Chicago 10 Top Experiences

Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. Photo by Judy DarleyThe first sighting of Chicago – long before the towers come into view – is of the lake. Big M, a landlocked ocean licking the shore of three states, sans salt, sans sharks, sans tides. Lake Michigan.

Our Airbnb is just a stroll from its edge, in the Gold Coast district where ornate mansions speak of an almost grotesque excess of money, while more time-worn streets have been turned over to a more Bohemian clientele.

We’re close enough to stride along the water’s edge into the city, using the John Hancock Center or Navy Pier’s big wheel to guide us. Nature battles against the rampant urbanity here. Cormorant spread their wings in the harbour and fish dart, while tourist paddle kayaks, ride tour boats or pause on bridges to admire the soaring architecture. All human life jostles here – wealthy residents sidestepping broken-down beggars to enter designer shops, while holidaymakers hurry to the next museum, the next work of art, the next tower to ogle and ascend.

Here are my top ten recommendations of what to see, eat and experience in and around Chicago.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, Chicago_Photo by Judy Darley

1 Encounter the Cloud Gate

Known by locals as the Bean, the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoorresembles a gigantic silvery globular mirror. It rests in the AT&T Plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park like a capsized UFO, enticing tourists and passersby to pause and photograph their own reflection.

A vehicle to our own selfie-obsessed vanity, it’s a perfect tool for people-watching, as well as capturing majestic views of the Chicago cityscape. The one thing it doesn’t seem to me to meditate on is sky – but perhaps it’s in the Illinois winter, when sub-zero temperatures halt human hive activity, that it truly comes into its own.

Architecture river cruise. Photo by Judy Darley

2 Embark on an architecture tour

In a city riddled with extraordinary towers, there’s plenty of scope for admiring the architecture. With the river attracting many of the most ambitious designs, the most leisurely way to take in the their grandeur is with a Chicago Architecture River Cruise by Shoreline Sightseeing. From just over £30, you’ll get a 75-minute guided voyage through the urban masterpieces, learn about the fire that destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago in 1871, and discover that in Chicago, the word Willis is pronounced Seeears. As an added bonus, our excellent tour guide Jalen seemed to be warming up for a set at legendary comedy hotspots Second City.

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower. Photo by Judy Darley

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower

3 Ascend the towers

In a city of skyscrapers, there are several that stand out more than others, and you can pay to visit two of the more notable of these.

The Skyjack of the Willis Tower (previously the Sears Tower), offers exceptional views over Chicago and some unexpected treats. We glimpse a kestrel swooping on the thermals and a few vertigo-defying spiders too. Don’t miss the chance to step onto the Ledge, a glass balcony that juts out from the 103rd floor of the tower (1,353 feet up!) – the perfect opportunity to snap your next profile pick/author photo/ album cover. Buy your tickets.

Above Michigan Avenue, 360 Chicago is accessible from the 94th floor of the John Hancock Centre, overlooking the city and Lake Michigan. You also have the chance to test your nerves with thrill ride Tilt, try Sky Yoga, get into photography, challenge your artistic side, or simply enjoy happy hour at the bar up in the clouds. Get your ticket here.

Pancakes for breakfast. Photo by Judy Darley4 Eat

The people of Chicago are ravenous. Hungry for better views (how else do you explain all the skyscrapers?), bigger lives, and most of all for food. There are several dishes you have to try here: deep pan pizza, best served against a backdrop of TV screens each showing a different sport; burgers and fries; pasta; cheesecake; ice cream…

There are tricks to getting the most out of these dining experiences without losing your mind and gaining a ton of weight. 1) be ready to answer questions about the types of bread, side orders, salad dressings and cooking methods you want (fried eggs just won’t do, you need to know whether you want them over easy, sunny side up or whatever). 2) Request a box and save half of your breakfast/lunch/dinner to eat the next day. 3) Share your dessert with your beloved. It will be ever so romantic and ensure you can get amble afterwards without waddling too badly.

