Modest Modena is a world away from Italy's tourist-jammed, big-name cities and yet easily accessible, allowing you to enjoy a town of architectural and historical delights and art treasures, yet still be surrounded by local life. Italy's highest per capita income has helped grace this former seat of a north Italian duchy with a polished town centre and fabulous gastronomic scene, and its surrounds are notable for producing some of Italy's most famous cars and food products.
Modena's Duomo (duomodimodena.it) is a Romanesque masterpiece with a fine rose window and leaning belltower. It overlooks Piazza Grande and its frescoed town hall, where locals sip coffee and children play. Lovely historical streets favouring Modena's distinctive, light baroque architecture spread out from here to the Palazzo Ducale, now a military academy. The Palazzo dei Musei (palazzodeimuseimodena.it) has illuminated manuscripts, musical instruments and paintings by the likes of Correggio, El Greco and Tintoretto.
Three-star Michelin Osteria Francescana (osteriafrancescana.it) is regularly cited as one of the world's best restaurants, but with just 12 tables requires advance booking. The town's covered Albinelli Market (mercatoalbinelli.it) will supply quality picnic produce, or you can eat on site at Artigiani del Gusto (artigianidelgustomo.it) on terrific cold-cut and cheese platters accompanied by Lambrusco wine. Delectable gelato at Gelateria Bloom (facebook.com/gelateriabloom) includes traditional flavours supplemented by oddities such as Japanese green tea or cheesecake.
Motoring enthusiasts rejoice: the region is home to Maserati, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Ducati. Enzo Ferrari Museum (musei.ferrari.com) is built around the Ferrari founder's home and relates his life as well as displaying a car collection. Twelve kilometres outside town, Museo Ferrari (musei.ferrari.com) takes you through Ferrari history and motoring models and has a Formula One simulator. Other supercar manufactures also offer museums and factory visits, and you can test-drive cars at Modena Autodrome (autodromodimodena.it).
The Emilia-Romagna region (emiliaromagnaturismo.it) surrounding Modena has more than 40 Protected Designation of Origin products, including culatello ham, Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar. Use Modena as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside and its produce. Among farm doors is Acetaia Leonardi (acetaialeonardi.it), one of the oldest family producers of balsamic vinegar, where you'll be taken through the manufacturing process and can inspect the vinegar barrels and do a tasting; some of the vinegars are 150 years old.
Also on the balsamic trail is Opera 02 (opera02.it) some 20 kilometres south of Modena, where a family vinegar-producer has opened a startlingly contemporary hotel adjacent to the ageing barrels; the lobby is rich with vinegar aromas. Guestrooms are large and minimalist, overlooking beautiful countryside, and the hotel also has a spa and excellent restaurant. In Modena itself, Hotel Canalgrande (canalgrandehotel.it) inhabits a former monastery building in the old town and has elaborate 18th-century palazzo decor.
Food Valley Travel (foodvalleytravel.com) specialises in culinary, cultural, art and motorcar-oriented tours of varying lengths in the Emilia-Romagna region, including urban walking itineraries and cellar and farm-door visits. It can customise itineraries to include or start in Modena.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Office and Emilia-Romagna Tourism.