Thursday, August 7, 2008

The dos and don'ts of Bristol

Don't: Go to the Bristol Balloon Festival. Go to Bristol. Decide to walk across all of Bristol to get to the Bristol Balloon Festival.

Do: Choose a different trip

OK, now that I've leveled with you, I might as well tell you a bit about my day in Bristol, just for posterity. I should have known when I checked the forecast this morning and read "heavy showers" that today was intended for relaxation not exploration. But did I listen to my intuition? No, instead, the 9:30 traffic on high street had to make room for the addition of one intrepid traveler, armed with Bulgaria guidebook, umbrella and vague notion of seeing hundreds of beautiful balloons floating over a storybook countryside.

When I arrived at the elegant Bristol Temple Meads Station it was drizzling. I got my finger stuck in my umbrella latch and took my first steps into the city bleeding onto my newly purchased map. Nothing daunted, I wandered down apparently un-touristed lanes, hopefully searching for street signs that would help me orient. It wouldn't be the first time I would hopefully search for street signs and be disappointed. The maze that is Bristol seems to wind endlessly on itself, constantly crisscrossed by various rivers and bodies of water claiming to be "harbors" but which, in fact, are attached to neither oceans nor lakes.

I crossed a bridge into the Old Town, following brass signs after giving up on my map in disgust. The St. Nicholas Markets distracted me from my growing distaste for the city for a little while, offering an eclectic array of cheap household items, Moroccan cuisine, pet food, South African jerkey, olives, and all matter of random things in between. I emerged from the market maze into the downtown. This area, full of large and expensive waterfront restaurants, held one major attraction for me. A little boy, about three years old with blond curls and red galoshes, was marching proudly through a series of flat pooled fountains in the middle of the pedestrian promenade, water sloshing over the tops of his boots to his own and his picture-taking mother's delight. It was unquestionably my favorite moment in Bristol.

The downtown also offered a tourist office, which I promptly took advantage of. The friendly man behind the desk gave me a map and began to draw a line from the little "i" which showed where we were. I watched as his pencil point continued along the walk I would soon be taking to get to the DISCOVERY CHANNEL INTERNATIONAL BALLOON FESTIVAL:  across a bridge, along the river, next to a marina, across an island, across another bridge, and through a dicy neighborhood (though I didn't know it was dicy yet). The pencil trailed off in the bottom right hand corner of the map. "The entrance is just off the map, actually. You just kind of... go down here." Hmmmm...

Gamely I set off in my flip flops on the Bristol trek. At least it had stopped raining, and I had managed to get my thumb to stop bleeding. The walk along the harbor was pretty, offering sights of parked boats from as far away as Amsterdam and several fully rigged clipper ships meant to appeal to the non-balloon hunting tourist. I quickly fell into the pattern established this summer walking along the river in Oxford, the canal in Oxford, the river in London, the river in Bath, the river in Woodstock... now that I thought about it, all of England's cities seem to be built on rivers. What a delightful tradition. I admired the boats and the flowers invariably growing in pots on their tops, and took pictures of the view in each direction whenever it seemed particularly picturesque. 

After substantial street sign-less meandering, I found my way across bridge number two and into the dicy neighborhood, where a very nice shop clerk helped me on my way. I had still yet to see a sign for the balloon festival, though many shops in town had added a little balloon onto their printed out signs or were selling beautiful postcards with colorful dots covering the Bristol horizon. One church even had balloons in the background of their invitation to worship billboard. Obviously this festival was a big deal to Bristol, but apparently I was the only person to decide against the bus shuttle. The clerk pointed down the road as he said "follow the pedestrian path until you get to an old Mercedes Benz building. Then take the subway. Then keep going. Then take two more subways. You will see signs." Signs! That would be so welcoming and friendly! I never really did see much in the way of signs, except a few telling motorists they wouldn't be allowed to park in the Ashton Court Estate (which was hosting the festival). I walked. And walked. Then ice cream stands began to pepper the edge of the sidewalk. It seemed promising. I ran into three traffic police with apparently nothing to do and took the road they were guarding. At the foot of a hill stood another ice cream stand. I followed in the footsteps of a half dozen others who were laboriously climbing its vast endlessness. I couldn't see any balloons. I couldn't smell any roast corn or hear the sound of laughing people. I walked. I began to sweat. This balloon festival had better be good, I thought.

After winding up and through the estate I came at last to the Festival. If festival is really the right word. "Big disappointment" comes more readily to the tongue. Along its fringes were dozens of those creepy carnival games so often parodied in movies, giving visitors a chance to knock down weighted pyramids of bottles or win a ridiculously large teddy bear they probably wouldn't be able to carry back down the hill to the car. I emerged a bit grumpier (if that is possible) from this fluorescent attack on my senses into the heart of the festival, eagerly widening my eyes for my first glimpse of beautiful colored jewels floating above me, camera at the ready. But what's this? A row of balloons bearing advertising slogans met my gaze, all rooted to the ground. A ring of food stalls encircled the row, advertising "Organic Hog Roast", "Cornwall Pasties", "Candy Floss Sold Here." For THIS I had hiked hundreds of miles through the confusion of Bristol? For this I had spent two hours on the train? For this I had injured my thumb and gotten my feet wet? OK, so maybe I'm exaggerating the epic nature of my journey, but still!

I seemed to be the only one irritated with the scene. Around me many people were happily eating vinegar-soaked chips in lawn chairs, or sitting under canopies they had obviously bought and brought after years of festival attendance, facing the ten or so stationary balloons as if they were somehow providing entertainment. One couple's dog was even watching. I scanned the horizon again; perhaps I had missed the non-corporate sponsored balloons that actually FLY? Maybe my eyes were temporarily blinded by the crazily spinning rides and flashy stalls? 

Nope. This was it. If the Balloon Festival ever does become a beautiful thing, it is not during its first few hours on Thursday afternoon. Soon I found myself walking back down the hill. I had spent 32 minutes at the festival, from 1 p.m. to 1:32. And I still had to get home.

I was the only person on the "DISCOVERY CHANNEL INTERNATIONAL BALLOON FESTIVAL" shuttle bus back to the train station. Go figure. 

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