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To celebrate my birthday we met up with Christopher and Matthew and had dinner at The Skylon Restaurant in the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a lovely setting combining a modern take on 50’s retro with fab views over the river.

The food, service and wines were all excellent. My baby squid starter with squid ink risotto and a parmesan velouté was a highlight.

Since we had mostly chosen fish dishes, I decided on a bottle of Terras Gauda O Rosal Albariño from Rias Baixas (Galicia), which was delicious and a lovely match.

In place of dessert I tried the Dessert Wine Tasting Menu, comprising:

  • Saracco, Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy, 2008
  • Anton Bauer, Eiswein, Gruner Veltliner, Donauland, Austria
  • Disznoko, Tokaji, Aszu, 5 Puttonyos, Hungary

The Moscato d’Asti was lovely, light and floral and petillant. The Eiswein had a gorgeous nose but I was a little disappointed that it didn’t deliver on the palate. Fortunately the Tokaji more than made up for this.

A wonderful evening!

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Puente Colgante

Day two in Bilbao started with a stroll through the university where Jorge has been doing his masters: la Universidad de Deusto. Crossing the river we had a whistle-stop tour of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao which merits a much longer look, but at least is free on Wednesdays.

We caught the metro out to Portugalete and popped in to the impressive Basílica de Santa María before descending to river level to our target: the industrial age’s first transporter bridge.

Puente Colgante

We explored this amazing structure from above via the high-level walkways before crossing on the transporter. The bridge was designed to allow tall ships to pass unimpeded and is still the only crossing between the city and the sea.

Puente Colgante from above

Ending up in the posh seaside suburb of Getxo, we lunched in a smart little bar full of locals having a glass of something, and then we slept it off on Getxo’s lovely beach. I was a little sparing with the suncream and ended up with a strip of sunburn as a result. Some people never learn…

On the way home we picked up some extra supplies in the Eroski supermarket in Deusto. After a little snack to keep us going we headed back out onto the streets, taking the Funicular de Artxanda up the side of the hill to get a view of the city from above. Bilbao is surrounded by hills which have limited its growth and lend it some of its charm.

We returned to river level briefly, waling to the Casco Viejo to take a lift up to the Parque Etxebarria, site of a former steel foundry but now an open space and today the site of a funfair. We declined to try any of the rides but it was fun watching the crowds of families and teenagers.

Descending by foot once more to river level we watched some excellent street theatre in the Plaza Arriega: a French circus group, Cirque Hirsute, staged a mini-drama full of humour and invention – Bal Caustique. Time for a wee drink, although as the week progressed the streets got busier and busier every evening (look in the background):

This evening’s fireworks were part of the annual Bilbao firework competition and were 20 minutes of simply stunning (and deafening) spectacle.

Jorge brought the day to a nourishing close with his excellent baked chicken, washed down with a bottle of lovely Albariño from the supermarket.

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A nastily early start to catch the 05:10 bus to Stansted, which was already busy. The flight was delayed by the crowds at the airport, but arrived into Bilbao only fifteen minutes late. It’s only a ten minute bus ride into the city, where Jorge met me at the first stop after the impressive puente Príncipes de España from which I’d had my first of many glimpses of the Guggenheim.
Puente Príncipes de España & Guggenheim
To reach Jorge’s apartment we had only to re-cross the bridge on foot and take the lift down to street level, and walk half a block up the hill. Excellent location!

Having left my not-very-big bag, Jorge proceeded to give me a whistle-stop tour of the very walkable city on foot: el museo Guggenheim, la Plaza de Moyúa, la Gran Vía, el Parque Doña Casilda and la Plaza del Sagrado Corazón. We stopped for lunch in a typical local bar serving pinchos or little bites on a skewer or cocktail stick. We shared rabas (squid) and picos de carne (lovely little meat skewers).

The tour continued after lunch, taking in a bus ride to la Plaza Circular, a stroll through the Casco Viejo (old town) and a look at the temporary bars set up along the banks of Bilbao’s defining river (known both as El Nervión or La Ría de Bilbao). The bars were part of Bilbao’s annual fiesta: Aste Nagusia which is Euskera for Big Week. In fact nine days of celebrations, fireworks, free concerts and theatre.

After a well-needed siesta we headed back into town for a drink before finding our spot for the excellent nightly fireworks viewed above the river. Then a mad dash along the river to the temporary stage next to the Guggenheim to enjoy a simply excellent – and entirely free – concert from Rosario and her superb band. The trumpeter and bassist were especially good. She performed from 11:30pm through to 12:45am, what stamina!

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Twisted Vision

Chris K arranged a trip to the Greenwich Theatre to see Twisted Vision, directed by and starring his friend from South Africa, Gavin Wright.

