Gateshead's £46m Baltic art gallery is housed in a gigantic 1950s grain store that towers above the Tyne. Beside it dances Wilkinson Eyre's award-winning "winking bridge" – the world's first tilting bridge – which opens like an eye to let ships pass beneath. Further down, the 1920s Tyne Bridge loops across the river in green splendour.
Architects Ellis Williams weaved their magic on the hulking bulk of the flour mill to turn it into what is more accurately known as the Baltic art factory, its functional 1950s lines enhanced by a clever use of steel, aluminium, glass and pine. There are galleries on five levels, each one the size of a warehouse, a rooftop restaurant (book in advance), cafés, bars and viewing galleries over Tyneside at the top.
"We decided not to stuff it with two-dimensional paintings at the start," said Baltic director Sune Nordgren. "We want to show the symbiosis of art and architecture. In the next three exhibitions there will be lots of paintings by well-known contemporary artists. But expect the unexpected."
One thing the Baltic has vowed not to do is to show any exhibition that has already appeared in London, and what you'll see there is at the cutting edge of contemporary art. There's a display of bridges by Chris Burden that includes a one-twentieth scale model of the Tyne Bridge, constructed in pretend Meccano. You can even look through the struts of the miniature, through the Baltic's west window, and down the Tyne to see the full-size version.
The third floor is devoted to gongs, 18 of them in pairs, which visitors are urged to strike. Each has a name, for example Silence, Heart, Sperm, Peace and Milk; and each produces a slightly different tone. Jaume Plensa's Installation looks like a golden basilica, and is truly a cathedral of sound.
Other works, such as Alec Finlay's Football Haiku and Julian Opie's human body outlines, made less of an impression on me.
If you arrived from the south you will have seen it already: Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, the huge, welcoming, sexy statue standing on a hill above the A1. Geordies have taken the angel to their bosom as a symbol of the transformed North East. There's grass at his feet, making it an ideal spot for a picnic.
You can see Norman Foster's £70m Music Centre nearing completion, a huge arching structure that will house the Northern Sinfonia and become the region's largest music venue. And don't miss Saltwell Park, one of England's finest public spaces in the Victorian style: it has just received a grant of £9.6m to return it to its former glory. It was only when I asked about Gateshead's nightlife that the upbeat story lost a bit of its zing. "Well," said my local contact, lowering her voice, "you have to pop over to Newcastle for that."
So, across the Tyne to the Crown Posada pub, where Bob, a shipbuilder, reminisced about the old days. "Me? Oh yes, I'll go to the Baltic – one day."
Then to the Bridge Hotel for the folk night. Locals sang traditional Geordie songs as high-speed trains whizzed past on their way to Scotland. Then back across the High Level Bridge to the other side. The lights twinkled in the clear night air: there's very little fog on the Tyne these days. But then again, there aren't many ships either.
Baltic, The Centre for Contemporary Art, South Shore Road, Gateshead (0191-478 1810; www.balticmill.com). Open Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri Sat 10am-7pm, Thurs 10am-10pm, Sun 10am-5pm. Admission free. Robert Nurden stayed at Elephant on the Tyne, Riverside Park, Green Lane, Gateshead (0191-495 0282; www.elephantonthetyne.co.uk). Single rooms cost £45 per room per night.Reuse content