Celtic Connections a fine showcase for wonderful city of Glasgow
Featuring hundreds of concerts, ceilidhs, workshops and sessions, the Celtic Connections festival was Robert McMillen's reason for heading to Glasgow last month. But he found the city has so much to offer aside from magnificent music
BLESSED are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing. So said the Danish-French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and I must admit I felt a little blessed as I explored Glasgow last month.
The city on the Clyde has many similarities to Belfast of course, with its working class reputation for hard drinking and hard men hammering away on the now-disappeared shipyards – there were 53 shipyards on the Clyde at one stage – but rather than dwell on the ghosts of the past, Glasgow has been busy cherishing its colourful history while creating amenities that move it up the league table of must-see European destinations.
The best thing about Glasgow in January is the soundtrack. Since 1994, Celtic Connections has been bringing a stunning array of music from all around the world but with Scottish and Irish music as its beating heart.
Here you can sit in on an intimate gig of Gaelic music from the outer Hebrides or be among the crowds at a rock gig. The rhythm of Celtic Connections will fill your spirits during the day and Glasgow will do the rest.
On the first day, I took an tour of the city's, shall we say, brutalist architecture in the loving care of an architecture student who was the embodiment of the Pissarro quote.
However, it wasn't long before we hit an architectural gem, the hotel where I was staying, the Dakota Deluxe.
Designed for Ken McCullough by Amanda Rosa, she says she wanted to create Darth Vader's apartment. I didn't hear any heavy breathing but just walking though to the bar area had a cinematic feel to it but more Ocean's 11 than Star Wars.
That evening, our group of friends met in the private dining area and it was one of those magical evenings when everything came together – the service, the food, the decor, the ambience, the company – an unforgettable evening.
If that was good, the following day worked like a dream. The best way to get to an overview of the city is to go on a hop-on, hop off bus which turned out to fascinating guide to Glasgow
From the vantage point of the lower deck (the weather was Baltic!) we passed the spookily named Glasgow Necropolis, which was modelled on the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It wasn't long before we hit Gallowgate, where public executions used to take place. Glaswegians thought this was great craic: the last person to be hanged in public was Dr Edward Pritchard who was found guilty of murdering his wife and mother-in-law in 1865 and it is said that 80,000 turned up to watch.
Thankfully, entertainment in Glasgow is of a more edifying nature these days. The bus took me to the Science Centre, a huge space-ship of a building where you can take part in any number of interactive science experiments. It also boasts a planetarium and an Imax cinema.
One of bus stops was at Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art, the one that has the statue of the Duke of Wellington atop his horse – with a traffic cone on his head. For a decade, the authorities have removed the offending addage only for local iconoclasts to put it back the thing back on. It is now a monument to the Glaswegian sense of humour.
The gallery itself is a former tobacco warehouse, of which there were many in the city, a sign of Glasgow's great entrepreneurial past – and its connection to slavery. That was brought up again at a two-hour walking our as part of Celtic Connections around the city's folk and trad bars when we were told about songs written in honour of the emancipated slave Frederick Douglass who visited Glasgow in the 1840s.
This is what I love about Glasgow – the upstairs, downstairs nature of its inhabitants and that was literally brought home on a trip to the National Trust-owned Pollok Country Park, a beautiful country estate within the city boundaries which is home to Pollok House. To check the temperature of the oven, they'd get a serving girl to put her arm in. The length of time she was able to keep her arm in showed how hot it was.
During the tour downstairs, we got to see how everyone from the head butler to the laundry girls lived. Sadly work was being done on the house so we didn't get to see upstairs but there was more to Pollok House than the building.
It is set in the most glorious woodland and, in one part of the estate was a reconstruction of German and British First World War trenches as part of the Digging In educational project.
Another highlight of the trip was the Drygate brewery, near the necropolis and the city's cathedral. Here you can take a tour of the brewery, taste some of its craft beer – it has facilities, if you bring along your own recipe, to make your beer for you – listen to some music and then have a meal. (I had a steak to die for!)
Then it was off, refreshed, to hear Roddy Hart and the Lonseome Fire in a packed St Luke's church, a beautifully restored Grade B listed building with stained glass windows and pipe organ dating back to the early 1800s.
Aurally refreshed, we headed back to the hotel and to bed as the next day was going to be about museums.
The first was the Riverside Museum which I loved. It was named European Museum of the year in 2013 and no wonder. There is the reconstruction of a Victorian Glasgow street and all kinds of vehicles from buses to trains, cars and motor bikes to horse drawn carriages. There is even a tall ship moored on the Clyde outside.
The second, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, was equally spectacular but more traditional. There, I saw my first real Salvador Dali painting, the Christ of Saint John of the Crucifix. No wonder Kelvingrove has been ranked amongst the top 15 most visited museums in the world.
That was the highest light among many highlights and I loved the art of “the Glasgow Boys” and the exhibition of Scottish Identity in Art.
However, wandering around museums really builds up the appetite and so, for a final meal of the trip, it was off to Alchemilla in trendy Finnieston. Again, the food was superb, concocted by Ottolenghi-trained chef Rosie Healey – who shared her swede and anchovy recipe with me – and in the downstairs dining area, the sound of 10 very chatty, happy diners ricocheted merrily off its tiled walls.
Then it was back to the Dakota Deluxe for, sadly, a final parting glass – “ae fond dram and then we sever”!
Glasgae – who'da thunk it? Celtic Connections, history, heritage, archeology, nature, art, architecture, superlative food and drink, fun and laughter – and I only saw a small part of it.
In the words of the city's new motto, People Make Glasgow. Can't wait to go back.
Robert McMillen travelled to Glasgow as a guest of the Glasgow City Marketing Bureau.
He flew flew with FlyBe who operate up to five flights daily from George Best Belfast city Airport to Glasgow Airport (eight miles from the city centre). Fares start at £29.99 one way, including taxes and charges. Flybe also regularly offers promotional fares – see www.flybe.com
He stayed at:
:: The Dakota Duluxe hotel, 179 West Regent Strreet; www.glasgow.dakotahotels.co.uk/
:: Drygate Brewing Co, 85 Drygate, Glasgow; 0141 212 8815; www.drygate.com
:: Alchemilla: 1126 Argyle Street; 0141 337 6060
:: Singl End: 265 Renfrew Street; 0141 353 1277; www.singl-end.co.uk
:: Stereo: 22-28 Renfield Lane; 0141 222 2254; stereocafebar.com
... and was bowled over by:
:: Pollok House: www.nts.org.uk/Property/Pollok-House
:: Riverside Museum: 100 Pointhouse Place; 0141 287 2720.
:: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum: Argyle Street;
:: Hop on Hop off bus: http://www.citysightseeingglasgow.co.uk/the-glasgow-tour
:: The Celtic Connections music festival is over for this year but keep an eye on http://www.celticconnections.com for the 2018 programme – and book early.
:: For more information, go to: peoplemakeglasgow.com