Biltmore Estate and Downton Abbey

I blame my sister Karen and her friend Donna Booshay (blogs at Quiet Life for getting me hooked on watching the British TV drama on PBS, Downton Abbey.  I caught up watching episodes on Netflix, hulu and  They say the TV drama is addictive and I agree.


Watching the show, I feel like I’ve been in the estate featured on the show.  Because over the holidays, we visited Asheville, NC and toured the Biltmore Estate.  Before I knew anything about Downton Abbey, I learned about how the Vanderbilt family and their servants lived in the Biltmore Estate back in the early 1900’s.   The Biltmore took six years to build and was America’s largest home to George Vanderbilt.  He married Edith and had one daughter Cornelia that was raised in the home.


Photo Courtesy of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

We visited the Biltmore on a spur of the moment “what do you want to do today” weekend in December, and it was Tom’s suggestion (bravo, well done!)  We poked around downtown Asheville on Saturday (another story for another day, great city,) stayed overnight then visited the Biltmore on Sunday with a 10 a.m. reservation.


It’s quite a production.  We purchased tickets for the four of us at the hotel and popped for the extra $10 audio tour.  Driving into the estate includes miles of roads, and you end up parking and taking a bus to the actual estate.  The grounds sprawl over 8,000 acres and over the years they have expanded the property to include a wine village, shopping center, garden shops, antique car museum and more.  Bill Cecil is the great grandson of George and is president of the family run business.   We had exactly 4 hours to see what we needed to see before we had to hit the road to be back in Knoxville (2 hour gorgeous mountain drive) for must see football games.  Just enough time to complete the home tour and do a little wine tasting and exploring.  I must go back.


The estate is magnificent.  And I appreciate it so much more now that I’ve watched Downton Abbey.  May I say Biltmore is much grander than Downton Abbey; it must have something to do with the size of the Vanderbilt fortune.  From the Biltmore website (

“The celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt modeled the house on three châteaux built in 16th-century France. It would feature 4 acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. The basement alone would house a swimming pool, gymnasium and changing rooms, bowling alley, servants’ quarters, kitchens, and more.”


The headset tour had you wear a little audio device around your neck and the accompanying brochure had corresponding numbers to enter for each room, to hear the history of the space and stories of the family’s life at the Biltmore.  What a treat!  It was a busy December weekend, so we followed a snaking line of tourists from room to room, but that was fine.  I had my chance in each room to step up to the cordon line and punch in the code to listen to stories from the early 1900’s, like in the master bedrooms, his and hers.



I observed the gorgeous home décor in each space, the colors, the textures, and yes, it was over the top but fabulous.


They would have loved having me as a guest I imagined, meeting in the gathering spaces for a before dinner drink, then retiring back to the library for an after dinner drink.  Oh, I could only imagine.


Tom and the boys were sports and seemed to enjoy the tour, though they moved a little quicker than me.  I really enjoyed seeing the servant quarters, which were also quite lovely, but very simple.


We wrapped up our visit by checking out the Antler Hill Village and Winery for some wine tasting.  We’re not big winos (like so many readers of this blog) but are wise enough not to pass up a free drink.


While the boys explored the large wine and food shop with samples of cheese, ciders and snacks, Tom and I waited in a short line to begin wine tasting.  Very nice, efficiently laid out form with various wines you could sample and make notes of.  We enjoyed a few varieties and then were on our way.  Last stop was a beautiful fishing hole on the property, of course we had to stop and take a look.



I’m looking forward to returning for another visit to the Biltmore Estate.  I imagine they are doing a bang up business with the popularity of Downton Abbey here in the states.  I expect Biltmore’s marketing department is working on tie-in promotions and exclusive rights to the Biltmore – Downton connection.  I can see busloads (and plane loads) of Downton fans traveling to Asheville for their very own royal experience.  My enterprising mind is running wild now.  Certainly all of my Knoxville guests will be encouraged to consider a Biltmore visit and a trip to Asheville.  You know I’ll join you!

p.s. after writing this, I found this link on Biltmore website with connection to Downton Abbey…off to read it now….

