Our guidebook calls Biltmore Estate the must-see destination that put Asheville on the map. Clearly we disagree. We decided to visit Asheville and skip the estate. To tell the truth we did make a halfhearted attempt to get a glimpse from the outside, but turned around at the end of a mile long line of cars at the ticket booth. We did not even get close enough to check if you can see anything without paying. Probably not, since attractions priced at $64 per person are usually closely fenced off. Regardless of the admission charge, the privilege of wandering around the biggest house in America doesn’t sound particularly appealing, suggested itineraries and curious crowds notwithstanding.
The house was build by one obscenely wealthy George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 as a summer house. With silliness typical to rich heirs (and heiresses as Paris Hilton amply demonstrates) he called it his little mountain escape. At 135,000 square feet (12,500 square meters) and 250 rooms he obviously lacked any sense of proportion. What he did not lack was the desire to outdo his brothers: as opulent as summer houses in Newport, RI (Marble House, The Breakers, Rough Point) are, this one dwarfs them all.
With just a touch of schadenfreude we learn that the Vanderbilt family, while still owns the house, doesn’t have enough money to use it as a private retreat anymore. It is disappointing though, that people flock to partake in the illusion of great wealth. The Vanderbilts, should they have guts, would have spent their money on better designs than lukewarm imitations of French châteaux. The modern public, should they have taste, would have spent fraction of the money to visit a modern art museum, instead of the Disneylandesque monument to kitsch.
In terms of attracting attention to Asheville there is a recent development more important than second rate architecture: a dubious honor of being the site of battle against unduly influence of religion. Since 2009 its city council had among its members one Cecil Bothwell, a reporter and an atheist. And while it is hard to see how one’s beliefs in imaginary beings, or lack of thereof, are relevant to holding a public office, North Carolina constitution has a surprisingly strong opinion on it. It disqualifies from public service: any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God. Armed with that article, Bothwell’s opponents threatened him with a lawsuit despite the fact that the issue has been settled in 1961 by US Supreme Court deciding that religious tests violate First Amendment’s freedom of religion.
Voters electing a declared atheist, a feat nearly unthinkable in modern America, are just one of the reasons we found Asheville appealing. We spent the New Year’s Eve there in a great restaurant that prides itself on serving local food: The Market Place. Local means within 100 miles radius according to the menu, and they have cute icons to get the message across. Despite being fully booked they accommodated us at the bar, where friendly bartender Max kept us well lubricated with various champagne cocktails. (Note to myself: buy a bottle of Edelflower liqueur.) The executive chef and owner William S. Dissen stopped by couple of times to chat. Evidently a fellow geek, he fed us tidbits of cooking techniques between supervising countdown to midnight. I appreciate chefs for their cooking, not affable personalities but Bill has mastered both. His crew, gradually changing into civilian clothes as midnight was approaching, clearly likes him.
Many glasses of champagne past midnight we retired to the plush Princess Anne Hotel (cheaper digs were taken by castle visiting throngs). Even rain the next morning, while interfering with taking pictures, didn’t dampen our good spirits and positive opinion on the America’s new freak capital.