Travels in America: Chicago

My husband Joe and I have undertaken three trips to the United States, and have loved our travels there.? In the keeping with the holiday spirit as we all take a well earned break, I have brushed the dust off our blog written at the time (October 2014), removed excessive cussing and tidied up the grammar for Whaleoil readers.? This is part 6 of 7.

Day twenty three ? Chicago – Bean Day

We put our walking shoes on today, with the goal of getting to know the city a bit.? We left our hotel and walked down to the local Bank of America ATM to get some cash (Using Bank of America so we don?t pay the @#$%^& $8 fee that our dear bank would usually charge for such a cost-less transaction) and have breakfast.

That accomplished, we walked over to Navy Pier, with a view to walking round Lake Side Drive and eventually to the Millennium Park.? This is where they have The Bean (actually I think it?s correctly called The Cloud, but Bean is pretty appropriate) which is simply a big stainless steel sculpture in the shape of a bean.? Being stainless steel, it?s very reflective, so hours of fun can be had with reflections.? Hard to describe, you will have to look at the photos.? It?s pretty cool and we spent almost an hour and a half here, watching people having fun with it, taking photos, and having some fun ourselves.? It really is fun, very cool.

Chicago is a wee bit like New York, there is lots of stunning architecture here, and a good mix of new buildings as well, some that sit side by side with the old and it all seems to work pretty well.? Plus they have the L, an elevated train system that runs above road level.

For dinner, we mooched up Rush Street and found a place called Big Bowl, which served Thai food and looked pretty good.? The food was excellent, but once again, really big portions and we came out of there with our stomachs like little (ok, BIG!) barrels.

Day twenty four ? Chicago

This morning we tried to get organised and decide how we were going to spend the rest of our time here.

On the agenda for today was a tour of The Rookery and a trip to the Field Museum.? First stop though was breakfast at Tempo, recommended by the friendly and helpful Dwayne.? We both ordered an omelette (3 eggs) that came with three fillings plus a side of hash browns and two thick slices of toast.? I couldn?t finish my omelette and didn?t touch the toast, and apart from snacking occasionally on popcorn, have not needed anything else to eat the whole day.? No such thing as a small serve here.

With stomachs bulging, we set off and second stop was to buy a three day pass for the train system.? This was pretty fascinating to us IT geeks, because you have to pay $5 to buy a Ventra card, and then you load money on it.? The card is like an ATM card, technically a MasterCard branded debit card, no chip but contactless.? So you tap it on the turnstyle and it lets you through.? We braved our first subway, which was the usual low ceilinged narrow platformed subway similar to New York, though not quite as hot and crowded.? Then we changed to an L train to get to The Rookery.? Wow, the L is antiquated.? You would think you had gone back in time to the 70?s.? Narrow wooden platforms, I have no idea how it copes with a big volume of people in rush hour, narrow stairs up and down, plus all the infrastructure looks rusted and rickety.? You will remember this is the elevated train line that runs above ground, with cars underneath.? As trains come and go from the station, the whole platform sways back and forth, plus you can see right through the train line to the road below.? Unexpected in such a busy city, and I would say long overdue for an upgrade.

The L

We had booked a midday tour of the rookery, which is a building here in Downtown Chicago that was built in 1888.? At the time, it was one of the first high-rises (11 stories) built after the Great Chicago fire of 1871 and used very advanced techniques for the day.? The skylight lobby was redecorated by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905.? It?s a very impressive building and while there are FLW influences, he didn?t overwhelm an already fabulous building with his own ideas, but managed to enhance a few things.? The tour felt a quite rushed on the bits we were most interested in, which was the inside, and particularly the staircase.? Only half an hour long, we spent the first 10 minutes getting the history, then went outside to a cacophony of sirens and nearby construction work, which we could easily have covered off on our own time, before heading back inside to the good bits.? You can?t access the stairwell, which is the most picturesque and most photographed stairwell in all of Chicago unless you belong in the building or are on a tour, and that part was over in about 5 minutes flat, or so it seemed.? But I did manage to get some pix, though they are far from good, more by good luck than good skills. It was quite impressive, and I would have liked to have had much longer to oh and ah over it.? But she gave us a good tip about the Trade building, which she said had a fabulous art deco lobby, so we headed over there once the tour was over, and wow, did it have a fabulous art deco lobby.??? Probably one of the most lovely examples I?ve seen in the flesh.

Once we were done there, we headed for the subway again with the target being the Field Museum, but we interrupted the trip to stop at Garrett?s Popcorn Shop.?? This was recommended to us by the Avis woman when we picked up the car all the way back in Buffalo, and she was spot on.? We bought a small caramel pecan, and a small caramel, which of course left us with enough popcorn to feed a small army.? It is VERY good and rather more-ish.