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Knoxville Snow

What a joyful day!  The novocaine is still working but I gleefully had a root canal this morning.  I bit on an avocado stem oh, about 5 months ago, while eating some homemade guacamole and chips when we first arrived in Knoxville.  I won’t bore you with the dental details involving multiple dentists, temporaries, crowns, and an endodontist, but it’s been a wait and see situation, and I got tired of eating advil and waiting.  The endodontist thinks he solved the problem with the root canal today.  Fingers crossed!


Lots of excitement around here last week…snow!  After 4 days of lots of rain, the forecast was for temps to drop and a winter snow storm (southern style.)  Tom made a Walmart run for salt for our (steep sled hill) driveway.  With 100% chance of snow starting at 3pm, school was let out early at 12:30pm.  Sure enough, snow came at 3pm and fell for about 4 hours.  Lovely.  Better yet, it only accumulated on my patio chairs, and did not stick on the driveway.  Boys were thrilled, no shoveling of the sled hill was required.


And, announcement came out that school was cancelled the next day, Friday, making it a 4+ day weekend (MLK holiday Monday.)  Woo-hoo!  Tom made it home with a long, slow drive.  Apparently downtown Knoxville did get 3-4″ accumulation, and there is NO snow removal equipment in town.  Not a single snow plow from what I hear.  I commented to Kevin as we drove home from school before the big snow, in Chicago we would have seen snow plows camping out on the side of the road or in lots revving their engines and waiting for action.  Here I was surprised the bags of salt weren’t all lined up by the exit at Walmart, you had to go back deep into the garden section to find it.


The next morning, Tom texted that he had just slid down our street and straight into the intersection, which was fortunately empty, though he caught one small patch of pavement and turned just in time to avoid ending up in a lawn.  We now know what they mean when they say everyone freaks out when driving in snow around here.  Everything is hilly and there is no snow removal or formal road salting plan.  No wonder people are a tad panicked, it’s like going down a tobaggan hill in a car.  Sort of gets you a little on edge.  I thought everyone was just going to be poor drivers, slamming on breaks without any consideration of snow conditions.  I had not anticipated the impact of driving slowly and just sliding on down icy hills.   And yes, we are still uncertain of our plans to put away the patio furniture and umbrellas.  May not happen.

That afternoon the sun was out and all the ice melted.  We ran some errands and Kevin smiled and said “and this is a snow day.”  Sure, all the snow was gone, but there was no way the school buses could have been out safely that morning.  By Saturday morning, the sun was rising and by Sunday, temps were in the high 50’s.


We enjoyed a Univ of Tenn basketball win at the stadium on Saturday night.  Then Sunday dropped Brian off at the airport for his return to college after a great relaxing break.  Despite heading back to single digit temps in MN, he was happy to head back to school which was a good feeling for all of us.

I’m crocheting away on the striped afghan I started in Chicago and am enjoying watching the random pattern emerge.


We all learned to crochet from my dad’s mom, Grandma Alice, and I’ve picked up and put down projects over the years.  My two older sisters are committed knitters (Karen also crochets and quilts) and I’m not sure about my youngest sisters yarn skills (she’s got many other talents though.)  When my sisters guided me on buying 20 different skeins of yarn and did the starter row on this for me, I planned to lay them all out and number them in a pleasing pattern before I began.  No way, Jose, they said the only way to go is a completely random pattern.  Wise elders!  So far, so good, I dig into the bag without peeking for my next color.  Though I won’t deny the “controller” in me was a bid uncomfortable with those two mustard and gold colors among the last in the bag, meaning they would be close together.  But, as they say, Let Go and Let God…in the big stuff and the small.  Have a good week to all.

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Our Chicago Pit Crew

I read Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers” on my mom’s recommendation.  A quick read, she is a favorite author (witty and spiritual) and it was a great book.  I read it while cruising through Chicago for a holiday visit, and a passage jumped out at me:

” The circle of family and friends ― “the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you” ― is often at the heart of the “thanks” prayer.  The marvel is only partly that somehow you lured them into your web 20 years ago, 40 years ago, and they totally stuck with you,” she writes. “The more astonishing thing is that these greatest of all possible people feel the same way about you ― horrible, grim, self-obsessed you.”

