It was the best of Glasgow, it was the worst of Glasgow

Monday, July 20, 2009

Glasgow and I did not get off on the right foot. It was a long trudge from Queen Street Station to the hostel I'd booked with such relief the day before. Little did I know the horror that awaited me.

Calling Rucksacks Hostel cheerless would be (quoting Bill Bryson) "to flirt recklessly with understatement." When I tried to check in there was one poor, harried South African guy at the desk, and a pile of laundry on the floor (I can only hope that it was a pile of dirty laundry, but prefer not to contemplate that further.) Eventually I managed to check in, along with a young Australian girl. The kid said "I'll show you to your room", and we embarked on a circuitous journey involving going down one long flight of dark stairs, through a dim and dingy basement common room crammed with suspicious looking couches with no feet, up another flight of equally dire stairs, and into a room labeled "Millennium Falcon" (The adjacent room was "Death Star". At least the place had a bit of a sense of humour.) The Millennium Falcon room was, er, basic: 4 sets of bunk beds, one tilting floor lamp, and a sprinkling of holes in the drywall.

The Millenium Falcon Room, though the photo really doesn't do justice to the arresting grubbiness.

Really, the whole place seemed unfinished. They'd obviously started some renovations, and equally obviously they hadn't finished them, but went ahead and started letting people in anyway. When poking around to find a toilet I kept opening doors or turning corners to find half-installed showers, exposed framing, holes knocked in walls, toilets without seats, and piles of construction debris. I eventually did find a bathroom but getting to it required squeezing past two couches stood on end and leaning against the wall in a narrow hallway. (Seriously? You don't have enough couches of questionable lineage? You have to keep these two as well? In the hallway to what seems to be the only bathroom?) And don't get me started about the bathroom. Let's just say that washing my hands there seemed counter-productive.

To be fair, the Millennium Falcon room did have a shower, so I suppose the room could technically have been advertised as "en suite". However, the shower was positioned in a corner of the room that appeared to have been created by sledge-hammering an opening into an adjacent closet. It did produce hot water though, and there was something approximating a door. The problem was that there was no light fixture in the room (and when I say "room", please be assured I am using that term in the loosest possible sense, perhaps in the same way one might describe a folded newspaper held over the head as "shelter"). Anyway, I'm not kidding: no light. The only way I was able to shower was by hanging my head lamp from a convenient bit of exposed 2x4 framing. This gave enough light to function, but also made me feel like I was showering in a episode of the "X-Files", which was a bit disquieting.

To be even more fair, that Saturday night Glasgow was crammed to bursting with people looking for a bed because of some golf thing, so maybe they were only using the construction sight rooms because of that (in fact, it looked like people were sleeping on the couches in the common room that night). On Sunday the South African kid asked me if I wanted to move to "a nicer room" so I think the accommodations on the upper floors were probably better. I elected to stay where I was because I had it all to myself by that point, and how often do you get the whole Millennium Falcon to yourself?

Another positive sign: when I got back after supper on Sunday I was frankly astonished to see someone vacuuming the carpet in the common room. Up to that point I'd assumed the place had not heard the blissful hum of a Hoover since Margaret Thatcher was in office. (And really, if you're running a place like a hostel, is carpet the smartest floor covering in the first place? I'd think you'd want to make sure everything - floors, furniture, mattresses, staff - were washable, install a drain in the floor, and then just turn on the sprinkler system every few days...)

Really, it's not like I had to hurdle dead bodies to get to the toilet, and there were no used syringes poking out of my mattress or anything. But if you're traveling to Glasgow, I'd recommend giving the Rucksack Hostel a wide berth. Or at least make sure you bring a good flashlight.

So the hostel was the first strike against Glasgow. The second strike happened after I left the hostel and found a nice place for lunch and a pint. (I don't normally have a drink at lunch, but after fleeing the hostel I really felt like I deserved one, if only for anaesthetic purposes.) When I left the restaurant, I struck off for the downtown area to try and find a book store. I wandered for about 20 minutes before realizing that something was not right, and then took a peek at my compass and realized I'd been traveling in exactly the wrong direction. I turned around and wandered in what ended up being a big circle, ending in front of the hostel. Cursing and sweaty, I finally made it downtown to a book store only to find they were completely out of any Ireland guide books that didn't assume I'd be traveling with an expense account and a private jet, and so had to seek out two other stores before finally getting my hands on a Lonely Planet Ireland.

In fact, for the entire time I was in Glasgow I was always going the wrong way*. And it feels like I was forever wandering streets featuring a more-than-ample serving of boarded up windows, graffiti and overflowing garbage bins. It also didn't help when I read this bit from Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Country", Glasgow chapter:

You can wander through the streets on a Friday night, as I did now,and never know when you turn a corner whether you are going to bump into a group of tony revellers in dinner jackets or a passle of idle young yobboes who might decide to fall upon you and carve their initials in your forehead for purposes of passing amusement. Gives the place a certain tang.