The Field Museum has the largest most complete t-rex ever discovered, which was pretty impressive, and also a pretty good Egyptian section.? We spent a couple of hours there wandering the exhibits, including the Lions of Tsavo, man-eating lions that ate about 135 railway construction workers building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, until they were eventually shot and killed by the project leader.? He later sold their skins to the Chicago museum for $5000, and they were eventually turned into the exhibit we saw today.

T-rex – the largest and most complete ever discovered

By now it was about 4 o?clock and I was ready to head home via a boot shop I had spotted late in the day yesterday, and Joe stopped at a Barnes and Noble he had earmarked by one of our train stops.? ?Joe was much more successful than me and arrived home a very happy camper with a book of artwork by the guy who now does all the Airfix boxtop art.? Heavy, but he has to carry it.? Snigger.

A bit colder today, even though it was fine.? A perishingly cold wind, that like Wellington, affected some pockets of the city worse than others.? Still wearing a t-shirt and polar fleece though and plenty warm, even in the cold wind.

Tomorrow the weather forecast is good and we are planning a river Architecture cruise, and possibly a visit to the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, which is the tallest building in Chicago.

Day twenty five ? Chicago

Last day in Chicago.? I had booked an In depth Frank Lloyd Wright tour, which included a tour of his home and studio in Oak Park, one of the outer suburbs of Chicago, plus a walk through the local neighbourhood to view several of his home creations plus a tour of Unity Temple.

I caught the train and arrived in time for the 9.15am tour.? Despite my careful planning, I managed to foul up where I changed trains so I ended up re-covering ground and then getting stuck waiting for a signal fault to be repaired.? But I had time to scoff a nutella and banana croissant and bucket of coffee for breakfast at a caf? en route.? I was the only one on the tour, so it was pretty good to have the guide to myself and be able to take my time and ask whatever questions I wanted.? Really hard to take photos, so I bought a book instead, the professionals were able to do a much better job than me.

The house tour was pretty cool, there were some stunning rooms and use of light etc, and his studio was fabulous.? Hexagonal in shape and with everything, including the shape of the table legs, designed with thought for how the room would feel overall.

The walk through the neighbourhood included some fabulous houses, which typically sell for a few hundred thousand over and above market rate simply because they were designed by FLW.? One family is restoring the house one room at a time so that they can save enough money to do it right.? Last room on the list for them is the kitchen, so I don?t envy them that job!? It will be quite hard to end up with a usable modern kitchen that still fits with his design ethic.

Then it was time for the Unity Temple.? FLW insisted that it be called a temple, even though technically it is a church.? The look of it, especially from the outside, is nothing at all like you expect from a church, so he wants to shift your expectations before you even see it.? It seems he was a man with quite a forceful personality, and a pretty big ego to boot.? The Unity Temple is best described as a monolithic block of concrete from the outside.


Unity Temple, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

He designed it soon after he returned from working in Japan, and the influence is pretty clear to see, I?ll let the photos tell the story.

Inside Unity Temple

You would think from looking at it from the outside that it would be very dark inside, as there are only windows high up, plus one strip of windows to light the four stairwells, one in each corner.? They let in a surprising amount of light, plus the ceiling is basically made of skylights.

Skylights, Frank Lloyd Wright style

One of the requirements was that the road noise outside be kept outside, and he did manage to achieve that pretty well.? There are a few quirky design features, as usual, you don?t just walk into the temple, you are taken on a roundabout trip up a single stairwell, and then the room opens out in front of you.? One of the tricks he often used, take you through a small and often dark space and then have the room open out in front of you to give the impact of being in a big open space.? The main part of the temple was stunning, light and open, and beautifully decorated in his style.? It took my breath away, and I was so glad I had been able to see it in the flesh.

So with the tour over, I headed back into town to meet up with J who had been on his own adventure to a hobby shop far far away.? Over to Joe??

So today was our last day, and the previous night we?d repacked & sorted everything to make sure we could be ready to depart Chicago to catch our Denver flight. However, as that wasn?t until?late afternoon we still had several hours to kill, so?while Deb did the FLW tour, I decided to pick a hobby shop and go check it out.

The one I chose was??Forever Timeless? Hobby shop ways out in West Belmont Ave. I checked out the directions and it seemed fairly straightforward to get there – a Red Line bus to Belmont station (north), then catch a #77 bus and get off at the appropriate stop.? The Chicago metro site has a?really useful trip planner function where you can enter a start and destination address, then it will display all that you need to do to get there, even which direction to walk in when needed.

The trip out took about 35 minutes, most of it on the bus. The buses are pretty good as when stops are coming up, they’re displayed and read out automatically, so no chance of missing your stop. The shop was in a fairly industrial area and judging by the changes in signage from English to Spanish, home to a large Spanish-American population.

