Friday, 8 August 2014

Days 485 to 486: Chicago

We spent four days in Montevideo: nice, but a little dull. We three days in Lima: one would have been more than enough. And we spent three days in ghastly Naples. Yet we spent barely two days in Chicago, wonderful, cool, beautiful, exciting Chicago. What the hell?

Chicago, for us, criminally, was no more than a glorified stopover. It doesn't have a candidate Wonder in it, but it was conveniently situated between Toronto and Mount Rushmore, so we thought we'd pass by. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we had one evening and one full day to explore it. By the first evening, we were thinking, "Oh no! We want longer!" Chicago immediately shoulder-barged us and wrestled us to the ground: it was an instant hit. It reminded me of visiting the cool parts of New York, and for our 1.5 days it was like being in New York again for the first time. It's a city that became great in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and has the classic skyscrapers to show for it, plus cool neighbourhoods, a joyously battered subway, a no-nonsense but friendly attitude, and the strong sense that although it's a new city by world standards, it has a bit of history, it's got a lot of heart and soul, and it has atmosphere through-and-through.

The area we were in was called Wicker Park, staying in an apartment through Airbnb. Wicker Park is packed full of cool little restaurants, bars, cafes, boutiques, and galleries, is very multi-cultural, and is far too cool for me - I don't have the funky beard, the correctly-shaved patches of hair, the right clothes, or a single hipster tattoo to be considered a member of Wicker Park. But wow, it was a great space to stay. Our first evening was simply spent wandering the area, eventually eating at a vegetarian restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of our travels (we ate again there the second night, and it was equally as delicious) and having a craft beer at a bar. Like New York, and like much of America it now seems, Chicago does a great line in craft beers. After months of pretty pishy South American and European lager, it is a true joy to be in America, which traditionally used to have a poor reputation for beers, but has fully reinvented itself with countless microbreweries and endless bars with ten or more beers on tap. I've said before to people that ultimately I could only ever imagine living permanently in a place with good beer - and America makes that grade. There are lots of reasons I don't particularly fancy living in America, but at least if I was forced to, I could drink my days away happily.

On our full day, we had to visit downtown, or "the loop" as Chicagoers funkily call it. We did nothing remotely original - we visited the highlights. And they were great.

Millennium Park was our first stop. It's a fairly new park, opened ten years ago, and has been an instant hit with locals and visitors alike. And no wonder - it's a great park. It's got stuff like the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which at first looks like a metal alien insect has exploded, but then you realise, "Ah... Frank Gehry...", that is, the guy who did the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim. Steel plates and swooping curves, it's a very dramatic presence in the park.

But it still takes a backseat to the park's highlight, and one of Chicago's premier attractions: the Bean. Or Cloud Gate, as it's properly called. It's a sculpture that looks like a gigantic, reflective bean. If this description makes you think "Uh...?" then it's only because it's something that needs to be experienced rather than described. It's about 13 metres tall and 20 metres long, and is extremely polished and mirror-like, but its curved shape makes the reflections distorted. There are no visible joins - it appears as a single object, not built from parts. The artist - a British artist called Anish Kapoor who also did London's weird Olympic tower, the (ahem) ArcelorMittal Orbit, which looks like a traumatised rollercoaster - intended for the bean to resemble a blob of mercury, and it really, really does. It's a fascinating sight.

Walk below and look up - the effect is more trippy than I can describe, or adequately photograph. It quite genuinely made me feel instantly disorientated.

Another park - the Maggie Daly Park - is in construction just next to the Millennium Park, and next to the lakeside, and looks like it will be a great addition when it's finished. We walked by that, and along the lakeside for a while, eventually rejoining the city near the area they call the Magnificent Mile, which is where many of their classic skyscrapers can be found. Stuff like this.

The last two are of Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, and a rare example of a (neo-)Gothic skyscraper. It's a pretty interesting building, and it gets more interesting when you walk around the base. Incorporated into its structure are stones, bricks, and other materials from famous buildings and structures across the world. Most were brought back by correspondents prior to the Tower's construction (1922 to 1925). All the biggies are there - the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China. It's like a wall of World Wonders!

