Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chicago: the Bean, the Wind, the Booze, the Food, the Blues, etc.


Jennifer snapped this view of Lake Michigan and the sky out our window just before we banked to land at O'Hare International Airport.  We were both impressed by our aerial views on this cloudless day.  It was 66 degrees and breezy.  An incredible June day from my native southern perspective.  
Note: This is part one of a three-part travelogue about a recent trip to Chicago.

Jennifer and I recently visited Chicago for a four-night vacation.  The trip was terrific.  Chicago is a amiable, clean town with more to offer than we could possibly take in during such a short stay.  As I have in the past with our vacations to Alaska, to Boston, and to DC, I will attempt to capture the spirit of the trip in a three-part travelogue.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on the Friday before Father's Day.  Our stay was downtown, centrally located to several attractions but, most importantly, only about a block from the Art Institute of Chicago, our primary reason for visiting the Windy City.  We stayed at the historic Palmer House, a wonderful older hotel located in the heart of "the Loop" downtown.  Friday afternoon was not the best time to check-in. There was a long line of people coming in for the weekend. Not only was it Father's Day weekend but there was a large blues festival in town.  The hotel staff worked through the lines very quickly, however.  It was more difficult waiting on an elevator to take us up to our 21st floor room.

The magnificent ceiling mural in the Palmer House's grand lobby.  It was great getting drunk under this view one late afternoon when we were in Chicago. 
The grand lobby is lighted entirely from the sides and below.  It is richly appointed with lavish carpets and chairs.  Here I am standing near the bar section of the lobby.  The light fixtures were magnificent.
But life is good.  Our room was smallish but comfortable, the hotel staff was top-notch, for which we often tipped.  After unpacking we decided to walk to the Chicago Cultural Center to get oriented to the city and to check out the largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world.  It was an impressive sight and, for a brief period, we enjoyed that space all by ourselves. About a block and a half from there lies Millennium Park and Cloud Gate, the world-famous art sculpture known locally as "the Bean".  We spent a long time under gorgeous bright blue skies enjoying that sunny space.  Cloud Gate, a huge public draw, was rather crowded at the time.

The largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world located on the second floor of the Chicago Cultural Center.  Jennifer got this wide angle with her iPhone.
In solitude under the dome.  Jennifer stitched three shots together to give you a sense of the space and its design.  I am laying on the floor looking at my camera pointed toward the dome.
The shot I took while lying on my back.  It gives better definition to the center of the dome.  Eight panels of exact design each suggesting a butterfly to me but perhaps other things to other people.
A classic photo of Cloud Gate.  This was taken on our second visit, in the morning there were fewer people around.
A shot I took of the reflected blue sky on our cloudless first day in Chicago.
Gulls land on top of Cloud Gate and poop all over it.  It is very visible on the surface higher up the sculpture.  I took this shot from the same position as the previous shot.  I merely twisted my body the other way and kept the camera at roughly the same angle.
Two lucky people.  To have this moment in Chicago and to have each other.  Under the Bean there is shade.
From there we walked about three blocks to a rooftop bar that had been recommended to us by various friends who had visited Chicago.  Once again, it was extremely crowded.  Half the space was reserved for a special event.  The usual numerous Friday after-work crowd was cramped into half the space.  We had a couple of Heinekens at the Wit bar and managed to hobble out to the open roof and get a nice view of Lake Michigan and the Bean in the distance. The Wit offered great views and was nicely appointed but it was far too crowded for us to enjoy so we escaped after a beer and a look.

You have to admit this is an amazing view from a bar.  Lake Michigan and the Bean in the distance in Chicago.
Chicago is also known for its shopping.  We passed Zara on the way back to the hotel.  Jennifer absolutely had to go inside.  I hate shopping but managed to occupy myself with the interesting varied attire of all the women in the store as they took clothing items off the racks and held them up, considering with their eyes.  Some were hotter than others.  Jennifer didn't see anything she particularly cared for.  About a block and a half past our hotel was The Berghoff Bar and Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Chicago.  We enjoyed a wonderful dark draft of their own making.  The meal, like almost all our meals in Chicago, was excellent.  Chicago has tons of great restaurants and we visited many of them located near the Palmer House.
The Berghoff Bar entrance and the separate Restaurant entrance.
The Burghoff Bar was issued Chicago's first post-prohibition pouring license. 
The best damn beer I've tasted in a long time.
Saturday morning we hiked about five blocks to see an enormous urban sculpture by Pablo Picasso. Then we walked over to the Bean again and got to enjoy it with far fewer people around. From the Bean it is less than a block to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I will blog about our experiences there in future posts.  Along the trek to from the Bean we strolled through open gardens of grasses and perennials.  Jennifer was particularly enamored with the sweeping spaces of Verbena.  It was another beautiful day.  Sunny and clear, highs in the mid-70's with low humidity.  We were definitely not in the South in June.
Pablo Picasso in an open urban space.
Verbena in Chicago.  An open garden across the street from the Art Institute's modern wing.  This shot is looking west back toward downtown. Lake Michigan is behind us here but not visible due to the size of the park.
Splitting our time at Art Institute on Saturday was a lunch at the Exchequer Restaurant. I had the incredible Capone Burger (supposedly Al Capone frequented this restaurant) as Jennifer enjoyed her hearty black bean burger.  After returning to the hotel later in the day Jennifer and I enjoyed the marvelous lobby area, featuring its fabulous high-ceiling mural and old-style ornate design.  I several MacAllens while Jennifer sampled beers and ended up with a pink martini.  It was high urban fun and a good smooth buzz.  For a moment we felt rather wealthy, surrounded by all those people coming and going in that abundant space. It was a wonderful extravagance.

Dinner that evening was at the Italian Village, a collection of three authentic Italian restaurants under one roof.  One of them is the oldest Italian restaurant in the city.  We ate at La Cantina, the least expensive choice, on the cellar level.  It was Jennifer's favorite meal of the trip.  This was followed by a walk over to Grant Park to take in some of the Chicago Blues Festival.  The crowd was large and having a lot of fun.  The music was great. We listened to a warm-up band and then saw the first part of Bettye LaVette's funky bluesy show which started near sunset.  We also walked over to Grant Park proper and saw Buckingham Fountain in a large open public space there.
Three great Italian restaurants under one roof.  We ate at La Cantina. 
Bettye Lavette gave a strong performance at the Chicago Blue Festival.
We had to rise early on Sunday.  We took a taxi north of the city to Belmont Harbor.  It was my first time to go sailing. Jennifer went many times when she was younger, before she moved to Georgia. Our vessel, Verloren, was a 39-foot craft (one foot short of an official "yacht" our captain told me).  It was a great day for sailing, if a bit choppy.  Wind gusts were up to 30 MPH with 2-3 foot waves.  The captain expected 4-foot waves in the afternoon. We sailed leisurely at 7-8 knots out into the vastness of the great blue Lake Michigan. He only hoisted his smaller sail due to the nature and intensity of the wind.

Captain Steve, as he introduced himself, was the commander of a small fleet of 6-7 other sail boats that operated out of the harbor from April 15 until November 1.  He is an interesting guy, full for stories, of course, and very friendly and talkative. He owns a small art gallery and plays drums in a blues band on the side.  Quite a diverse individual, he plans to get his brewing licence soon and start a micro-brewery.  It was interesting to watch him tack and navigate the boat.  There was a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon but that morning had plenty of sunshine to go with the wind.  We sailed about 6 miles offshore and enjoyed a great view of the Chicago with our fellow four passengers.  It was a 2 and a half hour excursion and certainly worth the experience.  There were many other boats out on the vast lake but after we got 3-4 miles from shore most of them were left behind.

After the boating trip we took a taxi over to the main shopping district, the Magnificent Mile. There we had an authentic Chicago deep dish pizza at Gino's East.  Afterwards we visited the Contemporary Art Museum.  I do not understand why Jennifer insists on going to these places.  If something is not good enough for the contemporary art wing of the a city's main art museum, it is usually not good enough period.  I thought the thing was a waste of time and connected to nothing. But we did it.

We walked the Magnificent Mile down to the Chicago River.  Jennifer considered some shopping options but she really didn't particularly want anything and was more into the day and the people and buildings.  To our disappointment, the Berghoff was closed on Sundays so we had to find another watering hole nearby.  We dined afterwards at Miller's Pub. Tired from the day of sailing and walking we retired to our hotel room and watched the Braves beat the Angels on ESPN, falling asleep at various points in the game.

Captain Steve readies the Verloren for our short sailing venture.
Captain Steve talks to a Chicago Cubs fan, one of our small group of passengers.  I am perched on the stern of the boat listening in as we sail along.
The wind was so gusty that day that we made 8 knots with only one sail hoisted.  It was not the craft's main sail.
Chicago as seen about three miles out on Lake Michigan. There was a school of training sail boats heading out from our harbor just after us.  They only ventured about three miles out at most. We went further out and had the Lake pretty much to ourselves but for a couple of other vessels. The tallest dark large building in the distance is the Sears Tower.
The Chicago River.  We crossed it after trekking down the Magnificent Mile.  The boat in the middle of the river is giving an architectural tour.  That was one thing we planned that we just did not get around to doing while there.
On Monday, our last full day in Chicago, we slept late.  Phase two of our assault on the Art Institute was the plan for that day.  Lunch was at the Russian Tea Time Restaurant.  We both were pleased with the mix of traditional Russian and Ukrainian food located almost directly across from the Art Institute.  I had some chicken patties there that were one of the highlights of our culinary experience in Chicago for me.  Jennifer loves beets and had a beet salad that she gave two thumbs up.

After more time at the Art Institute we walked two blocks over to the Berghoff and had more of their wonderful micro-brewed dark beer.  Jennifer could not take any of that perfect beer back with her but we did purchase some classy commemorative bar glasses to bring home.  While there we kept an eye on the US playing Ghana in the first round of the World Cup.  During a cutaway we saw that there was a large gathering of soccer fans watching the game of a big screen TV in Chicago's Grant Park. We decided to walk over there and watch the final part of that match. The crowd was rowdy and raucous and roared as the US scored a goal late and won 2-1.

Hanging with my  my sculpted buddy.  Part of an Icelandic Art Installation featured in Solti Gardens on the outskirts of Grant Park.
Part of the huge crowd watching the US-Ghana World Cup match on a giant screen TV in Grant Park.  We arrived late in the match and had to stand in the back.  What you can't see in this shot is that the park slopes downward toward the TV.  So there are hundreds of people hidden from view, packed all the way down to the TV.  But Jennifer and I certainly heard the crowd's size when the US scored a late goal and won the match 2-1.
Chicago is an incredible town.  I have been to New York City several times back in the 90's.  I prefer Chicago.  The food cannot be beat.  The city is vibrant and classy.  There is music everywhere. Street-side performers are often very good.  It is a safe, fun feeling place that somehow seems less rushed and cleaner than New York.  There is far more to see and do than you can cover in four days, of course.  But Jennifer and I were not attempting to amass the complete Chicago experience. Instead, our goal was to sample the vibe of the city while completely experiencing the Art Institute. More on that in part two of this travelogue.  Still, we sampled enough of the city to know its nature. And I would recommend it for its combination of blue collar backbone and refined urban sophistication.
I took this with Jennifer's iPhone as we banked flying out of O'Hare. The Sears Tower is almost dead center as we look down on the city, again clearly taller than Chicago's other large buildings like the Trump Tower.  We did not see the Sears Tower up close but we did see the Trump almost daily, an impressive design.

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