I was told by someone today that 35,000 people had come into town this weekend from elsewhere. It was an interesting intersection of various events: the Illini Marathon, the Roger Ebert Film Festival, and the Artists against AIDS exhibition.
East central Illinois is not ordinarily the tourist target represented by places like Paris, Rome, Bali, or New York (not to mention Chicago 150 miles north). It's a wonderful place to live in many ways, but there are no mountains, lakes, oceans, colonial history, mangrove swamps, etc. to be found anywhere around here.
Most of the "tourism" in our particular town is usually seasonal and university-related. So folks come for football weekends, engineering open house, high school state basketball, the occasional concert, circus, or skating extravaganza, etc. At various times of year, a handful of folks are here for conferences on campus, of course, but they aren't numerous enough to tie up traffic or cause long lines at the local restaurants.
So this weekend was unusual. The Illinois Marathon isn't something I know much about except a lot of people were running in the blocked off streets while I was sleeping very late and finally going out to brunch around 2 pm. It wasn't raining for a change, although it was windy, but I don't know if that helped or hurt the runners.
The Roger Ebert Film Festival is a yearly event (for 13 years now, I think). Roger is a well-known movie critic, of course, but you may not know that he was a University of Illinois student long ago. He wrote for the campus paper, The Daily Illini, which used to be an award-winning rag (these days, it's just a rag). A series of movies are shown and various speakers provide discussions and so on. The movies are chosen by Ebert and represent selections on a continuum that goes from excellent films I like and have seen but that some people might consider arty or weird or something ... to films that are just a little bit too weird or arty or something even for me. Hah!
The Artists against AIDS is probably more of a community event than a draw for outside tourists, but it added to the traffic snarl and crowded restaurants, especially in downtown Champaign. Artists exhibit their works and a portion of the proceeds goes to local AIDS help groups. I had some jewelry in the show a number of years ago and have attended sometimes in the more recent past. Desafinado, my favorite Brazilian band, played there today, in fact.
But we kept a pretty low profile, going to the Urbana library for a bit after brunch and then spending the evening at home. We saw an excellent film on DVD called Endgame about the talks in the U.K. that resulted in the negotiations between the African National Congress and the South African government that led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the formal end of apartheid.
Of course, like any place we have "tourist" offerings here year round: the campus, local parks, libraries, a few museums, live jazz from time to time, animals on the University farms, and ... umm ... well, chain restaurants, shopping malls, Christmas tree farms, and frozen custard stands. Okay, it's not Tuscany, but you can come visit anytime!