In my last year of university, behind the looming shape of final exams was the even bigger obstacle of post-graduation life. I had no idea what to do with myself. So like most people my age, I went off to travel. I don’t mean to say that I abandoned all my worldly possessions and just bolted. The idea to go started as just a mild travel itch. A friend of mine suggested a little breather between university and real life and so, with our undergrads well behind us, we set off on a round trip through the States.
Our starting point was Chicago. We made the mistake of booking a hotel near Midway Airport which is nowhere near downtown and every morning we had to board the train along with other commuters to make our way into the city core. This train ride was an experience in and of itself. Every once in a while you’ll hear something like “gambling is not permitted on board the train” from the overhead speaker, just in case you were about to whip out a stack of poker chips.
Chicago is well known for its elevated subway system, commonly referred to as the “L”. Steel and concrete wind their way around the downtown core before branching out to the outer neighborhoods. This circle of tracks at the heart of the subway system is called “The Loop”. The train glides into the forest of skyscrapers, moving slowly past balconies and wrought-iron fire escapes before awkwardly jerking to a stop. The stations are old fashioned, made with wooden floors and iron frameworks. When you descend down to street level the noise of the trains overhead mixes with the traffic below into a cacophony that makes conversation almost impossible. Despite being an old system (and constantly under repair) it is relaxing to simply sit on the train as it trudges through downtown, weaving between the buildings.
Once in downtown we were never short of things to see. Stepping off of Madison Station we immediately encountered Millennium Park. Knowing next to nothing about it we wandered straight into the Crown Fountain. One might ask how exactly you can walk into a fountain? The fountain is composed of two small towers of cascading water that spill out onto a stone plaza like a giant rain puddle. On hot summer days adults and children alike descend on the area to splash around in the water or to enjoy the spray while eating lunch.
Millennium Park is part natural oasis for the tightly packed downtown core, part living art exhibit.
There are two areas for art installations which can host some pretty bizarre sculptures like those we stumbled across of neon-coloured polka dot bears. In the middle of the open square called Cloud Gate you will find a sculpture that locals like to refer to as “The Bean”. Aptly named, it looks like some sort of alien artifact that had been dropped in the middle of Millennium Park. The downtown buildings bend and curve over its shining exterior as though being drawn into a vortex at its center. When seen from underneath The Bean warps all sense of reality as the floor seems to curl around your reflected figure.
Right beside Cloud Gate’s Bean is the Wrigley Square, a beautiful open area with a large fountain surrounded by flowering trees. The tall columns of the fountain echo the skyscrapers around the park and this is a nice area to just relax on a bench with a book. Millennium Park isn’t huge like Central Park in New York but it still manages to provide a sense of peace and escape from the city.
At the back of the park there is a huge lawn with an outdoor stage which offers free concerts, performances and movies all throughout the summer. From the same creative thinkers that gave us “The Bean” this area is called “The Great Lawn”. You can buy beer and pub food there or just bring your own picnic and enjoy the show. We were lucky enough to catch a concert our first night in Chicago and after walking around all day it was nice to just lay down on the cool grass and listen to the music.