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Chicago!

Halloween is a special time to be in the USA. The entire month of October seems to be dedicated to show-stopping decorations something Chicagoans do so well! Our Airbnb was conveniently located a block from Chicago’s Blue Line of the “El” train, and halfway between O’Hare Airport & The Loop (Downtown Chicago with its theatres, restaurants and vibrant riverside life). Our home for the next 4 days was cosy and felt authentically “local” with neighbours gathering in the street to barbecue along with their dogs and kids. Our street was decorated with enormous spiders, creepy black cats and other spooky paraphernalia. Everyone seems to make an effort. We were pretty sure we wouldn’t recognise the place come November!

After settling into our Airbnb, we immediately caught a train back to Washington Station, eager to explore Downtown Chicago. It was hard to choose where to head first. Immediately you have the dazzling city centre; the Chicago river with its seemingly endless series of bridges; and then what appears to be the coast! Lake Michigan and the carnival atmosphere of Navy Pier. Our first stop was the Millennium Park complex, mainly because it drew us in with all the crowds…

As you step away from the nucleus of the city centre, you come across the interactive Crown Fountain which has a black granite pool positioned between a pair of 50-foot (15.2 meter) glass brick towers that use LEDs to display digital videos. The reflections from these screens in the pool below are striking. Apparently from May through to October (looks like we just made it 😊) the faces of Chicago locals spout water from their pouting lips, showering the paddlers with the cooling spray, a delight for the children playing in the water.

We ventured closer to the river and wandered down towards the Lake. Lake Michigan is something to behold. It’s hard to believe that you are looking at a fresh water lake, albeit the fifth largest in the world. It seems easily expansive enough to be taken for the ocean! Being situated on Lake Michigan makes Chicago vulnerable to dramatic, unpredictable, weather changes, strong winds, and chilling temperatures. October was already starting to be a little chilly and promised to bring us some rain, but our first night was just glorious. I was fascinated to read that the lake has frozen to 95% on occasion. Impossible to imagine and it made me want to visit in Winter.

Due to climate change, Chicago has recently begun to worry about the extreme changes that have pushed the lake’s water cycles to extreme highs and extreme lows. This has apparently happened faster than any other time in history leading to the dire consequences of a rather battered Chicago shoreline, sometimes submerged walking paths and even whole beaches being swallowed up around the lake. (Reading up more recently, in May 2021, so much rain fell that the locks that protect the city had to be opened, releasing storm water and sewerage into the river and lake, something unprecedented).

Old Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 and as a city in 1837, when its population reached 4,000. In 1848 Chicago got its first railroad. By 1854 the city was the world’s largest grain port and had more than 30,000 residents, many of them European immigrants. A fascinating book to read on Chicago is Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” which is about architect Daniel Burnham and the building of Chicago and its World Fair in 1893. This story is interwoven with that of the prolific serial killer and pharmacist, Henry Holmes. Its a gripping read that gives you insight into the development of the city.

Chicago would, at first glance, appear to be insulated from the worst effects of climate change, as it’s situated in the middle of the country near the world’s largest source of freshwater and far from rising oceans. On top of the water levels, another challenge is Chicago’s often-stressed water management system, which features the Chicago River at its core.

That system was strained almost to a breaking point in May 2020, when a rainstorm overwhelmed the city’s reservoirs for stormwater and sewage, forcing them to be released into the river.

But because of record high water levels in Lake Michigan, the lock gates which typically release river water into the lake had to remain closed far above their normal threshold, threatening significant flooding and damage to downtown Chicago.

“They got about a foot beyond that threshold before they could open up the gates. Had they done it prior to that, the lake would have just tumbled into the river, and tumbled into downtown,” Egan said. “Lower Wacker was more like a river, the Willis Tower basement was like a swimming pool.” Quinn Myers, wttw news.

The story of Chicago and its skyline is inextricably tied up with the devastating fire of October 1871, which destroyed one-third of Chicago and left more than 100,000 homeless. Legend has it that a cow on the O’Leary family farm kicked over a gas lantern. While the sequence of events has never been verified, one thing is for sure — over the next three days, a massive fire raged through the entire city of Chicago, killing hundreds of people and laying waste to much of the predominantly-wood construction in the city.

