The last stop on our seventeen month trip around the world. As we've been travelling we've realised that you can arrive in a country or town nearly anywhere in the world at anytime of day and find a hotel and find a cash machine to get some local currency from. So it came as a bit of a shock to arrive in Chicago at 6am and find that there was hardly any information on Chicago hotels available. As a result we phoned a hotel booking agency to find their cheapest rates and then caught a bus to the hotel direct where we got a better deal than the agency would have given us. The Congress Plaza was quite an impressive old style hotel and we had this view of the Sears Tower from our room.
Chicago is a great city, the sound of jazz and blues permeates through every part of the city helped by the buskers who play saxophones and clarinets rather than guitars. There is a definite city buzz but still a friendly feel about the place. We skipped the shopping in favour of ascending the John Hancock Observatory, a tall tower which overlooks the city including a great view of the Sears Tower. The skyscrapers are certainly impressive but the more unusual scenes of Chicago were the beaches right on the edge of the city and the pier with the funfair on it.
We were just staying one night in Chicago so we didn't have any time to waste. Luckily we had an excellent driver from the airport who turned out to be a jazz musician. When he found out we hadn't been to Chicago before he stopped the minibus and jumped out to get us the free listings magazine from a newsagent and recommended some good venues for live jazz and blues around the city. He even invited us to the venue where he plays on a Wednesday. But our one night in Chicago was a Monday which is not the busiest night for live music still we found a couple of really good places. The first was quite a touristy place, Blue Chicago but there was a great band on called Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express. Big Time Sarah had a piercing Aretha Franklin style voice and hollered out lots of classic blues tracks but the highlight of the evening was when we left Blue Chicago at midnight and decided to try somewhere that had a jam session going on. Arriving at Buddy Guy's Legends we felt like we'd walked into a more authentic venue. Jimmy Burns was hosting the jam and there must have been around 20 singers and musicians taking turns to join in on songs, old and new which they improvised their way through. Go to Chicago for the fantastic live music - I hope we'll be back one day.
Not a regular stop on a world tour but we were going to stay in Madison for a week with some friends that had moved over when Simon (who used to work with Richard) got a job at a computer games company over there. Madison is in the state of Wisconsin and is a couple of hours drive north-west of Chicago so we hired a car for the week and drove up there. Richard was brave enough to drive the hire car first and it took both of us a while to get used to driving on the right hand side but other than that the lanes were wide so it was pretty easy. Once we'd left the suburbs of Chicago we were surprised how much space there was. Lots of flat countryside with the odd farmhouse dotted along beside the highway.
We didn't do very touristy things in Madison unless you count shopping, shopping and shopping as touristy. I pretty much restocked my whole wardrobe, swapping faded and torn clothes for nice new ones which cost much less than the equivalent in the UK. We ventured into Walmart one day to look at the guns: you can buy a shotgun at 18 but have to be 21 to buy a handgun .The out of town malls were great but going into Madison town centre we were shocked by how quiet it was, moving the shops out has given the town a ghost town appearance, the only people on the streets seemed to be students. Madison has a big University which given the town's population of 200,000 means that it is quite a liberal place. One thing we noticed was the large amount of anti-war posters and signs outside regular houses in the suburbs aswell as the protests scrawled on the pavements outside the University.
In the evenings we had a good time going to local restaurants (fab food and massive portions) and bars with Simon and Lucy including finding what was probably the best steak in Madison at The Tornado Club.
And so it was time to go home. Slightly apprehensive about the state of the house but dying to get back to see family and friends. When we checked in at the BA desk at Chicago airport I asked if there were by any chance of getting emergency exit seats because Richard's 6'4" frame has trouble cramming into the economy seats. The reply was 'No sorry but have you ordered a special meal for the flight?', No we hadn't. 'Oh well, I can upgrade you then'. Not quite believing our ears we were told that if we'd requested a special meal we wouldn't be able to be upgraded because the meal is linked to a specific seat. The moral of this is never book a special meal! But seriously we thanked the lady at the check-in desk and then walked a few steps before turning to each other and saying 'Yes, result'. Couldn't believe our luck as it is the first time we've been upgraded and we've taken a fair few flights in the past 18 months. Thanks BA, ClubWorld certainly beats your economy seats.