Setting the scene

Chicago Riverwalk

Chicago Riverwalk

Sitting by rivers

creative juices flowing

romanticising

 

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Chicago Riverwalk

Before I travel to a new city, I always scour the internet for activities to do while there. Which, I’m certain, most people do. But I also zoom in and out of the city’s online map trying to find parks and other open areas I can walk around.

And that’s how I found the Riverwalk in Chicago.

I love walking. And the idea of spending a day walking around a river was perfect. After all, the last time I visited the US, I spent a sunny Sunday morning circumnavigating Lake Meritt in Oakland.

Looking forward to a similar—or even better—experience, I added it in my to-do list. To make sure I had enough time for photographs, I also made a mental note to arrive well in advance.

When I came upon the Riverwalk, however, it was by complete chance. I was fumbling my way through the streets of Chicago—the best way explore a city, in my opinion—when on my left was an arch engraved with the word, Riverwalk.

“Hum,” I thought approaching the staircase that led down from the street. Going all the way down, I found myself at the base of the Chicago river. It teemed with people, and right on my face stood a banner listing out points of interest along on the riverwalk. It took me less than five seconds to realise that almost everything on the list was a restaurant or a snack bar.

As I turned my back to the board and faced the rest of the walkway, I felt a little dejected. Although it was majestic and charming as all natural waterways, buildings towered over the river on all sides. Instead of an open area, I felt as if I were, along with the thousands of people on the river, enclosed inside a massive balloon.

I didn’t want to let that bring me down, though. A nature lover at heart and soul, I thought the rest of the path would delight me. And delight me it did.

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Not crying for attention, the river remained calm, bearing, in dignified silence, the many tourist cruise boats and kayaks that sailed on it. As I walked along, sunlight reflected off of the architecture along the river, while the water bed remained dark.

There was no lack for people, however. Much like the Lake Merritt, the Chicago Riverwalk also attracted thousands of onlookers, walkers, and camera enthusiasts. The jarring difference between the two, though, is that while the lake Merritt hosted most locals, the Chicago Riverwalk bore most tourists.

That’s when I understood that the Riverwalk, much like The Bean in The Millennium Park, is an iconic part of Chicago that always makes it to the brochures. That explained the restaurants, the elevated seating areas, and the endless stream of photographs. It was a much shorter walk than Lake Merritt, albeit it covered a handful of streets. I loved gaping up at the bridges that went across the lake, each a different street by itself. Everything seemed so colossal that it left me wandering as if I were inside the Coliseum, watching the metallic hum that echoed all around me

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It took me a while to digest the idea of Chicago’s Riverwalk being a more visitor-focussed landmark as opposed to the Lake Merrit—more of a local monument. While I enjoyed every moment of my walk by the river, I also felt the unmistakable sense of not belonging there. I felt alien, as a visitor, as someone who will never return. With Lake Merritt, however, I felt more at home. The ducks, the ageing friends, young mothers, active runners, and that one angry teenager yelling at her mom on the phone all made Lake Merrit closer to reality.

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The Riverwalk, on the other hand, was like a self-guided tour. I had my brochure, I had a list of stuff to do and see near by, and I had lots of sights expecting my camera. Fellow travellers and tourists joined in the walk, “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing, appreciating the city’s infrastructure, applauding the architects’ genius, and monumentalising memories for when they’re old and fragile.

I will say this, though: Despite being a honeycomb to buzzing tourists, the Riverwalk remains as one of the best 45 minutes of my time in Chicago. It’s an experience worth cherishing, and if I’m in the city again, I’ll pay the river a visit, not as a tourist walking along the river, but perhaps as someone more used to the city—perhaps as close to a local as a traveller can get.

 

Towering

clock-tower

Since the beginning

looking skywards to know time

sun then dial now

 

Layered

Building-in-Chicago

Assembled as cakes

from meticulous minds come

concrete puzzles tiered

 

The Millennium Park

My first day in Chicago, I decided to visit the bean. Of course, I’d heard from friends who’d visited and from the countless online recommendations that visiting the Millennium Park and The Bean within is a must-do activity while in town.

And so I did. Clutching my umbrella trying to stay dry—on the second day of summer, mind you—I entered the almost empty park. It was a Friday, but the rains had doused minds of potential tourists (I realised on another day).

Unmissable and grand was the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Facing the Great Lawn, it’s a massive open area fit for concerts and parties for none other than the second-most populous city in the United States.

Jay-Pritzker-Pavilion

It took me a while to comprehend the grandeur of the Pavilion, and even more time to understand how weird the structure is. It’s an architectural marvel, for sure, but to me at first, it looked like a giant spider’s web—but a beautiful one at that, though.

Turning away, I faced the only other thing everyone spoke about—The Bean. I’d never understood what all the hoopla was about it. And I thought perhaps I’d see what’s so great about it when I did indeed see it in real life. I didn’t.

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Sure, it looked nice. It’s a giant coffee-bean-shaped metal structure that reflects everything in front and underneath it. And because of the unique shape, the reflections are different from one place to another. When I stood outside the bean, my reflection seemed just like on any other mirror, but as I walked underneath, my reflection distorted. It was interesting for a few minutes, but I couldn’t gather why it’s such a huge tourist destination.

At that point I realised: The bean isn’t the only worth-while spot in the city. And I decided to find the other, less known marvels—the places that don’t make it into popular tourism brochures. And I did find some of them, too. (More on them later.)

Expecting something more promising from Chicago, I turned to the Lurie Garden. The raindrops on petals made already enchanting plans even more attractive. It was a beautiful sight. And like any plant-laden area, the scent of wet grass and fresh blossoms cheered me up in an instant.

As I walked around the garden, crouching low to read the name cards of the plants, I realised how towering the buildings of Chicago are. All around me were high-rise constructions—some gawk-worthy, to be honest—looking over puny trees and humans alike. I was in a natural sanctuary in the middle of a concrete jungle.

Exiting the garden, I got lost. The Millennium Park is such a large area that it’s only too easy to lose your way. I didn’t mind, though. I like walking and exploring and I ended up going round and round in circles.

Then I saw something odd. It was a huge pillar, sitting snug in the middle of a big clearing. As I approached it, I saw it wasn’t a pillar but a fountain. A huge structure spitting water in an incessant manner. And it was still raining. When I walked around it, I saw there was another one, and with the face of a child on it. It was a pair of fountains, both flashing human faces that spew copious amounts of water.

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It was fun to watch, but soon lost it’s thunder. It’s a massive attraction for tourists, and as I saw on a different day, children and parents alike play and drench themselves in the fountain.

Crown-Fountain---twins

For me, though, it’s more interesting to think about the resources and effort it took to construct these architectural wonders of the Millennium Park. During my visit I came across hundreds of such large and grand structures that must’ve taken the best of architectures and the most expensive of materials. It put the wealth of corporate America in a new perspective.

Oh, but the trip was wonderful. And more posts (and photos) follow.