Sunday, September 08, 2013

[Travel] Still My Kinda Town

Still My Kinda Town: It had been a couple of years since I visited Chicago, which is far too long as it is about as perfect as imaginable a long weekend destination. I had first planned to drive in, but parking is always a hassle and my car is getting to be old and oil thirsty, so I took Amtrak. The Ann Arbor train station is 15 minutes away and since I am now old and spoiled enough to pay for business class, the 5 hour (with delays) trip is pretty much hassle free (provided the train doesn't break down, which has been known to happen).

Not only is the train vastly cheaper than flying, it’s just about as fast. Figure two hours of transport and contingency padding pre-flight, an hour and a half flight, another hour of getting in from O’Hare -- you’re over four hours right there. So flying may be faster but not by much. Meanwhile on the train there’s no security line, you can get up at will, you have about three times as much legroom, power outlets and free wi-fi (it even works sometimes) at your seat, and you can whip out your phone or other devices whenever you want (just don’t be an ass about it). A cab from Union Station is about a quarter of the price of a cab from O’Hare or Midway. Union Station itself is a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot, but not one the level of a big airport. All in all, it’s a brain-free decision.

The Chicago 10k was happening on Sunday morning so I arrived Saturday afternoon with the intention of staying off my feet but my room was in Streeterville (the area near Navy Pier) and the packet pickup for the run was up in Old Town, right next to Second City, a couple of neighborhoods north. I was so excited to be in Chicago again that I fooled myself into thinking the walk would be nothing. It’s really not so much -- a little over a couple of miles -- four miles round trip, rather a lot for pre-race wear and tear on the feet. Then I completely underestimated the distance from my hotel to the far end of Grant Park where the start of the race was -- another two miles. So ended up walking 10K (6.2 miles) just to get in position to run the 10K. My feet were killing me the whole race and my time was disappointing. Still, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning than running along the lakeshore.

The only thing left to do was nap. So after the race I walked over to Millenium Park, made a quick, obligatory visit to the Bean and the Crown Fountain, I settled on the lawn in front of the Pritzker Pavillion for some shut eye in the cool shade. How perfect is that?

Somewhat recharged, I paid a visit to the Art Institute. They had a Impressionism and Fashion exhibit going on that didn’t really interest me and the main sculpture garden was down for renovations, so it was a little disappointing, but there is so much tremendous stuff on display there that I could still wander for for a couple of hours, or at least until my feet gave out again.

Come evening I engaged in what was probably the single most touristy activity imaginable. Not only did I go to Navy Pier (self-described as the busiest tourist destination in the Midwest), I went to the Margaritaville on Navy Pier and had a margarita. All that was missing was and old time photo and a souvenir snow globe.

The next day (Monday) was dedicated to my traditional Chicago activity -- rent a bike and pedal north to Wrigleyville. This is an activity I highly recommend to anyone who will listen. You can rent a bike at Navy Pier of Millenium Park (there may be other places). If you are heading north I suggest Navy Pier, for points south, which would be the museum campus, Millenium Park works better (be careful to walk your bike until you get out of the park or you’ll get yelled at). Either way, once you have your bike you have miles and miles of a paved pedestrian/cyclist/rollerblade path running along Lake Michigan that is a joy to ride. North from Navy Pier you will ride past broad beaches full of folks swimming and playing volleyball and just laying about. You could be in Miami Beach by the look of it.

At any point you can turn left and head back toward the city attractions. First up is Lincoln Park, a vernal space with a zoo and gardens, also to home to Depaul University and Chicago Pizza Kitchen and Oven Grinder (where the locals go for pizza pie; they tend to pass on the famous name deep dish joints). Next up is the turnoff onto Addison towards Wrigleyville.

