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Asheville dazzles with history

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9/10/2012 - Asheville dazzles with history
by Wayne Anderson - Columbia Daily Tribune - Columbia, Missouri

In the 1800s, Asheville, N.C., developed a reputation as a good place for people with lung diseases to recover their health. It has since evolved into a major medical center.

The setting is unusually attractive, with the Pisgah National Forest and the Biltmore Estate, America's largest private residence, abutting the city and the Blue Ridge Parkway entrances nearby.

When we took the trolley tour, our first guide, a longtime Asheville resident, emphasized how great it is to live in this city. He said it tops the list of U.S. cities with the happiest people. Is that because, with its 10 microbreweries, it also is named America's Beer City? The city also made the list of Most Beautiful Places in America, is No. 10 on the list of top food and wine destinations and is No. 1 among the top 10 cities in which to relocate. Our guide's claim about his city being so outstanding seemed credible. After the tour, I certainly was willing to put it on my List of Gem Cities, along with such cities as Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla.

The city trolley tour let us off at nine stops and allowed us to reboard after each. We stopped first for lunch and a walk downtown, which seemed strange, as if we had dropped back in time to the late '60s. The restaurants emphasized vegetarian dishes, and the stores appeared to be selling used hippie clothes. Homeless people roamed a small park, and musicians were playing instruments on several streets. One young lady we stopped to talk to had two chairs set up and a sign that read, "TELL ME YOUR PROBLEMS, five minute listening free." When we passed her again later, a homeless person was explaining to her why he was such a failure.

The streets were clean and well-kept, and the many old buildings were in good repair. Another trolley guide told us that the downtown Asheville Historic District has the best collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture in North Carolina. He pointed out that not having the money earlier to raze districts and rebuild, Asheville was later left with many buildings available to be restored, which contributed to the area's architectural heritage.

The author Tom Wolfe is Asheville's most famous son. F. Scott Fitzgerald also spent time here, and his wife, Zelda, died in the local mental hospital when a fire killed a number of the patients, who were locked in their rooms or tied to their beds.

Our guide for the latter part of the trip took us through the River Arts District, but by this time, it was raining so hard we didn't get off the trolley. The guide pointed out that Asheville made the list of the top small-city arts destinations, beating out Santa Fe, N.M., for the honor of first place. Another guide also mentioned that CQ magazine said that, musically, Asheville was the new Austin, Texas, but with better views.

The trolley also took us through Biltmore Village, which originally was the housing district for people who worked at the Biltmore Estate. The workers drove horses three miles to the estate. The village had a train station for visitors to the Biltmore and a separate train station for the servants of the visitors, where the large trunks the wealthy carried for their visits were discharged. The Biltmore Village area is now a high-end shopping area.

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