Chicago Wednesday

I am writing this entry from the balcony of my hotel in San Antonio. I broke down and paid for internet access for the evening. I'm done early today and am sitting on this lovely little balcony with my laptop listening to the rain. It is perfect writing weather. On we go. This is a full day so it is even longer than the other one. Again, you have been warned!

A few things I didn't get to in the first Chicago post. I needed to use my iPod while walking around the city for the things like the Millennium Park audio tours. I wasn't wild about walking around with the very obvious white earbuds that scream Apple, plus my earbuds don't really fit me anyway, so I decided to buy some new ones. I needn't have worried about the earbuds being obvious. Every one, and it certainly felt like every one, had earbuds. Chicago is a very walkable city. With that plus the public transportation and the bikes (more on that in a minute) a large number of people had earbuds of all kinds. I was amazed at the number of people that were obviously listening to iPods and mp3 players.

As to the bikes, according to a national bike magazine Chicago is the top biking city in the nation for a city over one million. This was something I noticed within the first five minutes of walking around. Bike rack, upon bike rack, all of them full. The city encourages this with bike lanes and people are allowed to take their bikes onto the CTA transit. I imagine this is not as prevalent in the winter time, but what a great city to run around with on your bike. If I were to really become a bike nut though, here is another vote for living in Chicago.

The last little hold over from my first day's activity was the first night of sleep. I mentioned that I had two beds. Well I started in one bed, but I tossed and turned and could not get comfortable and could not sleep. So I tried the other bed and did much better. You can just call me Goldilocks.

The cloudy weather that moved in the evening before was still around in the morning. The original plan was go to the Sears Tower first thing in the morning because their website recommended being there before the building opened to avoid the longest lines. But of course there isn't much point in going to the Sears Tower if all you can see is clouds so I moved things around in my schedule. I'm glad that I spent all those hours researching because I had in my mind the things I wanted to do and it was just a matter of moving things around like toy blocks. So instead of the tower I decided to hit up the Magnificent Mile. I figured that photos of stores wouldn't suffer too much because of clouds. But first breakfast. The place that I had originally planned for breakfast did not open until 9 a.m. That was way too late to get my day started so I searched the internet for Chicago breakfast and found this list which included the Bongo Room. It sounded intriguing so I pulled up checked the reviews in Yelp. I'm SO glad that I did. What a wonderful place. I wish we had something like it in Houston. I've nosed around a little since I got back and the closest I can find are offerings at the local high end hotels. Apparently on weekends the Bongo Room has a long line out the door, but on this overcast Wednesday morning there were only a few other people in the restaurant. Just listen to these menu items: Blackforest Pancakes, Banana Nestle Crunch Bar Flapjacks, White Chocolate & Caramel Covered Pretzel Pancakes. I know! I ordered the Brown Sugar Coated Brioche French Toast Special. I have pictures that you will see eventually of the menu and of this item. I took pictures of all my food! The French Toast was covered with a blueberry coulis sauce if I remember correctly. It was wonderful. I'm a big fan of a good breakfast and this definitely started my first full day on the right track.

After breakfast I got back on the train and headed to the stop for the Magnificent Mile, the fancy shopping avenue in Chicago. When I first thought of visiting the Magnificent Mile I thought I would be leaving from my hotel and walk up to the John Hancock center and then walk back. With the schedule rearranged and thoughts to my poor feet that really were getting a beating in bad shoes (lesson learned!) I started at the John Hancock and walked towards the hotel. This was a much better decision. One of my favorite locations was something I didn't know about ahead of time, Fourth Presbyterian Church. This beautiful church was founded in 1871 and the building that I visited opened in 1914. It has beautiful Gothic architecture and great vines climbing up the front. It looks like it was plucked from a small European village and plopped in the middle of Chicago. The church will soon be 100 years old! The sanctuary was just as beautiful and I hope some of those pictures came out. At the very top of the piers of the sanctuary are fourteen carved angels. Each one is more than seven feet high. The whole place has a grand sense of scale and had exquisite detail. I love buildings and architecture and stumbling across a beauty like this was wonderful.

After the church I headed to the Water Tower. The Historic Water Tower was one of the few buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and is the only one standing today. It was built in 1869 and is made out of limestone in a Gothic style with a long pipe in the middle that was used to hold water. It now has among other things a space for photography exhibits and they happened to have a photo exhibit of the Great Chicago Fire. The photos were taken approximately 3 to 4 weeks after the fire and the devastation was impressive. There were even some of the Water Tower. It was quite a feeling to be looking at those photos from so long ago and to be standing in one of the few buildings that survived.

