The prescription: a healthy bout of retail therapy in Glasgow, Scotland, a city ranked as Britain's lustiest shopping mecca outside London. It would be a weekend rage of clothes, cocktails and caloric indulgence. And then the dollar tanked, committing hari-kari at the brink of 2 to the pound (up from its usual wildly expensive rate of $1.60). Shopping -- or buying, at least -- was out. What remained was four crisp days to discover the where and why of the once-gritty city now dubbed City of Culture, City of Architecture and Design, Scotland's Capital of Cool.
It doesn't take long to figure out the why. At dinner at the upscale Brian Maule -- a London-scene Michelin-starred chef who has returned to his hometown -- a 50-plus woman at the next table has bleached her short tufted hair with wide awning stripes of white. Across the room, a twentysomething wears her hair determinedly streaked and cantilevered, sitting atop her bare shoulder on one side and dipping low into her cleavage on the other.
Beauty salons here are like Starbucks in Seattle: one on every corner. And despite nigh-freezing temps of late winter, so are bare shoulders. Weekdays, Sundays -- every day is a shopping day along the pedestrian-only streets of Buchanan and Argyle and Sachiehall, in the department-store halls of John Lewis and Fraser and Marks & Spencer.
The wide avenues are mobbed with young women in super-mini-skirts or turned-up jeans and heels demonically high for a city that demands walking. If such commerce sounds ho-hum, consider this: In Paris, Rome and London, most stores are sealed tight on Sunday.
"It's friendlier shopping than in London, and it's cheaper," says Karin Sundstrom of Stockholm, loaded with bags as she emerged from St. Mungo Museum, which explores world religions.
A student traveler, Sundstrom lauded Glasgow for its friendliness and clubbing. "I really like it," she says. "There are a lot of young people."
Glasgow has become so trendy, tourism officials say, that stylish women zip up from London for the weekend to fill their luggage at Versace -- the first in Britain outside London -- and Cruise, a temple to Prada and Gucci and Boss. Some claim the prices are cheaper than in the big city.
City for a new century
But it's not just the shopping that makes Glasgow the United Kingdom's nexus of nerve. The city is an archetype for 21st-century reinvention: Industrial-age city hits DSL speed, with nightclubs and museums packed to the exits.
The result is a collision of styles, a collusion of by-the-bootstraps gutsiness with small-town "aw the nice!" (isn't that lovely), delivered in a peculiar vernacular called "the patter." Posers may trifle at the clubs, but honesty in an accent thick as homemade porridge wins out. Precious definitely doesn't cut it here.
"What I like about Glasgow," says Lynn MacTaggart, an office manager I'd met on an African safari and my unofficial guide, "is that you can go to a pub or a bar and just have a chat. It's not a cattle market."
Proof: We're standing in a fantasy of centuries-old wooden beams and wrought-iron candelabra beside a bar topped with plaster angels. This is Arta, one of the hottest clubs in the trendy Merchant City district of former tobacco warehouses, and our fifth stop for the night in Glasgow's Central District.
We've followed a liquid path from the Arches (a vaulted basement near the central train station topped by a variety of club-and-concert spaces); Rogano (deco-stylish bar catering to a well-heeled and decidedly 50-plus crowd) and dinner in one of the restaurants in the Merchant Square, former cheese market-turned-cafe complex. Best is Corinthian, a club with fine dining, dancing in former jail cells and cocktails under a spectacular molded-and-domed ceiling.
Now at Arta, we're surrounded by an incongruous mix of 50-plus men in ties, hipsters in black, young women in halters and other shoulder-baring outfits, and a remarkable number of what MacTaggart describes as "mutton dressed as lamb" -- people too old to be baring no-longer-shapely bodies, and certainly old enough to know better.
One man is costumed in a black beret, white lace-up shirt traditionally worn with a kilt and glossy black trousers.
"Oooh. Shiny pants," shudders MacTaggart. Aged mutton, that'll be right, as the Glaswegians might say.
We're chatted up by a trio of local guys -- working guys sans ties, all married, chatty but not looking for dates. "Glasgow is a fantastic place," says Paul Boland, a surveyor. "People here are working-class people; they're down to earth. Edinburgh is much more prosperous" -- but less friendly, his comment implies, harking to an age-old rivalry between the two cities.