Saturday, June 27, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 36 - Return to New York

A day of mixed emotions. While I looked forward to seeing family and friends again after five weeks away, it saddened me to think the trip was almost over. I could quite happily have kept on traveling!

Our last journey started in the comfort of the Metropolitan lounge at Union Station in Chicago. The lounge offers comfy armchairs, internet access and free coffee and tea to sleeping-car passengers while they wait to board, a nice perk especially if, like us, you arrive over an hour early for the train.

We left Chicago in the dark, one last chance to admire the glow of city lights before they faded into the distance and we headed for the agricultural heartland.

The overnight portion of the journey took us through Indiana and Ohio. We saw more of Ohio’s countryside than expected as we woke to find the train was running over an hour late. By the time breakfast was over we were in Pennsylvania and heading for our first New York stop: Buffalo. There was still another nine hours to go but the knowledge that we were back in New York State confirmed the reality that the trip was near its end.

After the flatlands of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the sight of New York’s majestic forests and hills stretching as far as the eye could see was a welcome relief. Maybe I’m biased as I live in New York, but I’m always stunned by how grand its scenery is.

As the train heads south from Albany it follows the east bank of the Hudson River, sometimes so close that there is little separating the tracks from the water other than a short strip of pebbles.

I was surprised to see that cargo ships still ply the river this far north of Manhattan.

But all too soon it was time to gather our bags. This sign was our sign that at the next stop our adventure would be over:

The trip was amazing in every respect; the scenic train journeys, the delightful cities we visited, the fascinating people we met, all combined to create an experience way beyond what I’d imagined. That the US is a large and diverse country is an accepted fact, but the trip gave me a far better understanding of just how big it is and how varied people’s lives are than looking at a map or reading about it in a book could convey.

It’s easy to think that the way one lives is the ‘American’ way. That the concerns of most Americans should be the same, but when you see the isolation of some of the large farms or even small towns, and note the different attitudes as you move from city to city or coast to coast, it is obvious that in terms of day-to-day life there are few similarities. People may have the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their families, but the means of attaining them are very different, as is the definition of success in achieving those ambitions.

The trip has left me with an increased desire to learn more of the history of the country and see more of it – there’s still the huge interior for me to explore and, thankfully, several Amtrak routes not yet taken, including the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco which various fellow passengers declared the most scenic of all Amtrak routes. Travel by train may not be the fastest way to get around the country, but in terms of being able to relax in comfort and enjoy the wonderful scenery on offer, it’s hard to beat.   

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 35 - Final Day in Chicago

Day 35 - the final full day of our trip. Maybe it was the idea of the adventure almost being over which took a little of the steam out of our sightseeing enthusiasm, or maybe it was the weather: hot, humid and very sticky with the constant threat (occasionally fulfilled, particularly when we stepped outside), of rain or storms. There was still so much we could see and do and now so little time to do it. 

We started the day with breakfast at Eggsperience purely because the name intrigued us and it happened to be just around the corner from our hotel. I have to say, their blueberry waffles and ice-cream are so good, I wish we had discovered the place on our first day! 

After packing up and checking out of our hotel, we came across this fun statue on Wabash Avenue:

designed by Ju Ming

Rather appropriate given the weather.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to Buddy Guy's Legends,which is touted as the premiere blues club in the world.

Several times a week they have free music between 12 and 2pm and, by chance, Eddie Taylor, Jr. was playing so we got to see yet another of Eddie Taylor Sr.'s offspring perform. For some of the pieces he was accompanied by harmonica players/vocalists. The music was tremendous. 

The place itself is a little commerical - it reminded me of the BB King Club in New York - so the atmosphere didn't feel as authentic as the Blue Chicago, but it was so enjoyable it did make me wonder why I don't go and listen to blues music more often!

On our way to Buddy Guy's Legend we passed a grand building with an elaborate roof decoration on State Street. Closer inspection revealed that this was Harold Washington Library Center, the city's main public library. I was surprised to learn that it was only built in the late 1980's and opened in 1991 - it looks as if it comes from a much earlier period. 

I didn't actually go inside, but I wish I had, because I later learned that there is a Winter Garden on the ninth floor with a glass roof. The area is used as a study space and sounds spectacular, an ideal place for inspiration for a writer. 

