Tuesday, June 23, 2015

from Glasgow to Islay

Travel is a funny business. If your heart and mind remain open, things can evolve.

It's been building, this conviction that Glasgow, though complicated and often visually jarring, is a fascinating place at the core. (Though one from which I need breaks rather regularly.)

The turning point for me? Right after breakfast...


...when I met the owner of my B&B, Laura.

We talk briefly about how she came to open this place here a handful of years ago. Even ten years back, this neighborhood was wretched, she tells me. Her block had office space (she worked in one of them), and Argyle Street where I ate every day was so foul that you dared not go there. Safety was an issue.

Crabshack was the first to take advantage of low rents. It moved in seven years ago and since then, the young chefs of Glasgow descended with gusto and guts.

So, out of an ignoble past a pretty remarkable upswing. I think about this for a bit. Let me explore the neighborhood to the west some more. My flight leaves at five. I have time.

I walk through the Kelvingrove Park again (lots of prams and strollers!)...


(... Including these, from a preschool. Rain or shine!)


... and then I decide to spend some time at the Kelvingrove Museum. The sign outside had said "donosaurs!" so I had snubbed it initially. Further reading revealed that there is more. Much more!


I have five initial thoughts about the place that lead me to think this is an unusual and grand museum:

1. It's open on Mondays. That's so rare! Yay Kelvingrove!
2. It's free.
3. It's nearly empty.
4. Photos are allowed.
5. The arrangements are exquisite!

This last point needs a quick explanation. Typically, museums group things chronologically and, except for special exhibitions, offer no commentary. Not so here!

At first, I go for the obvious. The Glasgow Boys! I know one of them from Kirkcudbright. (Hornel, with the garden that was pure magic.)

And the Glasgow architect - turned bummed-out artist, Charles Mackintosh.

Then there is a quite good gallery of French painting (meaning Impressionism and XX century). I like that. I go there.

(boy plays with blocks at the side while mom studies the paintings)

And I'm impressed alright! Groupings of portraits. Of landscapes. It's thematic rather than chronological.

I move on. Great Dutch art. Wow.

But the best is before me: there is a large exhibition on "Scottish identity: what it means to be Scottish." The stories posted around the art are brutally honest. Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce (who is a hero to Scottish people even as he proves to be not so heroic) -- it's all so mesmerizing!


Robert Burns, Bonnie Prince Charlie -- paintings, artifacts and stories. I nearly cannot leave!

(with his radically liberal views, Burns was the "poet of the people.")

Someone presses a magic button and we listen to one of the Burns songs - Green Grow the Rashes.
You can listen to it as well, here:

It's all very emotional really. A museum that makes your eyes water!

But it's getting late. I pause for a few minutes at the "Glasgow, the city" exhibition and this, too, works a spell on your heart. Here's where I learn about the great shift in the city -- from rapid decline, to a new focus on sports and culture. Bring back visitors, but not the ordinary tourist. The city offers not visual beauty, but it offers something nonetheless.

Yes, it does.

I walk out and on toward Byers Road again (the main drag through the West End). It hasn't changed of course, but I mind it less. I recognize the eateries that are there now, that probably weren't there a short while back. And there is a whole row of storefronts that actually looks colorful and not sad at all. (The blue skies help!)


At the top of the road, there is a gate to the Botanic Gardens and I see that if you want a visually gratifying park, you come here. And people do because again, it's free.


I walk up and down, enjoying the small bursts of sunshine. Is it that I'm swayed by this suddenly quite pleasant weather? No. I'm just thinking about Glasgow differently.

And I wonder if perhaps part of my initial reaction to the city was based on the fact that in travel, I am such a visual explorer! I listen, too, but honestly, I mostly look. And in Paris, in Krakow -- that works just fine. In Glasgow, you have to work harder, because the beauty of the place is definitely not visual. Glasgow's decline in the twentieth century is too obvious. The more recent (emergent) revival is deep within the city's core. It doesn't present itself in a walk with a camera.

I pause for a few minutes at an eatery/cafe recommended by Laura ("K&J"). It's lovely and lively and crowded with diners. I have tea and a tart with fresh figs, nuts and honey.


