South Bend, Indiana, is slightly more than 100 uneventful miles from Chicago, across the skyway to the Indiana Tollroad on Interstate 90. With the 65-mile-an-hour speed limit in effect once the toll road is joined by I-80, the drive can be done in about 90 minutes–two hours with traffic on the Chicago side. Traveling east, you get off on exit 77–the second of two South Bend exits–which places you directly north of South Bend, on U.S. 31-33, the main drag into town traveling south.

Of course, South Bend is primarily known as the home of the University of Notre Dame, joined by Saint Mary’s College as the old-time bastions of higher education for Catholic men and women. (Notre Dame went coed in 1972.) They sit on opposite sides of the road into town, between the toll road and South Bend proper. Notre Dame is a short jog to the left along Angela Boulevard, about a mile from the toll-road exit, and it’s hard to miss unless you’re wearing extremely dark, glare-resistant sunglasses, as the famous golden dome of the administration building shines bright on even the dimmest afternoons.

On a university map, Notre Dame looks like any other college, and to be sure ivy-covered buildings and crisscrossing sidewalks abound; but the main quadrangle, in front of the administration building, is unusual in that it is quite wooded–to prevent the usual abundance of frisbee-tossing, no doubt, and to prevent students from being blinded by sun glinting off the dome above, we presume.

The university has an art gallery, the Snite Museum of Art (219-239-5466), which has a fairly nice collection of Renaissance paintings devoted to the usual holy subjects and donated by groups and individuals around the world for the usual purposes. The collection is unremarkable, save for one 17th-century painting by a certain Jacopo Vignali. It claims to depict The Sleeping Rinaldo, but with the subject’s languorous posture and the hint of a smile in the brightly colored lips, it is one of the most fetching depictions of a young woman in a state of afterglow that we have seen.

The point is soon lost, however, as the entire collection is almost literally overshadowed by the huge mural on the wall of the nearby Hesburgh Library. The work may have some other title, but it is known to the studentry and to others around the world as Touchdown Jesus, for it faces directly into the football stadium–it can, in fact, be seen from most of the seats–and pictures the redeemer in the act of raising his arms to signal another Irish score. It remains a source of speculation whether the artist was intentionally lampooning the supposed priorities of the university administration. It brings to mind, however, that weekend travelers should be aware of the possibility of encountering large crowds of Irish football fans from September on through November. Of course, it’s said that some enjoy this sort of thing; to each his or her own.

A university campus should have an abundance of good new- and used-book stores, but the book shopping currently available at Notre Dame is testimony to the thinking that no one reads anymore, not even college students. The university bookstore (219-239-6316) demonstrates its own priorities as the bottom floor is devoted to Fighting Irish football paraphernalia–from Irish bumper stickers and license plates to Irish flags and Irish playing cards through Irish shirts and shorts to Irish plaques and glassware, each celebrating any of the university’s several national-championship football teams. The books can be found upstairs, and on our stop we stumbled on a copy of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which even Stuart Brent’s had been out of here in Chicago. Talk about catholic tastes. Still, Pandora’s Books–located off campus at 808 Howard (219-233-2342)–is more likely to please the bibliophile. Not only does it sell books both new and used, as well as the usual liberal New York magazines and the New York Times, but there is also a Times news box right outside for those early risers who like their paper before the 10 AM opening of the store.

College is a place where the young adult learns to drink–especially the young Irish Catholic adult–and there are two types of college bars: the place where everybody goes to be the same, and the place where everybody goes to be different. The Notre Dame visitor can pick and choose easily, as the two main bars are located kitty-corner from one another. Bridget McGuire’s is the representative of the former sort. It wears a new coat of paint outside as well as two large, matching shamrocks, one marked “ND” and the other “SMC,” for obvious reasons, and a sign reading “We love Lou,” for the football coach Lou Holtz. We’ve always patronized college bars where individualists unite, however, and for that reason we visited the Commons, across the intersection at 826 N. Eddy, which will not disappoint on this count. It has that stripped-for-action, war-zone feel of a place where people learn to drink–formica booths and metal-frame chairs and stools. A bumper sticker reading, “The Uncommon meet at Commons” is prominently displayed. We were there shortly after the end of the spring term, and the bartender–a middle-aged man with an accent, known as “Pascual” to the regulars–had the attitude of being at once sick of students and bored that the place wasn’t more lively. All in all, a pleasant place.

Parents and alumni are more likely to turn up at the Morris Inn (219-234-0141) on campus. The place has the look of a dormitory from the outside, and a plaque at the entrance describes it as the “Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Morris of South Bend, Indiana.” But the inside looks like a residence hall, as it’s equipped with a lobby, a reception desk, and a carpeted cafeteria with waitresses. To all appearances, the Morris Inn seems designed to give parents an elevated idea of what dorm life is like.

