Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Managing Chicago

Everything about Chicago is huge.

America’s tallest building dominates the city's recognizable skyline. Lake Michigan challenges the horizon like an endless freshwater ocean. You could replace a tire on a Humvee with a Chicago deep-dish pizza. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 103 years, the longest championship-less streak in American professional sports. And within city limits, you'll find a giant Ferris wheel, a giant bean and a giant Marilyn Monroe.

Whatever it is, Chicago does it big.
Undoubtedly, the Windy City is a lot to take in. With so much culture, so much personality and so much to see, stuffing it all into one weekend trip would be akin to stuffing William "Refrigerator" Perry into a pair of skinny jeans. With exceptional effort it could be done, but there will be uncomfortable chaffing.

Nonetheless, the grandeur and diversity of America’s third largest city does play in her favor: each site and each neighborhood has a feel all its own and can be enjoyed as such. So if you view Chicago as a series of destinations within a destination, you'll never leave feeling like you missed something and you'll always have a good reason to go back.

But with limited time, a city such as this comes with a fair share of intimidation. Where to go first? Who has the best food? What gives a good sense of the Second City? Was Donald Trump compensating for something with that towering, steel-girdered homage to luxury capitalism he erected on North Wabash Avenue?

Regardless of the city’s breadth and reach, there are some stops that encapsulate this all-American city’s many flavors. And as survival experts will tell you: when in doubt, follow the river.

The Chicago River Architecture Tour given by Wendella Boat Tours provides an easy avenue from which to begin a Windy City whirlwind. The boat sails up and down the Chicago River's arms and then out to Lake Michigan, where happy riders get several panoramic views of the city. Your tour guide’s knowledge of city history and architectural styles is just as impressive as the colossal skyscrapers enveloping the riverbanks. The city’s rich past, from politics to pizza, shines a light on the entrepreneurial spirit and fearless nature of its inhabitants. By disembarkation, you’ve glimpsed most of the city’s famous landmarks and formulated a mental guide map from which to further explore.

Wendella’s boat dock lies underneath the Wrigley building, a business staple from days gone by; across Michigan Avenue a massive statue of Marilyn Monroe a la The Seven Year Itch welcomes blushing tourists who (some demurely and some way too eagerly), pose for a photo under her windblown dress.

Anchoring one side of this plaza is the Chicago Tribune, a building significant in its own right even if it wasn’t home to one of the world’s foremost newspaper companies. The builders collected an impressive array of stones from international landmarks – The Coliseum, Edinburgh Castle and the Great Pyramids, just to name a few – and embedded them into the outer walls. A trip around the building perimeter is a trip around the world and a representation of Chicago’s cultural crossroads.

For a taste of one of those cultures, walk west from the Tribune Tower following Illinois Street for about six blocks to Lou Malnati’s on North Wells Street. There are buses, but you’ll need the walk to work up an appetite. Don’t worry; a deep dish pizza from here will quickly replace any burnt calories. The butter crust with sausage is a filling, working man's meal (a small size is enough for two people). Like the city itself, the classic dish is hearty and traditional blue collar fare. The astonishingly delicious tomato sauce actually stands out, even amongst an oozing morass of bubbling cheese. If you don’t leave satisfied, it’s your own fault.

With a belly full of butter crust, you’ll relish strolling back east toward the lake and the famous Navy Pier. An enormous old Ferris wheel, carousel, boardwalk and boat rides – this is the Midwest’s take on Santa Monica or Coney Island. Enter through the red arch, grab a beverage and sip your way along the breakers, through a fun and flirty atmosphere of trinket shops, food hawkers, funhouses and even the Shakespeare Theater. Navy Pier is touristy, but in all the right ways, culminating with its point jutting into Lake Michigan for stunning lighthouse and lake views. Or turn around, camera in-hand, for a breathtaking Chicago panorama.

Somewhere in that panorama sits Millennium Park, worth a visit for its beautiful combination of greenery and art, and a nice wind-down after Navy Pier’s excitement. People flock around the massive, reflective sculpture that serves as the park’s centerpiece, known fondly as “The Bean.” Actually named “Cloud Gate,” this polished sculpture by artist Anish Kapoor bounces images of people and building into crazy angles, resulting in amazing photographs and skyline visions.

