I’m a Hoosier by birth but not a Notre Dame fan. I consider the film “Rudy” to be a melodramatic snooze and never thought I had a reason to visit South Bend, Ind. But Notre Dame occupies an ineradicable place in the hearts of millions of Americans, and I sensed that there was something there worth investigating.
In fact, South Bend is worth a trip. It is a big, broad, postindustrial Midwestern city, home to a very good university with a big reputation. But there is more to Notre Dame than what we see in its sports culture. And there is more to South Bend than Notre Dame: Its proud industrial heritage and quiet localism reward visitors who give it a chance.
I visited on the first bitingly cold day of winter and ate breakfast at Jeannie’s House Diner (1-574-855-4423): a long counter in front of a big griddle with this-and-that on the walls. But it is not one of those greasy spoons that cuts every conceivable cost. The chicken-fried steak? Hand-breaded and piping hot, smothered in perfect cream gravy. The toast? Sweet American white bread delivered fresh daily from a local bakery. The strawberry jam? Homemade. They have meatloaf dinners every Thursday, and always sell out. “We don’t get many complaints,” the cook slyly told me over her shoulder.
She recommended that I visit the South Bend Farmers Market (1-574-282-1259), and I was hesitant — produce in December? I was happy to see that it’s a nice old indoor venue full of shiny, established stands, like the Midwestern version of the celebrated covered markets of Mexico. Shoppers bustled between picture-perfect displays of meat and poultry, produce and artisanal goods. One woman at a local farm’s booth let me sample a selection of honeys, apparently the best in the nation. I never knew that honey could have such nuance of flavor and texture. I took some jewel-toned pickled beets home with me.
More French than Irish
The University of Notre Dame du Lac — “Our Lady of the Lake,” although there are actually two lakes on campus — is adjacent to South Bend and maintains a serene sense of separation. Its buildings are solid, cheerfully utilitarian, mostly pale yellow brick and stone. Tours from the Eck Visitors Center leave at least once a day (schedule at ntrda.me/1NPlDO3; 1-574-631-5726). My student guide was pleasant and knowledgeable and, since I was on the tourists’ tour, didn’t treat me like a prospective applicant.
Notre Dame’s physical space reflects its Gallic name much more so than its Fighting Irish nickname. The interior color palette is deep French blue, gold and ivory. Our first stop was the one-seventh-scale reproduction of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, the famous pilgrimage site in the Pyrenees. The guide fed me the line that the preponderance of candles measured students’ finals-provoked prayers, but they looked uplifting and brave as they flickered in the brutal winter wind.
A university’s church can say a lot about it. Think of Eero Saarinen’s sleek midcentury-modern chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Harvard Memorial Church’s Puritan austerity and symmetry. The Gothic Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a Catholic tour de force and feels decidedly Old World. The stained glass was imported from Le Mans and is, after two world wars, the best collection of its kind in existence. The Baroque altarpiece, an original of Bernini’s workshop, and illuminated frescoes are breathtaking. Look above at the Exaltation of the Holy Cross to see Old and New Testament prophets as well as St. Patrick aggressively holding an oversized shamrock. Irish-American students supposedly goaded Vatican painter Luigi Gregori to include the saint.
The tour also stops at Notre Dame’s Main Building, with its famous golden dome topped by a gigantic statue of Mary, and ends in sight of the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural (aka “The Word of Life”). It’s an icon enough for its athletic connotations, but it is also a very well-executed example of that earnest 1960s neo-medieval religious iconography that is well past due for a revival.
Thyme of Grace, open weekdays for lunch, is, in the very best way, the kind of place your grandmother would love — pretty and wholesome, not prissy. I paired a rich cup of rosemary-potato chowder with the pear-portobello salad with a balsamic reduction, beautifully plated and garnished with edible flowers (1-574-288-0552; cash only).
I spent the afternoon at the Studebaker National Museum (1-574-235-9714), which tracked the history of an automobile manufacturer once as widely known as General Motors from its first days making carriages through the 1960s. It reminded me a lot of the Henry Ford Museum showroom in Dearborn, Mich. The neighboring South Bend History Museum (1-574-235-9664) is excellent for a municipality of only 100,000 residents, with a very good exhibit on the history of the St. Joseph River Valley. If you’re into old-fashioned domestic opulence, tour plow manufacturer James Oliver’s mansion and gardens. Don’t miss the preserved Worker’s Home, a 1930s Polish-American working class residence.
The Make South Bend gallery (1-574-855-2271) is an arts-and-crafts hub selling several local artisans’ products. The side room is dedicated to a monthlong single artist’s showcase. They teach classes, and a daily pass gives you free rein of their equipment and materials for your own projects. Just before dinner, I tried not to spoil my appetite at a tour of the South Bend Chocolate Co. (1-574-233-2577). It was geared primarily toward families, and the kids on my tour had a ball. Truthfully, the adults did, too — who doesn’t like free samples? They make a quality product; nothing too fancy, but sound and at a good price.
I felt I needed to experience some kind of Irishness before I left. I found it at the pub Fiddler’s Hearth (1-574-232-2853), a close approximation to the real Emerald Isle deal in slowly regenerating downtown South Bend. The shepherd’s pie, made with local lamb, was steaming, hearty and delicious with a Guinness. And nobody there seemed to be a stranger.
Lodging and logistics
The consensus is that you should stay on campus, either at the Morris Inn (1-574-631-2000), just a skip away from Notre Dame Stadium, or at the Inn at St. Mary’s College (1-574-232-4000), Notre Dame’s sister school.
The city is most easily traversed by car. There are direct flights on Delta Air Lines between Minneapolis-St. Paul and South Bend International Airport. The South Shore Line, one of the last surviving interurban rail services, runs several times a day between the airport and Millennium Station in the Chicago Loop.
Aaron Gettinger is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, focusing on the sociology of the rural Midwest.