There was a Magritte exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, and United Airlines was offering very cheap return flights direct from Vancouver, so we decided to take a 10-day trip. Our plan was to spend a couple of days in the city, then pick up a car and drive southwest towards St.Louis to visit the world-famous Missouri Botanical Garden. From there we thought perhaps we'd circle east towards Memphis and Nashville before returning to Chicago for the flight home.
As it turned out, we were daunted by the amount of freeway driving that plan would entail, and changed our plans after the St. Louis leg.
The Magritte exhibition did not disappoint, leading us through some of his early, tentative work towards the confident demonstrations of his skill apparent in later paintings, many of them now famous.
In all, we spent over 5 hours in the gallery, taking in other significant works by other artists as well.
Unfortunately, I dared not take any photographs as I hadn't figured out how to turn off the flash on my pocket camera. I had to be content with the views of downtown Chicago from the Art Institute windows: famous buildings instead of famous paintings.
Outside the Art Institute, enormous urns were filled with plants.
We stayed in a hotel near Wrigley Field, within walking distance of the Red Line. On the short walk, I admired a green wall outside a parking garage...
...and a dog sculpture outside the adjoining police station.
The Road to St Louis
Getting out of Chicago on a Friday afternoon proved to be a lengthy process on the clogged freeways.
We made it to the town of Normal and stayed in a motel crowded with people arriving for an Illinois State University homecoming weekend. The following morning, we arrived in Springfield the state capital with its impressive domed legislature building.
However, our purpose was to pay a visit to the Dana-Thomas House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Recently restored, it was open to visitors for a donation (suggested as $10). Photographs were only permitted of the exterior.
Continuing on our way under dramatic blue skies daubed with fluffy clouds, we passed through vast agricultural landscapes of corn and soya beans.
As we approached St. Louis, its famous arch rose glittering into view.
With little difficulty we found Casa Magnolia, our Bed-and-Breakfast, situated across from a park in a leafy neighbourhood of fine brick houses.
Our spacious room was on the first floor above the entrance. From the two windows we had a pleasant view of the park.
The surrounding streets were filled with similar houses...
It was encouraging to see value placed on restoration and retention of these mansions...
...and amusing to find this quirky piece of street art, left over from a weekend festival.
The main event for me, though, was of course the Missouri Botanical Garden.
I was surprised to see how much of the entrance display, both from the road and inside, featured tropical plants, and wondered what they were replaced with during the winter.
There was also a considerable amount of Victorian-style bedding-out of largely tender plants.
By contrast with this explosion of colour, there were quiet walks shaded by graceful trees.
Our favourite area was the large Japanese garden.
Every tree and shrub had been meticulously clipped to enhance its elegance and highlight its most attractive features, like this Acer griseum with its beautiful cinnamon-coloured bark.
I read that over 30 gardeners are employed full-time to maintain the high standard of excellence in this 79-acre site. (By contrast, Vancouver's gem, the VanDusen Botanical Garden has only 6 full-time gardeners for its 55 acres.)
An unexpected highlight of our visit to St. Louis was the city's art gallery, which had some exceptional works, both familiar (one of the Monet waterlily panels) and unfamiliar ( a Degas that doesn't make it into most books.)
The view from the rise on which the classical building perches is impressive too, a grand Versailles-like sweep of lawn and fountains.
Along the Wide Missouri
We had planned to continue to Memphis and Nashville, but decided against it, based on advice from the owners of the B&B, who described the journey as long and dull. Instead we headed west along the "wide Missouri." It certainly is wide, as the song says, but not very scenic.
We noticed that, even though it was the first week of October, people were already decorating for Halloween. Some were going overboard.
For the most part, however, although the scenery was picturesque, signs of abandonment were frequent.
Shortly before arriving at our destination, the town of Hermann, we came across an interesting bit of roadkill.
Hermann is an old town originally settled by German immigrants and now the centre of a bourgeoning wine region.
The town was charming.
But I wondered if the poor state of US education was responsible for the grammar in much of the signage?
If not for the high price, I might have been tempted by a wartime poster for sale in one of several junk shops. The idea of a victory garden as a munitions factory was intriguing.
A hugely popular destination on weekends, Hermann is quiet and populated only by locals mid-week. Although the B&B we chose was fully booked for the coming weekend, we had the house to ourselves for our two-night stay.
We found the best food in town at Wings A'Blazin, a popular local diner, but the best decor was at the Concert Hall and Barrel Bar, which had old-fashioned booths, wood panelling and a pressed tin ceiling.
From Hermann we turned back east towards St. Genevieve on the banks of the Mississippi.
St. Genevieve is an even older town, this one settled by the French, and it is still proud of its French heritage, although the present inhabitants don't appear to have any knowledge of the language.
This old house, formerly an inn, became the first masonic lodge west of the Mississippi, commemorated by the plaque below.
The Road back to Chicago
A long day of freeway driving brought us back to Chicago. We drove through miles of large tracts of monoculture crops ...
... with several opportunities to contrast the old way of life...
Our last night in Illinois before flying home was in a chain motel on the outskirts of Chicago, in a suburb ironically called Countryside, where the highlight was the most popular restaurant in town, yet another diner ...
... but this one inside a bowling alley where an animated tournament was taking place.
It seemed a fittingly American end to our American journey.