Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Planning a Vacation? Why Not Chicago?

Planning a Vacation?  Why Not Chicago?

My husband and I love going on vacation in the spring because the gardens are usually beautiful wherever we go, the crowds are less, and the temperature is usually neither too hot nor too cold. We’ve toyed with the idea of going to Chicago for years.  We wondered: “Is Chicago merely the land of Oprah, The Cubs, skyscrapers, and pizza?”

We are both seasoned travelers who have gone to Europe many times, as well as to most of the big cities in America, but we’ve never been to Chicago and have been bouncing around the idea of a trip there for years.  Why Chicago?  Because we are fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright and the many craftsmen homes he designed there. We also grew up listening to Chicago-style blues and longed to hear some Blues’ bands perform at the famous “Buddy Guy’s”.  We were also intrigued by Chicago’s colorful gangster past and wanted to see a Live Show at the Second City Improv—the venue where the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” learned their chops before starring on “Saturday Night Live”.  And then—there is the famous deep-dish pizza. Who can say no?

Upon arrival and checking into downtown’s “The Residence Inn”, we walked over to the John Hancock Tower—one of the many skyscrapers in the city.  It has a bar and restaurant (The Signature Room) on its top floor and advertised that we could “come kiss the sky” at the Observatory.  We took the elevator up to the restaurant on the 95th floor and felt our stomachs drop and our ears pop as we rapidly ascended to the top.  We were rewarded for our courage by the view of a beautiful and clear sunset as we sat sipping our glasses of wine and had our pictures taken. For the true tourist experience, the bar serves specialty cocktails such as “The Skyscraper” or “The Windy City Martini”. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.

Yes—it’s touristy—but we were 1st time visitors to the Windy City and we wanted pizza.  We took a cab over to Gino’s East—the most famous place for this regional fare.  Our waiter told us that, because our pizza is made to order, it would take about 45 minutes until it would be ready.  We were okay with this, since it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  As we were waiting for our pizza, we entertained ourselves by reading some of the many messages left by patrons on the restaurant’s graffiti-covered walls.  When we finally were served our large deep dish, pepperoni and mushroom pizza, we discovered that it was definitely worth the wait.  I had never seen nor tasted pizza with a yellow instead of white dough.  I learned that their dough is made with cornmeal.  It smelled and tasted heavenly. We had so much pizza left over that we took a doggie bag back to our hotel room which had a microwave, refrigerator, plates and silverware; we saved money on dinner by having our pizza for the next two nights of our stay in Chicago.

We had read on a travel site about the hilarious “Untouchables Tour” which claimed to take visitors on a tour of Chicago’s “old hoodlum haunts, brothels, gambling dens, and sites of gangland shootings.”  It sound “kitschy”, I know, but you don’t want to miss this.  Our tour guides rolled up in their “Untouchables’ Tour Bus” that was riddled with bullet holes.  They were dressed like Prohibition gangsters and welcomed us aboard.  As we entered the bus, we heard jazz-era music and all of us women on the tour were given red roses.  This made up for them referring to us as “dames” during their comic spiel.   They were hilarious and everyone had a good time.  As we climbed out of the bus, they were selling souvenirs of Chicago’s gangster past.  I asked them if my husband could take a picture of them, and they surprised us by handing me a toy gun and telling me to point it at them.  They surrendered to me with their hands up as my husband took a funny picture.  It was a great way to start our first full day in Chicago.

Speaking of gangland shootings, the next day we took a ride on the El all the way out to Oak Park to see the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.   The subway traveled through the West Side of Chicago, and there were some teens on our car who pointed out the window saying, “Someone was killed over on that street last night.”  It was quite disconcerting and there were some rough looking characters on the train; maybe we’d take a cab next time, we thought.  When we disembarked the El upon arrival in Oak Park, we immediately loved the neighborhood.  It really is worth the detour; in fact, we braved the subway again and spent the next day there, too.  Our architecture tour started at Frank Lloyd Wright’s house.  It was very interesting for us to see since we also have a Craftsman bungalow home ourselves.  We learned that Wright was such a control freak that he insisted on his wife wearing dresses designed by him which he’d created to blend into the overall design and feel of the house.  It really was a beautiful home.  He designed many of the houses in his neighborhood, and we took a wonderful and serene stroll through these streets, armed with our walking tour guides that told us of the many homes designed by him.

Our favorite of his homes is the Robie House, over by the University of Chicago.  We loved its walls of windows with his stained glass design.  We would have loved to live in this home, although there might have some issues of losing your privacy.

That night, we bought tickets at the famous “Second City Improv”.  Our night’s performance was titled, “The Taming of the Flu.”  We had great seats in the tiny theater where we could order drinks and appetizers.  The performers were first rate and did several skits.  Audience participation was encouraged.  We laughed so hard and enjoyed every minute.  We expect to see some of the performers someday on “Saturday Night Live.”

Our next day was devoted to “The Blues.”  My love of this unique Chicago genre began when I was a young teenager listening to my older brother and sister’s “Paul Butterfield Blues Band” records on our turntable.  When I was growing up, our city used to have “battle of the bands” contests and our favorite band played many of these songs.  Chicago’s “Chess Records” is famous for being the “creative home” of the Chicago Blues Style.  Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Sonny Boy Williamson all recorded here.  Its history inspired the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds to play here in the mid-1960’s.  It is still operating as a recording studio and visitors can take a tour.  That night, we were hungry to hear some live music, so we went to Buddy Guy’s to hear some blues.  This was definitely something that we had planned on for years on our “bucket lists.”  We were really getting a feel for and a love of the city.

The next day, we went to see the famous T-Rex Sue at the Field Museum.  While there, we happened to see the actor, Bill Paxton, also “playing tourist” and sight-seeing.  My husband and I are both fans of his HBO series, “Big Love,” so I told my husband that I was going to surreptitiously sneak over behind where Mr. Paxton was standing, so that he could get a picture of him and me.  As I approached the actor, he turned around and looked right at me.  I was taken aback and explained that my husband was trying to take a picture of him.  He was surprisingly friendly, and said, “Well, heck; he’s way over there; tell him to get closer so he could take a proper picture of us.”  He put his arm around me and my husband got a great shot.  The actor told me that he was in town for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13.  After my husband took the picture, Mr. Paxton told us that we should take a photo of the elderly gentleman standing next to him, saying that, “He was a genuine American hero.”  We just assumed that he was speaking of his Dad.  We never took that picture he was suggesting.  Later, we found out that the older man was Jim Lovell, the astronaut on the Apollo 13 mission.  We were kicking ourselves later for not respecting the American hero, because we seemed more interested in a movie star. It is one of our favorite stories of the trip.  By the way, T-Rex Sue was very impressive, too.

Towards the end of our trip, we took a Grayline Sightseeing Tour called “Inside Chicago: The Grand Tour”.  It gave us a broad overview of the city: we drove by Oprah’s house on Lake Shore Drive, The Cub’s Wrigley Field, Millennium Park, The Chicago Tribune, and the Magnificent Mile.  Chicago was everything we hoped for and more.  We hope to go back there again someday, and will most likely find the courage to once again take the El to Oak Park.  We just can’t get enough of Frank Lloyd Wright.

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