Unfortunately, the weather worsened considerably during the afternoon, to the point where we decided to take in a movie to fill in the time left before we had to go to the station for our overnight train to New York.  Not quite the way I had envisioned ending our stay in Chicago, but, given the fun we'd had over the past three days, we could hardly complain. Besides, even that provided a new experience for me. It was the first time I'd been in a movie theater which had fully reclining seats! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 34 - The Beach and the Blues in Chicago

Our second day in Chicago dawned bright and sunny, a perfect morning to hit the beach. Surprisingly, Chicago offers several beaches all within walking distance of the downtown area making it easy to spend time in the sun without sacrificing a whole day of sightseeing. 

Our hotel, the Best Western River North, was just a short stroll along the Magnificent Mile from Oak Beach. Magnificent Mile, a stretch of Michigan Avenue, is home to just about every store you can think of. If you're a shopaholic the walk could take a considerable amount of time but, personally, shopping comes way down on my list of things to do even when I'm at home so I wasn't that impressed with its supposed magnificence!

These buildings near the end of the mile did impress me however:

Would you believe they were built in 1866 as a water tower and pumping station to solve the problem of waste disposal and drainage in the city? Which just goes to show that even sanitation buildings can be beautiful. The pumping station is still in use today although it is also home to a theatre company. The water tower hosts an art gallery for local artists. 

Mid-week and with school still in session, the beach was relatively quiet. Oak Street Beach is not a natural beach - it was created in the 1890's as part of a breakwater system to protect Lake Shore Drive from storm damage - and perhaps because of that, the sand is both incredibly fine and clean. 

It was so hot we had to rent a sunshade even though we weren't planning on staying that long. Neither of us wanted to spend the rest of the trip in pain, or return to New York looking like the proverbial lobsters! Sadly, it was also too hot to walk barefoot on that beautiful sand.  

After a morning on the beach we decided it was time to visit one of Chicago's other neighborhoods. The idea of Old Town appealed so once again we set off walking. Chicago's grid system of streets makes it very easy to navigate the city and it was interesting to note the change in atmosphere as we moved from the bustling downtown to the more residential Old Town. Gone were the skyscrapers, chain restaurants and big-name shops. Instead we found Victorian-style homes, quirky independent stores and cafes. 

Just in case you forget where you are, there are convenient signs to remind you:

It was a pleasant neighborhood though I think it would have been more fun to visit in the evening when there is apparently a vibrant nightlife including two comedy clubs. We already had other plans for the evening however.

We had discovered the Blue Chicago bar, located just around the corner from our hotel, but on our first attempt to visit the previous evening, there had been standing room only. I love blues music, but like to listen to music in comfort so we settled on returning the next night at eight when the venue opened. It turned out to be a good plan because, while there was only one other couple waiting when we got there, by the time the doors opened there was a considerable queue. We got front row seats to a fabulous performance by J.W. Williams Blues Band and Demetria Taylor (daughter of Blue's legend Eddie Taylor Sr.) Definitely one of the highlights of my visit to Chicago. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 33 - Chicago and Architecture Galore

I'd only been to Chicago once before and that was over fifteen years ago, but what stuck in my mind was the amazing architecture, especially the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune.

Wrigley Building
Chicago Tribune Building

    Even then these magnificent buildings were surrounded by towering skyscrapers of, in my opinion, non-descript design, but I guess I should have been prepared for how many more of these glass and concrete monoliths had been erected since. 

a hazy view of the skyline from Navy Pier

Fortunately, a stroll along Michigan Avenue still provides plenty of opportunity to find the gems of yesterday even if the purpose for which they are used today has changed. One such find was the Cultural Center, formerly the Chicago Public Library. 

The inside is exquisite with a stunning lobby and stairway.

Some of the decorative panels set into the walls contain quotes about the love of books:

while others list the names of famous authors:

In what I assume was the original reading room on the top floor there is a Tiffany stained-glass dome, the largest in the world: 

Walking around, I felt a little sad that the builiding was no longer a library. I could imagine it being an inspirational place to work, but at least it is still being put to good public use with art exhibits, concerts and foreign films plus a visitor's center. 

