Monday, August 07, 2006

Travel Journal: Asheville: I’d do it again, even overpriced…

I usually try to get to Asheville, NC at least once a year; yes, just like I do the beach. No, not for the Biltmore, which I see as sinfully and inexcusably overpriced, just for the city. The hippie-happy-quiet-quaint-old-ish atmosphere appeals to me. Mind you, I am not into antiques, or “old stuff”, but a certain “charm” and nostalgia breathes through the walls and narrow streets of this town, and it always calls me back. It’s more like a mystery tale, to be discovered.

This past weekend though, the college, “artsy” mountain town got a transformation even I could not have predicted, for the Bele Chere festival! A friend of mine offered her second home up there to me and a friend, and we of course took her up upon the offer.

The usually quiet and almost asleep town, was awake and kicking all through the weekend, and we had enough people watching and walking with gawking eyes to last us for another year at least.

We got there on Friday night, after a 2 and a half hour drive from the Green City. My friend’s description of the condo paled in comparison to the first experiencing of it! All the comforts of home, indeed. Three stories of it, to be more precise. With anything you need, including a pool outside, full kitchen, complete entertainment center, a ping-pong table, and a tennis court. We settled in!

After being forced (by my co-traveling friend) to watch King’s “The Shining” on TV, since he could not live with the fact I have not seen such a classic, and after a nightmare-full night, we woke up Saturday morning to a small fresh fruit salad. We’re in Asheville, we must eat healthy, right?!? Not! My friend had woken up with a strange craving for funnel cake, and I knew just the place to get it too. (well, it was not hard with a festival going on, right?!)

We got downtown to find out that parking is an arm and a leg, sometimes a lung, too, because, of course, Bele Chere was going on. Gotta pay it! What are you gonna do, huh?! The usually quiet town seemed flooded with people from God knows where: the streets were literally invaded by millions! Wall-to-wall crowds. Tents with artists’ crafts, stages, ice cream and (yes!) funnel cake stands abounded the streets.

I usually love the street food, but this time, we thought we’d vote for comfort, so, we wanted to sit down and be waited on instead. We stopped at an Irish pub for lunch. We had things like bangers and mash, fish and chips, a cold brew on a hot day, and the weekend really kicked off to a great start. We also learned that everything even in the restaurants (not just in the streets) had been modified to “meet the needs or the mood of Bele Chere” – read: “every price had been kicked up at least $1” to insure, you know… profit! Maximum, that is! Yes, we did pay $8.99 for the bangers, when the regular price was $7.99, for instance.

After lunch, it was off to the streets again and to “let’s meet the circus” time! From various craft booths that featured anything from metal sculptures, to caricatures on the spot, to jewelry made from recycled phone wires and sprinkle baths where you could “cool off” as walking by, to various entertainment stages that featured any type of music, from country and blue grass to rock’n’roll and deep south blues, to even improvisation comedy, from booths burning lavender and musk sticks to selling oil lamps and aroma therapy all organic candles – the downtown was a feast for the senses!

The crowds were colorful enough in themselves, too: spiky Mohawks, purple hairdos, men in colorful, long dresses, and wide rimmed purple hats, a giant man, maybe 7 feet tall and at least 400 lbs, towering over the crowds in a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt and overalls, long haired girls in tall conductor’s hats, winding their hips on the beats of Jimbo’s guitar; tattoos and piercings to satisfy an army; rainbow flags and gay rights supporters at corners; old hippies, playing the guitar and belching out sounds that only vaguely resembled any music at all, with no mike and no stage, at times with no audience either, at random corners, swaying, barely standing on their feet, not sure if from alcohol or heat; and over it all, it seemed, a huge sort of menacing “Jesus died for your sins” sign.

