Chicago – Chapter Two

Day 3, March 28: Chicago offered up yet another blue sky morning on Monday, and after enjoying breakfast at the Corner Bakery next door, I headed south for Millennium Park, where I had the chance to admire my reflection in the alien spaceship known as the Bean (or Cloud Gate if you’re being accurate) and take a gander at the spidery, angular form of the Pritzker Pavilion (closed off to the public during the winter months, it seemed). I was still ahead of the crowd it seemed, but there were still plenty of people around the Bean. I’m not surprised – it’s a fascinating piece of sculpture in a perfect setting, reflecting the towering skyscrapers that line two sides of Millennium Park.

Once again, I’m a bit too early for my own good, as the Art Institute doesn’t open until 11. That’s fine though – I keep on walking south through the park, enjoying the amazing skylines to the west. The park’s fountains are unfortunately closed – which I can understand, given the temperatures, but it’s still a good day for a stroll. By the time I make it down to the Field Museum, with its brachiosaur outside (now there’s a good title for a Rubberbandits song), I’m grinning from the surfeit of fresh air and vitamin D. It’s a grin that only gets wider when, after picking up a City Pass at the front desk, I come face to maw with the lovely Sue: a large and bony lady with a wonderful set of teeth.

The dinosaurs are one of the highlights of the Field Museum, which was crowded that morning with school groups, but for me the best part was the wing covering Native American cultures, south and north. Perhaps it’s just my affection for learning new things, but whereas other exhibits in museums in London and New York might have matched what the Field had to offer, this one was particularly excellent. That said, the Egyptian exhibit has plenty to recommend it too.

Right beside the Field Museum was the Shedd Aquarium, but it was around lunchtime when I got out and there was a massive queue in front of it, so I headed on past it and went for the third of the Museum District attractions: the Adler Planetarium. The wind off the lake was even colder than it had been the day before on Navy Pier, as the planetarium is located on yet another peninsula, but it was worth it to get inside and come face to face with NASA paraphernalia and an array of telescopes, from Galileo’s time to the modern day. The Adler wasn’t too crowded, and my CityPass also entitled me to a 3D show in one of its cinemas (the main dome was undergoing renovation), which was spoiled somewhat by the fact that Windows XP was running the show and decided to crash. However, American customer service being what it is, that actually gained me a free ticket to return to the planetarium in future. I paused for a late lunch in the lake-view cafe, then moved on again.

An unplanned day had now gained something of a schedule, and Shedd was next on the list. Luckily, the queue was somewhat smaller than it had been, though nothing to sneeze at. Once again, my CityPass gained me entry and a free show, the latter in this case being another 3D offering – or, in the words of marketing, a 4D show, which meant smoke, bubbles and jolting seats as clips from David Attenborough’s Planet Earth played on the big screen. It was short, but it was a lot of fun. Overpriced at around $20 though, it it hadn’t been included as part of the ticket.

The Shedd Aquarium has two main draws: the massive array of aquatic and amphibian creatures set out in hundreds of tanks, some of them bizarre, some beautiful and some just bloody massive. When it comes to massive though, the place to be is the main tank, in which belugas and Pacific dolphins can dimly be seen from below, but which is best viewed from above, in the amphitheatre in which the main show can be seen several times a day. It’s best to get there early, as it gets crowded before the show begins, but when it all kicks off, the upbeat announcer keeps things moving as he explains just how the idolphones, belugas and sea lion are kept entertained as they are trained to take part in the shows. You can think about the fact that so much effort is invested to stop them going crazy in this confined space and whether it’s all justified, but there’s no doubting the fact that the Shedd really pushes the educational side of its efforts all the way through its exhibits.

Leaving the Shedd behind at around 6.30pm, I figured I had enough time to make it to the Willis/Sears Tower before 8, when it closed for the night. I had a ticket from the same generous relative to make use of, and it was only for the one day. The controversy over the naming had been explained to me by the tour guide the day before, and while Sears Tower is the name that most people recognise, I have sympathy for the idea that staying loyal to the old name is sticking with a company that left Chicago a long time ago. So Willis Tower I prefer, but I may lapse.

A bit more than half an hour of walking west through town, into the sunset, brought me to the base of Willis Tower, into which I descended and made use of that VIP pass to skip the queue (and, as it turned out, to later on pick up a free green-screen photo, normally a paid extra). In short order, I was ushered into a much more solid feeling lift than the Hancock Tower’s offering and took an ear-popping ride up to the 104th floor, right to the SkyDeck.

The main draw of the SkyDeck, of course, is the four glass booths that protrude from the edge of the building, offering a completely uninterrupted view of the skyline to the west of the Chicago River. Also a completely uninterrupted view of 103 stories of nothing between your feet and the sidewalk below. Everyone seemed to be giving it a go, and though the first step was always taken with trepidation, I wandered into three of the four booths – the fourth was occupied by a commercial photo-booth.