A less compelling building is the Hancock Center. It's not bad though, not for a modern skyscraper. It was built in 1969, though looks fresher than that (i.e. it's not a monstrous concrete obscenity). It's big - 344 metres, or 459 metres if you count these cheeky pointy bits. This makes it the 39th tallest building in the world, or the 4th tallest in Chicago, though when it was built it was second tallest in the world, behind only the Empire State Building. Anyway, it's got an observation deck, and although Danielle and I are beginning to get a little sick of going up really tall towers (the last couple of weeks have seen the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building,  and the CN Tower), we thought we'd give it a look. Yeah, it's alright.

Just like every single tourist attraction in North America (especially tall buildings) we had to pose for photos, with a backdrop being superimposed. We never ever buy them. At least this one allowed us to look it up online, so that I could copy and paste it here

The tallest building in Chicago, and now 12th tallest in the world at 442 metres (527 metres with pointy bits) is the Willis Tower, which used to be called the Sears Tower and everybody wishes still was. Isn't it confusing when famous buildings change name? What would happen if the Willis company (who are some boring insurance thing and nothing to do with Bruce Willis) bought another skyscraper in Chicago? Would there be two Willis Towers? It would be even more confusing if Sears bought a tall skyscraper, meaning once again there would be a Sears Towers but not the one everybody would expect. It's all very confusing and a compelling reason that buildings should have a fixed name, or at least a commonly accepted one that doesn't change unless willed by the general public. Anyway, Willis Tower can be seen in some of the above photos (look for the tall one) and we also passed by, briefly. It's tall, yes, and dark and very blocky. No beauty, but Chicago could do a lot worse. We didn't go up because I'd heard it gets busy (there were no queues at all for the Hancock Center), and neither Danielle or I had any appetite for another high-up view.

In the evening, we took a stroll in Wicker Park, drank a gin, and ate at our favourite vegetarian restaurant (Handlebars was its name, I certainly recommend it. It's so good it doesn't even need meat, although if you absolutely need some, perhaps smuggle in some beef slices and insert them discreetly). Danielle and I both agreed: we really, really liked Chicago. We didn't need to do any of the sight-seeing, we could have just wandered in Wicker Park drinking gin, or soaked up the atmosphere in the Magnificent Mile, or found something to interest us anywhere we went. Chicago is just one of these cities that has it. It. Whatever that is, it's there.

But we're not. Because the following morning we were hiring a stupid car to go on a stupid 2000-mile round-trip to see some stupid stone faces of some stupid presidents in a stupid mountain. Bye-bye Chicago, hello car interior and a lot of very, very, very straight and flat roads.


  1. A very interesting article! When I retire I am planning on visiting New York (I'm willing to risk flying again by then, I'll have a lot less to lose than now), and now maybe I'll pop by Chicago based on what you have described.

    A few thoughts, in no particular order:

    1) Sears Tower. Completely agree with you regarding the name-changing thing. The whole point of naming something, be it a person, or a topographical or geographical site, is to facilitate understanding. That's why people named villages, hills, rivers etc. I can understand names being changed for ideological reasons, or evolving, to an extent, it's not a new thing, but it seems a bit extreme to rename a landmark every time a new investor comes onto the scene. I could go on about football stadia and their new corporate names too but my rant on this subject is over.

    2) Tribune Tower: I really like gothic architecture in all its forms, and this tower really looks amazing. I also like, as shown in your photos, the pieces of famous buildings from around the world. In a way even the blandest piece of stone takes on a deeper significance when you know that it comes from a famous landmark, so I really like what they've done there.

    3) the beers. I have indeed heard that in the United States they make very good craft beers. It's a shame they don't export them (perhaps due to their limited production). They really need to sort that out, they are doing their international image no good with the weak stuff that they strain through a sock and call Budweiser.

    1. I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting Chicago. I'm sure you could drive there from New York if you don't want to push your luck. Great city.

      Of course, maybe the Transatlantic Tunnel will be in place earlier -

      I had the chance to visit the Budweiser brewery in St Louis (blog entry upcoming). I didn't take it.

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