We?ve noticed in Chicago that the homeless tend to be a bit more direct when asking for money and this area was not different, as on my trip, I saw that homeless people would walk down lines of cars at the intersection waving their placards and begging for money.

Eventually, I got to my stop and jumped off, but the shop wasn?t due to open until 11 am and I was there at 10;30, so had a 1/2 hour to wait. I decided to head off in search of some breakfast, but after 10 minutes walking further west, there was nothing to be seen! I remembered passing a Macca’s on the bus so retraced my steps and heading back in the other direction, so after another 20 minutes I finally found the place, had a coffee and wrap and then headed back to the hobby shop.

Well wouldn?t you know it, 11:10 am and the place wasn?t?open. Hmm, I decided to keep hanging around and try my luck – there was no shop window to speak of, just small glass bricks, so I had no view inside to see if anyone was there, and the door was covered by a metal roller-door.

I was on the verge of giving up at 11:45 and was walking, dejectedly, back to the bus stop when, joy, the roller-door came up and the door opened, woo-hoo! I was greeted by a young African-American lady who explained that while she could see my trying to peek in, she?d had problems opening the roller door.

The shop had a narrow entrance that opened out to a large cavernous section, and it was jammed packed with kits, plastic and die casts ! What a great hobby shop! They had a very extensive selection of car models, these being the bulk of their stock, but I had a very happy time rummaging in the aircraft section. With one eye on the time (buses every 15 mins, and a 1/2 hour trip back to the hotel), I eventually settled on a couple of gems and made my way back. The bus trip back to the train station was pretty busy as I guess most people were heading into town to do shopping, so I had to stand most of the time. However we made good time and I was back in Chicago, ready for the next stage. Happily, my kits fitted into my backpack, so no need to do any re-organisation !

and back to Deb ?..

We had a bite of lunch and then mooched back to the bean, it?s a pretty fun way to pass the time watching everyone having fun with it, taking photos etc.? Seems we timed our trip right, the weather was MUCH colder today and snow showers are forecast for Friday.? Then it was time to schlep all our luggage to the airport, which involved hauling it a few blocks, wrestling a backpack each, plus the wheely expandable suitcase for overflow, plus our carry on bags etc.? Down the stairs into the subway, back up again to change lines to the L and the orange line out to Midway.? Then the six-mile trek from the train terminal to the actual airline terminal to check in.? We were both a lather of sweat by the time we arrived at Southwest check-in, so had to head to the loos and shed the polar fleece layer that we had needed outside.? When will we learn to travel light ???

Duly checked in, we joined what seemed like thousands of people at Midway on a Thursday night, and had a drink and plate of chips at the bar near our departure gate, and then it was time to board.? Southwest have an unusual boarding process, which thankfully our friend Craig had prewarned us about else we would have had no clue.? You are not allocated a seat, instead, you check in online and are allocated a boarding position, which contains a group and a number.? Then they call group A to line up, and they have poles with the boarding number printed on it e.g. one pole for positions 1-5 on one side and 31-35 on the other side, and you are supposed to line up in two lines, one on each side of the pole, in the number order of your boarding position.? Once group A has boarded, Group B lines up.? We had been given group C14 and 15.

So you are getting the picture, the further down you are in the pecking order, the less chance there is of sitting together, and you mostly end up getting stuck with the middle seat.? Also, everyone else who has already boarded before you has hogged all the overhead locker space with their gigantic carry on monstrosities, so if you are particularly unlucky, you can end up having to check your carry on.

We are fortunate enough to get two seats together, at the very last row of the plane, and found space in the lockers further up the plane to put our comparatively tiny bags.? Coffee and tea and soft drinks are free, plus you get flung a miniature bag of peanuts and snacks for the trip.? You can buy wine if you wish, and they come through the cabin with an ordering pad with a credit card machine attached to the back, and take your order like a waitress, and if you are ordering something that?s not free, swipe your card to pay for it (no pin or signature required, they are all low-value transactions).? Then they come back with everyone?s order on a tray and dish them out.

It?s all pretty casual, the staff are polite but quite informal.? We also found out via Craig that the airline has the cabin crew clean the plane, no separate cleaning staff, so they get a bit obsessive about coming through and collecting the trash.? The result of all this is efficiency, and for both flights so far we have left early and arrived early.? Apparently, this is common, and they are so reliably early that Craig knew he had to get there early to meet us.? So it was an uneventful?flight, and we did indeed land early.? The terminal at Denver is so big you catch a train to the baggage claim area, and Craig was there to meet us and thankfully help us haul the luggage to his truck.? We had arrived in Denver.