And if you decide to opt for something a bit classier, you could do a lot worse than Café Robey. Read my review of Café Robey.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Edward Kemeys, Lions

Edward Kemeys, Lions, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

5 Mingle with art stars

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is bound to be a highlight for any art aficionado visiting this extraordinary city. This vast space is teeming with renowned artworks, as well as plenty of less famous gems. From the intriguing Thorne Miniature Rooms to marvels such as Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, I found myself floating on an excess of wonder. To me the Art Institute of Chicago felt like a portal through time, space and sensibility, with each doorway offering admission to another absorbing world.

Find out more at www.artic.edu. Read my full write up of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Kalamazoo Public Library.Photo by Judy Darley

6 Hop on a train!

Have an adventure and take an Amtrak train journey to one of the quirky towns that sit outside the major cities. Kalamazoo is just over a couple of hours from downtown Chicago, yet lies in a different state (Michigan) and timezone. Trains run here infrequently, so we got up early, and saw dawn break over the Chicago towers during our stroll to the elegant Union Station.

Our train passed through industrial areas and by sparsely populated woodlands before reaching this small township of cute shops, breweries and one of the most attractively housed public libraries I’ve seen. Intriguingly, the town was once renowned for its celery crops, but don’t let that put you off. We pass the time in coffee shops, admired unexpected sculptures, and visit the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Sadly, there is no longer a zoo in Kalamazoo – it closed its doors in ’74. Hmm, that sounds like the start of a Dr Seuss story…

Lincoln Park Zoo Harbour Seal. Photo by Judy Darley

7 Explore Lincoln Park Zoo

A good zoo done well with plenty of imagination and an emphasis on conservation is a wonderful thing, and Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the world’s finest. Even better, it’s free to visitors, providing families and passerbys with the opportunity to glimpse wonderful animals and learn about the natural world both within and beyond America’s shores.

We watched grey seals cavort with harbour seals, spotted a pygmy hippo being groomed by fish, saw black and white colobus monkeys playing, met an aardvark and glimpsed a slow loris, among so many other species I couldn’t possibly list them all. Plus, beyond the confined areas a chipmunk darts by, turtles sunbathe with ducks, and a hummingbird dances in mid-air for its supper. There are some exquisite sculptures too.

Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk. Photo by Judy Darley

Outside the confines of the zoo, but in this case considered part of its realm, you’ll find the Nature Boardwalk, which teems with wildlife and offers a tranquil spot within sight of the city. Find out more.

8 Sample the neighbourhoods

Old Town. Photo by Judy DarleyChicago is made up of an assortment of different districts, or neighbourhoods, each with boasting its own distinct personality. While Downtown is where you’ll find the major highlights such as Millennium Park, even this area boasts an assortment of areas, including Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile and the Loop.

Check out Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) at transitchicago.com to discover the treasures awaiting you in the other areas, from Andersonville to Old Town.

Picasso Baboon Daley Plaza. Photo by Judy Darley

9 Search for public art

As treasure hunts go, this is one with endless riches. Sculptures pose on Chicago’s street corners, in plazas and outside edifices. The Chicago Picasso is one of the more notable – untitled it stands 50 feet tall in the Daley Plaza, a monumental artwork that doubles up as a kids’ slide.

Gentlemen by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Photo by James Hainsworth

On the AMA Plaza beside the river, look out for Gentlemen, a series of statues by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming resembling quirky businessmen complete with umbrellas.

The Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa. Photo by Judy Darley

In Millennium Park, the Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa comprises two 50-foot blocks that stand adjacent to one another, each made up of screens that present a vast visage of a Chicago citizen. The faces blink, smile and occasionally purse their lips so that spouts of water emerge. It’s especially appealing on hot summer days.

ake Michigan beach.Photo by Judy Darley

10 Be amazed by Lake Michigan

This shining pool is so vast that the far side is beyond the horizon’s edge. One of the five Great Lakes of North America, it’s unique in being set entirely within the United States. I’ve heard that in winter, it freezes over. In summer it attracts swimmers, kayakers and sand castle builders. Cyclists and runners pelt up and down the shore, while fish dart in the depths. A short train-ride away, more rural areas appeal to day-trippers, but within the city, the beauty of the water framed by gleaming skyscrapers is undeniable.

Discover more about Chicago at www.choosechicago.com.

Save money on some of Chicago’s top attractions with the Chicago CityPASS.

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Starstruck by art

The Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Edward Kemeys, Lions

Edward Kemeys, Lions, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is bound to be a highlight for any art aficionado visiting this extraordinary city. This vast space is teeming with renowned artworks, as well as plenty of less famous gems. From the intriguing Thorne Miniature Rooms to marvels such as Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV (below), I found myself floating on an excess of wonder.

Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O'Keefe

Stairways and soaring corridors led us to the Contemporary Wing, housing an impressive assortment of notable works. Frankly, it was like attending a party attended by an eccentric assortment of heroes. Meeting creations by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Charles Ray, and Damien Hirst made me feel a little starstruck: wide eyed and at a loss for words! I also had a the pleasure of encountering some artists for the first time, including Katharina Frisch, whose ‘Woman With Dog’ brought to mind happy hours scouring coastal rock pools as a child.

Woman With Dog by Katharina Fritsch

Woman With Dog by Katharina Fritsch

Downstairs I found myself drawn to the implied magic of the miniature rooms conceived by Mrs James Ward Thorne and created, under her guidance, by master craftsmen between 1932 and 1940.

Cape Cod Living Room 1750-1850

Cape Cod Living Room 1750-1850

Each represents a home from a particular time and location, with details down to the carpets and knick-knacks summoning up an impression of the lives that might have been lived there. It’s entrancing for any lover of art, architecture, history or humanity.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Elsewhere, the halls of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic art instilled us with a sense of tranquillity, while the Architecture and Design exhibits inspired is with its grace and practicality.

We were also fortunate to visit when the John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age exhibition was on, and to walk among excellent work not only by the artist himself, but by his contemporaries, including Claude Monet.

The scale of these galleries makes it unlikely you’ll be able to see every exhibit in a single visit. My advice is to select a few galleries and do them justice. To me the Art Institute of Chicago felt like a portal through time, space and sensibility, with each doorway offering admission to another absorbing world.

Find out more at www.artic.edu.

Discover Bilbao.
Discover Brescia.
Discover Budapest.
Discover Bath.
Discover Barcelona.
Discover Laugharne.
Discover Reyjavik.

Got an inspiring venue, event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud(dot)com.

Beautifully balanced Chicago flavours

Cafe Robey Gnocchi

Set on the corner where North, Damen and Milwaukee Avenues meet in Chicago’s Wicker Park Bucktown neighborhood, Café Robey is just one ingredient of the immense art deco tower that also houses the hotel of the same name.

The wait staff are as attentive as America has taught us to expect, with a soupçon of elegance layered on top. Our water glasses never fall more than a half inch below brimful, and Mr J is called Sir so often he has trouble holding onto his composure.

Cafe Robey Ford Model cocktail

I start with the Ford’s Model cocktail, a reference to the Chicago Assembly, Ford Motor Company’s longest running manufacturing plant. It may not sound like the most mouthwatering premise, but the cocktail itself, with Hibiscus Ford’s Gin, Chareau, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, cucumber and 11th Orchard Pine Bitters, is as refreshing as stepping into an air-conditioned store after a stroll down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, aka North Michigan Avenue.

Mr J opts for a beer, taking advantage of America’s flourishing microbreweries. We find ourselves discussing the beauty of the glassware between sips and feeling just a touch Great Gatsby.

The menu is pleasingly simple, with each dish sporting a single word description to whet your appetite: Gnocchi, Scallop, Pork, Duck…

Mr J starts with the Pork Belly, a treasury of braised pork belly, almond mole, charred pineapple gel (gel proves to be a key a feature on this menu), corn fritters, spiced cabbage and pickled radishes. He describes it as “tenderly glazed”, and “perfectly balanced.”

Cafe Robey Prawn

I opt for the head-on prawn with fried green tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, Acqua Pazza, Three Sisters’ Grits and fresh basil. The grits are crisp, the prawns deliciously meaty and the Acqua Pazza (yes, I had to Google that) delightfully light, but unexpectedly, it’s the heirloom tomatoes that steal the show, with a delicate juicy flavour that sweetly asserts their fruit status.

Mr J chooses the gnocchi as his main, and raves about their crunchy exteriors and soft, moist centres.

Cafe Robey Duck

I can’t resist ordering the lavender-cured duck breast, accompanied by duck consommé, faro (a whole grain) fava bean succotash and kumquat marmalade. The whole dish taste wonderfully nutritious, the antithesis to the burgers and deep pan pizzas more commonly associated with Chicago cuisine. The duck is utterly luscious, while the succotash and faro add just the right amount of bite.

Cafe Robey Honeycake

For dessert I’m all about the toasted cardamom honey cake, served in glistening wedges with moreishly rich pistachio custard, raspberry gel, zingy raspberries and thyme and lavender salt. It’s a texture and taste bonanza; my mouth has rarely been happier.

At the end of our meal, we’re each brought a shot of milk and a cookie. Glancing around, I spot diners across the restaurant cosying up with their own cookies and milk. It’s an unlikely touch of comfort at such a chic establishment, but one received with as much appreciation as the finest gastronomic mouthfuls on this indulgent and imaginative menu.

Find Café Robey at 1616 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL, USA,
872 315 3084 https://www.caferobey.com.

Got an inspiring venue, event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud(dot)com.

Blenheim Festival of Literature, Film and Music

Blenheim PalaceTaking place mainly in the grand surroundings of Blenheim Palace and nearby Woodstock, Oxfordshire, from  11th-14th October 2018, Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music offers up an eclectic mix of notable talents.

Authors and speakers to look forward to include novelist Esi Edugyan, entrepreneur Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, biographer Judith Mackrell, and noted jumper-wearer Giles Brandreth.

The exquisite setting is as much a part of the attraction as the famous names. Enter The Orangery to see actors Caroline Langrishe and Adrian Lukis perform some of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters, while vocalists and musicians, including harpist Camilla Pay and soprano Rosie Lomas, bring the era to life.

Step into The Indian Room at Blenheim Palace with curator Nino Strachey for an insight into the Bloomsbury Group homes of Virginia Woolf, of her lover Vita Sackville-West, and of Vita’s cousin Eddy Sackville-West, and how their design choices “reflected changing social and moral attitudes towards sexuality and gender in the 1920s and 30s.”

And encounter weird and scandalous flora-behaviour with Author, artist and botanist Dr Chris Thorogood in The Malborough Room.

Those are just a few of the options on offer. It may only be four days, but they’re set to be jam-packed with inspiration, opinions, intrigue and entertainment.

Visit blenheimpalaceliteraryfestival.com for full details.

Find out more about Oxfordshire, including places to stay, at www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com.

Head to the Bath Children’s Literature Festival

Child reading cr Julian Foxon Photography

© Julian Foxon Photography

Hungry for writing inspiration, or simply got young book-worms to entertain? Bath Children’s Literature Festival offers up a fantastic, imagination-stirring line-up of events chosen by artistic directors John and Gill McLay with the aim of “putting fun and laughter first.”

The festival runs from Friday 28 September – Sunday 7 October 2018, with events for all ages, including inspiring and entertaining conversations with Lauren Child, David Walliams, Marcia Williams, and Cressida Cowell, among others.

