La Serenissima

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chicago to San Francisco on the Zephyr

This time we continue our journey across the USA by train traveling from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s Zephyr. Taking 2 days and nights, the Zephyr crosses 7 states, including Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and finally, California. It’s a 2,422 mile run.

We checked in to catch the train at around 4 in the afternoon and enjoyed relaxing in the first class lounge – comfy seats, magazines, juices, tea and coffee, TV if you’re so inclined, and good toilets. Then we rode overnight through Illinois and across the Nebraska state line.

On the first day the train winds up through the US Rockies or high sierra to Denver, Fraser Winter Park – near Aspen – and on through a great number of canyons. The US Rockies are a stunning series of mountain ranges that run all the way from Mexico to the Canadian Arctic, really quite overwhelming in their magnitude. They also proved a tough and formidable barrier for the early settlers and pioneers who strove to “go west, young man” (not to mention young woman, who toiled so hard and long each day to keep “young man” fit and able to continue).

Somewhere near Fraser, we couldn’t resist taking a picture of a wonderful red “match box “ truck – the kind small boys used to collect – snowed in at a parking lot.

On the second day we zoomed through Utah, including Salt Lake City and Reno, and then the Sierra Nevada. All the scenery is just spectacular, as you’ll see. Even a fun place called Truckee (yes, that’s right) was lovely – we spent 3 hours there whilst snow moving gear was used further up the mountain to dig a path for us!! They had an avalanche on the tracks early in the morning!

Our eyes feasted on more winter wonderland along the way on both days – just beautiful. A continuation of the visual meditation that is scenic rail travel. Wonderful for the soul.
The US landscape is different from the Canadian. In the Canadian Rockies the landscape feels more intimate because the railroad is built in narrow ravines. At times, the trees are only about 10 feet from the side of the train and you feel that you could just reach out and touch the branches and feel the cold of the snow. By contrast, the US landscape is vast and wide, with soaring volcanic rock mountains – red in colour – layered with horizontal stripes of snow and dotted with trees. It’s easy to see that such rock formations are the beginning of the Grand Canyon further south in Nevada. Along the way of course there were more snow covered pines and firs; frozen waterfalls, snow covered mountains; ski resorts and snow-blanketed little towns. 

The sunset on the snow covered landscape was truly breath taking. It looked like a translucent painting, shimmering in opalescent light. And the rocks appeared to be on fire.

Well, so much for the scenery – what of our continuing Great Train Incidents? Aahhh…… having an en suite shower in a sleeper is of course very convenient, but getting the hang of the technology (that is, if it’s working) can be challenging. I had first shower on our first morning on the Zephyr. Now, Julian had said to me to run the hot water in the hand basin to make sure it was pumped through, but, well, I forgot didn’t I? I got into the shower which had a single water lever with hot and cold clearly marked (blue to the left, red to the right). So I confidently set it into the red, but not all the way (didn’t want to scald myself) and pressed the button that turned on the water. I didn’t point the water on the bod, as I knew it would take a few seconds to warm up …  Well, after a minute or so, it wasn’t getting any warmer, so I put it full on hot. If anything it got colder, so much so that the tap fitting itself began to ice up!! I proceeded to soap up and flick freezing water onto bits of me that are better not to be mentioned in this epistle (it’s PG after all). When I flung open the door to grab my towel, I was only a pale shade of blue and Julian enquired merrily “How was the shower?” I told him what had happened. “Why didn’t you call out? Obviously there’s a problem with the fitting – maybe it’s installed upside down” (Hmmff – I hate it when there’s an obvious explanation that has eluded me….) Yes, sure enough, blue meant hot in our shower and red meant cold. Suffice to say Julian had a great shower – even steam he said!! … I cleaned my teeth and kept a low profile … meanwhile, the view outside continued to inspire …

On day 2 I thought I was an expert. Ran the water in the hand basin; set the dial to blue, pressed the button. Nada. We were stopped and the engineers in their wisdom were changing engines, so all power was off!! After about 15 minutes (seemed a lot longer) we were in business and I did in fact have a great shower – at last!!

Julian followed me and got so carried away with the shower that he washed his hair. At the same time, I was getting dressed etc and to ensure there was no unnecessary baggage in the floor space, I put my bag back up on the shelf. Alas, the hair dryer was in it. Julian wasn’t of a mind to wrestle the bag down (and wasn’t exactly thrilled that I had been so organised with the dryer), so we used umpteen towels to dry the hair … Perhaps more photos would be good right now?