We visited some of the exhibitions. My favorite was a graphic design exhibit of adverts for Valmor Products, a local company which between the 1920's and 1980's produced beauty products aimed at minorities and used bold labels describing the benefits of using the products. 

It's a fascinating insight into how products were promoted years ago. I'm not sure some of the sentiments in the adverts would go down too well today!


Other interesting exhibitions included paintings by Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, an artist of bold contemporary works, and Stand Up for Landmarks: Protests, Posters and Pictures, a depiction of attempts to stop the demolition of various city landmarks over the years. 

Across the road from the Cultural Center is Grant Park which is perhaps best known for its Buckingham Fountain which shoots water high into the air. 

Impressive, but personally, I preferred the Crown Fountain in Millenium Park. At regular intervals water would spurt out of the mouth reflected on the glass towers (one at each end of the reflecting pool), much to the waiting children's delight. 

The fountain was the work of Jaume Plensa who also has some of his sculptures in the park. If the picture looks familar from an earlier blog post it's because he was also the creator of my favorite piece on display in the Olympic Sculpture Garden in Seattle.

From Grant park there is a lake-side walk to Navy Pier, one of Chicago's most visited attractions. On my previous visit I quite enjoyed my visit to the pier and was looking forward to going back there but, disappointingly, found it had become commercialised to the extent that it had lost its individuality and just become another gimmicky tourist attraction. 

We rounded off the day with a Chicago Architecture Foundation twilight cruise on the Chicago river. It was a good way to relax after having been on our feet all day and a chance to see the city architecture from a different viewpoint. A well-informed docent was aboard the boat and gave detailed explanations about both the buildings we passed and the history of the development along the riverside. Until the 1980's the river was not considered a selling point for development as people didn't want to live near it, but now there is a huge demand for riverside accommodation and the city has introduced regulations to ensure that whatever is built along the waterfront also includes a pedestrian riverwalk open to the general public. As a result many old warehouses have now been turned into luxury apartment buildings.

Other buildings which line the waterfront include the largest building in Chicago (the Merchandise Mart)  and, surprise, surprise, a Trump Tower.

As darkness fell, the city came alive with lights:

the skyline
and even the Navy Pier looked attractive:

Verdict: A wonderful day in a fantastic city. So much to see and do. Thankfully we have another two days to enjoy it. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 32 - St Paul, Minnesota to Chicago.

Day 32 threatened to thwart my plans to travel around the country by rail.

An email from Amtrak the evening before told of a service disruption which was delaying the train from the west coast by so many hours that the company was going to provide a coach to take passengers from St. Paul to Chicago by road. It was a sensible decision by Amtrak to ensure that at least some of the passengers bound for Chicago would get there as scheduled, but it was a huge disappointment for me.   

With no rail service between Jacksonville and New Orleans, I'd already had to accept that l couldn't go all the way around the US by rail, but this unexpected interruption meant that I wouldn't have traveled the whole length of the exisiting Empire Builder route, and I was fairly certain that the views from the highway would not be nearly as interesting as the views from the train.   

Amtrak was vague about the reason for the service disruption so I wasn't sure whether it meant they were taking the train out of service altogether before St. Paul. I toyed with the idea of delaying our departure until the next day's train, but, given Amtrak were offering alternative transport, we would have had to buy new tickets.

Still required to be at St. Paul's Union Depot for the original departure time of 8.03am, we were delighted to discover that the train was still running, but three hours behind schedule, and it was up to us whether we took the coach or waited for the train. Given we had no onward connections to make, the decision required no thought at all!

We left our luggage in the Amtak office and wandered, rather aimlessly I have to say, around the downtown area until we hit on the idea of revisiting a bakery that we had discovered the previous evening. Cossetta is a fabulous Italian food market and pasticceria on 7th Street West offering a mouth-watering display of pastries, cakes and ice-cream. I managed to resist the temptation to have cake for breakfast (why? I ask myself now.) but did stock up on some goodies for the train.  If you ever are in St. Paul, I'd highly recommend a visit! 

Despite our efforts to fill the time with eating, we still ended up with quite a wait at the station, but fortunately Union Depot not only has an attractive waiting area, but also an outdoor roof terrace. 

The station was built in 1926 but completely renovated in 2011-2012. It played an important role in the history of the area with as many as 20,000 people arriving and departing on a daily basis in the 1920's. Murals, 16 feet tall, depict scenes from different eras of train travel in the region. 