Wow, what a great theme for our trip back to Chicago.  It was as if we’d headed for Knoxville back in the summer, and were heading back to the Chicago “pit” for a quick change, refresher, refill, and reload.  Notice I did not say relax.  What a whirlwind trip, surrounded by family and friends we loved being with. People who filled our tanks both physically and spiritually.  And, for the record, we use “Chicago” loosely to describe Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Wheaton and the surrounding area.  Around Knoxville, we are from “Chicago” to keep things simple and not get into “suburbs about 25 miles northwest of Chicago.”

The family – loved seeing everyone, including a holiday gathering with Carol’s family on Saturday and a get together with Tom’s family on Sunday.   Inspired by sisters, we shopped for yarn for a lovely striped afghan I’m crocheting.  Played games and ate too much.  Watched football and connected with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and then ate some more.  We sat in circles sharing stories and catching up.  Of course, everyone missed Tom who was back in Knoxville working hard.  While we were at the party at his mom’s house, Tom was clever to send us a couple pictures from his Sunday…first a picture of an attic shelving unit he assembled to organize all the boxes of stuff (nice surprise!) followed by a few pictures of him fishing that afternoon on a lovely lake.  We missed having him with us, but truth told, at the pace we were moving he would have had a hard time keeping up!


The friends –the boys and I started off with a neighbor brunch hosted at Mary’s.  Wow again, I got choked up driving down our old street and then the tears were on full force greeting my old chums.  I mumbled through my tears, “really, Knoxville isn’t that bad, we are enjoying it there, but I’m just realizing how much I’ve missed all of you!” Russell’s champagne toast was sweet (“…In the words of Kotter…Welcome Back.”)   This party was too cool…with make your own omelets in a baggie that had two mixed raw eggs, you add your toppings (cheese, onion, mushroom, sausage, bacon, peppers), then let out the air, seal the bag and 6 of them at a time go into a large pot of boiling water for 13 minutes, then voila, perfectly cooked custom individual omelets.  Fun!  For dessert, Sharon and I were surprised with feathered tiaras and a large birthday cake with the number candles “110,” our combined age.   All this and we’d been in town for less than 18 hours.

–          Boys hooked up with friends throughout the weekend, dropping by homes and fitting in a couple sleepovers.  I had the pleasure of catching up with a few of their moms.

–          Brian enjoyed watching sports and eating out with high school friends.

–          We met the SJS basketball team and parents at Sports Page for a great night of togetherness.   We really miss hanging with the parents in the stands and Kevin was in his glory, back in with his bunch.


–          Kevin dropped by SJS during the lunch hour on Friday to say hi and got the best greeting from teachers and students alike.  Not sure who missed who more…so nice to see so many familiar faces that helped shape who he is.

–          I went to a lovely Bunko party with my college girlfriends and spouses at Laura’s home.  This group always pick right back up where we left off and is a good source of laughs, feedback and encouragement.  Adding in the guys upped the laugh quotient, a clever bunch of spouses.

–          I had no time, but squeezed in a friend for coffee (and an oil change while we hung out at Starbuck’s…hmmmm…ties in with my theme) and dear Terry totally filled my tank.  We have a mutual admiration society going (if you don’t have one, I highly recommend it.) We laughed, traded lifestyle tips and quickly caught up on the goings on in our lives. So glad I found that time!

Finally, faith – we made a point to hit 10:30 mass at St. Edna and it was a treat to hear a favorite deacon’s sermon.  He spoke of Herod and the Magi (wise men), and asked people to think about who they identified with more.  He said invariably, people respond the Magi.  But when pressed a bit to consider that it was Herod that preferred to stay in his comfort zone and keep things the way they were, versus the Magi that were not afraid to shake things up, drop everything and travel to a new land to search for a King… most of us may really be more like Herod, resistant to change.  We discussed on our car ride after mass our family probably qualifies as having a touch of the Magi in us at this stage.  We left a comfortable surrounding that we loved, and embarked to a new land.  In many ways, we’ve had to adjust, rely on our wits, reach deep into our faith, and carry on.  While we’ve missed so many familiar faces and places, we’ve survived and maybe soon can say we’ve thrived.  The book is still being written. ( And man, this is quite a book I’m writing here, thanks for the encouragement to keep blogging by a bunch of you.)