After that I ambled my way down Michigan Avenue heading back to my hotel. On both sides of the street were the shops. All the names that you would find in any exclusive shopping center: Burberry, Neiman Marcus, Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren, etc. I mostly just looked in the windows and enjoyed walking in the city. I did however have to go into one of the stores. The Apple store of course! It was a two story affair with one of the glass staircases that I have only seen in pictures, but have always wanted to see in person. I wasn't sure if I could take pictures inside since they have cracked down at the Houston stores, but I soon noticed many people with cameras and I followed suit. The store has one of the demonstration theaters with movie theater type seats and a large screen on the wall. This is great because the Apple store can do many workshops and demonstrations of software and hardware. Yay Apple!

Near the end of my Magnificent Mile walk I came upon the Tribune Tower. First off let's just say that this is one of the most wonderful buildings in Chicago especially when you pair it up with it's across the street neighbor, the Wrigley building. These two buildings one across from another are stunning. In 1922 the Chicago Daily Tribune held a contest to design the most beautiful and eye catching building in the world and this building was the result. The design is neo-Gothic with buttresses near the top. The coolest thing about Tribune Tower is that it has rocks, bricks and building pieces embedded in the building from famous structures all over the world. They include pieces from the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Alamo, Lincoln's Tomb, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall and many more. Some of them are at a level where you can touch the pieces while others are a little more out of reach. I can now say I have touched the Great Pyramid!

I went back to the hotel for an hour or so and then set out during the admittedly hottest part of the day for my art walking tour. Just as I discovered the audio tours at Millennium Park, I also discovered great audio tours from the Chicago Loop Alliance. They had three different audio walking tours. I downloaded the art tour and the landmark tour to my iPod and went on the art one on Wednesday. These were such a great resource. The only thing I would say if anybody from Chicago Loop happens to stop by is that the map was a little hard to figure out when I was standing in the middle of the city. I wish it had clearer directions like walk 5 blocks and turn right. I know I missed some things because I was getting turned around and I had to use Google Maps a lot of the times to make sure I was heading in the right direction. But these are only minor inconveniences. What a fabulous idea this is! I didn't follow the route exactly and didn't see everything on there, but I saw the biggies and that was the important thing.

Millennium Park was the first thing on the list. The skies were bluer than the afternoon before so I had a better chance at some photos. But I had a lot of walking ahead of me and the park was very crowded in the hot afternoon so I didn't spend too long there. I followed the map around the city and got to see the Dubuffet Monument with Standing Beast. In fact a large black and white print of this sculpture was the art that was hanging in my hotel room. Houston has a similar piece and it used to be in the middle of downtown. I never had the chance to stand in the center of the sculpture with a super wide lens and capture the sculpture and the buildings. But I did in Chicago! Woot! I knew exactly some of the shots I wanted to take there. I also got to see the famous Chicago Picasso in Daley Plaza. The audio information on this piece was so interesting. Chicagoans apparently have a love hate relationship with that piece. I also saw the Marc Chagall Four Seasons mosaic. I was so turned around by this point that I didn't realize that I was standing right by the Chase Tower where I would be returning the following evening for Wait, Wait Don't Tell me. My favorite piece though was the Alexander Calder Flamingo. Part of it is that I am now realizing that I am partial to Calder. The other part is that it is a beautiful sculpture soaring high above your head in that wonderful Calder red. I have a good feeling about the photos I took there. I had such fun wandering around taking it at many different angles. I love that piece.

At this point, after walking the Magnificent Mile and taking the art walk in the baking sun, my feet were killing me, I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was sit down. As I sat in front of the Calder I realized that between the buildings I could see the Sears Tower. It was only a few blocks away. It was a hot sunny afternoon by then so I decided to shuffle over there and check off what was supposed to be my morning activity. I figured that once I got out of the sun that I would feel better and I thought I would have a chance to sit somewhere (cue ominous music).

