Day 48 & 49: Madison, WI and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN

Minneapolis is the overlooked, oft-forgotten city of America, the underdog of the Midwest, usually passed over in favour of the more famous and glamorous metropolises on the coasts. Many people have not even heard of Minneapolis – and that is exactly what locals bristle at. Minneapolitans feel very strongly that their city has as much to offer in terms of music, food, the arts and culture as New York or Chicago (in quality if not in quantity), and that Minneapolis should be firmly on the map of culturally significant cities in the US.

At least that is the impression I got from two good friends of mine who are Minneapolis natives – Ian, a professional violinist who I met in Prague, and who we were lucky enough to stay with for our two days and nights in the Twin Cities; and Brendan, my (and formerly Gwynnie’s) Prague choir director. Ironically we were actually in Minneapolis, Brendan’s hometown, on the same day as our Prague choir were having their huge ten year anniversary concert – talk about coincidental timing!

Day 48: Saturday 29th April

On our way to Minneapolis we stopped in Madison, Wisconsin for lunch. We had only realised we were going to be passing through Wisconsin the night before in Chicago when Chris and Julie pointed it out to us. We hadn’t realised earlier because we almost never looked up our route in advance – we’d usually just get in the car, type our next destination into Waze, and hope for the best. This tactic sometimes led to problems, eg. being taken on expensive toll roads that we weren’t expecting (until we set it to avoid tolls, which then sometimes had the adverse effect of taking us really long convoluted routes that added hours onto the journey when we could have just spent 25 cents to go on a toll road). You catch my drift. Anyway, my advice for anyone else attempting a mammoth US road trip is don’t do what we did (in this regard) 😉 Be more organised than we were and look up your route in advance. If only because it will save you lots of embarrassing conversations like this, which happened multiple times on the trip:

Enthusiastic friend, stranger or well-wisher: So where are you going next?

Us: [naming next destination]

Enthusiastic friend, stranger or well-wisher: Oh cool! So you’ll be taking the I-90 then?

Us: Er……

Enthusiastic friend, stranger or well-wisher: Or are you taking the 55 instead?

Us: [Looking blank]

It will also stop you from completely missing the fact that you’re going through a whole new state that you didn’t even realise you were going through, as was the case with us and Wisconsin. This is good because a) it helps you keep an accurate count of how many and which states you’re going to, which if you’re a numbers, facts and figures nerd like I am is desirable, and also because a lot of people ask “How many states are you going to?” and if you completely miss the fact you’re driving through Wisconsin or Indiana on your way to somewhere else, you can’t hope to give an accurate answer, and b) you might have friends in the state that you’re driving through and you didn’t even realise. (This happened with Gwynnie. She actually had friends in Wisconsin that we could have stopped to see on the way, but she hadn’t bothered to contact them because we didn’t think we were going to Wisconsin. She tried to get in touch with them last minute but it was too late and they already had plans.) So a word to the wise – look up your routes in advance by a couple of days at least 🙂

The main reason we were excited when we found out we were going to Wisconsin was their Bloody Marys. (Gwynnie: or Maries?) While you may be used to a stick of celery or an olive in your Bloody Mary, Wisconsin has taken cocktail food to a whole new level. One of Gwynnie’s friends from Wisconsin had told her about these unique creations many years ago, and a quick online search will show you what we mean:

5bfc6fa016279c88aa940b6da1974e29

original-7635-1401741255-20

sobelmans-pub-and-grill-chicken-fried-bloody-mary

So, we obviously wanted to check those out. My only other associations with Wisconsin were the Netflix series ‘Making a Murderer’ and the band Bon Iver (the lead singer, Justin Vernon, is from there, and the debut album ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ was written in a remote hunting cabin in the woods there, which I think you can get a sense of from the haunting music) (Gwynnie: and That 70’s Show is set there!).

When we got to Madison, it looked like Freshers Week or a scene from American Pie – there were drunk students everywhere partying in the streets, hanging out of windows, off balconies, etc. (Gwynnie: It was rather horrifying. Police herded cars into safe spaces and we eventually found a place to park). We wondered if we’d accidentally wandered into town when it was a college football game or something and the local team had just won. We later discovered it was something called The Mifflin Street Block Party, a kind of collective end of semester piss-up. We later saw a drunk guy lie down in the middle of the street where cars were driving – classic.

Mifflin Street Block Party_2

Mifflin Street Block Party_3

Feeling suddenly very old, we wandered past all the drunk 20-year-olds in search of a place called Nitty Gritty where we were hoping to get some lunch and one of those crazy Wisconsin Bloody Marys (although preferably non-alcoholic, since we still had a fair bit of driving to do afterwards). Luckily, we managed to get a table after only a 15 minute wait, which was surprising given that the place, and probably every other place in town, was heaving with people. I can’t remember what we ate because we were too excited about the Bloody Mary, which looked like this:

Bloody Mary_Anna_1

As you can see, it’s pretty much a meal in itself. We ordered it virgin but still got charged the same price as for the alcoholic version ($15) which I thought was a bit cheeky, but never mind. (Gwynnie: However, they did agree to give us a coffee with it instead of the usual “beer chaser” it comes with.)

We drove the rest of the way to Minneapolis, eventually arriving around 7pm. (We’d set off around 10am that morning from Chicago so it was a fair old drive, even with our couple of hours stop in Madison.) We were staying with my friend Ian (the violinist who I knew from Prague that I mentioned earlier). After getting settled in we left again to go to Matt’s Bar and Grill, which had been recommended to us by yet another Minneapolitan who we know from Prague (wait a minute, that’s three Minneapolitans who we know from Prague now – I think there’s some kind of conspiracy going on here). We had been told by this particular friend that we absolutely had to go to Matt’s and get a Juicy Lucy, which is a kind of burger with cheese INSIDE the patty instead of on top, so it has a melted cheese core centre.