The nice thing about South Bend is that there is a South Bend; unlike many university towns, it has a character of its own. It’s not quite small-town Americana, not quite Indiana, but not quite suburbia either. It has a pleasant mix of new and old. Among the new buildings (funded, we imagine, in large part with tax money brought in on football weekends) is Century Center (120 S. Saint Joseph St., 219-284-9711), on the Saint Joseph River–which includes a convention hall, a recital hall, a theater, and the Studebaker National Museum–and the Stanley Coveleski Regional Baseball Stadium (501 W. South St., 219-284-9988). The stadium is easily found from the toll road’s U.S. 31-33 exit. Drive down through the center of town, where the road becomes known as Main Street, to Western, where you take a right, to Taylor, where you take a left to the ballpark. If we consider the stadium more successful than Century Center as architecture, we may be biased.

The town also has a number of old buildings rehabilitated and turned into something new. Chief among these is Tippecanoe Place (620 W. Washington, 219-234-9077), a monstrous 40-room mansion, Romanesque in design and granite fieldstone in construction, originally built for the Studebakers. It’s now probably the finest restaurant in town, with meals of that sturdy quality that will have a diner commenting on them without asking who is the chef. The East Bank Emporium (121 S. Niles, 219-234-9000) is the other quality place in town, located along the river and with a decor of cut-glass windows and brass railings. Nice. Less so but still quality is The Wharf, On the River (320 E. Colfax, 219-234-4477), an Indiana fish restaurant with a salad bar in the shape of a boat. For the hoi polloi, there’s the Georgia-Style Bar-B-Que (525 N. Eddy, 219-232-1177), a place run by a little old man of the hills–white beard and all–who refuses to allow the African-American help to make change, but who oversees the cooking of succulent ribs, with tender meat that literally falls off the bone.

Another rehabilitated place is the Queen Ann Inn (420 W. Washington, 219-234-5959), a bed-and-breakfast hotel downtown, just around the corner from the ballpark. It’s a small, well-appointed 1890s house–complete with bookcases designed by Frank Lloyd Wright–painted a dark, almost gray green on the outside; nice and small on the inside. There’s an unmanned chess game upstairs with a card alongside saying “White moves” on one side and “Black moves” on the other. We moved and turned the card over, but no one responded. It was a Wednesday, however, and only two of the rooms were occupied.

Back near the campus is the Jamison Inn (1404 N. Ivy, 219-277-9682); a short walk across a field to the football stadium, this 50-room hotel has been blessed with the profits of many football weekends. Like a bed and breakfast, the rooms are equipped with kitchenettes, refrigerators, and cable television, while the matching designs of the beds, the carpeting, and the wallpaper recall a Holiday Inn.

The city does have a real Holiday Inn for purists, as well as a Marriott. Minor-league-baseball aficionados might also want to know that the Days Inn and the Works Hotel (475 N. Niles) are, along with the Holiday Inn, the usual stops for visiting teams.

South Bend has about 110,000 people, but with neighboring Mishawaka and the surrounding area the regional population is usually placed at about 150,000. Mishawaka is just up the river, a sprawling town that’s been a little less effective than South Bend in rehabilitating its aged buildings. The city’s pride, 100 Center Complex (700 Lincolnway West), is a bit of a failure, actually, in its attempt to turn an old brewery into a shopping mall. The stores are disorganized, the location unenhanced. It does include the Center Street Blues Cafe (219-256-0710), however, a mix of the Wise Fools Pub and a barn, with open rafters and a level of seating above. The night we were there, we caught the Moore Brothers and George “Jaws” Thomas. The Moore Brothers is a white-boys blues band almost stereotypical in its composition: an energetic, toothpick-chewing drummer; a scrawny, ascetic bass player who stood shorter than his upright bass; a clean-cut Charlie in polo shirt and tennies fingering some classic blues solos–sans painful facial expressions–and the leader, an Andy Renko sort singing and occasionally diddling on harp and keeping things fresh with a remarkable collection of esoteric blues standards. They were so sincere and at the same time unassuming that they were a delight, and when Jaws Thomas joined them along with another sax player the whole group really cooked. The food, however, was pure microwave cuisine.

South Bend’s unique claim to fame is the East Race Waterway (219-233-6121), again along the river, a facility of man-made white water authentic enough to be a training ground for Olympic kayakers. Inner-tubing and rafting are open to the public. The Mid-American Slalom will be held there the Fourth of July weekend, and the East Race Slalom August 20 and 21.

South Bend is also large enough to sustain two zoos: one with animals (in addition to the University of Notre Dame). Potawatomi Zoo is at 500 S. Greenlawn Blvd. (219-284-9800).