Wisconsin - Madison

Lake Life


Cheese is one of my favourite foods, I think it should have its own food group. My heart loves it, my body disagrees, I got my own internal Brexit going on. Nonetheless, I was salivating at thoughts of arriving in Wisconsin, Cheese Country, my kinda people.

After tucking a few miles under our belts as we drove in from Minnesota, we randomly stopped in the town of Osseo in search of lunch. Population 2,500, number of streets 1, number of Norwegian bakeries 5. Back in the late 1800s lots of Norwegians came to America for a better life and settled in the Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa area because it reminded them most of their homeland (aww, gets ya right in the ticker).

An old Norse town, where the Vikings go to sleep

Osseo is as Norse as a Viking plaiting his hair. Both sides of the street were dominated by shopfronts with the word ‘Norske’ in them. We slipped into the Norske Nook Bakery and were surprised to find it heaving with people. The street outside was deserted, everyone in town was staying out of the heat and getting stuck into the delicious Norwegian pies.

All the staff looked Norwegian (wearing traditional Norwegian dress helped) but when I spotted the two bakers emerge from the kitchen I knew this place was the real deal. They were older ladies, as tall as waterfalls with stature of Norse gods, their skin was a golden crinkled brown I’ve never seen except on a pie, their hair yellow and white tied severely back in a bun. These baking behemoths were clearly descendants of Thor.

Back on the deserted street, wiping fancy flakes from the corners of our mouths, we were back on the road. I recall coming across a lot of deer roadkill as we drove the 4 hours to Madison. It was upsetting. Why so many?? I don’t know, Bambi’s all out of luck.

Cheese pleaee

Our first introduction to Wisconsin cheese curds was in a store on the side of the road called the Mouse Cheesehouse. You may remember ‘curds’ from the old nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey. Curds and whey are the solids and the liquid leftover after you make cheese (I’ve never made cheese, who’s got time to make cheese, are people making cheese?). Aside from Miss Muffet and her weird food peccadilloes I had never heard of anyone eating such things, until I came to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland, they make so much cheese the leftover curds are a product in itself. They bag them, flavour them and sell them everywhere. It’s a snack. Thanks to a tip from my favourite Wisconsinite, Sue, I went for the garlic variety of curds, and they hit the spot.

The decor was a bit cheesey

We stayed in the Graduate Hotel right beside the University of Wisconsin. We have stayed with this hotel chain a couple of times and I love what they are doing with their brand (the devil is in the detail, as they say). They set up in college towns and keep a college theme with row boats in the lobby, letterman jackets on the wall, sports team pendants as door hangers, the hotel rooms have student notebooks with lecture notes in them, and law books scattered around the room, the piece-de-resistance was the student ID card aka the room key. Genius!

Look at your big bad Capitol self

To shake off the drive we took a walk down the pedestrianized State Street. It wasn’t a million miles off Dublin’s Grafton St, full of shops, bars, restaurants and every type of stroller and straggler you could imagine. Naturally enough State St’s climatic end is the State Capitol Building itself. I’ve seen my share of Capitol Buildings, they are often austere structures to be revered but this one seemed more comfortable in its own skin. People were hanging out on the grass in front of it, lounging on the steps, like it was an old friend.

Whose your interior designer? God?

We ventured inside the Capitol (didn’t even know you could do that, thanks for the top tip Kerrie). It’s classical cathedral like architecture is very impressive. The trick is not to spend too long breaking your neck looking up at the dome, instead get yourself up those staircases and lifts as high up at you can go to get in the dome itself, and suck in the views of the city and the lakes.

As we ambled around Capitol Square we encountered a couple of elderly sisters out for their evening constitution, hiking poles in hand. They were 5% body and 95% smile, absolutely delighted to just ‘be’. They were deliriously happy to talk to Róisín who engaged them in a great old chat (no better woman). I want to be like that when I’m 82, I probably should start now with the big smiles, meh, I’ll start tomorrow.

Around the streets of Madison I did notice a significant number of shops devoted to popcorn, just popcorn. I like popcorn, but does the world need a shop or two devoted to it?! In Madison the answer is a firm yes.

The next morning we ventured back to State St for breakfast. Dom announced that his breakfast burrito was the best he had ever had! Bear in mind Dom’s proclamations of perfect are heavily influenced by hunger levels and how much cheese curds and popcorn were consumed prior to the burrito.

Monona Terrace - Frank Llyod Wrights footprint in Madison

I was very excited to explore the Monona Terrace. It was created by arguably America's best architect of all time (the man behind New York City’s Guggenheim Museum) Mr Frank Lloyd Wright. FLW was from Wisconsin and had a dream to get a government commission in his home state. He devised the plans for Monona Terrace, it’s a convention center which embraces Lake Monona complete with a stunning roof terrace. It is a convention center like no other, instead it felt like we were treading the planks on board on a luxury cruise liner floating in the lake (perhaps that was his intention).

