Modena is a city located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, not far from Bologna. Founded as a Celtic settlement before 218 BC when it was taken over by the Romans, Modena today is a beautiful town that is known mostly for two things – Balsamic Vinegar and the Ferrari Museums. In fact, at the time of this writing, there is a Viator tour that will highlight both of those things for you in one action-packed day. However, if you can take a bit longer and settle into the city, you’ll discover a trove of additional delights to recommend it.
While Modena may not make the Short List for most tourists (like Rome, Florence and Venice do), the city is noted for several things. Its university, founded in 1175, still boasts approximately 20,000 students each year. It is also known for the Military Academy where Italian army officers are trained, as well as for the Biblioteca Estense. Founded in the 14th century in Ferrara and moved to Modena in 1598, it features more than 500, 000 printed works.
The beautiful Palazzo Ducale dominates the Piazza Grande, where you’ll find several sidewalk cafes and often a festival or market going on. The Cathedral of Modena was begun in 1099 by the architect Lanfranco, whose designs inspired the Romanesque style. Divided into three naves, the structure also features innovative sculptures by Wiligelmo that decorate walls and doorways with plants, animals and scenes from the bible. The Cathedral and Piazza Grande – which the Cathedral opens onto — have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1997.
But back to Balsamico and Ferraris…
Balsamic Vinegar: A Modena Specialty
Dark and silky with a pronounced flavor, aceto balsamico originated in Modena. It’s made from white grapes (mostly Trebbiano) crushed with all their parts and pieces – juice, skins, seeds, stems. The concentrated result – mosto cotto — is then aged in wooden barrels for at least 12 years, and for some versions up to 25 or more years.
There are three classifications of balsamic: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP (from the region of Modena), and Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP. For my money, I’d stick with the first two. The last one is more an imitation of the traditional vinegars. In most cases, it’s “aged” months instead of years and has a lot of added ingredients. You’ll see the IGP at restaurants quite often. It’s “okay” but if you can get the DOP, all the better!
There are several uses for balsamic vinegar. People dribble it on parmesan cheese as an antipasto, or on fruit or gelato for dessert. It’s also used in cooking main dishes like meat and fish – lightly, though, as the taste can be intense.
Sexy Sports Cars
In the 20th century, Modena became known for its automotive industry, where the factories of the famous Italian sports car makers Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, and others are, or were, located. Scuderia Ferrari is perhaps the most well-known auto company here, in part for their world-famous Formula 1 racing team.
There are two Ferrari museums in the Modena area and you can get to both in one day. There’s even a discounted “Ferrari Pass” ticket – 30 euro for both museums instead of 22 euro for each, provided you get to both places within 48 hours. We started with the one in the city itself, the Museo Enzo Ferrari, or the Enzo Ferrari Museum.
An easy 10-minute walk from the train station, this has a modern showroom built next to the Ferrari family home. The ticket office is in the modern building. We bought the Ferrari Pass along with a bus ticket for the big red shuttle bus that would take us to the other museum at a designated time later that day.
The Enzo Ferrari Museum contains the history of how Enzo got interested in cars (in his father’s workshop) and his early success. It also has lots of cars – early model sports cars on up to one of the newer Formula 1 models. There’s even a Ferrari-red sports car you can sit in and have your picture taken, which we did (additional cost). We didn’t do the GT-model simulator here, preferring to wait and do the Formula 1 simulator at Maranello.
When it was time to catch our shuttle bus, we walked right out front to the street and caught the big shiny red shuttle to the Ferrari Museum (Museo Ferrari) at Maranello, about a half-hour ride. (If you want to do Maranello first, you can also catch this bus at the train station. For times and details, send an e-mail to [email protected].)
At Maranello, a great photo opp is available just before you go into the museum – a wall with the prancing horse logo and ‘Museo Ferrari’ in big letters. This facility is much more about the racing and Formula 1 – the cars and drivers, the tracks and trophies. You can easily spend an hour or more here, but if you need to catch the bus back, make sure you know what time it leaves.
The Formula 1 simulator is great fun! You sit in a replica of the car’s “cockpit” and the screen sort of wraps around you. And it’s FAST, so be prepared.
There is a Factory Tour available, but we skipped it. Partly because of time, but also because we’d heard you’re on a bus most of the time and can’t necessarily see or explore that much. If you’re really into the inner workings of the cars, though, you might enjoy it.
Modena Highlights Multiculturalism
As of 2019, approximately 15% of Modena residents were foreigners, mostly from Romania, Morocco, the Philippines, Ghana, Albania, Ukraine, Nigeria, and China.
Modena has joined the Intercultural Cities Programme and Network. This group asks cities to commit ‘to make diversity an advantage for the whole society by adopting interculturalism as a policy framework for achieving community cohesion, equality, inclusion and prosperous development in culturally diverse societies.’ A tall order, but an admirable goal.
While we were there, just walking around Modena and seeing folks engaged in daily life, the multiculturalism was evident. Women wearing bright African prints pass women wearing hijab, and a beautiful synagogue is just a short walk from the soaring Christian cathedral.
One especially delicious example of this global mixology is a new restaurant project called Roots which offers unique recipes from migrant female chefs. During the day, the space is a laboratory of sorts where the women share native recipes and ingredients and learn the art of being a professional chef. At night, the space opens as a restaurant where the innovative dishes created by these women are served to an eager crowd of diners.
If you want to try it out, you should book a table beforehand. Here’s the website.