Pardon Me, Which Way To The Low Road?

Refrew Street is where the cheap hotels are in Glasgow. It has, as far as I was able to tell, nothing else whatever to recommend it.

I didn't think much of Glasgow, to tell you the truth; it was, at least in the downtown area, incredibly dirty and ugly. Still, after that grueling nine-hour bus ride from London, we weren't particular.

(We knew we were in trouble as soon as we got on board; the seats were crammed so close together there was even less legroom than on British Airways. The driver got on his microphone and made his announcements in a strong Scottish accent, and at the end he said, "We're sheduled to arrive in Glasgow at eighteen-thirrty, and we'll be doing verra well if we do." He wasn't kidding; there were traffic jams all along the way.)

We got a cheap little room and walked back down the hill, past an assortment of unusually weird graffiti, looking for a place to eat. No luck; it was after eight and hardly anything was open. There were a couple of quite nice-looking restaurants near the bus station, but we were too self-conscious about our grubbiness, after the long ride, to go in. We could have gotten something at the bus station - which, bizarrely enough, seemed to be the cleanest place in downtown Glasgow - but we wandered back up Sauchiehall Street, still looking. Finally we gave up and went into a Burger King. It was far and away the filthiest Burger King I'd ever seen in my life, but it did have the virtue of being open. We sat there munching greasy burgers and looking out the dingy windows at the dark streets.

"Walking up and down all these hills," said Phyllis, who grew up in Arizona, "and now eating at Burger King - it's like being a kid again, back in Globe."

Just then a burly man walked past outside wearing a knee-length skirt. "On the other hand," she said, "that's something you definitely wouldn't see in Globe."

Next morning's bus ride more than made up for Monday's direness. Northwest from Glasgow, the road ran through incredibly beautiful country, alongside great long lakes - starting with Loch Lomond, on which the sun did in fact shine bright - and up picturesque glens between high steep mountains. At the little town of Inverary, on Loch Fyne, the bus stopped for a short break and I managed to snap a few views, though they utterly fail to do justice to the magnificence of the landscape.

Inverary itself was pretty tourist-trappy, but it didn't matter; the country was so spectacular that human corniness had no chance. There was, apparently, some sort of castle over behind the trees. Phyllis got very excited about that, not yet realizing that castles are just about as common in western Scotland as Burger Kings in Arizona.

Oban is a remarkably pretty little town on the west coast of Argyll. Everybody seems to take this picture, but it can't be helped; that really is what it looks like. The odd-looking structure on top of the hill is called McCaig's Tower, though I can't think why; it isn't a tower and doesn't resemble one. It was built in Victorian times by a local banker as a memorial for his family, and was meant to be a replica of a Roman amphitheater. No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We climbed the hill to get a better look. It didn't look a bit like a Roman amphitheater, but the view was worth the yomp.

Oban has a fine natural harbor, well sheltered by the long island of Kerrera. Farther out, across the Firth of Lorn, lies the Isle of Mull, where all the tourists seemed to go; people seemed surprised that we weren't going there. Oban itself was undeniably a bit on the touristy side, but not egregiously so; once clear of the souvenir shops and tour-boat offices along the main drag, there turned out to be a real town there, and quite a nice one. (And hell, you can't blame them for trying to make a few quid off the visitors.) The people were extremely friendly and pleasant and helpful and I liked them right away. I enjoyed listening to them talk, too, even if I couldn't understand a damn word.

The day had been sunny and ridiculously warm, considering the latitude and the season; the unnaturally warm weather had reached even this far north. We wondered if we'd been foolish to carry warm clothes and foul-weather kit.

Next day we found out.

NEXT: Lismore

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