The building contained a museum about Frank Lloyd Wright, he was a fascinating man. A devout Unitarian, always dapper, someone said a casting director’s dream of what an architect should look like. Apparently his mother knew from birth he would be an architect! (Róisín has so far expressed to me that she wants to be a Princess Knight, a Nature Helper (?!) and live in the rainbow house on the moon - not even a hint of architect, lawyer, doctor, tech billionaire).

The crushing sadness about Monona Terrace is that FLW submitted his plans for the terrace to the government in the 1930s, it was rejected by one vote (boo). He tried for the rest of his life to get it approved by making alterations and resubmitting. In the 1990s many years after his death it was finally approved and built. It is now a star attraction in Madison where FLW is rightly revered.

Our hotel resided on a street that appeared to be home to most of the colleges’ fraternity and sorority houses. That side of American College culture is so alien to me, it fascinates me. Seeing the Greek symbols on the houses, mascots outside, a table on the porch full of empty beer bottles, frat boys carrying canoes down to the lake - I genuinely thought I was in a movie.

Keg parties aside it was time to visit the University of Wisconsin. It’s buildings were a mixture of old and new, many mimicked grandiose European houses of learning. The Union Terrace is the college bar, unlike college bars from my youth in Ireland, this one was by a lake with paddle boarders, sunbathers, ice cream eaters, most of Madison was there from Freshmen to families. We ventured along the scenic Lake shore trail until the heat drove us in search of shade, food and possibly a nap!

It’s a very bike friendly city with streams of bike paths. It can get a little hairy at times as some of the paths are shared with pedestrians and the bikers swish past you like lycra clad deadly stealth ninjas. We came across a random vending machine hoping for water but it just dispensed bicycle parts and fix-it tools, brilliant idea.

We had lunch by the lake in a building called Machinery Row. It used to be a series of tobacco warehouses and ice houses. After lunch we took a ponder down Williamson St (aka ‘Willy St’). It was hippy and happening with a variety of places to eat.

Thai-ger Mum

The Olbrich Botanical gardens top all the lists as the number 1 thing to do in Madison. It is also free in so kudos to Madison for creating a garden truly for the people. I must admit when ‘botanical gardens’ top a city’s Top 10 List it usually means there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. I wasn’t sure at first if it should even be alluded to in the Top 20 List as it seemed to be more about paved paths and shrubbery than anything else (I appreciate a garden is at the mercy of what's in bloom, but still it's Summer, c'mon). However, it's tranquility won me over. It has a gorgeous Thai Pavilion covered in gold leaf, it was beautiful.

Daddy Daughter Sunset

The Great Lakes are a huge part of the Wisconsin landscape and psyche. We wanted to spend time just lazing at the lake, so that’s what we did. We discovered Tenney beach, small (maybe 20 meters wide) on the shore of Lake Mendota. A picture perfect way to spend an evening.

Before we left Madison I wanted to squeeze in some more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. We decided to check out the First Unitarian Meeting House. As we drove slowly along the road trying to find the exact place I kept mumbling ‘is that it?’. Dom was convinced a FLW would stand out and sure enough a soaring roof poked out into the road, encased in its windows was a glorious shining church organ glittering in the sun. Now that's Frank Lloyd Wright said Dom.

Frank Lloyd Wright in da meeting house, yo!

I was excited at seeing another of his creations up close, plus I was excited about going into a Unitarian Church for the first time (sorry, "meeting house"). Unitarians are a mystery to me, what's their deal, any religion that starts life in Transylvania has got to have some stories. Alas, it was closed (ironically the closed sign was beside a sign saying refugees always welcome, I guess not after hours!). I peaked, I ambled, I testified that the roof did indeed soar to a point emulating a church steeple, remarkable.

Spaghetti all over the place-a

After a great Italian dinner outdoors in a spot called Porta Bella (with a terrific mind reading waiter) we grabbed coffees and walked down to the lake in the glow of the evening sun. The three of us sat down and watched the sun set. Bliss.

As we departed the hotel the next morning, the lady behind the front desk came hopping out from her den to give Roisin a little pillow shaped like a fox. Why the fox, I don’t know, but it was a hell of a lot better than a mint.

I can see why families are drawn to Madison Wisconsin, it would be a pretty nice spot to grow up in. Buy a dog, settle down, lots of dog friendly stuff going on in Wisconsin

As we drove out of Wisconsin to Iowa I didn't notice fields of crops (which was the signature of our Great Plains road trip - for stories on that read here) instead I saw lots and lots and lots of green fields, the sheer scale of huge open spaces struck me, even the space separating traffic on the highways was immense, it felt like football fields.

We knew we were in Iowa when the corn stalks popped up on the horizon.

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