Meet author Laura James and Fabio the world’s greatest flamingo detective, take a masterclass with author and illustrator Peter Brown, sign up for a drawing lesson or a Matilda dance workshop, find out how to write picture books with Tessa Strickland, .

Find details and book tickets at bathfestivals.org.uk/childrens-literature.

Find out more about Bath, including places to stay, at visitbath.co.uk.

Escape to Port Eliot

Port Eliot Festival cr Michael Bowles

All photographs used in this post are taken by Michael Bowles

Port Eliot Festival brings together some of the best creative talents around and plonks them in the midst of a magical sprawling garden party.

Enticingly, they say: “Our home is your playground for one magical weekend and nothing makes us happier than seeing you explore the Estate. Whether you’re swimming in the estuary, catching a literary star on the Bowling Green, rocking out at the Park Stage, canoeing on the river, catching an intimate gig in the church, watching a cooking demo on the Flower & Fodder Stage, a fashion show or dancing ‘till the wee hours in the Boogie Round – our home is yours for the weekend.”

It all kicks off on 26th July, running till 29th July, at St Germans, West Cornwall.

This year’s speakers, performers, mixologists and events include poet Hollie McNish, Helen Pankhurst, Robert Webb, Lucy Mangan, Tim Clare, Salena Godden, Geoff Dyer, Three Cane Whale, Salena Godden, Savannah Miller, Raleigh Rye, and so many others.

Look out for Travel Writing for Adventurers, the Great Diary Project, and Mindful Masculinity with Caspar Walsh.

There are also exhibitions to be inspired by: In The Round Room, you’ll find live play readings and poetry performances, a Virtual Reality installation, and late night screenings… There’s also the brand new Cinematheque celebrating women in film, Midnight Trapeze & Circus School, and Museum of Witchcraft Nightwalks.

Each of the stages have names that seem plucked straight from fairytales: Lark’s Haven, Walled Garden, Flower and Fodder, The Idler Academy and The Dead Man’s Fingers bar, being just a few.

Port Eliot woodland cr Michael Bowles

It helps, of course, that the surroundings are some of the finest SW England has to offer, with historical attractions including the oldest church in Cornwall – St Germans Priory Norman church. Natural delights range from the Grade 1 listed park and garden, to the estuary. Take a Bee Trail Workshop, go stargazing, try Canadian Canoing or enjoy a mid-summer wassail.Port Eliot estuary cr Michael Bowles

That’s not all though, not by a long short. As the organisers say: “we’ll celebrate words, music, imagination, ideas, nature, food, fashion, flowers, laughter, exploration, fun and all that is good in the world!”

Now, that’s my kind of party.Night at Port Eliot Festival cr Michael Bowles

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Ride the art in Vilnius

Painting Routers art initiativeHave you ever taken a journey on a piece of art? Now you can take an epic ride on one of Vilnius’ trolleybuses covered in contemporary art. Running for the second consecutive year, the Painting Routers art initiative has transformed five trolleybuses into Vilnius, Lithuania, into canvases painted on by five teams of well-known young artists from Lithuania and Estonia.

“The novelty of using public transport as art lies in the subjectivity of painting and its corporeal and incorporeal duality rather than  in the trolley’s medium as something new and unexpected,” explains the project’s coordinator Darius Jarusevicius. “The aim of Painting Routers is to question the stable  identity of painting and the sustainability of its corporeal actualisation, and to highlight the nomadic nature of art.”

The idea of Painting Routers sprang from art duo Polyrabbit.Duplicate (Inna Shilina and Darius Jaruševičius). “Our painterly practice is based on duplication and the repetition of our own paintings on different mediums: animation, digital  appearance, corporeal surfaces with very different densities and situations of exposition,” says Darius. “It was a dream of the Polyrabbit.Duplicate duo to find means of creating visual art in non-static public spaces. When we hit on the trolleybuses was the answer, it became clear that it would be good not only for our own painterly practice, but for contemporary painting in general, so we invited more artists to join in.”