I wouldn't have noticed this place on my own, but now I am enchanted with the goodies sold here. I buy treats for my next hosts. I study cookbooks. I wish I could eat more of the sweet things here: beetroot and chocolate cake? Who would have thought of it? Ah, the young, the restless cooks who reach for the new stuff!


It's a grand ending to a city that I can't reject anymore. Who knows, I may even come back!

In the early evening (how can you tell if it's the evening? It's so deliciously light outside), I board the wee island hopper for Islay. Only two (on weekends -- only one) flights reach it each day, for locals and visitors alike. This is the plane:


Islay. It is such an odd bird, really! The island, which I hold close, with a very deep and unwavering affection, has the beauty of something simple and pure. The people there work hard, move slowly (blame the roads) and think whisky thoughts. Not necessarily to drink it, but to work it in a way that assures a livelihood, sometimes grand, but most often, just enough to get by. Island people.

The visitors -- and there are visitors, squeezing into the little plane, or in the alternative, making the arduous five and a half hour trip (from Glasgow) by car and ferry -- almost all of them come for the whisky. The distillery tours, the financial wheelings and dealings. I'm on the plane, sitting next to a woman who is dressed for London. I ask her if she's been traveling for a long while today. Yes. Where from? Russia. I look at her with a question mark in my eyes. She answers it.  Moscow. She doesn't offer more, beyond the fact that she's not here to enjoy the scenery. She tells me vaguely -- it's finances.

It's not unusual to see the occasional expensive cars zip by you on the rural roads. Or high fashion boots on a woman, a gold watch on a man -- or the other way around. And yet, the island is not spoiled by this. It continues, at its own pace. People wave to you and smile and the vibe is definitely low key.

Despite the world renowned distilleries.

When I first came to Islay (remember: it's pronounced Eye-Lah) last year, I'd been lead to it by an article I read in some newspaper, where the author said that each time he returned, he felt a sense of peace. He felt that it was the light: the soft palate of hues made him relax. I wanted to see that.

I knew nothing about whisky and never drank the stuff.

That changed. I still rarely drink it back home, but here, I've completely opened up to the lessons it provides -- in economics, in strength and power, in life.

Now, tonight, we fly over Glasgow, then west, west.. oh, could it be? You'll take the high road and I'll take the low road...


And then, as we fly out over the sea, this remarkable thing happens. The flight captain put it well when he said over the intercom -- the skies have opened up!

The clouds vanish and everything below is at once sharp and refined.

As we approached Islay, the message from the cockpit is clear:  we're in for a rare and beautiful landing!


It is like having an aerial tour of the coastal distilleries. (My Russian seatmate is unmoved. Business, not pleasure.)

I have rented a car for the five days I'm here. It's not like renting on the "mainland." The whole operation is relaxed and low key and the prices are solid and very reasonable.

Ten minutes later, I turn into the village of Bowmore.


I go straight to the Bowmore Guest House and I am just bouncing with the pleasure of arrival. Ed tells me later that there are lots of places I love. True, but right now, my heart resides just in three: the farmette, Paris, and Bowmore.

The innkeepers, Andrew and Alison (who are the best of the best) are busy today: all new arrivals. But I don't want to talk just yet. I catch up on the basic life changes since last year and then -- oh, I just want to look out the window in my room and grin to high heaven. (You'll see plenty of photos of the views in days to come!)

Andrew booked me a spot at Katie's Bar up the road -- it's the relaxed room of the Bridgend Restaurant. I have broccoli and zucchini soup, followed by island halibut with island crab in watercress sauce (and a salad!). So very good.



As I drive the two miles back to Bowmore, I see that the sun is gently starting its descent toward the horizon. It wont really be dark until around midnight, but the light is different in the evenings -- more mellow and kind. The sandy strips by the water's edge reflect the golden tones. A few sheep are grazing. The scene is so beautiful that I have to stop the car (a challenge on the narrow road!).


It's a stunning scene.


A few minutes later, I am in my room and the sun finishes its show for the night. With nearly clear skies, I have the perfect display of beauty out my window.


Islay knows how to welcome you back.