The Sears Tower. I think it is one of those things that you just have to do in Chicago just to say that you have done it. I would say that my trip to Chicago was nearly flawless with the exception of the events at the Sears Tower and at the end of the day it makes for a good story so I guess it worked out in the end. When I got into the Skydeck lobby there was of course a line, but the air conditioning felt good and the line was moving at a steady rate. After about 10 minutes I was on an elevator up to the ticketing level. When I got off the elevator there were people there directing you to the massive line. The lady I talked to said that I could get a Fast Pass ticket for $30 which would take about 10 minutes or I could stand in the General Admission line which would take about 45 minutes for the $15 ticket. I looked at my watch and thought, 45 minutes isn't so bad. I got in the line and it was actually moving forward which is always a good sign. I kept looking back at the other window and wondering if I was making a mistake (dun, dun, dunnnnnn) and maybe I should get out of the line and fork over the money for the Fast Pass. I didn't and that was a BIG MISTAKE. See, when the lady said that it was 45 minutes she was correct. It was 45 minutes to get to the TICKET WINDOW. It wasn't 45 minutes to get to the top of the tower. That was just to buy the ticket. After that there was another HOUR AND FIFTEEN MINUTES of lines. Many of which I could have bypassed with the Fast Pass ticket. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if I wasn't in such pain. My feet hurt so bad and I just wanted to sit down, but there was no where to sit and unfortunately for me the line did keep moving little by little so I couldn't really sit where I was. After the ticket line there was another room with another line. Then there was a line to get into a movie. That was after about an hour and half of lines and I thought I was going to cry with relief to sit for 10 minutes. Out the movie doors and into another line. Every corner you turned, line. Line, line, line. But, after TWO HOURS from the time that lady told me 45 minutes I finally made it to the 103rd floor. I really enjoyed the views from the Sears Tower. I like being up high and seeing things from great heights. What I don't like is edges. (I've been sitting on this balcony writing this post for the last hour and a half and I've loved it. Because I'm not near the edge of the balcony.) I walked around and took some photos of the views and made my way to the Ledge. You have no doubt heard about the glass boxes that extend out from the Skydeck about four feet. The opened about two weeks before I went to Chicago. You can walk right out onto the glass and look down all 103 floors. Well I am proud to say that I stepped a toe out onto the ledge. That was all that I could do. I went to the ledge boxes two or three different times and I really did try to go all the way out, but a toe was all I could manage. My body froze up and I could not move another step. A toe was a big accomplishment for me. Other people had absolutely no fear. They walked right out and even laid down on the floor so their friends could get pictures. Kids were even jumping up and down!

I left the Sears Tower and walked across the street and finally had a real chance to sit down on some steps. By this point it was late afternoon and it seemed that my evening plans were going to be shot. I had planned to go back to the hotel to rest up before getting some dinner and then heading to the John Hancock tower. I wanted to be at the Hancock around 8:30 to get some dusk shots and stay for the 9:30 fireworks at Navy Pier. But I was a shell of a person sitting there at the Sears Tower barely able to walk. What to do. Well I'll tell you I am a very determined person when I am on vacation. I sat there for a while and gathered my thoughts together. I decided that I would limp my way to the Hancock and see if I could get something to eat along the way. So back out I went. When I got off the CTA station I pulled up Yelp (see how helpful it was!) and looked for places around me. And there was a place called Pizzeria Due. People didn't hate it and that was good enough for me at this point. After a 10 minute wait (yay!) I had a table and I was finally able to sit down. Hallelujah! And thankfully Chicago deep dish pizza takes a long time so I was able to sit for quite a while. Pizzeria Due was opened by one of the original Chicago pizza kings. Ike Sewell first opened Pizzeria Uno and when that was a hit he opened Pizzeria Due across the street. And get this, Ike was from Texas, and he also opened a Mexican food restaurant next door. So Chicago style pizza? Love it! Absolutely love it. The crust is SO good. There is nothing like it down here. I hear rumors of a "sort of close" version that I'll have to try out. I am a pizza fan and this is a good one. I can taste it right now just thinking about it.

On to the John Hancock Observatory. Now lovely readers of this blog told me ahead of time that the views were better here. But not only are the views better, but the whole atmosphere is better. I should have known they would be cooler after they answered some questions for me on Twitter. First there was not a line. At all! Ok, maybe two people ahead of me. I was at the observation deck within 10 minutes of buying my ticket. That would be an actual 10 minutes. Not Sears time! I bought their sun and stars ticket which gives you two admissions within 48 hours for $19. That is an excellent deal. It was evening and it wasn't as crowded so the whole vibe of the observation deck was very laid back. There weren't people running around everywhere and the tower is near the lake so the views are spectacular. It was dusk (I made it on time!) and watching the sunset turn into a rich blue sky and the lights come up over the city was fantastic. They have a coffee bar with seating in one section and they have an outdoor screened area where you can hear the city and feel the wind. I can say that the John Hancock was one of my two very favorite places in Chicago. At 9:30 the fireworks at Navy Pier began. Without the sounds of the pops you looked down on these wonderful explosions that blossomed out into beautiful colors and shapes. The people were funny as there was a lot of ooohing and aahing as the show went on and a hardy round of applause when it was over.

The night finally ended with a taxi ride because I can tell you I was not doing any more walking!

Time to say goodbye

Saltimbanco