We were meeting another friend of mine at Matt’s – Andy, who I hadn’t seen for five and a half years since we did our CELTA course together in Prague in 2011. He recently moved to St. Paul, Minneapolis’ twin city right next door, with his lovely wife Brooke, who also came to Matt’s with us. It was really great to see him again after so long!

(Gwynnie: This place was so popular that we waited for an hour to sit down, although we didn’t even notice it as we were chatting). After feasting on our Juicy Lucy’s (the cheese gets very hot inside so be careful – luckily we were warned of this beforehand and therefore avoided scalding the inside of our mouths) and having some beers we bade farewell to Andy and Brooke and went home to bed – we were pretty exhausted after our long drive that day!

Day 49: Sunday 30th April

We had a slow, lazy morning having breakfast and skyping people back home, then around lunchtime we split up for a bit and Gwynnie went to visit her friend Liz’s mum (Liz was the one who recommended going to Matt’s for a Juicy Lucy to us!). (Gwynnie: They very kindly fed me margharitas and tacos, and I sent Liz some photos of me just chilling with her family… a bit surreal for her, I think! I also got to meet this amazing dog 🙂 )

Lizs family_dog.jpg

Meanwhile Ian and I went to Minnehaha Park and saw the Minnehaha Falls, which Antonin Dvořák, beloved Czech composer (I’m seeing even more Czech/Prague connections with Minneapolis now) was so inspired by that he composed his Violin Sonata after seeing them. Supposedly he started writing bits of it on his shirt sleeve as he was looking at them! (Fun bit of trivia from Ian there.)

Minnehaha Falls_2

Having seen the Niagara Falls a few days before, I can’t claim to be quite as impressed and inspired as Dvořák was, but they were nevertheless very pretty and peaceful.

For lunch we went to Tilia, a trendy bistro type place in the Linden Hills neighbourhood, which was where Gwynnie re-joined us. After lunch Ian took us to Wild Rumpus, an adorable children’s bookshop nearby with its own menagerie of animals inside for children to play with. It also has this cute entrance which I very much enjoyed (obviously I went through the children’s entrance):

Wild Rumpus bookshop_doorWild Rumpus bookstore Anna small door

Ian then drove us to Lake of the Isles (Minneapolis actually has a chain of lakes all next to each other – Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake). We walked round the lake and eventually ended up on Mount Curve Avenue, a street with some ridiculous houses like this:

Mount Curve Avenue_Castle house

We went to a lookout point from where you could see the downtown, and that’s honestly as close as we ever got to the downtown – apparently it’s not that exciting, it’s just a pretty bog standard American “city centre” (as we Brits would say). Apparently it’s not the downtown that makes Minneapolis exciting, it’s all about the neighbourhoods – the same could be said of a few other places I can think of off the top of my head, Berlin springs to mind. From the same vantage point we could also see the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture from a distance, one of the iconic features of the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden:

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Picture of Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture stolen from Flickr

After that we headed off to the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the US according to Wikipedia and the ‘Explore Minnesota‘ website. I think Ian was a bit horrified at our low-class tastes – he had suggested things like watching a theatre play or a classical music concert that evening, as he was keen to show us Minneapolis’ thriving cultural scene, but we were more interested in going to a tacky giant shopping mall. What can I say – we’re pretty disgusting. It’s not that either of us enjoy shopping, and we both hate commercialism and materialism – it was more just the novelty factor, and that “going to the mall” seems like a pretty American thing to do and we were trying to hit as many stereotypical American activities as possible, and if you’re going to go to a mall it may as well be the biggest one in the United States. Also, we had heard there was a theme park with a rollercoaster INSIDE THE MALL. (There is also, of course, an aquarium, because as Gwynnie and I have repeatedly found out on this trip, Americans are obsessed with aquariums.)

It’s pretty hard to get a sense of how massive the place is (2,944,242 square feet or 273,529 m2), but I suppose if you wanted to walk around the entire place it would take hours. (According to this fun fact I found, if you spent ten minutes in each store in MOA it would take you 86 hours to visit them all.) But we didn’t visit any shops – we frankly avoided having to spend any money at all – and made a beeline for the theme park, which took us through this kind of Legoland complex with giant things made out of lego including a sabre-tooth tiger and Theseus and the Minotaur.

We found the theme park, and there is indeed a rollercoaster inside the mall, which is pretty surreal but shows how massive the place is. We wanted to go on it but disappointingly there was some complicated system for paying for it which may have involved some kind of tokens which you could only get if you had a loyalty card or some kind of account – I can’t remember the details, but safe to say it was difficult and complicated enough that it put us off. So we settled for just watching other people go on the rollercoaster:

All in all we spent maybe an hour and a half in the Mall of America and I am pleased to say that we didn’t spend any money apart from on a chai latte (Gwynnie: I actually got a free coffee – it was a special deal for people who signed up to the mall Wifi).

After our brief dalliance with the pinnacle of American commercialism, we drove to Minneapolis’ twin city, Saint Paul, which is actually the capital of Minnesota, to meet up with Andy again. We went to the Green Mill Restaurant and Bar, where we shared a pizza and had some beers, and had another great catch-up with Andy, before heading back home to Ian’s. We had two long gruelling drives ahead of us over the next two days across a large portion of the Midwest, with the ultimate aim of getting to Denver, Colorado, so we were keen to be well-rested!

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