Synopsis: Leonard Watkins is successful female impersonator and actor in London. A “diva” on stage but a lonely soul in the privacy of his home. All he wants is to love someone and be loved in return. Confronted one night backstage by Russell Lawrence, a straight stage hand and struggling actor, he is fascinated by this young man. Russell decides to take advantage of Leonard, by pretending to fall in love with him, hoping Leonard’s connections will help establish his acting career. Then Russell meets Natalie Harper. a young reporter, and his journey of self discovery begins with surprising consequences…

The script and the cast were excellent, but sadly the audience was tiny – the ten of us on comp tickets and about ten others. I think a little more publicity would have helped. The only other negative was that most of the South African cast were trying and largely failing to carry London accents.

Afterwards we had a late meal at a Mexican restaurant nearby, where Gavin joined us and the sexy actor playing Russell put in a tantalisingly brief appearance. Suddenly it was time to hot-foot it to the DLR for the last train (actually we had at least three in hand) and then the Northern Line back to Chris and Matthew’s.

On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, the four of us (Nicky was visiting from Dublin) headed by bus and District Line towards Kensington High Street, getting as far as Earl’s Court before engineering work jinxed us. On foot we had to ask a local for directions, following her most of the way before she outran us. Our target was Whole Foods Market in part of the former Barkers department store. It’s a wonderland of wholefood and organic produce, an American fusion of health food shop, deli and top-end supermarket, with prices to match. The cheese room and meat counter stood out. It’s not all good though: five yards away from a wall display about the advantages of local food, the fruit and veg department was full of such luxuries as fresh asparagus air-freighted in from Peru. We ate upstairs and discovered (by failing to do this) that the best plan is to buy your lunch from the deli area on the ground floor and take it upstairs, as there is more choice and probably better value than from the cafeteria serveries.

In the evening I went to the George Inn in Southwark(see also Graham’s blog) for John and Andrew’s post-Civil Partnership celebration. It was lovely to catch up with them and to bump into David & Heiko, Ian & Richard and Danny & Malcolm. The buffet was yummy too. Home on a strangely-timed train from King’s Cross which sat at Letchworth for five minutes waiting for its timetabled departure. A fun weekend!

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A night out in London on Wednesday, organised by Chris and Matthew. First dinner in Papageno’s, which ended up rather rushed, but good value at £12.50 for their ‘Tenor Menu’ (plus a little inflation!). Marshia and I jumped in a taxi for the short trip to…
The Noel Coward Theatre to see Avenue Q. What a great show! The combination of live actors, puppets, and on-stage puppeteers works really well. It’s a simple idea executed perfectly. I can’t get The Internet is for Porn out of my head now!

I had time for a quick drink in The Yard with everyone before dashing back to King’s Cross for the train home.

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I’ve just got back from Bruno’s funeral in Nancy, France. It was very moving and I’m glad that I was there.

Bruno was a super person. The words from the funeral service which stick in my mind – assuming I understood the French correcty – were: “To remember Bruno’s smile, all we need to do is close our eyes”. All my sympathies go out to his family and to Dan, who has shown amazing strength over the last week,

I travelled out on Thursday evening, meeting up with Mark, Tak and Nicholas at Stansted and flying to Karlsruhe/Baden airport (Baden Airpark), a lovely modern airport which looks very much as if it used to be a military airfield, possibly American. We hired a car from Hertz and drove through freezing fog to the Etap hotel on the outskirts of Haguenau. Unfortunately we arrived too late for food at the neighbouring Ibis, and the McDonalds driver-thru (or walk-thru in our case) closed seconds before we got there.

On Friday morning we departed at 9.30 after a basic breakfast, and I drove us through a magical frosted landscape to Nancy with Nicholas navigating and admirably coping with the Michelin directions which assumed that the unopened new road was in fact open. We found the SNCF station for Tak to leave his bags, and then spent a short while doing little loops onto the one-way Rue de la Désert attempting to find the Eglise Saint Joseph before discovering that it was almost where we’d started. We had time for a light lunch in a nearby bar (merguez, frites, salade).

The church is a large parish church and it was full, despite being bitterly cold. The service was a full funeral mass, and the parish priest invited Nicholas to concelebrate, although an Anglican, since he was Bruno’s friend. The burial at the Cimetière du Sud was short but very moving, all the more so for being the first I have attended. Finally there was a reception at a church hall elsewhere in Nancy, with hot coffee very welcome, yummy homemade cakes, and some super pictures of Bruno on the tables. There was a strong contingent of Cambridge friends at service, burial and reception.

A smooth journey back today, apart from putting (some of) the wrong kind of petrol in the hire car. We even arrived at Stansted early, and I caught a train home by the skin of my teeth (and a sprint up the platform), in by 11.30am.

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We had a super weekend with our friends Danny & Malcolm. They picked us up just before six on Friday and we headed north, stopping at the Ram Jam for dinner. I’ve driven past countless times, but never stopped. It turns out that they do good bistro food with reasonably rapid service, serving up smoked haddock on a bed of spinach with hollandais and pan fried new potatoes, spoiled only by the gallon of melted butter in the bottom of the plate. We found our way through Sheffield and reached The Rambler Inn in Edale by 10pm. The barman was a little sniffy about two male couples booking in to two double rooms, but perhaps he was just being cautious as in his words, he didn’t want us “to kick off when we saw the double beds”. Time for a pint at the Nag’s Head and one back at the Rambler before bed.