Even if you couldn’t face standing on glass over a whole lot of fresh air, the view of the city, the lake and several different states available on a day as clear as the one I was lucky enough to enjoy was well worth it. No one was hurrying us on, so I lingered to watch the sun go down and the lights come up over Chicago, just standing and staring into the distance, which there was a lot of. Plenty of other people had the same idea, when they weren’t taking pictures of each other sitting in the next booth over. Eventually, though, it was time to go, and I bugged out a few minutes early in order to avoid the rush for the exit.

Down on terra firma once more, I didn’t go too far to find a place to eat – a Giordano’s Pizza place just a couple of blocks away. Figuring I would have other opportunities to sample Chicago Pizza and not feeling particularly hungry, I didn’t go for the deep pan. Not that it mattered too much – thin though the crust might have been, the toppings were heaped up on top and slathered in a gallon of melted cheese. I made it through about two thirds of what was put in front of me, accompanied by more basketball on the telly.

I staggered out, and walked north to the river and east to the hotel, passing by a couple of news anchors plying their trade in a glass-fronted, street-level studio. I resisted to urge to wave at them, but really – this is something that people should consider for Dublin. The local populace are likely to spend their days trying to distract the poor unfortunates behind the desk, but it would make for a good test of character.

Back in the hotel, I made up for the first few days of activity by having a more relaxed evening than before, working on a few postcards, reading and enjoying the nighttime view from my room before finally hitting the sack.

Day 4, March 29: Perhaps I’d had too relaxed an evening, because I was up really early the next morning, jetlag giving an unexpected encore performance. My head may have been nice and clear, but the skies weren’t for a change, with clouds interrupting the reign of blue that I’d previously enjoyed. First order of the day was to find a nearby post office for those cards, and the iPhone helped me to find one just a few blocks north across the river.

Next up I headed for Michigan Avenue once more but was ambushed on the way by strawberry and cream cheese french toast, covered in toasted almonds at a place called e-leaven. Unlike the pizza the night before I managed to finish it, but it was a serious struggle. Chicago was still taking its time to get up to speed, but the one site that wasn’t having any trouble with its early morning crowds was the Apple Store – a full two weeks after its release, there were queues around the corner for the iPad 2. I got the chance to play with one a little later in the week, and can say that apart from being faster, lighter and more comfortable to hold, there’s not much to distinguish it from the original other than the cameras front and rear. As I wasn’t in need of one and not needing to queue, I headed south across the river again, heading further south to the queue for the massive Art Institute.

The queue wasn’t too long, and the Art Institute went on to take up around three-and-a-half uninterrupted hours of my time. How best to sum up several thousand years and individual pieces of art in a few words? Well, there’s something there for everyone, no matter what type of art most piques your interest. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but the layout of the galleries leading up to the most modern pieces is such that even I couldn’t help but pick up a few ideas on the thoughts behind it. The entire place is wonderfully curated in fact, with every exhibit seemingly designed not only to impress but also to inform. The Modernist section is excellent, and the collection of arms and armour will be even better than it already is when the planned expansion takes place. The Asian art section is just as good, and if you go, make a point to spend a little time in the “Meditation Room” tucked away in a corner there – if you’re lucky like me, you might even get to enjoy a serene experience without anyone else intruding.

Once I was out of the Art Institute though, I lacked a plan, so I just headed west, past the Willis Tower, until I reached the river. I grabbed a little lunch at Panera in the shadow of the tower, then made the first use of my CTA ticket to do some shopping, west of the Magnificent Mile and on the main strip itself. (Where I spotted another crowd, mostly of women, queueing to meet a Victoria’s Secret model. Weird.) Walking around the Art Institute had left me as footsore as the previous two days had, and I was glad to ditch the softball gear and clothes that I’d picked up. A shower and a change of clothes refreshed me, and I headed downstairs for a beer at the bar, where I got the chance to watch some Bill O’Reilly with a couple of Fox News “legal consultants”. Apparently exposed cleavage and short skirts are important legal accoutrements these days. Thankfully, there was no sound accompanying the broadcast.

Shopping and art had made up the daylight portion of this particular day, but the evening was to be a little more earthy. I wanted to catch some Chicago Blues, but it was early yet, so I headed to Fado in the Near North for a pint. When I was done, I headed a few doors up the street to Blue Chicago, where Linsey Anderson was playing with his band. It was scuzzier than any place I’d been to before – though I’m not kidding myself by thinking I was getting any closer to “real” Chicago so close to the city centre. I enjoyed the music and the atmosphere (and the beer, if I’m being honest) and stuck it out as long as I could. After three days of solid walking, there was more planned for the next day, This time some of it might even come with a purpose.

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