AFTER encountering a group of zombies moments after passing the unmistakably robust figure of Desperate Dan, it was quickly becoming clear that our first visit to the City of Discovery was going to be an eye-opener.
The zombies, later joined by characters looking as though they’d just stepped off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, turned out to be students. Now here’s an interesting fact: Dundee has more students per head of population — one in seven — than any other town in Europe, barring Heidelberg. (Source: Lonely Planet Guide to Scotland).
The bold, bronze, street-level figure of Dandy favourite Desperate Dan in City Square is certainly an interesting alternative to the haughty statues of dignitaries and royalty from years gone by that populate the prominent points of so many other cities. Beaming Dan positively invites a selfie with passers-by. That sort of behaviour with Nelson in Trafalgar Square might well get you lifted.
We’d come to watch Ross County take on Dundee United at Tannadice. It was a good excuse to check out a city that we’d had no particular reason to visit otherwise. Never discount the fringe benefits of the football away day...
A quick perusal of the bus routes mapped out at stops in City Square revealed it would be a relatively straightforward job getting there.
That left plenty of time to get to know the city a little better.
Former University of Dundee rector Stephen Fry certainly counts amongst the fans of a city which has been dubbed "Scotland’s best-kept secret". He said: "Dundee’s setting is probably more extraordinary than any other city in the UK. It is about as ideal — ludicrously ideal — as any setting could be."
It’s an assessment backed up by that scrupulously independent travellers’ bible, Lonely Planet in its guide to Scotland. It says Dundee enjoys "perhaps the finest location of any Scottish city, spreading along the northern shore of the Firth of Tay, and boasts tourist attractions of national importance..."
Dundonians are hailed "amongst the friendliest, most welcoming and most entertaining people you’ll meet". Dundee, it concludes, "is definitely worth a stopover".
There are two three terrific visitor attractions which should be top of your list if time is not on your side — and one of them won’t cost you a penny to visit (although you may require oodles of energy if going on foot).
Dundee Law, overlooking the city, is formed from the remnants of a volcano dating back 400 million years. It offers a magnificent panoramic sweep from which you can see for miles. If it’s football you’ve come for, you’ll see a great aerial view of Tannadice and Dens Park, the latter home to Dundee FC. They’re across the street from one another so they’re hard to miss...
It’s easy to see why this area would have been central to the area’s defences down the years. It’s a spot for quiet reflection and romantic canoodling.
Scotland’s Jute Museum at Verdant Works turned out to be another eye-opener.
The story of Dundee’s jute industry is brilliantly brought to life through a series of exhibitions and working exhibits that are a million miles from your idea of a stuffy museum.
Built in 1833, Verdant Works is the last working jute mill in Scotland. Dundee Heritage Trust’s collection of historic jute processing machinery, much of it over 100 years old, has been restored to working condition to give visitors a vivid appreciation of life in the mills and factories.
It is the only venue in Britain where people can see the processing of jute from the raw fibre through to the finished woven cloth. Verdant Works is keeping alive the traditional skills of jute spinning and weaving which might otherwise die out.
You can start to see where some of the city’s wealth was generated in its heyday. At its peak in 1900, the jute industry in Dundee employed 50,000 people — half the working population at that time — and supplied much of the world’s demand for jute goods. The majority of workers were women and children.
One of those women was Lily Thomson, who spent her working life in the jute industry and now works as a volunteer at Verdant Works. It’s worth seeking her out if you visit. She’ll show you how the machinery works (be prepared: it’s noisy!) and is full of colourful tales from years gone by. Ten minutes in her company was amongst the highlights of the visit. (That and a precious away victory over the Tangerine Terrors.)
Another excellent attraction run by Dundee Heritage Trust is Discovery Point (www.rrsdiscovery.com). Such is the redevelopment taking place by the waterfront that picking out the entrance proved trickier than expected. As you scan Dundee’s panorama from the Law, you should be able to pick out RRS Discovery, which from that distance resembles a toy left over from an previous age.