The point of all this hurrying was to get to breakfast; so here we were showered etc and good to go… that was until we tried to slide our door open. Sadly, the lock mechanism had slipped shut too far and was jamming. So, in essence, we were locked in!! I pressed the emergency button several times to no avail (we learned later that our attendant was at breakfast himself). Julian was doing much pushing and shoving with the door (and swearing quite a lot by now) when we noticed one of the other crew go past. Lots of banging and yelling followed to get his attention and it worked! He came rushing back and we told him the problem. He said, “No problem, I’ll just get a tool”. Seconds later he arrived with a crow bar! There was a lot of lifting and bashing (I was convinced Julian would loose several fingers) but – voila, the door sprang open and we sprang off to brekky!!

Describing the Zephyr would not be complete without saying something about the Sightseer lounge/café bar. A very enterprising and personable crew member named Cammy operated it. She would come through the intercom every so often…you have to read this with a Southern accent  “Hi, this is Cammy from the café car. I have some real great specials for you today – cinnamon cookies, apple muffins, nachos with spicy dips, coffee or if you prefer something a little stronger, beers, spirits and sodas to mix. So why don’t you stop by and say hi. I’ll be here waiting for you…” Needless to say, Cammy did a roaring trade … and, by the way, the Sightseer Lounge was a great spot for viewing and taking photos. Individual swivel chairs offered comfort and ease to take in the views on both sides of the train. And, of course … you could get a beverage to go from Cammy – what else did a person need?

Traveling on the trains in Canada and the US was really something; very relaxing and the scenery was majestic and mesmerizing – a visual meditation. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Useful links for Chicago

Chicago Architecture Foundation:

Frank Lloyd Wright – Great Buildings online:

Art Institute of Chicago:

The El Chicago (Chicago Transit Authority):

InterContinental Hotel Chicago:


We traveled to Chicago on the overnight train – the Lakeshore Limited. Well, here’s the thing about being on trains … one door can look just like another … On the first morning we were speeding to breakfast and moving quite quickly down the corridor. When we reached a door straight ahead (just like the dining car’s door) I opened it with full force to find two very startled (Julian said terrified) people. The man frozen in mid-movement putting his socks on and the woman was just very still and glazed over…Oops, wrong door!! Julian thought I was really behaving like an undercover agent from the NYPD, and kept reminding me of this by saying “Police!  – FREEZE!!” every I went before him through doorways.

The train was fine. Not as posh as Le Canadien, but comfy and homely. For instance, whereas the Canadian train boasts gourmet meals, Amtrak dining is more like a diner, but there are 3 or so choices and the wine is ok. The service is less professional – but, hey, the price of the ticket for a private sleeper is much less too.
Chicago in America’s Midwest – often known as the heartland – is the business headquarters for many large steel companies and business services, as well as being the transport hub of the country, for both rail and air, and is a vibrant centre for cultural and political life.

Chicago is a wonderful city for appreciating architecture; it is after all the home of the first skyscraper. Ingenuity in building design principles flowed from a major fire that swept through the largely timber constructed city in 1871. 

Chicago needed to be rebuilt quickly and it’s geographic shape necessitated maximum population density in available space. Thus was born the steel skeleton construction method that could be built “as high as you like” – the modern skyscraper – and the architectural powerhouse of elegance, the Chicago School.

Among its stars were Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Frank-Lloyd Wright. There are fine examples of early 20th century buildings along North Michigan Avenue and in the Loop. The gothic design of the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley building and the white limestone turret of the Water Tower (the only public structure to survive the Great Chicago Fire) cast a kind of timeless elegance to Michigan Avenue. This is contrasted with the 110 floor Sears Tower (once the world’s tallest building) and the stark black steel and glass construction by Mies van der Rohe of the IBM building in Marina City, behind the twin towers known as the ‘corncobs”.

The Loop is also framed by the elevated rail track; you guessed it, the El! Julian captured it and also took some great shots of different buildings near the Chicago River and in the Loop itself. 

In the meantime … I was working on my first film called “While I was out shopping”….don’t know what happened really … Mind you, the shopping is great in Chicago. The “Magnificent Mile” on North Michigan Avenue is a case in point and is home to high end boutiques, jewellery shops, department stores, bookstores and art galleries. The Loop is also home to some important retail history. The Marshall Field’s department store building (now owned by Macy’s) known, among other things, for it’s beautiful exterior clock and the Carson, Pirie & Scott department store building are both there.