Painting Routers art initiative

Artists involved in the project for 2018 include Goda Lukaitė, Donata Minderytė, Monika Plentauskaitė, Alexei Gordin, Kazimieras Brazdžiūnas, Vita Opolskytė, Kristina Ališauskaitė, Rosanda Sorakaitė, Kristi Kongi, and Rosanda Sorakaitė.

This year’s Painting Routers initiative aims to encourage dialogue on the #metoo movement, femininity, sensations, and sexuality. “A real-life social media wall will revert back to digital when people share their experiences of the Painting Router works, creating a cycle,” says Darius. “Taken out of the galleries, the art becomes accessible to everyone.”

The trolleybuses will be riding  the streets of Vilnius until October 2018, offering plenty of time to spot all five works and ride each one as the mood takes you!

More information about the project and about tourism in Vilnius visit www.vilnius-tourism.lt/en.

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Hay Festival 24 May-3 June 2018

Hay Festival cr Finn Beales

Hay Festival cr Finn Beales

I remember visiting Hay-on-Wye as a child and being entranced by this place built, it seemed, entirely on, around and with books. Yet I’ve never yet made it to any of the much lauded Hay Festivals (have you noticed how they’ve spread throughout the world? Good to know that the love of the written word is so contagious).

The festival runs from 24th May – 3rd June. The events are too many to list here, but include the Hay on Earth Forum, music from the likes of singer-songwriter Jake Bugg, and features Sarah Corbett speaking on the powers of Craftivism. The festival retains a healthy literature section, with introductions from exciting Latin American writers, conversations with recipients of the Man Booker prize, Icelandic Literature Prize and others, plus numerous readings from rising literary stars.

Roddy Doyle will offer his insights and humour, Simon Mayo will discuss his debut novel, and Margaret Atwood will talk about a new generation discovering The Handmaid’s Tale.

Get your tickets from www.hayfestival.com. And if you’re lucky enough to attend any of the events, please let me know! I’d love to publish your festival review on SkyLightRain.com. Just email me at judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

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Green Island

Logoa do Fogo, Sao Miguel by Judy Darley

Logoa do Fogo, Sao Miguel

My travel feature on the tranquility of Sao Miguel, one of the Azores islands, was recently published by In The Moment magazine. It provided a wonderful chance for me to re-live the beauty of that Portuguese isle.

You can buy back issues of In The Moment here. My feature appeared in issue 10.

This is my third feature published about that trip, the previous ones being published in Wedding ideas magazine and A Year In Portugal journal.

I’ve also had a piece published about a somewhat chillier visit to Iceland in Balance magazine. Love getting out to see the world and sharing my discoveries!

Icelandic Thrills feature by Judy Darley

Jaipur Literary Festival

Jaipur Literary Elephant

Image © Steppes Travel www.steppestravel.co.uk

What better way to begin 2017 than with a trip to one of the world’s hottest literary festivals?

Founded by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, Jaipur Literature Festival is celebrating eleven years old in 2018, and takes place from 25-28th January. From Nobel Laureates to local language writers, Man Booker prize winners to debut novelists, the annual event brings together over 250 authors, thinkers, politicians, journalists and popular culture icons from India and from around the globe.

Speakers and performers taking part include Amy Tan, Anthony Horowitz, Helen Fielding, Julia Donaldson, Kathy Reichs, musician Zakir Hussain, and countless others.

Keen to take part yourself next year? Contact the organisers through the website to find out more.

Bespoke holiday specialists Steppes Travel offer tailor-made visits to Jaipur Literature Festival. Find full details here: www.steppestravel.co.uk/india-group-tour-jaipur-literature-festival/overview

Find full details of Jaipur Literature Festival here. It could be a fabulous start to your literary year.

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