Though only thirty minutes northwest by train, MODENA has a quite distinct identity from Bologna. It proclaims itself the “spiritual capital” of Emilia and has a number of claims to fame: great car names such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati are tied to the town (celebrated in Modena Terra di Motori every spring, when the piazzas are filled with classic models; w modenaterradimotori.com); the late Pavarotti was a native of Modena, his name commemorated in the Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti; the area’s balsamic vinegar has become a cult product in kitchens around the world, duly celebrated in nearby Carpi during the Balsamica festival in May; and the cathedral – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is considered one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Italy. Of things to see, top of most people’s lists are the rich collections of paintings and manuscripts built up by the Este family, who decamped here from Ferrara in 1598, after it was annexed by the Papal States, and who ruled the town until the nineteenth century. But really the appeal of Modena is in wandering its labyrinthine old centre, finishing off the day with some good food. The town’s small, concentric medieval core is bisected by Via Emilia, which runs past the edge of Piazza Grande, the nominal centre of town, its stone buildings and arcades forming the focus of much of its life.
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The DuomoDominating Piazza Grande, the twelfth-century Duomo is one of the finest products of the Romanesque period in Italy and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its most striking feature is the west facade whose portal is supported by two fierce-looking lions and fringed with marvellous reliefs – the work of one Wiligelmo, who also did the larger reliefs that run along the wall. Inside, under the choir is the plain stone coffin of St Geminianus, the patron saint of Modena – on his feast day, January 31, crowds come to visit his coffin, and a big market is held out in the main square.
There are two museums inside the Duomo: the Musei del Duomo holds the usual ecclesiastical artefacts, while the Museo Lapidario displays Roman-age marbles from the Duomo. On the other side of the church looms the 86m-high Torre Ghirlandina, which provides a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Hit the gourmet trail
Hit the gourmet trail
If you want to see Modena’s famous balsamic vinegar being created, contact the Modenatur office next door to the tourist office (w modenatur.it) for information on trips to aceterie (these are free but, being private establishments, visits depend on the owners’ schedules). They also have information on tours to Lambrusco wineries, parmesan dairies and some of the region’s renowned car manufacturers.
The tourist office can advise you on gourmet itineraries in the wooded foothills of the Apennines surrounding the town. However, they’re not really necessary: restaurant signs by the side of the road invite you in to try cuisine “alla tua nonna” – “like grandma used to make” – usually involving mortadella (cold pork sausage, spotted with lumps of fat and often flavoured with nutmeg, coriander and myrtle), salami or crescente (a kind of pitta bread eaten with a mixture of oil, garlic, rosemary and parmesan). Higher in the mountains you can still find ciacci – chestnut-flour pancakes, filled with ricotta and sugar – and walnuts that go to make nocino liqueur.