Heading back to Knoxville was all good.  We were glad to be back home as a family, have new friendships developing, sports to play and good events ahead of us here.  Plus, it was nice to put away the suitcase and slooooooowwww back down to the southern pace of things.  My word, you all move a lot faster up north than we southerners are used to!  Wink-wink.   Thanks for being part of our pit crew.

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70 Degrees in Knoxville

Whoah, it’s going to be 70 degrees in Knoxville today!


Picture above is from the pretty park just south of Market Square in downtown Knoxville.  Which I want to get to this weekend before oldest returns to college next Sunday.

Before I begin gloating, I had a thought.  If it is 70 in January, what is the weather going to be in June?  120 degrees in the shade?  Hey, I’ll take the mild temps.  Pansies are still blooming in gardens all around here, quite lovely.  It is rainy though, so not sure how much time we will spend out on the patio other than grilling some dinner.  I keep thinking I’m going to take down and store the umbrellas, but at this point not sure I will.  Ok, done gloating.  I can see my Chicago friends will have a mild weekend as well in the 50’s…enjoy!

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I’ve had a bad cold and cough this week, so it’s been a very slow start to the new year.  I do want to share soon about a great (quick, whirlwind) visit to Chicago and will do that this week.

Happy Saturday!

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What She Said

Happy New Years Eve!  We are planning a family night of games, movies and munchies.  Taking bets on Tom staying up till midnight, do you want in on the over or under?  Quiet day tomorrow then looking forward to a quick visit back home for a long weekend.

I’ve got lots of good thoughts about 2012 and 2013, but for right now, I’d love to pass along a link to a wise friend’s blog.  My high school friend Terry is full of wit and wisdom.  She blogs at “Dressed To A T”, and basically for today, I’m saying what she said.  Here’s a link to her site:

Have a happy new year sweet family and friends!

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Go Tell It On The Mountain

He is here!  Jesus is born today, may you have a very Merry Christmas.  Truly, may the joy of Christ’s birth stay with you each and every day.   And may God provide peace, rest and comfort to us as we miss loved ones who are with Him this Christmas.

Try and hang in for the second part of this song… got to love Dolly!

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Call Back

I started reading a daily devotional about four years ago during the Lent season.  I stumbled into Streams in the Desert at a Christian bookstore thanks to the high school sales clerk who pointed it out, explaining he’d never read it but he knew they sold a lot of them.  Not trying to get preachy or all religious here, but it is one of my favorite things and the way I start each day.

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It goes with me on vacations, business trips and pretty much my rule is… no computer or phone check before I read this with a cup of coffee.  The book was first released in 1925 and contains the “thoughts, quotations, spiritual inspiration which helped sustain Mrs. Charles E. Cowman during her years of missionary work in Japan and China — particularly the six years she nursed her husband while he was dying.” ( from the Publishers Foreward)  Sounds heavy but small stories and phrases speak to me.

Today’s writing was too good not to share, or at least it spoke to me.  If you haven’t noticed, I’m on a mountain kick.  Knoxville offers Smoky Mountain views from my home, the highway, traveling to basketball games in neighboring cities and the mountains are a thing of beauty.

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From today’s writing:

“Life is a steep climb, and it does the heart good to have somebody “call back” and cheerily beckon us on up the high hill.  We are all climbers together, and we must help one another.  This mountain climbing is serious business, but glorious.  It takes strength and steady step to find the summits.  The outlook widens with the altitude.  If anyone among us has found anything worthwhile, we ought to “call back.”

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So this is my “call back.”  I read this and thought of family and friends who have encouraged me or given me energy in trying times.

clingman dome spiral

And I thought, how can I call back today to help someone.  Starting with those in my home, then those I come across in my day to day, and then I thought of posting this here.  Maybe you need a call back to just keep going this week, one foot in front of the other.  You will get there!  Or maybe you’ll come across someone today who needs a call back.  Say something and you may never know how much it meant to that person (or how much it impacts you either.)

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Off to climb mountains and drive highways today!  We are happy that Brian is home for the holidays and the weather looks to a good break from the MN cold.

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