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September 27, 2007

An unexpected side effect of traveling without family is that, when you get back, they all want to know every detail of your trip. Even relatives I rarely talk to anymore insist on seeing all the pictures! (If you were really that interested you would have gone with me when I asked!) As an appeasement, I'm posting a play by play.


Tour #1
Or, OMG, poniezz!!!11!!

Saturday we were up bright and early and out the door, reluctantly missing breakfast being served in the two dining rooms. Once again we meandered down miles of estate roads, this time to a new destination - the stables. Yup. I was going to ride a horse across estate grounds.

I think I have been on a horse once. possibly as a five year old at a church fair, sitting on a pony that was being led around in circles. I have no actual memory of this event, but I've seen pictures. I used to talk to horses and pet them when I was waiting for my mom back when I took ballet in junior high. (the dance studio was in a converted barn, with one section still functional, for rescued horses.) So, first time riding for me.

We checked in, got weighed (apparently a requirement, fortunately she didn't announce the number out loud) and went out back to where the horses were idly standing. The people who had signed up for the ride were split up into two groups of four, each with a guide. We were in the first group, and I was given the first horse - Apache, a white quarter horse, covered with tiny black specks, rather like Snoopy's coat. Rather embarrassing to have to try to mount a horse without the benefit of watching anybody else do it first, but I did just fine, under their instruction and having a mounting stand to start from. It was like sitting on a canoe in the water! I briefly worried about whether I should have taken motion sickness pills. Brian ended up on a brown quarter horse named Cowboy, which naturally prompted one or two jokes. The guide adjusted our stirrups and taught us how to use the controls. Erm. Taught us how to hold the reins and use them to control the horse. The guides were great working with beginners. We had total control of the horse, and after a few minutes I was completely comfortable in knowing that Apache was listening to me and willing to do what I wanted.

And then . . . we were off! Over gently rolling hills at a sedate pace, the horses having done it so often that they often started or stopped before we could tell them to. The guide was very personable, and spent half her time twisting backwards, talking to us. Hers was a draft horse named Pudge, who was lovingly teased the entire trip about his personality and antics.

That particular day there was a horse event of some sort taking place, so we would pass groups of women on their own horses, wearing special riding gear and helmets. Our horses were very interested in them (particularly Cowboy), as there were very few female horses on the grounds. The trip was great, with no problems, except the occasional halt to allow a horse to do its business, which appeared to be contagious among the other horses. We were able to stop at one point and take pictures of the chateau, high up on a hill. Definitely a fun tour, and one I would readily sign up for again. (as in, where's the local VA tours?)

Tour #2
Or, What's this button do? and this one? How about this one?

Once we had disentangled ourselves from the saddle and remembered how to walk again, we went to have lunch at the restaurant in the creamery, and then head out for tour number two - behind the scenes!
We soon discovered that we were supposed to have actual tickets for each of these tours, and had to go track them down before we could follow. This tour took us around all the not-elegant parts of the building. Not pretty, but impressive in their bulk and function in trying to run a house of that size. We saw boilers bigger than the living room, a marble and gold trimmed electrical switch board that looked like something out of a mad scientist movie, the impressive butler's pantry, a room where they made ice using ammonia, a cabinet that stood 10 feet high and held nothing but the leaves of the big dining table in the gallery, the servant's elevator, which ran 6 stories up, the kitchen courtyard, and so forth.

Brian pounded the guide with questions about functionality, materials, statistics, and the inner workings of all and sundry. She readily answered every one, or for a few, admitted that they had never found information regarding the query. We learned about water pressure, the various ways the house had been heated over the years, servant routines, seemingly random holes in the floor, the cost of installing a six floor elevator that functions perfectly over 100 years later, electrical production, and stuff I can no longer remember because my brain couldn't hold it all. (We also learned that Anthony Hopkins couldn't get into the building without a pass when they were filming Hannibal there.) I ended that tour with a sense of awe about how much it took to run one house, and the examples of changing technology over time. (one of the amusing parts of the tour was seeing the modern wires and CAT5 cable - or possibly T1 - strung everywhere.)

Tour #3
or, I can't see ANYONE's house from up here!

The rooftop tour. Awesome. This was my first chance to take pictures of the house, since photography wasn't allowed inside, but was allowed and encouraged outside. The tour included unfinished parts of the house, where we learned about the time consuming efforts of period restoration, and some the innovative designs that were incorporated in the building. Seeing the rooms unfinished was just as great to me as seeing them pristine. So big and bright on the upper floors! We got to go out on various balconies and rooftops, where I snapped madly with my camera, taking closeups of the many, many architectural details on the building, or shots of the horizon, where you saw nothing but trees, soft rolling hills (I've been using that phrase a lot, but really, it's what they were!) and, well, more trees and a tourist or two. The guide pointed to a mountain peak way, way off in the foggy distance and said that Vanderbilt owned land all the way to there. It was hard to comprehend having that much space; so very much space that it dwarfed the huge building that one easily got lost in.

By the time the third tour finished, it was late in the afternoon. We grabbed more ice cream, and wandered around the shops in the stableyard, trying to see what we could learn about its original workings. I wandered around a gift shop while Brian sampled wines, weaving my way among cheerful Red Hat Society ladies - most of which looked too young to belong. I bought a book of old Vanderbilt photos and a miniature rug that would fit perfectly in my archaeologist's study. Then we headed to the far side of the building to admire the arbor and the bowling green, and continued to wander down towards the gardens. By this time, we were pretty worn out, and there were still more stairs. I took some garden photos, but never made it as far as the beautiful brick greenhouse. I shouldn't have looked behind me at all the stairs I needed to climb back up!