Scotland's Glasgow is emerging from its dark past into an era of stylish shopping, trendy designers, fantastic Victorian buildings and some top-notch food
Bond girl Eva Green eats like a horse. Despite her svelte figure she ate her way through a huge portion of Scottish mussels during the filming of The Last Word in Glasgow in 2009. As the chef was Guy Cowan, it’s actually not surprising; his food is so delicious anyone can find a little bit more room – even a slim Bond girl.
Cowan has been feeding Hollywood A-listers for years, but has come home to Glasgow and his restaurant, Guy’s (24 Candleriggs; 0141 552 1114; www.guysrestaurant.co.uk) typifies Glasgow’s cultural and foodie renaissance. He is friends with Ewan McGregor’s film-producing mother, and when Ewan and Trainspotting co-star Ewan Bremner were cast as chefs in new film The Last Word Cowan offered to show the actors the life of a pro chef. Apparently the actors loved it, but not as much as co-star Eva Green. Apparently one scene involved her eating mussels – which he cooked – and she was perfectly happy to go through 12 takes! Cowan described her as “a lovely girl, and she certainly likes her food!”
Cowan’s restaurant exemplifies the new energy and confidence surging through Glasgow. The city has always been a fascinating mix of cultures, contrasts and contradictions, from its years as Britain’s second city when it was an industrial powerhouse to the dark years of decline and social problems. Now it is rebranding itself as a city of style, and is backing that claim up with a buzzing shopping scene and the home of some truly brilliant designers, as well as some cracking food.
The industrial years have left a city centre stuffed with impressive Victorian buildings and long shopping streets, which in the week before Christmas were stuffed with happy shoppers. Buchanan Street is the place to head for, a pedestrianised mile which boasts everything from a huge Apple store to smaller independent shops and its own tube station. Glasgow has just the one tube line which runs in a loop, so it’s impossible to get lost, and in Prince’s Square there’s another perfect place for a lunchtime refuelling. Cranachan (0141 248 6257; www.cranachancafe.co.uk) offers locally-sourced food but with a modern twist, like the exceptional seafood salads with scallops or crab.
Further along Buchanan Street it’s time to step back into Glasgow’s past. At 97 Buchanan Street (0141 204 5242) the ground floor is a jeweller’s, but upstairs lies one of Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s been recently restored, and offers tea and cakes in the sublime surroundings of Mackintosh’s willowy designs, all tall chairs and icy mirrors. The waitresses still wear the uniforms Mackintosh designed in the early 1900s and the tea is exemplary. If you’re lucky a member of staff might show you the top floor, now closed off but it's where a billiard table kept the men out of the pub. There are some fantastic original pieces of art nouveau furniture, and the silk dress worn by tea tycoon Miss Cranston, who owned the tea rooms.
Back on the streets, and Glasgow’s West End is home to some of the cutting-edge design shops and quirky boutiques which typify the city’s energetic feel. There you will find a store by the award-winning designers Timorous Beasties (384 Great Western Road; 0141 337 2622). This duo, Alistair McAuley and Paul Simmons, met at the Glasgow School of Art and produce luxury wallpapers and fabrics – with a twist. They won the Design Museum’s competition for their amazing high-quality wallpaper which, if you look closely, depicts some unusual aspects of Glasgow’s daily life.
Apart from the shopping and the food, Glasgow is a distinctly cultural centre. It boasts some lovely old Victorian theatres, an art deco gem of a cinema – the Glasgow Film Theatre (12 Rose Street; 0141 332 6535; www.gft.org.uk) and a multi-screen Cineworld, which was showing that well-known mussel-stuffer Eva Green’s film Cracks on my trip. It also has plenty of art, and a short train ride to the south takes you to a gem in an amazing setting. The Burrell Collection is a modern building which lies right in the middle of Pollok Country Park (2060 Pollokshaws Road; 0141 287 2550; www.glasgowmuseums.com). It looks like a spaceship has landed right in the middle of a park – one end is a huge window, beyond which lies a forest. It houses the collection of philanthropist Sir William Burrell, who left his artefacts to the city of Glasgow in 1944. There are sculptures by Rodin and Epstein, a lovely Cezanne, a small but charming collection of Degas’s dancers and some stunning Chinese pottery. Burrell lived in a castle, and some of the rooms are recreated here complete with tapestries and suits of armour – Burrell was apparently quite a collector of medieval weaponry.
Back in Glasgow centre and there’s just time for one last foodie treat at The Red Onion (257 West Campbell Street; 0141 221 6000). Recent diners have included George Clooney, Michael Palin and Kelly Clarkson, and they will have enjoyed more classic fresh seafood with twists such as risotto with an Asian flavouring.
A good hotel to get your head down is the Park Inn Hotel (2 Port Dundas Place), which is right next to a bus station, opposite the music hall and a five-minute stroll to the main shopping area and the theatres and cinemas. Rooms are generous and clean, bathrooms spacious and the TVs are large.
Glasgow has had its economic and social problems in the past, but these days – well, if it’s good enough for Eva Green and George Clooney it’s probably good enough for anyone.