Another art piece can be found nearby, where two columns stand amidst a shallow wading pool, each covered in video boards and water cascading from above. Each column is a mosaic of a human face that twitches (creepy) and intermittently squirts water into the central wading pool (creepier). Who said modern art had to mean something?

To get away from the spouting faces, head a few blocks from Millennium Park toward the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue) and a taste of cosmopolitan Chicago. On you’re your way swing into Sweetwater for a happy hour cocktail. This sheik, modern bar/restaurant is perfect for outdoor lounging on a nice afternoon, watching the rush hour commuters hustle by. You’ll be refreshed by the time you spill onto the Magnificent Mile, skipping past Saks and Michael Kors, Nike Town and Nordstroms. But be sure to notice the free treasures the boulevard provides seasonally, from holiday lights to a dazzling array of springtime tulips.

Once all the day’s snapshots have been snapped and tour guides talked out, lounging in a leather chair by a fireplace with a gin martini in hand seems just plain appropriate. A quick bus ride takes you away from downtown to the Lakeview neighborhood, where a bar called Wilde waits on North Broadway. Filled with tattered books, this bar named after literary giant Oscar Wilde has the ambiance of an old English library in the midst of one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods. A nod to the old embraced by the new, in typical Windy City style.  

Chicago’s activities are as diverse as they are memorable, offering unique experiences where most big cities sell only homogeny. Consuming everything on a short stay might be as ill-conceived as a swim in the Chicago River.

So Chicago is big; so what? It is manageable. Go ahead, take a few big bites and get a taste of this Midwest metropolis. You can always go back for more.

Friday, April 20, 2012

City Flowers, Chicago

In honor of this weekend's Earth Day, I've posted some great photos of city flowers from downtown Chicago. There was a stunning contrast along the Magnificent Mile of urban and rural, with vibrant tulips running alongside shoppers, commuters and traffic.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Arizona Republic - Cinque Terre mudslides: Residents rebuilding to welcome tourists


My piece from the Arizona Republic appeared in the Sunday paper on April 8, 2012 about beautiful Vernazza, Italy in the Cinque Terre and their rebuilding efforts due to 2011 mudslides.

