1999-12 (DECEMBER, 1999)

Bilbao, Spain

For Andrea's birthday this year I organised a long weekend in Bilbao staying at a lovely hotel in the city centre.

We flew out late morning on Saturday and arrived mid afternoon. By the time we had got to our hotel and settled in it was late afternoon - a bit late to do any serious sight seeing - so we went for a wander through town and up to the Guggenheim Museum by way of the city's newest (and rather styley) bridge. It was getting dark by the time we got there which made for some groovy photographs. For dinner we went hunting for a restaurant that was mentioned in our book, but on finding it we decided to opt for one near our hotel that looked significantly nicer than the 'quaint' (read 'scummy') one we had finally located.

On Sunday we thought we would check out the inside of the Guggenheim Museum. By the time we got up there it was late morning and half of Spain was queuing outside (compared with no-one yesterday). We decided to wait until the queue died down, and so went wandering again for another few hours. We were back by 5:30pm with heaps of time until the museum closed at 8:00pm - or so we thought. The queue, if anything, was longer than the morning. We joined it anyway, resigning ourselves to the fact that we would probably be there for some time and that our time inside would be rather short. By 7:00pm, however, we had only made it to the halfway point in the queue! The museum was going to close in an hour and it looked as though we were still an hour and a half from the entrance. We decided to give up and go and find some dinner - somewhere special for Andrea's birthday meal. But could we find anything open on a Sunday night in Bilbao? Could we bollocks! Not even the restaurant in our hotel was open! Birthday dinner was an omelette and chips from room service! Oh yay!

On Monday we were flying out mid-afternoon, so we didn't have a whole heap of time to do anything. Not that that mattered greatly as, in true Spanish style, everything was closed - including the Guggenheim Museum - which was nice. Ah, well - not the most successful weekend away.

Northumbria, England

This Christmas Andrea and I rented a cottage in Falstone, Northumbria - right in the middle of the Pennine National Park.

We hired a Peugeot 306 and headed away on the morning of the 23rd, complete with the cat and an incredible amount of supplies. The drive up was slow but uneventful. A word to the wise at this point - avoid British motorway services at all costs! The cat was very well behaved in the car until we got to the last part of our journey (in the dark on the wee back roads of northern England). It was at this point that he decided that he had been holding on long enough and shat himself in his cage behind my head - a lovely way to spend the last half an hour of an eight hour drive!

Our cottage was fab! It was right in the heart of the sprawling metropolis that was Falstone village (17 houses, a shop and a pub). The pub was right across the road and served one of the best pints of Guinness to be had outside of Ireland. We had an open fire, fully kitted out kitchen and a big garden. The weather whilst we were there was unbelievable good - in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Cold, crisp, and clear.

Most days were spent blissfully doing bugger all - reading, stoking the fire and eating chocolate. The village was about a mile from a huge artificial lake called Keilder water. We walked up to the lake several times to get some fresh air.

We did several day excursions whilst we were up North. One day we drove around all the back roads in the area, passing through villages with crazy names like Once Brewed and Twice Brewed (beside each other). We visited Bambur Castle and Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on the coast and ended up in Hexham to visit a friend that lives there and go out for dinner. Another day we trekked around several sites of Roman settlement in the area and also found several stretches of Hadrian's Wall. On the 29th we went over to Penrith to meet up with some friends that were heading up to the far north of Scotland, and spent a very pleasant evening in a Italian restaurant beside the B&B where we stayed that night.

Christmas day in Falstone was delightful. No snow but a very heavy frost and a cold clear day. We opened pressies in the morning before embarking on a day of indulgence and snoozing. New Years Eve was interesting too. The Falstone community notice board had been advertising the New Year's Eve Extravaganza for weeks preceding the event. "Come, one and all, to see the three (3) loud rockets at midnight !!!" it stated. At the appointed hour we duly traipsed outside to join the rest of the village (some 20 - 25 people) in witnessing the spectacle. Three rockets and 20 seconds later the crowd shuffled in a faintly embarrassed way back inside to their respective celebrations, wondering slightly quite why they had bothered spending 20 minutes donning polar clothing for 20 seconds of 'entertainment'. Still, the rest of the evening was drunken, loud and thoroughly enjoyable. I finally got to bed just after 6am.

The drive back to London on the 3rd of January was more interesting than the journey up. We stopped in Durham for a visit to the cathedral there (most recently famous as a set in the movie 'Elizabeth'). The interior of the cathedral was spectacular - every pair of columns inside was carved in an individual style on an immense scale.

We got home early evening with a days holiday up our sleeve before returning to work on the Tuesday.