MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheese country

A slice of cheese country

On Wisconsin's Badger Trail, bicyclists bite off as much as they can chew.

On Wisconsin's Badger State Trail, no one goes home hungry.

Starting from the south edge of Madison, the 40-mile trail plunges into Little Switzerland, taking bicyclists past a gantlet of cheese shops, meat markets, bakeries and breweries.

But the Badger is best known for its 1,200-foot-long tunnel, cut through solid limestone in 1887. It curves in the middle, so bicyclists without a good flashlight will find themselves in total darkness, their nerves shot by pigeons bursting out of hidden crannies.

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Road trip: Southwest Wisconsin

A 170-mile loop winds past lead mines, a famous grotto and a brewery town.

Scratch the surface in southwest Wisconsin, and you'll find treasure.

In the 1820s, it took the form of lead ore that early miners, to their amazement, found at the grassroots. Lead and zinc made this area bustle when Milwaukee and Madison were just getting started, and one of its villages served as the territory's first capital.

Today, visitors to this corner of the state — just across the Illinois border and up  the Mississippi bluffs — find a lode of history in a beautiful landscape.

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Heritage travel: Switzerland

In Wisconsin's cheese country, townspeople hang on to tradition.

In the Upper Midwest, the Swiss are insignificant — in numbers. Not many left the Old World. But the ones who did have had more success transplanting their traditions than nearly any other immigrant group.

In the southwest Wisconsin town of New Glarus, Germanic platitudes unfurl in Gothic script on the plaster of half-timbered chalets, over window boxes overflowing with geraniums. A little baker hangs over the doorway of the Bäckerei, where glass cases display almond-flavored brätzeli and anise springerle cookies.

The sign over the town fire department reads "Feuerwehrhaus," and Railroad Street is Bahnhofstrasse.

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Slinging cement in Mineral Point

In a historic Wisconsin village, students follow some dusty footprints.

In southwest Wisconsin, it is natural that people gather in Mineral Point to smash plates, snip glass and cover themselves in cement dust.

Not far to the west, a German-born priest built the Dickeyville Grotto from conch shells, china cups, quartz, petrified rocks and glass.

Just to the east, an Austrian-born cheesemaker encrusted his house with glass "jewels'' and filled his yard with concrete fairy-tale figures.

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Drawn to Spring Green

Creative urges converge in Frank Lloyd Wright's hometown.

There's a story behind everything in Spring Green.

Frank Lloyd Wright's story begins in the 1860s, when his unconventional grandparents and their 10 children emigrated from Wales to settle this dramatic valley of the Wisconsin River, which came to be known as "the valley of the God-almighty Joneses.''

The story of Alex Jordan's House on the Rock, atop a limestone spire that overlooks the valley and Wright's beloved home, is rooted in spite. After his father traveled from Madison to show Wright blueprints for a rooming house, and was harshly snubbed, Jordan vowed to get even and "put a Japanese house up out there.''

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Beauty in Mineral Point

In southwest Wisconsin, artists and shoppers alike are drawn to a lovely village.

Since its earliest days, the people of Mineral Point have created beauty out of nothing.

Lead first drew eager frontiersmen, who often lived in the "badger holes'' they dug in their search for "mineral.''

The territory later became known as the badger state, and the town became Mineral Point, the nucleus around which Wisconsin developed.

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Swiss at heart

In Wisconsinís Little Switzerland, New Glarus hangs onto a colorful heritage.

In a verdant little glen in southwest Wisconsin, the 13th century makes a reprise appearance every year.

It comes with pageantry, bloodshed and a whole lot of noble sentiments, courtesy of the 18th-century dramatist Friedrich Schiller. It also comes in German that’s as meaty as the Landjaeger sausages sold to spectators.

As I arrived during the first act of "Wilhelm Tell,’’ a rich Swiss patriot was discussing the horrors of war with his wife.

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Wisconsin's cheese country

In Monroe, the Swiss stay true to the flavors of their forebears.

In the land of Velveeta, Wonder bread and Miller Lite, a chunk of southern Wisconsin is an Old World holdout.

Home of North America’s last Limburger factory, Green County is the big cheese in a state of cheese makers.

It’s still famous for the pungent Limburger and Swiss on which it made its reputation. It’s weathered the advent of processed cheese food and gummy white bread. It’s survived the tide of bland beer and low-fat diets.

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Cornish in Mineral Point

A fall festival honors the miners who left their mark on Mineral Point.

The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.

In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.

"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' said Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''

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Power shopping in southwest Wisconsin

On a late-fall foray, six bargain hunters find treasure amid scenery.

Down comforters, to nestle all snug on a bed. Fleece stockings, to wear with care. Bowlsful of jelly, and a shop full of toys.

These visions were enough to draw six Minnesota women toward the rolling folds of southwest Wisconsin, holiday lists in hand. Until that trip, my friends and I never had thought of ourselves as power shoppers.

"Wow, I've never done this before,'' marveled my friend Mary, looking on as three of us tried futilely to close the lid of the bulging car-top carrier. "I've heard about women who do this.''

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Road trip: Breweries of southern Wisconsin

A beer-lover's tour taps into Old World flavors.

Fat Squirrel. Spotted Cow. Lazy Mutt. Uff-da.

Uff-da? In Wisconsin, say that and you get a great glass of beer. Anywhere else you get . . . a funny look.

Wisconsin may be full of cheeseheads. It may be a party state. But boy, are they drinking a lot of good beer there.

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Grazing in southwest Wisconsin

Where the Badger state began, Old World flavors remain.

In a state where people flaunt foam cheese wedges on their heads, you don't expect the cuisine to be timid.

The cheese, brats and beer for which Wisconsin is known are as robust as the Cheeseheads themselves, who invented the hamburger and the sundae but are best known for Old World flavors.

One of the best places to find them is in the southwest corner, where the state began.

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