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Glasgow: Britain's Renaissance City : 'The Big Smoke' has gone on a binge of artistic and social rediscovery.

March 15, 1992|STEPHEN WILLIAMS | NEWSDAY

GLASGOW, Scotland — Employing just the trace of condescension for which they are so famous, some Englishmen still refer to Glasgow as "The Big Smoke."

(Some Glaswegians, with the forthrightness they are famous for, still refer to Englishmen as snobs.)

But the English--and the rest of the world--are beating a dead horse. Glasgow, the port city that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution (it was Britain's great Victorian metropolis, the "second city" of the Empire), was bypassed by progress years ago; the dust, quite literally, has settled. The thriving shipyards along the Clyde River, where the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth 2 were built, are history. The mammoth foundries that turned out the world's sturdiest locomotives are long gone.

Glasgow has gone on a binge of rediscovery--artistically, socially and environmentally. It is Britain's renaissance city of the late 20th Century.

Because gone, as well, are The Gorbals, a notorious inner-city slum area. The postwar mania to make Glasgow a greener, more livable place gave rise to the verdant pocket parks that dot the city. The soot and grime have been sandblasted off the red and yellow sandstone to reveal terraces, galleries and concert halls of gleaming magnificence.

Glaswegians, a tough, loyal, independent and industrious lot, have, in recent years, also adopted a cultural bent. With good reason: The great hall of the civic Art Gallery and Museum, dominated by a magnificent Lewis organ, is stunning (as is what is billed as Britain's finest civic collection of national and continental art: Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt).

The concrete legacy of native Scot and art nouveau pioneer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, especially his re-created home at Glasgow University's Hunterian Art Gallery, is classically simple and simply classic. Glasgow also is home to the Scottish Opera and Ballet, the British Broadcasting Corp. Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish Orchestra. Glasgow was named by the European Economic Community as the European City of Culture in 1990, joining such company as Florence, Paris and Athens.

Multistory shopping malls opened, complete with California-style food courts. Restaurants sassed up their menus. Performing artists put Glasgow on their touring itineraries. In more ways than one, Glasgow had cleaned up its act.

And the bottom line, for visitors, is that Glasgow today is a sleeper city. Not in terms of bargains (a British pound is a Scottish pound, and it's battering the dollar), but in terms of discovery.

Take One Devonshire Gardens, for example.

Set in three stately Victorian mansions--small mansions--in Glasgow's west end, the One Devonshire hotel is a rich dose of ritz in a city that doesn't flaunt many pretentions. It's an anachronism among the smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts. My room, No. 2, was the size of two or three Manhattan apartments, with giant bay windows, a canopied four-poster bed, an oversized Victorian tub embellished with brass and porcelain fittings, a plush maroon sofa. Everything was plush maroon. On top of this, there was the drawing-room-cum-cocktail lounge, the $60 prix-fixe dinner, the Scottish salmon for breakfast, the assortment of single-malt Scotches for nightcaps.

And the piece de resistance: The sommelier who brought me a glass of Chardonnay was named Johnny Walker. ("Sir, would you prefer Red or Black with dinner?")

Lest you get the idea that Glasgow reeks with wealth, be advised it's mainly big splurgers and fabulous people such as Luciano Pavarotti and Greta Scacchi who sup and stay at One Devonshire, where a double room starts at $270 a night. One Devonshire is very much a black-silk tie on a blue-collar city.

One-fifth of Scotland's 5 million people live in Glasgow. Before the population spread out into the suburbs, which now stretch in all directions from the Clyde River, they lived atop each other, in four- and five-story walk-ups with common toilets. When the city fathers decided that the tenements, which were breeding grounds for tuberculosis and violence, had to be destroyed, they erected ugly high-rise towers in the 1950s and '60s that were nearly as offensive as the slums they replaced. Physically, the Victoriana of Glasgow is its most impressive aspect. The building facades on street after street present stunning impressions of heroic 19th-Century architecture.

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