What I call “fair foods” everywhere: you know: bbq, hotdogs, funnel cake, lemonade, and the likes: stuff you can’t buy anywhere except if there is a fair in town! For about 6 hours, we walked around, and we ate, drank, laughed and bought our way through the crowds! Yes, ate and drank, even on top of the bangers and fish! What else is there to do? We don’t count calories on our vacations. It’s against our religion, as it should be. Oh, yeah, and listened to music. Surely!

Some of the notable (to us) bands we saw were The Knockdown South, a band from Tennessee, put together by former Squirrel Nut Zipper, Jimbo Mathus – basically a blues band; Jimbo’s been known to jam with Buddy Guy and even got a Grammy nomination for their album, if my memory serves me right; we also had to pay the ($20) fee to see Cracker and Train. Now, 16 years of experience speak there, for Cracker! Great show! Great performance, well put together, although the band honestly admitted having “screwed up” twice: starting on the wrong key, that is.

The music was great, crowds were plenty and we felt like “mission accomplished” at the end of the day, with maybe a couple of “overpriced” let downs!

The Asheville Bele Chere Festival will always remain in my memory as the only place where I had to pay for … a wrist band! No, no, they would STILL ID you when buying the beer! But if you want to walk around with a beer in your hand, in the closed in downtown area, you gotta pay the extra $2 for the … wrist band! Also, exhausted and drained of energy, we wanted a sit down dinner; we’re old you see, we can’t keep doing this walk-around-drink-all-day-in-the-heat-thing! So, for the sit down dinner, we ended up at Scully’s, somewhere off of Walnut St. downtown. After a ditzy-waitress service, wings and crab cake sandwich dinner, I left the place with a bitter taste, somewhat: they could not, you see, ruin their glasses on iced water that evening, because that would have been free! No, we had to be OK with paying $2 for a bottle of water, which has less liquid than the glass, “for Bele Chere”, we were told?! So, let me get this straight, City of Asheville: all of a sudden, on the day of your street festival, when people sit down on curbs peed on by dogs, and eat hotdogs with their dirty fingers, I become a germ-phob and I need bottled water for $2 a bottle, and cannot drink the tap water from the sink?! My migraine was pounding, and the dehydration was kicking in, so… I didn’t whine that much. I do now, looking back!

We got home and we tried to cuddle up in front of a DVD of ‘Raising Arizona’, but we both fell asleep so we called it a night at midnight. Like I said: we’re too old for this sh&*^t!
The next morning, we had a breakfast on our beautiful porch, with the green trees and the lake and the pool close by, while the mountains laid lazily in the background. So much peace and quietness! We felt like all our stress was dissipating away, into the green pastures, and the mountain crisp air, and our pores were being refreshed and emptied out from poison. Such a rebirth!

Then, we were off to Biltmore (of course!). But this time, just to have lunch with my friend’s parents. We sat on the patio, sipping a bottle of the Cardinal’s Crest wine, then we had a delicious, decadent lunch of mainly seafood with a variety of breads, and served graciously by a Polish waitress. It was eclectic, and fun! And as I have mentioned: decadent! Driving back out of the Biltmore estate, through the rolling hills, and the deep thickets, there was a sense of regret! We wanted to stay there longer. Enjoy the foods, the wines, the grounds, the peace…

We headed home, though, to a game of ping pong on the scorching hot covered patio in the basement. Of course, the non-athletic me, playing with 2 left hands when I am right handed, didn’t do very well, especially so, in front of my very competitive friend, a Sports writer, too! But the fun was incredible! The sweat, the laughs, the loosening of the joints, were some of the highlights of my stay there!

After an “excellent” Mexican meal (inside joke here: our waiter seemed to be literally stuck on the word “excellent”), we headed home: completely bloated, 4 lbs heavier, but happy, wallets empty and smiling ear to ear! This is what we live and work for: a decadent weekend once in a while. Yes, I would go to Bele Chere next year. And I already know I will go to Asheville again and again at least as long as I live 2 and a half hours away from it! And I get to stay for free, thanks to the generosity of my friends.

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