Ok, so that was the BAD of Glasgow. I'm happy to report that there is some good, too. For instance, I had a nice tour of the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And I had a lovely dinner with Rob Hamilton's cousin and her husband. And I found the Tenement House museum charming and possessing of more guides per square foot than any sight I've visited so far (4 small rooms with 3 guides!).

Unquestionably, though, the best spot I visited was the Kelvingrove Museum. In fact, I will go so far as to say the Kelvingrove Museum is the best museum I have ever been to, and I've been to some doozies. What was so great about it? Well, let's start with the building. On the outside, it's Victorian era, purpose-built, and covered with spires and big windows and pointy bits. It looks like a proper museum, and it fits in the park perfectly.

Kelvingrove Museum

On the inside, it just gets better. It's all soaring ceilings and marble floors and big stone columns and archways and grand staircases. It was like stepping back in time. In fact, the museum underwent a huge renovation recently, only reopening in 2006. I don't know what it looked like before, but I think everyone involved in that project deserves heartfelt thanks, because the place is simply wonderful.

Inside the Museum

But any museum can be in a pretty building and still suck. What I loved most about Kelvingrove were the exhibits. They were incredibly varied, suiting someone with my shallow-but-broad interests perfectly. Here's a sample of what's on offer: a room of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a room of armour and weapons displayed in the most fantastic was, a room of recent Glasgow history (including several cases on the Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow), the stuffed body of Sir Roger the stuffed elephant (celebrated former inhabitant of the Glasgow Zoo), paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, Matisse, Dali, and Van Gogh (among others), various sculptures, a large exhibit on Dr. Who, a real Spitfire fighter plane suspended from the ceiling, the skeleton of a clydesdale, Egyptian antiquities, paleontology, & a working pipe organ (played daily).

The view from the mezzanine, including the Spitfire and a stuffed giraffe. See what I mean?

Better still, the museum was free. AND there was a free guided tour that started mere minutes after I arrived. AND for the first half hour I was the ONLY PERSON on the guided tour (after that we were joined by a grand total of two other people). AND the tour guide was excellent - she was a native-born Glaswegian, and told lots of stories about her memories of the museum, and what it was like before the renovation, and her life growing up in Glasgow as it related to the various exhibits. You could just tell that she loved the place too, and she toured us around for 2 hours. That was long enough to poke our heads into just about every room, which is the other nice thing about Kelvingrove: it's not too big. The British Museum is undeniably impressive, but can be overwhelming. Kelvingrove was a comfortable size, so that you could fairly quickly get a feel for everything and pick your favourite spots to linger, and not feel like you were either rushed, or missing something.

To top it off the cafĂ© and gift shop are sensibly located in the basement, and the bathrooms have the most intelligently controlled electric-eye faucets I've ever seen***. I was so taken with the place I wrote a glowing comment card and left £5 in the voluntary donation bin, which was 5 times more than they requested.

There's more to say about Glasgow - like my inadvertent 12km run along the Kelvin Walkway****, which was only intended to be 10km long, but Glasgow's geography managed to elude me to the end. And there was my visit to the Mackintosh-designed Willow Tea Rooms for oatcakes, smoked salmon and goat cheese. In the end though, I'd have to say I just never got the hang of Glasgow.

That makes no difference now though, because I'm on the way to Belfast!

* I realized, very late on Sunday, that the reason I'd been having so much trouble was that I had somehow formed the fast impression that Kelvingrove Park - the thing that I'd been using to orient myself to maps - is, in fact, positioned north of the main arteries Arglye and Sauchiehall** Streets. I'd been picturing it south of there, and seemed to have developed some kind of partial blindness when looking at maps that clearly showed otherwise.

** Pronounced "socky-HALL". As in "passageway of knitted foot coverings". Of course.

*** You waved your hand in front of the eye (on the backsplash) to turn the water on, then again to turn it off, so the water stayed on the whole time instead of turning on and off like it needed a dose of Ritalin the whole time you were attempting to wash your hands, which is what happens when the eye is located under the faucet and you move your hands 0.00000000001 inches from the eye's sweet spot.

**** The Walkway seemed like a God-send - a miles-long riverside path recommended by actual Glaswegians. In reality, I got a bit of a dodgy vibe while running there. Perhaps it was just quality of the light (grey), or the state of the vegetation (overgrown), or the amount of graffiti (ample), but I did get the very slightest sense of stabby-ness from the place.


Chris said...

Ah yes! That sounds like a sweet flippin hostel!!

anne said...

I almost feel I'm there with you - but glad I wasn't (at the hostel)!
Have you had a deep-fried mars bar yet and what other "odd" culinary delights have you discovered lately?

Nigel and Margaret said...

Just wanted to give our condolences on the hostel and directional badness of Glasgow.

C'mon back to sunny/rainy (depending) Edinburgh any time!

Enjoy Ireland! We expect you to down a pint or two of the black stuff on our behalf. (?Behalves?)

Nigel and Margaret

Kim said...

Makes me think of Trainspotting:
"the shittiest toilet in all of Scotland"

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I laughed, I cried! I am so enjoying all this. Remind me when you get back, there's a place here where you can have a deep-fried Mars bar. Yummy!

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