This is the story of Discovery from her beginnings in Dundee and Captain Scott’s remarkable Antarctic expedition, through her long ocean-going career until her final journey home. At the beginning of the 20th century, Antarctica was still an uncharted wilderness. Exploration was a daunting task, involving a long voyage through remote and tempestuous seas just to reach the continent.
Imaginatively put together multimedia displays bring that story to life and leave you wondering at the bravery of men facing long, uncertain voyages into the unknown.
A chance to tour the restored ship and delve into its many nooks and crannies is appreciated all the more after you’ve absorbed some of the history beforehand. Anyone who works with wood in any shape or form will hugely enjoy seeing the how the ship was put together — and some of the mistakes that were made in the construction.
It’s a thoughtful, lovingly pieced together experience that will stay with you.
The McManus Galleries (www.mcmanus.co.uk) on Albert Street are easy on the eye from the outside, housed in a stunning Victorian Gothic building designed in 1867.
As well as touching on the history of the city from Iron Age to present day, it finds space for some quirky exhibits ranging from a Michelin Man to a Moulinex hairdryer and a Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum computer, with its 16k of memory. Finding that in a museum made me feel just ever so slightly old...
The story of dinosaurs to the Space Age and lots in-between is crammed into Dundee Science Centre, which reflects the city’s high-tech status.
The emphasis is very much on hands-on with a series of exhibits inviting visitors to discover for themselves how things work. While smaller than its counterpart in Glasgow, it packs a lot in and maintains a lively series of interactive programmes and show-and-tell style talks aimed at engaging inquiring minds.
Dundee’s links to Grand Theft Auto, familiar with gamers the world over, might also be an eye-opener. Eye-openers — whether that be beautiful vistas, slices of history, a stake in a high-tech future or zombies roaming the streets in daylight — seems to be something which this unassuming city has in abundance.
Tannadice Park wasn’t bad either — and with top flight status secured by Ross County for another season, we’ll look forward to returning for another away day, next time at Dens Park.
WHERE TO STAY
WHEN you’re checking out the lay of the land in an area that’s a mystery to you, it can be nice to know there’s a familiar place to lay your head.
The Premier Inn at Dundee West — one of three properties the hotel chain has in the city itself — was, all the same, a pleasant surprise.
Voted the Hotel Chain of the Year at the British Travel Awards, Premier Inn prides itself on doing the basics really well at a price which won’t break the bank. That translates to clean, comfortable rooms, a good breakfast (great if you’re travelling with children under 16, who eat free) and pleasant staff.
The surprisingly leafy Dundee West hotel is a couple of miles out of the centre (there’s a branch there, too). There’s a family-friendly annexe that places the emphasis on residents keeping the noise down (particularly valuable at weekends if you have young children) and the ample parking is free.
If you’re happy sharing a room with your nearest and dearest, the beds are clean and comfortable and the en-suite bathroom packs a no-nonsense powerful shower and decent bath.
The welcome was pleasant and personal and the night’s sleep comfortable and quiet. Book ahead online and you can bag a room from £35, which is pretty decent for a family of four.
For those who, like me, believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, there are some tasty options at the Premier Inn. A full eat-all-you-like cooked breakfast costs £8.75 and if you opt for that, up to two children under 16 eat free, too. If there’s a better justification for stuffing you...er, I mean eating heartily, I’m not sure what it is.
A continental breakfast — croissants, crumpets, juice, coffee — is priced at £6.25 and would also set you up nicely for the day ahead. The breakfast hit the spot and let’s just say you won’t leave hungry.
As a side note, the children were fascinated by the ‘conveyor belt’ industrial toaster available for self-service at the breakfast bar.
This particular hotel's reviews on Tripadvisor back up this upbeat assessment.
T: 0871 527 8362
Rooms start from £35 if you book direct at www.premierinn.com. Saver rates are only available at premierinn.com.
Dundee: A Very Peculiar History (Book House) by Fiona Macdonald £7.99