In the aftermath of the fire with hundreds of thousands of people left homeless, the city had to be rebuilt — and fast. Residents had learned their lesson about constructing a city from wood. So they shifted to constructing steel-frame buildings, leading to the development of some of the first modern skyscrapers. The end result is today, Chicago has a totally unique skyline. (In 1885 Chicago gave the world its first skyscraper – The Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 and located on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets in Chicago.)

The Water Tower and Pumping Station survived the Chicago Fire and it became the most iconic structure left standing. Although large sections of the south and west sides of the city were never touched by the fire, the Water Tower became a rallying point for the city. It stood as a symbol for a city determined to rise from its own ashes. Interesting to learn that a German immigrant fireman, Frank Trautman, covered the gothic Water Tower building with woollen blankets and old canvas sails and kept the covers soaked in lake water.

A phenomenal tourist attraction and an icon of Chicago, is Cloud Gate, also known as The Bean. This attraction forms a glistening archway into Millennium Park. Visitors stroll under the monumental dome and gaze as if hypnotised by their distorted reflections. No wonder it’s the No. 1 spot for selfies! We had to participate 😁

Cloud Gate was created between 2004 and 2006 by Indian-born British artist Sir Anish Kapoor, who was inspired by the qualities of liquid mercury. The sculpture is made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together and then highly polished to obscure any visible seams. It is purported to have cost $26 million dollars to complete.

Geoff had throughly researched the foodie essentials for Chicago and dinner was planned at the world famous “Giordano’s”. We were able to walk there from Millennium Park.

It's all about the streeeeeetch!

“Giordano’s” is named after Mama Giordano of Torino in Italy who was famous around town for her exceptional cooking. Of all her renowned dishes, her most beloved meal was her “Italian Easter Pie”. Mama Giordano would serve this double-crusted, cheese stuffed masterpiece on special occasions. This pizza pie became a sacred tradition in the Giordano family and a legend in the town of Torino. Years later, Italian immigrants Efren and Joseph Boglio moved to Chicago to start their own pizza business. The brothers introduced their Mama’s recipe for stuffed pizza. In 1974, on Chicago’s historic south side, Efren and Joseph opened the first Giordano’s in the world (there are now 65!)

We ordered a small pizza and managed a slice each and it, together with a salad, proved a substantial dinner. We took away the rest of the pizza which served as breakfast for the next 2 days!

After dinner we took a stroll along the gorgeous River Walk towards Navy Pier. It was an exquisite evening, one of the last warm days of  summer and people were jogging, sipping wine or cocktails at the restaurant tables. Heavenly.

It took us forever to get to Navy Pier as it was so picturesque watching the setting sunlight on the city and the yacht club below.

Navy Pier was originally constructed in 1914 as the world’s largest Pier at 292 foot wide and 3000ft long (89m x 914m). It was  originally called Municipal Pier and was built for shipping and entertainment. Locals enjoyed the cool breeze from the lake during the hot and humid summers. The Pier even boasted its own theatre, restaurant, streetcars, and emergency hospital.

Between 1942-1945, pilot and navy training took place at the Pier and as many as 200 World War II planes still rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan as a result of accidents during training. (One of the pilots who trained there was George H. W. Bush who later became the president of the United States.)

In 1994, Navy Pier began its transformation into becoming a Chicago’s Playground and continues to change today. 

In 2014, Navy Pier was renovated by New York architect James Corner.  And then in 2016, a new Ferris wheel called the Centennial Wheel was built at 150 feet high that operates year round. 

We enjoyed strolling the length of the pier, admiring the shops and restaurants and giant Ferris wheel. Very ready for bed we headed back via a bus and our train to our cosy accommodation.

Up early the next day, we devoured left over pizza pie for breakfast and then we took a train to Logan square despite the rainy conditions that had set in overnight.

We walked down Kenzie street admiring the green boulevards despite the steady downpour.

Luckily the rain eased a bit and we decided to embark on a stroll along the 606 Trail or the Bloomingdale Rail Line. Like NYC’s High Line, Chicago’s 606 is a similar fashionably urban, elevated path along an old train track. 

