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One Day in Modena

Art | Restaurants | Food & Wine | Theatre

This ancient town on the south side of the Po Valley is home to the mighty Ferrari, yet it boasts more bikes than cars. A vibrant, walkable town centre, with no end of cultural highlights, makes it an ideal place for a day trip 

Modena is a little town that punches well above its weight. Located on the via Emilia, the famous Roman road that stretches from Piacenza to Rimini, it became one of the most important principalities in Italy when the d’Este family moved their powerful dukedom here from Ferrara in 1598. The streets, some of which are named after the medieval canal system that once helped strengthen Modena’s trade system, offer wonderfully circular routes around the town’s treasures and, because there are more bikes than cars, the pace of life is slow and relaxed.
 
In his 1964 book The Italians, a consummate portrait of the national character of his compatriots, Luigi Barzini cheekily suggested that the art of appearing rich was perfected in tiny principalities such as Modena that boasted ‘immense princely palaces, castles, vast churches, and stately opera houses’ wildly disproportionate to their size. But here it’s the visitor who wins, with all the sights within walking distance. Modena’s no slouch when it comes to food either; there are several superb restaurants, not least the Osteria Francescana (see page xx), with its three Michelin stars, as well as an array of wonderful local foods including tortellini, mortadella, Lambrusco wine and, of course, the famous balsamic vinegar. It’s also the birthplace of two of the world’s greatest names – Pavarotti and Ferrari – and, with the addition of a brand-new Ferrari museum this year, has become even more of a must-visit destination.
 
The elegant porticoed arcades of the via Emilia house great window-shopping opportunities as you make your way to the town centre and the cobbled piazza Grande, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A market was held here from medieval times right up until 1931 in full view of the town’s jewel, the 11th-century Duomo, dedicated to Modena’s patron saint, Saint Geminianus, and one of the finest examples 
of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Although work started in 1099, the Duomo wasn’t consecrated until 1184 by Pope Lucius III. The north portal, Porta della Pescheria (Fish Market Gate), is decorated with scenes from the 12-month cycle of the year, starting with ‘January’, on the bottom right, depicting the cutting of the pig’s leg for ham, and, towards the top left, ‘September’ and ‘October’, with the harvesting of the vines. More unusual additions relating directly to the market are the several measures that have been carved into the Duomo wall: a half-cup and a full cup so that customers could measure their goods against them to avoid being cheated by merchants. 
The artistry of architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo can be particularly admired in the friezes on the southern side, where you’ll find Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, Cain clubbing Abel Flintstone-style, and Noah’s Ark. The columns of the main door feature the rich and poor bowing under the ‘trials of life’, represented by animals and monsters, offering the message that salvation and hope can be found within. Once inside, your eye is drawn to a beautiful 12th-century rood screen with relief work by master craftsman Anselmo da Campione. The crypt holds other delights: a terracotta crib scene invested with so much feeling that a poor serving girl can be seen blowing on the soup that she’s about to feed to the Christ-child. In the crypt lies the tomb of Saint Geminianus; once a year, on 31 January, the tomb is opened for the Modenese to come and pay their respects. 

The Gothic Ghirlandina bell-tower of the Duomo bears a striking resemblance to that other famous leaning tower in Pisa. Building started around the same time as the Duomo but didn’t finish until two centuries later due to the fact that the ground began to sink below each additional floor. Currently being restored, the tower’s Sala della Secchia (‘Room of the Bucket’) has a number of 15th-century frescoes and, until recently, held the wooden bucket reputedly stolen by the Modenese during a raid on Bologna in 1325. The theft created a rivalry that continues to this day, between the football teams at least. The incident led to the Battle of Zappolino and inspired the mock-heroic poem La Secchia Rapita (‘Kidnapped Bucket’), written by Alessandro Tassoni, Modena’s poet laureate, around 1614. The satirical nature of the poem is said to have influenced Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. The prized bucket is now safely held in the Palazzo Comunale opposite, where you can also visit the Hall of Fire, which takes its name from the communal brazier that used to be kept alight so that townspeople could take a lighted coal home for their own fire. There is also 
a frieze painted by the 16th-century artist Niccolò dell’Abate depicting the siege of Modena in 44 bc. 

In the corner of the piazza is a huge marble stone known as the ‘Preda Ringadora’, regional dialect for ‘Haranguing Stone’. It became a ‘Speakers’ Corner’ of sorts where townspeople could have a bit of a rant, as well as a place to display unidentified corpses and hold public executions; it was also used as a punishment block for debtors, who were given the option of a prison term or running around the piazza, trouserless, three times, stopping each time to sit on the turpentine-covered stone – a lesson in humiliation and pain to serve as a reminder never to leave debts unpaid again.
 
On the first Saturday of the month an antiquities market is held in the piazza and a handicraft market takes place on nearby piazza Mazzini. The covered market on via Albinella is the place for the typical products of the region such as tortellini, prosciutto, mortadella, every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable and, of course, aceto balsamico, the rich, dark, syrupy liquor aged from 12 to 50 years that is drizzled over everything: parmesan cheese, potatoes, cured meat, even strawberries. Fred Plotkin, author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveller, once wrote that to describe aceto balsamico as vinegar is like describing Pavarotti as a street singer. 
 