Wrigleyville is the neighborhood around Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. It’s loaded down with bars and souvenir shops with some quirky boutiquey kinda stuff mixed in, mostly running along Clark St. When the Cubs are playing it gets fun. When the Cubs are playing the White Sox, or there is some other special aspect to the game such as it coincides with a Northwestern football game, it gets downright Bourbon Street-like. At 11 AM on Monday when the Cubs aren't playing until the evening it’s pretty quiet, which was fine with me. I snagged a quick lunch at Vines on Clark, one of the places that does a little better than standard bar food, then trotted across the street for a tour of Wrigley Field.

If you are not a baseball fan, let’s just note that Wrigley Field is an old, old, old, traditional park. It is loaded down with stories and history of the sort that baseball nerds drool over. The tour covers all that history as you walk throughout the park from the bleachers to the press box, eventually ending right down on the field. It’s very nicely done and the guides are professional and knowledgeable. Like all ballparks, Wrigley has that cathedral like quality when empty -- the beautiful green shadings and amphitheatrical shape. There is comparatively little advertising since it was designed long before things such as corporate sponsorship were a gleam in anyone’s eye. I have to say, though, that when it comes to actually watching a game, Wrigley just can’t measure up to modern parks for comfort and convenience. Concession choices are limited and you get your fair share of obstructed view seats.

Note: If I was King of Wrigley Field I would find a way to completely demolish and re-do the upper deck. There has to be a way to have an upper deck without the dropping huge support poles in front of lower deck fans. Plus, with a new upper deck you could build in some of the posh seating and services that generate so much revenue. And you could do all this without altering the traditional character or interfering with the surrounding neighborhood.

Still, there is tremendous value to Wrigley Field, and Wrigleyville is part of that. There is virtually no parking anywhere around the stadium, the environment is part of the city, not a bubble for folks from the suburbs to haul in for the game, get slotted into a parking space, then crawl through the traffic jam out on the way home right after. If you want to see the Tigers you go to Comerica Park then leave, if you want to see the Cubs you go to the city where Wrigley Field is. Does that make sense?

The lakeshore bike path continues north a way further up to Edgewater Beach. I expect it’s an easy street ride beyond that to Loyola University and Northwestern University. Chicago, in many ways, resembles a giant college town. Sadly, threatening skies put the kibosh on any further exploration. I got back to Millenium Park just as the rain was starting in earnest. The evening would be indoor time. Dinner was a small grilled veggie pizza at Gino’s East, of which I ate about half. I used to work at Pizzeria Uno’s so I’m familiar with Chicago Style Deep Dish, but I have to say that the famous names in Deep Dish -- Uno’s, Gino’s, Giardano’s, Lou’s -- all taste pretty much the same to me. It’s all tasty stuff -- I love the sweet chunky tomato sauce most of all -- but undifferentiated.

The next morning was checkout time, but I had scheduled a late train back, so I had a final few hours to enjoy the city. A walk up Michigan Ave, past all the high end stores, to the Gold Coast area where the ultra-hip shops and restaurants are. I happened on a little place called Da Lobsta where they claimed to do a genuine Maine-style Lobster Roll, and they do, it was very tasty and trad -- made me miss Maine. From there further north to the Lincoln Park Zoo and spent some leisurely time checking out the beasties.

On the way back to get my gear I did something silly. I stopped at Portillo’s for an Italian Beef. Chicago is best known for Deep Dish and the famous Chicago Style hot dogs. Less well known but still iconic is the Italian Beef sandwich. It’s simple: seasoned roast beef left to marinate in it’s own spiced juices, topped with a small touch of sweet Italian peppers. It is serve on a chewy hoagie roll and -- this is key -- au jus, messy au jus. It’s fabulous when done right, a Portillo’s does an excellent job. Not a thing you want to eat everyday, but I figured between running and biking and walking I had probably covered forty miles over the previous 2 days. Plus, I didn't want to be hungry on the train ride back. So I indulged.

And I wasn’t hungry on the ride back. I felt like a bloated pig on the ride back. And the bulk of the following day. But that’s alright. I get to Chicago a couple of days a year if I’m lucky. I’ll gladly indulge in whatever it offers.