major component of the United Kingdom’s countries to discover.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, Scotland – a land of which may yet reveal the most complex and tumultuous relationship to the kingdom as any of the other land can claim to have. Scotland was left to be the last country to be discovered mainly out of geographic reasons but it felt fitting to end with it, particularly given that there is a realistic chance that it will no longer be part of the kingdom in the near future.

I was very excited, therefore, to arrive in Scotland by bus from Liverpool to Glasgow, its largest city. Would I find a very English entity here like I had with Wales, or would I find a more divided, less integrated region?

My venture around the UK was beginning to drag on more than I had initially planned however, and with an ambition to be back in Lille for a popular festival at the beginning of September and the allure of more exotic countries and cultures awaiting back on the European mainland, I decided to keep the visit short. I spent two days in Glasgow, only one of which was exploring the city itself.

I detest trying to discover a city and its culture in the space of twenty-four hours but I had given myself no choice. Furthermore, my struggles with Couchsurfing through the UK were continuing. After being saved by Bernat after a difficult search in Liverpool, nobody was to be my saviour during my time in Glasgow.

I found a cheap yet comfortable hotel for two nights in Glasgow – the first time I had had a room to myself since way back at the start of June in Salamanca – three months earlier. I figured it was time to recharge myself – if only a little.

Glasgow greeted me with overcast conditions, not that I expected anything better the further north I headed. Still, it was calm and warm enough to be comfortable and there was never really the threat of rain.

I didn’t really know what the expect of Glasgow. With a metropolitan population of a little under three million people, it’s the United Kingdoms third largest city and so one would expect to know a little more about it. Still, Birmingham disproved that point and it also disproved any notion that size is directly correlated to exciting tourism.

For some unexplained reason the thought of Glasgow was connected to violence and a less refined culture. A blue collar population that does whatever it takes to get through the day. Where this connection originated from I have no idea and I knew, for the moment at least, that it was only the result of a fanciful imagination that I would have to put aside in order not to place any prejudice against what I was to see over the next day or so.

I think I’ve explained this before as part of this blog but often the cities that you know the least about are the most exciting ones to visit – for they are the ones that can completely redefine whatever pre-perceived ideas you have of them.

As it turns out, Glasgow did just that.

It didn’t appear to be the friendliest city. That bland, boring architecture that the UK so consistently produces continued into Glasgow. The central area was much of a concrete jungle with little plant life to be observed. Even the gardens here consisted of little less than grass and trees.

The River Clyde that is the primary thoroughfare of Glasgow seemed perhaps a little underdeveloped – not that it provided much prime real estate, ravaged by over a century of industrial effects that left it unattractive and stale.

This all paints a dreary picture yet Glasgow turned out to be very enjoyable. The city proper, while being a pure combination of concrete, stone and asphalt, was open and welcoming. There was never a sense of danger or that feeling of roughness that I had previously perceived from Glasgow. The land was primarily flat and the streets were pretty straight up and down, yet there was just enough variety in them to make you want to find out what’s around the next corner, or what was lurking at the end of that alleyway.

And this was the beauty of Glasgow – that it did almost always have something of note around that corner and at the end of that alleyway.

These were by no means world famous landmarks, but they were unique enough to be impressed by them and to vindicate your decision to visit the city. This wasn’t as fun as the endless discoveries one can enjoy in the tight streets of Paris or Sevilla, where the population density is much higher and the gems scattered around town make it like a treasure hunt. Here in Glasgow it was a bit more obvious than that, and you could usually spot the attraction from a while away, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t still enjoyable to do so.

These sights almost became more exciting because you just didn’t expect them, or at the very least so many, to exist in Glasgow. As the journey wore on, and with the passing of each one, the next became even more astounding, for you were sure that the limit on this modest city had been reached.

Little gems like the Glasgow Cross’ Tolbooth Steeple with its striking blue clockface or the detailed curves of the metallic peacock on Buchanan Street made walking around town a joy. Larger, more important structures such as the Glasgow City Chambers, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery were also impressive to view, although perhaps not enough to single-handedly warrant a visit to Glasgow.

In fact, none of this was. Perhaps Glasgow is somewhat unknown outside of the UK because it doesn’t have this one world class attraction. There is not a single awesome feature within Glasgow that lures tourists towards it. Instead, there’s five, six or seven moderate ones that, when combined, make it a city worth experiencing.

Maybe it was fortuitous that I only gave myself the best part of a day to discover Glasgow. Maybe, given three or four days, the joy and excitement of discovery would have ran out – the sights that this town has to offer would have likely been exhausted.

Often the timing and the circumstances under which a traveler explores a city can make or break their opinion of it. This one worked in my favour, and I left Glasgow with a fond impression of it, and one that is greatly different to the impression I had of it prior to visiting.

Glasgow doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to show itself off and perhaps this is why it doesn’t receive many accolades. With the city scheduled to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, I’ll be interested to see how they promote themselves, and how well it’s received by others.

If you’re in the area, dedicate a day to Glasgow.

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