The Cheese Bar – Des Moines, IA

Each summer, we head north to Whalan, MN for a family reunion. This little pocket of paradise is something I’ve grown to love since (officially) joining the family in 2013. The lone downside, though, is the due-north drive on i35, so naturally we attempt to populate the commute with a couple stops to break things up.

Up until this year, the only stop beyond refueling was the SPAM museum in Austin, MN. It’s a delightful place, as is the town in which it resides, and I recommend it if you ever find yourself in the area. It’s also worth noting that Cate is the current (unofficial) SPAM-packing champion of the world. If you do check the SPAM Museum out, see if you can beat 1:27.

But now, back to the point of this post. We needed a lunch option beyond typical fast food joints to accompany the journey. Preferably, something cheesy, and, fortunately, we found one.

I hadn’t spent much time in Des Moines since I showed dogs as a youth, but now I’ll be revisiting it on an annual basis, and it’s all thanks to The Cheese Bar.

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The Cheese Bar is as unique as it is cheesy, and pairs perfectly as the lunch spot on a long drive. It shares a building with a few other companies, including a yoga studio, which makes me imagine how perfect some baked feta would taste after an intense yoga sesh.

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A neon sign lures you in from the street, communicating precisely that what your heart desires most is directly inside. Minimal and wood-based decor adorn the small restaurant, and a few long, community style tables occupy the floor. The bar features a long line of unlabeled beer taps against a massive subway-tiled backsplash. I still have no idea how they kept them all straight, but after ordering our drinks the bartender poured my Trellis Buster (Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project) and Cate’s Liliko’i (Avery Brewing Co) with ease.

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There didn’t seem to be a bad option on the menu, but since I had never had the chance to experience raclette, I opted for that. Cate, of course, had to take their classic grilled cheese with bacon for a spin. Both were delicious, and the things the folks around us selected all looked incredible, as well.

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Although our stay was brief, The Cheese Bar left us full but wanting more, and we can’t wait to visit on our way north next year.

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Carr Valley Cheese

A few weeks ago, we road tripped up to Wisconsin for a cousin’s wedding. Good times, food, and drinks naturally followed, but one unexpected thrill greeted us on our way out of town. After we stopped at an incredible, family-owned diner, we continued our journey through southern Wisconsin and its rolling hills. As we passed through a small town, we saw something familiar up ahead. It was none other than a Carr Valley Cheese shop. We were already behind, but surely you can understand why we had to make a stop.

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Wisconsin Cheese Pride

The store was being run by a former teacher who had decided to adjust her path to cheese curation. Her passion for it was palpable, and she guided us through her offerings, made suggestions, and left a lasting impact on us both. Beyond just the cheese, the tiny shop offered shoppers a variety of cheese-related merchandise. We were lucky to leave with cash left in the bank, and were genuinely proud we were able to even leave altogether.

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We needed it all.

Carr Valley Cheese is one of most recognizable cheese brands in America, and arguably in the world. Their offerings are delicious and award-winning, and we always encourage you to snag something unique and funky. We learned an incredible amount during our short stay, and can’t wait to come back on our way to the next family event up north.

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We spent more than a handful of moments here

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Awards? Carr Valley’s got ’em!

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Cheese runs in the family at Carr Valley

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Please kindly take all our money.

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We took home as many as we could.

-D

Rome in Quattro Days

Alright, so I’ll be honest. I’ve been avoiding this post because it is intimidating. Rome. What can I say? Rome was charming yet intense, classy yet demanding, busty yet dainty. With its 290 fountains and 900+ churches, there are endless sights and ruins to see. Trains are cheap and VERY easy to figure out. I think we did a pretty damn good job gettin’ er’ done in four whole days. Thiiiisss is hooowww weeee (did) itttt.

Day 1

Our train arrived in the city around 3:00 pm. We decided to opt out of a taxi ride to our AirBnB, that way we could see sites on foot along the way. Our AirBnB was east of the Colosseo (Colosseum). Come to find, we were living in the heart of the gay district in Rome! Rainbows, delicious drinks, and the BEST PIZZA IN ITALY (more on that later…). PRO TIP: Stay within walking distance of a train station. It makes life VERY accessible in Roma.