The journey to Chicago took us alongside the Mississippi River for 140 miles until we came to La Crosse just over the Minnesota/Wisconsin State Line.

Last look at the Mississippi

 If the town name makes you think of the sport Lacrosse, you would be correct as French trappers used to watch the local Indians play a game here and dubbed it "La Crosse".  Amazing what you learn on these journeys!

No offense to Wisconsin, but the scenery was decidedly less interesting after La Crosse, mostly farmland with lots and lots of cows! It reminded me somewhat of England. Luckily, the journey across the state took under four hours, a short hop compared to some of the other states we have crossed on this trip. 

Our eventual arrival into Chicago was four hours later than scheduled, but to my mind the delay was worth it for the satisfaction of having ridden the Empire Builder from one end to the other. 


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Amtrak Adventure - Day 31 - A Grand Old Day in St.Paul

Day 31 started at the farmer's market in downtown St. Paul with the idea that we'd pick up a few goodies for a picnic lunch. I wish I could have bought some fruit and vegetables to bring home with me. It all looked wonderful.... and huge! Who knew green onions could be so big?

And then there was the rhubarb. Masses and masses of it, for about half the price I'd pay at home, displayed in enticing piles rather than the sad little pre-packs offered by my local supermarkets. We'd stopped in at other farmer's markets on our trip but never seen anything as healthy looking as the produce on display here. 

The market was only a couple of blocks from the river so we headed there next. St. Paul sits mostly on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, connection to the part of town that sits on the other side being via the Wabasha Street Bridge.  The bridge was built with pedestrians in mind and, unlike many other walkable bridges, has wide sidewalks making the crossing a pleasant stroll. 

Half way across the bridge steps lead down to Raspberry Island, a small island used for recreational purposes.

The island offers great views of downtown St. Paul:

There are walkways, statues and a covered stage, the latter used for concerts and exercise classes. If we'd been more suitably attired we could have joined a free yoga class. 

Instead, we kept on walking. Back up the stairs and across the bridge to Harriet Island, one of the major parks in St. Paul and the setting-off point for river cruises. Having cruised the Mississippi at the New Orleans end, it seemed only fitting to cruise it at the northern end too.  And if you are on the Mississippi, it might as well be on a paddle steamer. 

We passed grain barges which take local grain from the Northwest to New Orleans where it is loaded onto cargo ships and then taken all over the world - an environmentally friendly form of transport. 

Steamboats that plied the river carried most of the trade prior to the introduction of the railroads. A boat generally only lasted about three years, its demise a result of crashes (river boat captains liked to race each other), fires caused by the sparks from a steamstack, or a boiler explosion (usually caused by overheating in an attempt to win the race). Sounds like being crew on a steamboat was a dangerous way to make a living! 

The cruise took us to the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, where there is an island called Pike Island which we were told the Dakota Indians, the original occupants of the area, consider sacred - as the place where the world began. Pike Island is now part of Fort Snelling Historic Site. Fort Snelling was once the furthest outpost of the US military, set up to protect the growing American fur trade and stop encroachment by the British from Canada. Built by soldiers and completed in 1825, the fort had the first hospital, school, theatre and jail in Minnesota. Sadly there wasn't enough time for us to actually go and visit the site. Maybe next time. 

For a supposedly popular park, Harriet Park seemed remarkably quiet for a Sunday, but we found out why at our next destination. Grand Avenue is described on their website as 'an eclectic and inviting atmosphere, with our wide, tree-lined streets, patio dining, and cozy coffee shops'. It sounded the perfect place to go for an early dinner. Except when we got there we discovered most of the regular shops and restaurants closed, thousands of people thronging the streets, and a vast selection of food and activity booths lined along the street.

The bars were open. Most had live music outside and were overflowing with people. Grand Old Day is apparently the biggest one day festival in the Midwest! So much for a quiet dinner. Or so we thought, until we found India House, an oasis of calm amid the outside chaos and one of the few restaurants still open. We sat in the window, enjoyed Paneer Korma and Vegetable Makhani, and watched the people go by. I think the whole of St. Paul's population had turned out. 

Verdict: So pleased we had St. Paul on our itinerary.