Another striking thing about “the look” of Chicago is the expanse of parklands and beaches along the lake front and the number of strikingly dramatic pieces of sculpture or plaza art, such as Picasso’s “Sculpture” in front of the Daley Centre. (Yes, that’s right, the one that was featured in the Blues Brothers! Here featured with Christmas tree)

We stayed in a great hotel, the Intercontinental on North Michigan Avenue next door to the beautiful gothic style Tribune Building. It’s an art deco building which was commissioned by the Shriners (Masons) and started out life as the Medina Athletic Club – an organisation for pretty wealthy guys.

At the time of its opening in 1929, it was criticised for its “wasteful extravagance” – why? It only had limestone relief carvings in the Assyrian style on the 8th floor (hmmm); three Sumarian warriors carved into the 12th floor façade (well, ok); a chimney-like structure on the roof for docking airships (now you’re talking); a 23rd floor miniature golf course complete with water hazards and a babbling brook (um, if you must); a shooting range (now hang on!); a billiards hall (ho-hum); a running track (where was Nike?); a gymnasium (practical); an archery range (ok Robin); a bowling alley (ppallleeeze); a 2 story boxing arena ( … eee!) and a junior Olympic size swimming pool on the 15th floor.

This pool, with its blue Spanish majolica tiles and terra cotta fountain of Neptune is one of the club’s few features which remain today – and Sue saw it, in full use, each time she went to the gym. Oh, and another modest feature still in use today is the 2 story grand ballroom, complete with a 12,000 pound Baccarat crystal chandelier – the largest in North America. Well the dear Shriners didn’t know that the stock market crash was coming and in 1934, they lost their beloved clubhouse. From then on, it became a hotel.

Another interesting feature in the hotel for us was that in the early 90’s, an Italian conservator from Florence named Raphael Lippi restored several paintings, depicting concepts such as “wisdom”, “consecration” and “contribution”! We couldn’t believe it. 

Postscript: A great day out beyond the city – Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, travelling on the El

Oak Park is a delightful suburb, with tree-lined streets, mostly large house blocks many featuring the strong horizontal lines and glass of Wright’s Prairie School. Other homes are large free standing Victorian style, offering a dramatic contrast to the Prairie look.

I went to Wright’s home and studio in Chicago Avenue. He lived and worked there for the first 20 years of his career. It’s a restored early 19th century building and contains an octagonal, light-filled drafting room and a dramatic barrel vaulted playroom – you sure hope the kids appreciated this architectural masterpiece!!

There are lots of architectural tours available on foot, bicycle and bus and there is information available in Wright’s home. The gift shop has a beautiful range of books, reproductions of his glass and metal works and a host of other things.

I made the return trip on the El. All very straight forward – the station is nearby, but it was a Sunday, so there was a longer wait than usual. So, off the train went. At the next stop, a guy got on and sat opposite me. He was clearly on something, very animated and agitated – started talking in a loud voice to no one in particular. The rest of us were pretending to be cool but averting our eyes just the same. I christened him Loudmouth.

We pulled in to the next station and I spied coming through the turnstile what was going to be a further complication. A striking Afro American man, decked out from head to foot in lime green. Yep, I wasn’t sure if he was a bell captain in a hotel, as he featured silk shirt and matching vest, well-cut trousers, a bowler hat (uh -ha) and boots – ALL in lime green!! I christened him Lime Green Larry.

Well, of course Loudmouth saw him too and even before the guy walked in the door, he was in full flight – “Hey man, get a load of this dude!!” Lime Green assessed the situation and discreetly moved to another part of the carriage. This did not deter Loudmouth, who continued his commentary for the benefit of all of us. It was around this time I realised how hard it is to focus continuously on a spec of dust on the opposite window …

Another stop. Well dressed man in his fifties enters – the New Guy. Loudmouth engages him in a one-way discussion about the state of the world, the El, and Lime Green of course … When the New Guy finally speaks, turns out HE has quite a story too. “Don’t go talkin like this man. Ain’t gonna get you nowhere. I was like you – ran away from home when I was ten; lived on the streets. I was an alcoholic, then addicted to heroin; I’ve seen it all … but THEN, I found Jesus … it changed my life. Now I work in a community support place and I help people like I used to be”. Loudmouth is actually quiet and listening to this; pauses thoughtfully to compose his ideas. Then asks, “Story like that, what the hell are you doing on the EL man?” …  I was asking myself the same question!

But, a ride on the El is an experience. As we turned on a wide curving arc towards the city, I was rewarded with a sensational view of Chicago
Soon it was my stop and as I left the El at Monroe, the New Guy was still trying to save Loudmouth and Lime Green was still keeping a low profile …