In 1913, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company elevated 2.7 miles of train tracks through the neighborhoods of Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square. One hundred years later, use slowed and freight service eventually completely stopped. The Bloomingdale Rail Line was abandoned by 2001. Local residents began advocating for a multi-use pathway that could both connect neighborhoods and form an impromptu nature trail in the middle of the city. After many years of hard work, the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, Trust for Public Land and city officials opened what is now known as The 606 Trail. The trail is well used by families taking a stroll and bike commuters whizzing past. We saw joggers out for a run (special soft material was installed on either side of the trail for runners – the blue stripes in the pic above) and teenagers just hanging out. Interesting public art is installed throughout the trail along with helpful signage providing an easy to read geographic orientation.  We walked past factories, smokestacks, clattering El trains and locals’ backyards for around 2 miles. It was an window into Chicago’s socioeconomic strata: well to do in the east, becoming more industrial and immigrant to the west. 

It started to rain again while we were in the Damen district and we popped into “Stan’s Donuts” for a sticky cinnamon bun and to plan the rest of our day. It was warm and comfy  in Stan’s and we had to drag ourselves out into the streets again.

We found ourselves close to the Ukrainian village. Suddenly the people we passed in the street and the architecture began to look decidedly foreign and interesting. We popped into the Museum of Contemporary Art and browsed a bit while waiting out another downpour. Here are some of my favourites:

On our way to lunch, we passed the beautiful St Nicholas Ukranian Cathedral. Its 13 domes are meant to represent Christ and the 12  Apostles. The intricate mosaics – added to the 1915 building in 1988 – were inspired by the Cathedral of St Sophia in Kyiv.

Nearby we came across the showy, golden Saints Volodymyr & Olha church that was built in 1975. It only has five domes, but makes up for it with an intricate and impressive mosaic.

As usual, Geoff ensured that we earned the perfect meal and we walked through the district until we came to “Fatso’s Last Stand”. Fatso’s started life as a simple hot dog stand, but has definitely taken it to the next level, with its famed charred Polish sausages and juicy burgers. We ordered char-grilled dogs and fries (as you do) and pronounced it so delicious that we also ordered their cheese burger. Yum!

Despite being a bit too well-fed (it’s called “Fatso” for a reason!), we wandered into “Mariana’s” awesome grocery store and drooled over the breadth of the range and the choices between prepared meals or eye-popping fresh produce like we haven’t seen before. Known for planning our next meal while still eating or at least digesting the current one, we picked up some delicacies to take home. I began to realise why Americans tend to eat unhealthily. After all the pizza, dogs and burgers, we were craving fresh veggies and fruit. Popping some items into our basket I realised wow! that kind of produce is SO expensive. Its significantly cheaper to purchase steak or ready-made lasagne’s etc. 

We also grabbed a bottle of interesting Californian red, which led to a small drama at the till. The cashier asked me for my ID and of course neither of us were carrying our passports. You cannot buy wine in America without producing your ID to prove that you are over 21. After I’d finished falling about grinning and preening that she might actually think I’m under age, I realised that the unamused cashier was very comfortable to hold up the queue until I produced ID or put the wine aside. What a dilemma. I could already taste that robust red…😥

The lady behind us in the queue, came to our rescue, offering to buy the wine for us using her ID. This was met with snake-lips by the cashier who said she needed to call the manager. The helpful lady eventually smoothed things over:- we gratefully gave her cash and left sheepishly clutching our brown paper packet. That wine really tasted good later on when we toasted our generous friend 🍷

Loaded with delicious groceries, we took the bus to the station and our usual train home.

Day 3 was beautiful and sunny with no sign of rain. I was strongly aware that Chicago is home to a number of interesting cemeteries, so Geoff sussed out the route to Graceland, one of Chicago’s most famous graveyards.

Graceland is a true haven in this city with its beautiful landscaped gardens, lakes, bridges and interesting gravestones and mausoleums. It seems as though the the real ‘who’s who’ of Chicago’s history are buried within its walls. Read more about our morning at Graceland and some of its more interesting residents here

Although we were feeling a touch tired of walking, it was perfect weather for a stroll along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, namely  the upmarket section of Michigan Avenue, running from Oak Street to the Chicago River. We wandered along the delightfully maintained streets, abundant with seasonal flowers and Autumn-related decor. We window-shopped and browsed in the pricier boutiques and went crazy in affordable Uniqlo. Landmarks on the “Mag Mile” as locals refer to it, include the historic Chicago Water Tower, The Fourth Presbyterian Church and the iconic Hancock skyscraper.

“The Gentlemen,” is a series of permanently installed statues created by renowned Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming for the Langham Hotel. The sculpture is blocky in style and the gentleman have featureless faces beneath their umbrellas, making it intriguing to interpret.

Thoroughly ‘all walked-out’ and ready for the comfort of our studio, we whooshed home in our local train, getting caught in a downpour that began just as we got off the train! We spent a cosy evening at home, reading more about Chicago, checking social media and resting our aching feet.

We awoke to a beautiful Sunday morning which turned out to also be the day of the Chicago marathon. This meant that for much of the late morning and afternoon, people limped painfully around the tourist sites proudly wearing their medals and clutching space blankets, looking unreasonably miserable given that they had chosen to do this.😁

Fortunately we had planned to do Chicago’s Architectural River tour. It was fun to watch the runners crossing the bridges above us. We had picked the earliest slot from a photography point of view, which had the benefit of the boat being reasonably empty. Once the boat got moving we could feel the chilly breeze and were grateful that we had brought warm jackets!

The tour is a comprehensive 90 minutes and the tour guide was extremely knowledgeable, sharing stories about all the iconic buildings that we passed.

To accommodate sail boats and other tall vessels traveling between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, Chicago’s bridges open approximately 40 times a year from April to November. They also need to be tested at least once a year.

I also read that “Watching the massive Michigan Avenue Bridge rise to the sky from inside the bridge is amazing. Powered by just a tiny 108 horsepower motor, the gears turn, the bridge rises – and you can’t help but be awed by the ingenuity of it all.”
I was horrified to learn that at the inaugural raising of the bridge, although the traffic had been cleared, it had been overlooked that the bridge is a double-decker and as the bridge started to raise, some cars below were caught midway, about to slide to their death! No-one could hear the screams of the people that saw what was happening. In true American style a sharp-witted policeman fired his weapon into the air alerting the bloke that was raising the bridge to the impeding tragedy.😳 No-one was hurt!

The award-winning building on the left is 150 North Riverside. This ingenious design for a 221m high tower block was completed in 2017 on a very small footprint (only 12m wide) due to the network of railway lines that converge in this area. It is amongst the world’s thinnest buildings with its height to footprint ratio of 20:1. To manage the “drift” (it actually sways in the wind 😱) enormous tanks of water support the core, offsetting the “roll”.

Marina City, pictured on the right (also known as the Corn Cobs) was a vision for a new way of living in the 1960s.  Ahead of its time, it was all about attracting people back to living and working in the same place after a period of moving away from the city centre. Architect Bertrand Goldberg famously considered the usual architectural glass boxes to be “psychological slums.” and wanted something completely different, hence the curved design. It was a model for mixed-use building design. The cars park on the floors below the residential units.

It was my turn to choose a lunch venue and I was inspired to see that there is an “Eataly” in Chicago too. Eataly is one of our favourite foodie discoveries from a previous trip to NYC (introduced by Rosella and Neville). It was packed! It seemed ridiculous to wait in line for so long for a mere slice of pizza, but I can assure you this was no ordinary slice of pizza! 😋

Thinking of food as always, we stumbled on another bounteous grocer and deli called “Jewels” and bought salmon and bufala for an inspired homemade dinner.

Our final day in Chicago arrived and we headed downtown in sunny weather and wandered down to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Its an amazing set-up. Above you floats a brushed stainless steel canopy that casts an artistic network of shadows across the pavilion’s Great Lawn. Not only is it an outdoor sculpture but it is apparently also an  acoustically perfect band stand. Architect Frank Gehry designed it and gave it the swooping silver exterior.

We wandered through the pavilion onto a striking stainless steel pedestrian bridge known as BP Bridge. Walking along this curving walkway you end up with views of the city behind you and sweeping gardens that form part of Maggie Daley Park.  What a place!

A quick stop at “Stan’s Donuts” in the city for coffee and cinnamon buns and a last walk down towards Navy Pier and we had to finally say goodbye to this astoundingly perfect city with its magnificent buildings, pristine river and  endless lake vista. I finally understand why there is a debate that rages about which is the more amazing city, New York or Chicago. 

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