The funeral of the great tenor took place in the Duomo in 2007 and he’s buried in the Montale Rangone cemetery, just outside town. The Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti on via del Teatro stages ballet and jazz concerts as well as opera. Nearby corso Canalgrande (Course of the Grand Canal) is the site of the Palazzo Santa Margherita, with a wealth of riches including the Galleria Civica, dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions, and Museo della Figurina, where cigarette card buffs can discover the entire history and development of picture cards and their role in the promotion of products. Those more interested in shopping will be happy to know that chic boutiques, perfumers and gourmet food shops abound on corso Canalchiaro (Course of the Clear Canal), where independent shops include Alberti for stylish homeware, Ottica Giovanardi for the latest retro sunglasses, and concept store/gallery Bensone for a host of cool stuff. Nearby calle di Luca has Spoon for men, McSpoon for cool denim brands and Spoon Donna for women. And Market Calle 9 offers antipasti and pizza, if you need a break.
 
Beyond the reach of any credit card are the treasures of the d’Este dukedom, providing a real sense of the power this family wielded. You can follow the ancient town walls in the walk up to the Palazzo dei Musei where the Estense Gallery holds the finest collection of Renaissance art in all Emilia-Romagna, including Correggio’s Madonna and Child and Velasquez’s portrait of Francesco I d’Este. The Estense Library holds one of the country’s most prized collection of books and letters, including the Borso d’Este bible, a magnificent 15th-century illuminated manuscript.

The Ducal Palace, seat of the d’Este court for over 200 years, is on piazza Roma. Home these days to the world’s oldest military academy, it’s open for guided tours on Saturday and Sunday. Tours must be booked in advance if you want to see the state apartments, including the frescoed Sala d’Onore (Hall of Honour) and Salottino d’Oro (Golden Sitting Room).

Lunch for those looking for a true taste of traditional Emilia-Romagnan food such as tortellini in brodo (tortellini in capon broth) or tagliatelle al ragù can be found at family-run Osteria Ermes. Be sure to arrive early – it’s small and very popular. An interesting alternative in the land where the pig is king is Aurora, which serves excellent fish dishes. A quick snack can be found in Caffè Collegio: try the gnocchi fritti, a fluffy fried pillow of dough and a Modena speciality.
 
Fully fuelled it’s time to start engines and race over to the Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari, a spectacular exhibition space. The enormous Ferrari-yellow ‘bonnet’ of the building was clearly inspired by some of Enzo Ferrari’s wilder designs and is a fitting roof for a space designed to showcase some of the most beautiful cars ever built. Most of the cars are privately owned as Ferrari didn’t believe in keeping his cars, famously saying, ‘The best Ferrari ever built is the next one.’ The fascinating story of Enzo’s life is told within the converted workshop of his father; after his death, Enzo persuaded his mother to sell the family home so that he could buy his first car and become a racing driver. The rest is history, but amid the great achievements are such tragedies as the death of his son Dino aged 24 – afterwards Ferrari put on his iconic dark glasses, never to be ‘seen’ again in public. 
 
Those with the whiff of petrol in their nostrils will want to visit the Galleria Ferrari in nearby Maranello, home to a collection of the most famous Ferraris in the world, including a number of Formula 1 cars. There’s even a booth for Ferrari geeks to experience the sound of a range of Formula 1 cars changing up a gear. If you’ve even more time, consider a trip to the Lamborghini Museum in Sant’Agata, the Museo Panini’s Maserati collection in Cittanova and Bologna’s Ducati Museum. By now it should be clear why this is known as the ‘Land of Engines’. 
 
The perfect pit-stop after all that excitement must be the three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, where modernist chef Massimo Bottura’s dishes are guaranteed to fire the imagination as well as the palate. Tipped to fill Ferran Adrià’s chef’s whites now that El Bulli has closed, Bottura (below) opened his restaurant in 1995, receiving his first Michelin star in 2002 and a second four years later. With the third star, Francescana has held a spot in the top five of the world’s fifty best restaurants for the second year running. Menus start at €100; the Sensations menu will set you back €180, with Bottura taking you on a culinary journey around Italy. It’s guaranteed to be a gastronomic experience you’ll never forget. 

Those keen to sample the Bottura magic in more casual surroundings should try his Franceschetta58 brasserie, serving small plates of local meats, cheeses and pastas along with reasonably priced wines.
 
Night owls will be pleased to note that Modena is a university town and has a host 
of bars that cater to its large student population. The area around via Nazario Sauro and via Pomposa is popular, and the Juta Cafè on nearby via Taglio serves very reasonably-priced cocktails that will help round off a busy day.
 
Words and Photographs by Jan Fuscoe
* The pictures in this article were awarded "Best Photography as part of a travel article" by the Italian Tourism Board

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