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» Friday, November 22, 2013Snatching Victory From the Jaws of Defeat
I'd like to say "the less said about last night, the better," but since it colored the entire day and almost ended the vacation, I must. So...this is a list of things that kept us awake last night:
I saw listed under "hobby" a "Kress Emporium." Kress used to be a chain of five-and-ten cent stores, and I wondered if it was a restored one or a historical site. We bumbled through the GPS directions and ended up in downtown Asheville (so nice to see a flourishing downtown) and found out that, though the facade still exists, the interior has been turned over to booths for local artists. We paid for a parking meter, so I did walk around and there was some nice stuff, including silk kimonos. Nothing that called my name. I also walked up to a tall monument contained in a traffic circle; it was for a Zebulon Vance who was twice a governor of the state. There was also a smaller monument with a pig and a piglet and a turkey and a poult walking a path, celebrating the establishment of the Dixie Highway.
We were both fading fast, so by another circuitous route created by the demented GPS on my phone, we got to a Panera Bread and had a big lunch, since I didn't know when we'd be having supper. Then I drove back to the hotel posthaste, turned off the lights, and we both had a nap for an hour. Better than lunch.
The GPS on my phone is apparently having a nervous breakdown; we headed to Biltmore House by the shortest route and ended up there all right, but at a back gate that wasn't open to the public. So we had to backtrack, but did find the real gate nearby. (According to the ticket-taker, that happens with the GPS a lot.)
If you've seen pictures of Biltmore House, you know it's an enormous baronial-like home, and you might know it's surrounded by formal gardens and rambles. However, it's also surrounded by acres of land, and it took quite a while just to get to the parking lot near the house, and then we had to get a shuttle to the house. We did make it, but I know why they give you that get-here-an-hour-before advisory! (They also want you to visit the gift shop; it's a state law. <g>)
I can't describe Biltmore House any more than I could adequately describe any of the Newport mansions or the Mark Twain house. Have you ever read the description of Mistlethwaite Manor in The Secret Garden, the huge manor house with the dozens of rooms? That's what I thought of as we walked through the big public rooms downstairs and the hallways to the guest rooms and the Vanderbilts' rooms upstairs, with the stairs and turns and going up and down. The entire place has mellow woodwork and while the house is opulent, there's nothing really overboard about it, like the gold ballroom at the Marble House. For a "stately home," it's remarkably comfortable.
The tour takes you almost everywhere (and what you don't see you can buy extra tours of, like the Butler's Tour of belowstairs). You visit a tapestry room where the tapestries are from the 16th century and one of them is the only one in existence. There's a big medieval banquet hall with a giant pipe organ, and here they had up a towering Christmas tree that reached into the organ loft. (The reason I wanted to come at this time of year is that the whole house is decorated for Christmas, elegant trees full of glass ornaments in color themes--like bronze and gold in Vanderbilt's den, and rose and pink in Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom--pine garlands, cedar swags, holly looped around fixtures, kissing balls, even little knots of fir and glitter in corners and tiny Christmas trees in the servants' quarters, based on actual records.) This big tree was so fresh you could smell it not only standing next to it in the banquet room, but going up the stairs behind the tree, and going into a room next to the tree. Downstairs there's a two-lane bowling alley, a swimming pool that was filled only when someone wanted to take a swim and then emptied (!!!!), a gymnasium, a long row of stall-like changing rooms for the pool. Each of the guest floors has a central "parlor" area where the guests could gather after supper or while waiting for breakfast. The tour even takes you through the servants' quarters: kitchen, pantry, dining room, food storage, freezers, the laundry, the works.
The immenseness of place was fabulous enough, but there were such little details that I loved: at one point you could walk out on the loggia just as the family use to do and stare out at the rolling North Carolina countryside overlooking Mount Pisgah; they had a little door open under one of the staircases in the guest wing and you could not only see the structure of the stairs, but a little box that was from the original electrical system in the house (Asheville didn't have electricity when Vanderbilt built his home there, so electricity was generated on a gasoline dynamo in the sub-basement via a direct current system); some of the trees had unique glass ornaments I've never seen anywhere else (in proper vintage colors, thank-you-very-much, and none of that nasty lime green); and finally, I was enchanted by the window shades. I remember window shades like this; I'm pretty sure they were in my Papa's house. Not the white vinyl like the roller shades today, but a dark forest green, and the pull cords ended in a doughnut shape large enough to put a man's finger through and looking like it was tatted.
By the time we finished it was quite dark and the attendants were already lighting up the candles (battery-powered these days) for the Candlelight Tour. We turned in our little audio guides--which told us such inside stories like why a room in the basement is called the Halloween room (it was painted on New Year's Eve by the Vanderbilts' daughter Cornelia and her friends, but has bats in it) and why there's a wooden gate as you approach the kitchen (the cook had two pet dogs which Mrs. Vanderbilt didn't want to banish, so she had the gate installed to keep the dogs out of the kitchen)--and walked into the stableyard, which is now a collection of small eating places. The former horses' stalls are now seating "booths" in a classy restaurant, but it was too expensive for us. Instead we checked out the bookstore (I got a Biltmore book, postcards of the place at Christmas, and a refrigerator magnet, of course; James got a cute little book about odd dishes fashionable over the year) and the Christmas shop (I got a CD of Christmas music performed at the House). Sadly, the only place we could afford to eat (a hot dog shop) had just closed. So instead we waited for the shuttle while I took some evening photos of the house, and the big white-lighted tree out front.
We came straight back to the hotel to "relieve" the dog, then lucked out in finding a Firehouse Subs nearby. We brought the meal back to the room and watched Unwrapped tell us about Thanksgiving foods, then Hawaii Five-0.