VERNAZZA, Italy - The bells of Vernazza's clock tower drowned out Michele Sherman as she tried to describe the ghost town that her adopted seaside home had become. She apologized and spoke louder into the phone, calling-card minutes drifting away like unmoored dinghies.
"I'm looking at the beach right now and I'm seeing half a car literally sticking out of the sand," she said. "It's surreal."
Cars normally were kept on the outskirts of this tiny coastal Italian village, as is the case in most of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre.
That was before torrential rains on Oct. 25, 2011, caused the terraced hills above Vernazza and neighboring Monterosso to unleash devastating mudslides. Now, construction vehicles enter the town to dig out the 14 feet of mud and debris that buried Vernazza, killed three people and shattered the tourism-based economy.
Despite the region's popularity, there has been little coverage of this catastrophe, frustrating residents like Sherman. An hour before our phone call, she said, she flagged down a car of tourists attempting to drive into town. She explained why the hotels and restaurants were closed.
"There's no big sign that says, 'Hey, this is what happened,' " she said.
Residents resolved to tell the world and foster support for restoring Vernazza. Their focus, Sherman said, is to "attract people that are not only interested in the beach and sun, but in the experience, the history, and wanting to not only visit here but be part of the life here."
An American expatriate, Sherman embodies that philosophy. She visited the Cinque Terre on her 35th birthday, fell in love and never left.
I visited Vernazza in 2010 but, unlike Sherman, I had to leave. This treasured corner of northwestern Italy left a strong impression on me all the same.
Crown jewel
The five villages that make up the Cinque Terre -- Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso -- hang from the train line like grape bunches on a vine. Each village builds upon itself, heaped over craggy outcrops and smothered from above by terraced vineyards and groves. The vibrantly colored houses are like wooden blocks stacked by a child's hand, haphazard and precarious.
Vernazza was the crown jewel. With warm breezes, salty air, postcard sunsets, luxurious local seafood and the chatter of Italians at play, the town pricked every sense.
My wife and I, newly married, were enjoying the last night of our European honeymoon. We almost did not stop in Vernazza. If we hadn't, we would have missed a moment such as travel junkies dream about.
We were relaxing at a cafe on the main plaza watching children catch jellyfish (jellypesca, to hear them yell it) along the breakers when a street musician plucked a few warm-up notes on his guitar.
"Yeah, dumb and drunk as I was, you know I'd do it all again," he sang.
Before my wife comprehended the lyrics, I had vaulted the bistro table with two euros in hand. The musician was older, with long, dusty brown hair tucked under a black bandanna. He smirked when I tossed the money into his guitar case and told him to play another song by Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers.
In a tiny Italian village of 500 residents, a street musician sang the music of our favorite band.
Universal language
His name was Terry, and he was from Colorado. He and his family were traveling across Europe, playing in public places for fun, not expecting recognition or money. Certainly not expecting anyone in Italy to know Roger Clyne's hit "Switchblade." He pried from us our favorite Clyne song, "Beautiful Disaster," and gestured for us to grab a seat.
And suddenly there was a crowd watching Terry and family launch into a full set of American rock and roll.
An older couple began dancing in the middle of the moonlit piazza. My wife and I were urged onto the makeshift dance floor. Without really knowing what we were doing, we were waltzing over the cobblestones to our favorite song. We don't know how to waltz.
The moment was romantic in its simplicity: music, moonlight and sea mist. No digital camera captured the tear that dropped from my wife's eye.
Afterward, Terry thanked us before we could thank him. That crowd was his biggest yet. He came to Vernazza seeking memorable experiences. Vernazza obliged.
"Music unites people all over the world," he said.
More than a year later, after that same cobblestone piazza was unearthed from under 14 feet of mud and debris, music is helping bring the outside world to Vernazza.
Raising money
In the aftermath of the October disaster, Michele Sherman, Michele Lilley and Ruth Manfredi, all American transplants to Italy, formed Save Vernazza ONLUS, an Italian non-profit organization aimed at raising funds for Vernazza's rebuilding and preservation.
To date, they have raised about $186,430 from individual private donors. The organization estimates that the floods caused more than $133 million in damages.
According to Sherman, Vernazza averages 2.5 million visitors a year, 1 million of them American tourists. And from that pool, they sought support.
Sherman, a former bed-and-breakfast owner, downloaded 30,000 e-mail addresses from her business and reached out to former guests and friends, including travel expert Rick Steves. She credits him with helping her spread the word about the region's road to recovery.
"Tourism is the lifeblood of the Cinque Terre's economy," Steves told me. "And while private and government money is essential for Vernazza to rebuild, that won't be enough. Even if Vernazza has fewer shops and rooms open this summer, that's no reason for travelers to stay away from this wonderful corner of Italy. Across the five villages, there will be plenty of rooms available and great travel discoveries to be made."
Lilley connected with friend Lisa McLaughlin, a Cinque Terre frequenter and concert merchandise manager for several artists, including Peter Frampton.
"I had the idea of donating some items to them to help raise funds," McLaughlin said. "When I asked (Frampton), he was happy to sign some things for them, and when I came back to the States, I contacted more of my friends in the entertainment world."
The bounty from McLaughlin's musical connections includes autographed books, CDs, photos and other items from artists such as Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Lady Antebellum. The memorabilia is part of Save Vernazza's online auction, going on now at www.savevernazza.com. The group plans to follow that with an auction of local artwork, set to begin in the last week of April.
Coming back to life
With utilities coming back online, residents are moving back and businesses are slowly reopening their doors. Most plan to be ready by May to coincide with the start of the heavy tourism season.
"Visits here are a donation in and of themselves," Sherman said.
Visits also are a reward. I can still hear Terry singing, "You know I'd do it all again." And we will, thanks to those working to restore Vernazza.
For Michele Sherman, the music never left.
"I didn't realize how much I loved the bells until I went away from them," she said. "Even among all the destruction, it was the one constant. Even after all that, you still hear the bells."
Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer. Follow him atwww.whereverittakes.com or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes.

Vernazza, Italy 

Vernazza, Italy

Boats in Vernazza's harbor

Street musicians in Vernazza's plaza, jamming away to Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers music