How about a little road trip? I’m late in posting this – shocker, I know – but I wanted to get this up at some point, so here we are! Last time we were in the States, we went on a little weekend road trip with my folks, to visit Galena, Illinois, and northeast Iowa.
Why? Shoot, why not? I hadn’t been to Galena since I was a kid, and we also wanted to visit a famous restaurant in Balltown, Iowa, because…food! So, we all packed up the cars and headed west on the Illinois back roads, eventually making our way to Dubuque, Iowa.
And I’m sorry to say – for Dubuque, anyway – that we didn’t really spend any time there. This was a very mini trip, so all Dubuque got was our bodies in beds and trips to the grocery store and coffee shop. It’s kind of a shame, because it seems quite interesting and I hadn’t been there for at least 20 years. Ah well…next time!
The first thing most people not from around here will say is, Why on Earth would you want to go to Illinois or Iowa? But, as the locals know, this area of the Midwest is damn gorgeous. It’s got rolling hills everywhere, cliffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and basically looks the exact opposite of the stereotypically flat Midwest.
Of course, my camera can’t really capture that. Or, I can’t, anyway. You’ll just have to trust.
Wikipedia told me that this entire region spreading out from the corners of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota is called the Driftless Zone. It escaped glaciation during the last Ice Age, so its topography is entirely different than what you’d expect when you land in any one of those four states. It’s why you get ski areas in Iowa, and scenic routes and driving roads that can hang with any of the best in the U.S.
Of course, I never knew it as the Driftless Zone when I was a kid. I just knew it as a great place to drive, and drive hard. How fast can I go to visit my sister in college? How to approach that apex? One-hundred-and-what?!
It’s probably where I honed my skills as the best rally driver never to have driven a race car. Nor to have competed in a car race. Nor to have sat in a rally car. Nor anything else remotely realistic. But, that’s how I felt when I drove these roads in my teens. Guaranteed. (Hi, Mom and Dad!)
Anyway. I spent part of my life growing up south of here, so knowing that it was beautiful inspired us to go on this little trip in the first place. That, and fried chicken. But, more on this tasty delight in a bit.
On the way over there, we had to stop for lunch in the small town of Elizabeth, Illinois, and have a look-see at the tractors in the lot.
My dad loves tractors. I think he was a farmer in a parallel universe. Actually, I know he was, because I asked him once.
Back on the road, and on to Dubuque. After checking into our hotel and all that, we headed northwest to drive around the hills of Iowa and see some countryside.
My mom probably won’t like that her eyes are closed in this picture, but I think it’s super-cute. Publish!
My brother-in-law spent part of his youth here, so we passed by his old family farm and wove some more around the back country to awe at the fall foliage and the up-and-down topography.
We eventually got hungry, so it was time to hit the village of Balltown. When Angela and I were living in Vienna, we watched a documentary called Spinning Plates. Featured in it was a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere, known for its fried chicken and country cuisine.
The restaurant actually burned down twice, but the community rallied around it and it was rebuilt both times. It’s called Breitbach’s, and it’s the oldest continually operating restaurant in the whole state. Since 1852!
This is an old German community, so there’s a bit of that flair outside and inside the restaurant. Although, neither we nor our friends seem to know what dialect of German this is. We understand it, but the spelling is definitely foreign to us.
They serve country takes on German cuisine as well, and we were ready for the task.
We also spent a short amount of time talking to some of the family and employees, as we’re always intrigued by the history of a place and the stories that it holds. As established during our Fabric of America road trip, every place and all of its people have a unique story to tell.
As a traveler, you should never feel like the only interesting things to experience are the traditional locales. What’s important is to get out there and see what anything and everything is all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Paris, or in a town of 68 people in northeast Iowa.
After stuffing our bellies and making our way in the pitch-black dark back to Dubuque, we rested up for our following day in Galena.
Not before my dad found another tractor in Dubuque, though. Those are eyes lost in dreams.
The town of Galena, Illinois, sits about 20 minutes east of Dubuque, and is known in the region for being extremely charming. It’s a weekend destination for thousands in the Midwest, full of all sorts of shops that line its main drag.
This area of about 3,500 inhabitants was settled in the mid-17th century by French trappers. It’s old. Olde. Nowadays, it’s chock-full of 19th and early 20th century architecture that slopes up from the river, right onto some very steep hills that overlook the valley.
We were there after the chaos of fall foliage visitors, and it was still pretty crowded throughout the downtown. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season.
We didn’t have any real “plans,” other than to walk around town, maybe shop a bit, and most certainly eat some food. We also found some classy wine.
And a root beer store with tons of local brew and other interesting selections from across the U.S. Gotta love it, especially since we spend so much time in other countries, where it’s a delicacy. If you can even find it.
This lil’ feller looks exactly like our friends’ old dog (RIP). Exactly. Even they were like…umm…
And coffee, naturally. There are a few nice coffee shops in town, but we weren’t too impressed with what they had to offer. Alas, wit counts for something!
A couple friends of my parents were on a road trip of their own, and decided to meet up with us in Galena for lunch.
It was nice to meet them, as they’re fellow travelers as well. And hilarious, which counts for everything. And they never go by plane, so I can only imagine the miles they put in!
After getting our fill of food and shops, and basically freezing as we’re not used to cold weather anymore (ha!), we hopped in the car and slowly made our way east on the back roads, back to the Chicago area.
While it was a very short trip that didn’t allow for a whole lot of sightseeing, we still had a great time with my parents – as we always do – exploring the countryside, eating well, and having a consistent strain of hearty laughter.
Even if you’re not planning on heading to the Driftless Zone, we think it’s well worth a spot on your itinerary. Heck, I’ve been to this region on multiple occasions, and I’m still down to go back for a spell. Why not? It’s beautiful and serene and full of nice people and delicious food. What more could you ask for?
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Have you ever been to Galena or this area? If so, what’d you think? If not, what say ye? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!