Saturday morning was very cold, but with blue skies and frost everywhere, very beautiful and excellent walking weather. We spent the day walking a wonderful 14 mile circuit (see Graham’s fab map):

  • Up Grinds Brook onto Kinder Scout
  • Along the ridge past Crowden Tower and Edale Head
  • A quick diversion (and brief passage on the Pennine Way) to Edale Cross
  • Over Brown Knoll and Horsehill Tor
  • Along Rushup Edge, stopping at Lord’s Seat for lunch with fabulous views over Edale
  • Down into Mam Nick and up Mam Tor, where there were paragliders finding some lift
  • Via Hollins Cross and the lone pine on Back Tor to Lose Hill
  • And finally backtracking to Hollins Cross before descending to Edale

Graham took some wonderful pictures. The only dark cloud, figuratively and literally, was Danny’s encounter with a boghole almost to one hip, which caused him to wrench his other knee. Fortunately he was fine to continue the walk.

The next trick was to combine a well-earned drink with not falling asleep before dinner, managed by taking a quick nap inbetween! Food was plentiful but not startling and rather expensive.

On Sunday morning Danny’s knee was quite sore, so we abandoned plans for a morning walk. Graham and I nipped up the first mile of the Pennine Way while Danny & Malcolm packed, and we drove off via Mam Tor to the Blue John Caverns, arriving at opening time only to be told that ‘electrical problems’ would delay opening for an hour. So onwards via Winnats Pass to Matlock Bath for a trip up the cable car to the Heights of Abraham. Or so we thought. Closed until February. We sought solace in coffee, hot choclate and Bakewell Puddings, and headed gently home.

It was lovely to get out into some real countryside for some real walking, and to revisit my old stomping ground from when I lived in Derby. Many thanks to Malcolm and Danny for organising a great weekend.

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Out of sight

Another late night so another late start and a leisurely final Big Dutch Breakfast. We packed our bags and headed over to De Appel to see an excellent exhibition of installation and video art by contemporary Chinese artists: Out Of Sight. It’s worth exploring the web site, or visiting if you get the chance.

Our journey home was smooth as far as Stansted, where we just missed one of the rail replacement buses and had to wait 70 minutes for the next one.

During our stay I read The Warlock In Spite Of Himself by Christopher Stasheff. Very trashy but very entertaining fantasy science fiction from 1969.

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Boat Hopping

We got up scandalously late and had a super breakfast on the boat, followed by a leisurely bath. We wandered over the Amstel to Omar & Péter’s houseboat down the north side of Theater Carré for drinks and nibbles. A lovely, permanent, purpose-built houseboat fitted out in a very smart modern style. Péter and Omar seemed very happy and relaxed.

On to our own boat for a pre-dinner cup of tea with Jan, Chris and Matthew, and then Tempo Doeloe for a superb rijstafel followed by a lovely dessert plate of exotic fruits, sorbets and ice cream. The very hot rendang was amazing: my face turned red in a cartoon fashion and I tried to keep a straight face, but the post-shock flavour and sensation were amazing.

Final boat of the day was Chris and Matthew’s for more drinks and nibbles with the French girls and then the Portuguese-German contingent, and so another late night / early morning.

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We started late with a lovely breakfast from the supplies provided, and then took the tram round to De Joordan for a quick peek in the Stedelijk Museum Bureau. The video installation – The Black Room
by Melvin Moti – was fascinating but not sufficiently to keep us for more than fifteen minutes, so we carried on wandering the pretty streets, heading back towards the Dam Plein. Lunch was a light but very welcome bite at
Café van Daele.

Popping into a couple of gay bookshops on the way back, we decided that Vrolijk is much the better stocked although Intermale has a good selection of secondhand English titles.

Then only just time for a short rest before getting dressed up for the main event. First stop Matthew and Chris’s huge houseboat, just north of the zoo, for a glass of wine. They were sharing theirs with two guests from Hungary. We made aquaintances and then headed over to the Uilenberger Synagogue for the ceremony.

Omar and Péter looked fabulous in traditional Hungarian jackets. The celebrant from the Amsterdam registry office was a very vivacious woman, and although the ceremony was in Dutch, we picked up on her positive and very supportive delivery. Documents signed, the formalities gave way to drinks and canapés and a mini-line-up to meet and greet the parents. Sadly my Hungarian is completely non-existent.

The wedding caravan moved on to its second destination of the night, the private room at the ultra-stylish Brasserie Harkema, suspened behind huge plate glass windows above the main dining room. The food was moderately good but the occasion was fantastic.

Our final destination, until the early hours, was the party at the Badhuistheater, complete with guest appearance from a very convincing (male) Tina Turner. We didn’t manage to get Matthew on the dance floor, though…

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