Roman Forum
After we settled ourselves, we wandered to the Coloseo and Roman Forum. We bought the 2-day pass which allows you to see both sites ONE TIME OVER a 2-day period. Many tourists were confused, but we figured it out eventually. We decided this day was for the Roman Forum. The ruins were amazingly old, beautiful, and religious. To my excitement, there were columns laying in the walking paths for guests to sit, stand, or touch. I have a thing for ancient columns.

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SO KEWL.

Our stomachs were growling, so we decided to hit Coming Out Roma for dinner. We sat outside at a table on the street. D to my front, and to my right, the sun setting through the empty arches of the Colosseum. We ordered Long Islands, they were perfect. We totes ordered more than one. I ordered their Quattro Formaggio pizza, my date ordered the Diavola. The pizza came out complete smothered in mozzarella, thick slices of smoked gouda, and sprinkled with parmesean -reggiano. Oh. My. Gaw. Literally no words except for this. And that I will dream about that pizza just as much as I will those mozzarella di bufala balls from Pompei.

We grabbed some snacks and a bottle(s) of wine from the supermarket. Called it a night to catch up on some Z’s.

Day 2

Colosseum
Bright and early, we headed to the Colosseo. To be brutally honest, it wasn’t as life-changing as other things I had seen on this trip. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely surreal being in such an important, ancient, brilliant masterpiece of a structure. Those Romans knew their shit. We snapped some pics, read some plaques, and got the heck out.

Vatican City
MAKE A RESERVATION BEFORE YOU GO. Thank the good Lord Jesus (literally) that the building is shaped to block the sun for most of the three hours -okay it was more like one- you will wait in line if you don’t make a reservation. We didn’t. We toughed it out, and once inside it moved very quickly.

Once in the walls of the city, we felt like herded cattle. I was scared I would drop something and be trampled by the thousands of tourists surrounding me. We were in a maze of the dopest paintings, rugs, and statues my eyes have ever seen. No time to take more than one picture and DEFINITELY not enough time to ask someone to take a pic of the two of us. The maze was heading in the direction of the Sistine Chapel. Once inside, prepare for your mind to be blown into millions of pieces all over the Vatican guards. The Sistine Chapel is just as majestic as you would imagine. NO PICTURES though and be sure you “KEEP MOVING OR MOVE TO THE SIDE.”

We hit up St. Peter’s Square to see where Frances does his THANG. It was pretty incredible being in such a holy important place. We opted out of the rumored 2.5 hour line to get into the basilica. I’d had enough cattle drives for one day.

PRO TIP: Eat at restaurants AWAY from touristy spots. You’ll wind up ordering a pizza and then read the fine print that says, “Items with * are frozen meals.” *eye roll*

Trevi Fountain
Hit this babe at night, it will be worth it. The walk from the train station to the fountain at night isn’t uncomfortable, a lot of cute cafes to stop in for gelato or wine.

No matter the time of day, it will be packed. Touch the water to ensure you’ll visit again and throw in a euro or two for good luck. The oldest water source in Rome collects about €3,000 a day and gives that money to Caritas, which helps those in need.

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So wealthy with coins, yet still Baroque.

Day 3

We found ourselves back at Coming Out Roma for brunch. It was amazing– those boys just don’t stop. Today was just a wander day. We wandered to the EU building part of town and eventually stumbled upon the Spanish Steps, which like many structures, were being renovated. We stopped at a recommended pizza place called Pizza Ciro (thanks, Jen) and enjoyed a delightful pizza. I recommend you sit by a window towards the front, it got stuffy in the back.

We walked up and down the designer streets, trying on hats we’ll never buy and gorging ourselves with gelato and espresso. Having no plan seemed like a good plan that day. The Pantheon is a must. A dome building with no lights, except for a circular skylight at the top, accompanied with an opera singer inside.

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PantheON FLEEK.

