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 linked to the town (celebrated in Modena Terra di Motori every spring, when the piazzas are filled with classic models); 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 one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Italy. Modena's highlights include 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 city's appeal 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.
Dominating 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.
Separated from the Duomo by the narrow Via Lanfranco are the Musei del Duomo, which includes the usual ecclesiastical artefacts, and the Museo Lapidario, which has Roman-age marbles from the Duomo. Next door looms the 86m-high Torre Ghirlandina, which you can climb for a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Food is an integral part of the countryside between the Apennines and the Po, and the best way to get a feel of this is on a gourmet tour: Food Valley Travel will take you to a dairy farm to see how the milk is turned into Parmesan cheese, and some of the aceterie around Modena to see how the traditional balsamic vinegar is matured.
Local tourist offices can also advise you on farms and vineyards to visit – or you can head out on your own into the wooded foothills of the Apennines. Restaurant signs by the roadside invite you to try cuisine "all 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.
In the foothills south of Reggio and Parma signs along the roadside advertise the local parmigiano-reggiano while the village of Casina, 27km from Reggio on the N63 to La Spezia, holds a popular Festa del Parmigiano in early August, when the vats of cheese mixture are stirred with enormous wooden paddles. Buses run to Casina from Reggio hourly and take around an hour.
Top image: Antique market in the main square of Modena in Italy © DoneWithTheWind/Shutterstock