What is perhaps the world’s most expensive condiment, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, has put this lovely, small Italian city on the map of epicureans worldwide. With its inky black color, pungently sweet taste, and thick syrupy consistency, the aged-to-perfection Balsamic Vinegar of Modena inspires passion both in Modena – where vinegar producers carefully age their creations for decades – and beyond – where connoisseurs happily pay as much as €500 per bottle for the most elite balsamic vinegar. The delicacy is at the heart of the city’s culinary tradition and tourist trade.
Modena’s excellence in gastronomy is comparable only to its automotive excellence. The town is also famous as the birthplace of Ferrari and the home of Maserati. Just beyond Modena’s center stands a monument to Enzo Ferrari, who lived nearby and opened the first Ferrari office in the 1930s. The Maserati factory, still in operation, is not far away, and on the outskirts of town, you can visit the Panini museum, where a high-end Parmesan cheese maker has a fabulous collection of Maserati cars. Another famous son of Modena is Pavarotti, the great opera tenor who recently passed away.
Sports cars are in evidence in Modena, but modern automobiles won’t be your focus as you stroll through the heart of the old city. Head first to the pulsating Piazza Grande, a busy plaza ringed with the Cathedral, the town hall, and the Ghirlandina Tower. Next, make a stop at the city’s cultural highlight, the Palazzo dei Musei, where several museums (many of them based upon the collections of the noble Este family) showcase Italian art and artifacts.
These days Modena attracts foodies from all over the world as it is on the “Gourmet Route” of Italy, and home to fantastic restaurants and gourmet shops. Balsamic Vinegar, Parma and Culatello hams, and Parmigiano cheese are all locally made products in the fantastically welcoming region of Emilia Romagna.
Settled in the Iron Age but later abandoned, Modena was founded by the Romans (who called it “Mutina”) in 183 BC. Sitting on the southern side of the Po Valley in what is now the heart of Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region, this was a fertile area with a good transportation network. During the 14th century, the Este family came to power here and held control until 1598, when the city fell to the Pope. Modena was under Austrian rule from 1814 until 1860, when the territory became part of a unified Italy.
Gastronomy & Wine
The potent aged vinegar Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) is the area’s star product. Controlled as carefully as top wines, high-quality balsamic vinegar is a thoroughly artisan product that highly valued for its unique flavors and aromas. It’s used on everything from salads and cheeses to fruits and desserts.
Other local delights are cotechino and zampone, two varieties of cooked and dried pork sausage born out of poverty and now prized delicacies. Prosciutto is also made here and is tightly controlled by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Modena. Gnocco Fritto, fritters flavored with pork and fried in oil, are also popular. For dessert, try bensone, a lemon-flavored crumble.
The 18 DOC wines of Emilia-Romagna are popular in Modena. Ranging from the fizzy Lambruscos to hearty Sangiovese-based reds and the pale, dry Trebbianos, there is a bit of something for everyone. After-dinner digestives like Nocino, a spirit made with green walnuts, is the perfect way to end a traditional hearty meal served here.
The soul of Modena, this beautiful plaza is lined with some of the city’s main sights, including the Duomo and the Ghirlandina Tower.
Begun in 1099 and finished a century later, this grand church boasts a beautiful rose window and three naves. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Declared a UNESCO world-heritage building, the bell tower standing near the Duomo was built in the 13th century and is one of the distinctive features of Modena’s skyline.
Now the headquarters of the military academy, this 17th-century palace dominates the Piazza Roma with its elaborate, Baroque façade.
Piazza San Agostino
Another lovely plaza, this one is home to the Church of San Agostino, home of wonderful works of art like Begarelli’s “Mourning the Body of Christ”.
The “Museum Palace” is, as its name indicates, replete with art and cultural museums. The Municipal Museum, the Estense Gallery (an important Italian painting, sculpture and archaeological collection from the Este family), the Estense Epigraphic Museum and the Estense Library.
Balsamic Vinegar Producers
There are a variety of excellent balsamic producers outside the city of Modena. Some like “Acetaia Malpighi” is open to the general public and have a small shop where you can taste, and other producers are more exclusive and only open by special appointment.