For dinner, go find deep fried spaghetti. We found ours at a market next to our apartment called D Auria Palmina. It looks questionable, but it is worth every calorie. Trust me, boo.

Day 4

The beginning of the end of our journey. PRO TIP: Make sure that you notice if you flight is AM or PM, because we found out early that we had about 9 more hours to kill than we had planned. In ways, it was great, more time in Rome. In other ways, it was the longest, day, ever.

Due to this slip of the eye, we were able to see more than we planned. We planned out our day’s with destinations near train stations (less walking, more seeing). We stored our bags in a locked closet provided from our AirBnB host, and we hit the town for one last time.

Train Stop: Flaminio
Worth it? YES
Things to see:

  • Piazza del Popolo- beautiful gardens, walking/bike path, benches, etc. Bring a deck of cards and a cup of espresso and enjoy the quiet for a bit.

Train Stop: San Giovanni
Worth it: Kind of?
Things to see:

  • Market- sort of took me back to China… everyone wants you to buy their overpriced knock offs. Honey, I know that scarf ain’t made of real Pashmina! SHOOT!
  • Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano- beautiful church. We didn’t go inside because I was not appropriately dressed (sorry I wore a tank top with a heat index of 110….)

Train Stop: Castro Pretorio
Worth it?  NO
We came thinking we’d go to the National Library, but we didn’t. We got a snack and walked around the block.

Train Stop: Circo Massimo
Worth It? Hell to the yes.
Things to see:

  • Circo Massimo itself. This is the old ancient track that was said to be used to train for the ancient Olympics. You can walk/run on it today.
  • Trastevere neighborhood. This place is where all of the Italian hipsters were hiding the entire time! Just across the Tiber River, this place was so beautiful, rich with culture and arts, and hidden from most public transit. We wanted to spend more time, but our dogs were killin’ us and we had a plane to catch.
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Tiber River

While we may have arrived to our airport literally 7 hours early, I was happy to have a seat and looking forward to home and creating my Shutterfly book. More DOs and DON’T of planning a European trip to come in the future, thanks for reading!

Keep cheesin’!

-C

Three steps to experiencing your vacation the right way.

There’s an entire world out there for us to explore. It’s much more vast than the 100-mile radius the majority of us confine ourselves to. You want to see it all, whether that’s in Europe, Asia, or here in US. While how you prepare, what you bring, and how you get there varies from trip to trip, there are some universal tips that all but ensure you have an incredible vacation. Here’s a few we abide by whether we’re camping for one night or leaving home for a few weeks.

1 – Research, plan, prepare, and repeat

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Plan, plan, plan

After finally pinning down the destination, know that the more time you put into the trip before you even hop in the car, plane, or train is time well spent. Locating a home base is best done by figuring out what you want to do first. If you’re aware of a few attractions you know you’ll want to hit, find a spot that’s easily accessible by them all. We always recommend an AirBnb, but there are also great options in hotels, campgrounds, rentable cabins, and more. Your destination can sometimes offer unique living quarters, too, so look for something weird!

2 – Give yourself plenty of time

“Vacation” is defined as “an extended period of recreation.” Although hiccups happen, combining tip #1 with giving yourself plenty of time can pay dividends in enjoyment. If you identify an opportunity to leave earlier, do it. This also helps with visiting those hot spots on your vacation. Most “tourist traps” have high traffic. Look into when those periods take place. By rule of thumb, you should hit your more high-traffic enduring attractions early in the morning and early in the afternoon. Less congested attractions means better pics, better experiences, and more thorough enjoyment.

3 – Bring a journal

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Field Notes, man. This is my favorite edition. Got that clean look and the white cover turns blue in the [enter your destination] sun.

Pick yourself up a small, easy-to-carry journal – I like Field Notes (pictured above) – and at the very least, get some of your experiences down on paper at the end of the day. Sure, you’ll always remember the highlights, but it’s easier than you think to forget about the way your destination sounds, feels, looks, and even smells. We pulled ours out on train rides, bars and restaurants, and park benches. You worked hard to get here – don’t let yourself forget how incredible it was!

-D