Escaping the grind of classwork to overload the senses in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna.
Another week in Italy has reinforced the notion that we are here to work hard. There are now plenty of homework deadlines looming, group projects to manage, and ever present readings to be covered ahead of lectures. The culture shock is still there too, but slowly dissipating.
Despite all the work, I know it is important to find time to take in all of the wonderful cultural, culinary, and historic sights in the country, and so on Friday I got up very early to catch a train to the city of Modena, roughly 2 hours south-east of Milan. The region around Modena is famous for three things: cars, wine and food, and I wanted to get my fill of all three.
Centrale station was as always, a resplendent monument of architecture, painted tiles and columns astride platforms with bleary eyed travellers still waking up.
Heading south, the sun began to rise over the flat plains of the Po valley, diffuse light penetrating softly through a light fog. We crossed into the region of Emilia-Romagna, and eventually reached Modena. It was a few steps from there to the first museum: Museo Casa Enzo Ferrari.
Here was the birthplace of the founder of Ferrari, a house with an expansive attached workshop, which Enzo Ferrari sold in order to buy his first race car. The building was now a monument to his life and to the company that he built, with race cars of every era filling the open, light-filled building.
Next door had been built an expansive, modern museum space, with multimedia shows commemorating not just Enzo, but also the history of another great car manufacturer of the region, Maserati (who are now controlled by Ferrari). The cars were arrayed like sculptures to be admired for their curves, form, and craftsmanship.
From there, the day turned somewhat sour. I had booked a special hop-on-hop-off guided tour of the region, and had planned to visit all the stops along the way, but when I got the bus to go to the first stop on the tour, it drove directly to the town of Maranello instead, not even going in the direction of the first stop listed in the schedule. Apparently I was expected to inform the tour operators in advance that I wanted to stop there, something not advised on their website or on their schedule. I was then told that I would have to wait in Maranello for a few hours before I could get a bus to continue to the next stop on the tour. I meticulously planned out my trip with them and made doubly sure that they knew exactly which places I wanted to visit over my time there.
On the upside, I was in Maranello, home of the Ferrari factory as well as their main museum. Fans of the marque from over the world flocked here to pay homage. Businesses next door to the museum offered test drives in Ferraris (for a cost starting at €80 for 10 minutes), which were very popular. Every second car seemed to bear the prancing horse symbol.
Inside the museum was another collection of cars, more geared to the motor enthusiast, but with rare and unusual Ferraris that had been made throughout the years.
At the back of the museum was the hall of legends, where they displayed the F1 cars that have won the driver’s and constructor’s championships in recent times. If you ever have wondered where the constructor’s trophies go from the F1 races, they come here, to be placed on the back wall.
After wandering around Maranello for an hour it was finally time to catch my bus to the next stop, a small winery in the countryside nearby. It became clear that the hop-on-hop-off tour was not just badly organized, but also badly advertised. It turned out I was the only person that day on that tour. I was dropped off at the winery and left by myself, the bus driving off towards Modena. At the door of the winery, an older gentleman looked quizzically at me, before calling over his colleague. Once he realized I was “the” tour group, he proceeded to give me a personal tour of the winery, and an education about Lambrusco. Apparently what passes as Lambrusco in most parts of the world is a low quality, fizzy and sweetened affair. However, the dry red Lambruscos of the Modena region were very different, with only a light fizz, and a more complex profile.
We went through the whole process, from tasting the grapes still on the vine (the harvest is late this season), all the way to the final product, with a personal tasting of their selection. Naturally I picked up a couple of bottles to take home.
I worried that with all the disorganization, my bus back to Modena would not arrive, and my guide and I waited some minutes on the side of the road before finally the bus came and took me to the train station in Modena. I was staying the night in the next city north, Reggio Emilia. It is less of a tourist city, but the old town is resplendent with beautiful architecture and narrow streets to wander. My hostel was a restored convent, with beautiful high ceilings, marble floors, and original frescoes still on the walls and ceilings.
The next morning I departed early to get back to Modena. I wanted to see the city itself before continuing my tour, and so walked into the centre of town, stopping for breakfast at an old café. Almost as a cliché, a man busked on an accordion nearby as I drank espresso and read marketing textbooks (no rest from classes, even when travelling).
In the main piazza there was an old antiques market, selling strange and eclectic artefacts, from old swords through to chairs made from tusks and leather. I climbed the tower of the Duomo and looked out over the rooftops of the city in the early morning light. On the way to catch the bus, I stopped in at an exhibition on Michelangelo, his drawings being shown alongside modern interpretations of his works by Yves Klein and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Today was food tour day, and after doubly confirming my itinerary with the museum staff to make sure the bus would take me to the right place, I headed back out into the countryside to visit Caseficio Hombre, a parmesan cheese factory and car collection. As for the winery the day before, the bus unceremoniously dumped me in the parking lot, and I wandered around looking for a tour guide but to no avail. I found my way into the main hall of the museum to find a dream garage, laden with antique cars (mostly Maseratis) and bikes. There was even a bar in the corner with an espresso machine, making it the perfect garage set up.
I wandered back into the parking lot and through the farm, looking at the cows in the stalls eating their hay, before I finally found someone to ask about the tour. They seemed exasperated that once again, they had not been informed that I had arrived. One of the factory managers then proceeded to give me a whirlwind tour of the factory, showing me the storeroom laden with wheels of organic Parmesan cheese, aging over two years before going on sale. I got to quickly sample the product (exquisite) before the bus arrived to take me to the next stop.
The next place on the list was the Museum of Salami, a corporate museum attached to the headquarters of the Villani company. As a brief aside, the corporate museums here are really well designed, with state-of-the-art exhibitions. This one was no different, with multimedia interviews with the people who make the product, and exhibits showing (sorry in advance for the pun) how the sausage is made.
Again, I was the only one on the tour, and so had a personal guide explaining the history of the company and the region, before taking me to the factory shop for a tasting of the final products (again, exquisite), before we waited outside for the bus.
The final stop for the tour was at a “factory” for perhaps the most famous product of Modena, balsamic vinegar, the rich purple syrup that adorns salads and strawberries alike. I arrived (again, by myself) at the door of a modern house that looked nothing like a factory, to be greeted by a lovely tour guide who immediately took me to a bar inside for a tasting. I sampled five different varieties of the product, increasing in age up to an thick and rich 25 year old vinegar, which was complex and flavourful, much like a good whiskey.
We moved upstairs into the “factory”, a beautiful attic with dark barrels of different sizes, the tops of each barrel covered with a cloth to let air permeate and keep dust out. The guide showed me how the slow process of vinegar making was undertaken, with the product being moved annually in small proportions to ever smaller barrels as it became more concentrated, taking on the flavours of the different woods in each barrel. The barrels themselves dated back as far as the year 1730, and were worth alone up to €40,000 each. The guide let me smell the aroma of the oldest barrel, filled with their 80 year old vintage vinegar, of which only a few bottles are made each year.
We went downstairs for another tasting, this time of their infused vinegars, before it was time to get my bus back to Modena. I finished the day in a cocktail bar in the old cobbled streets, before catching the train back to Milan, my bag loaded with foodstuffs. Despite the disorganization of the tour, it had been a great trip, covering some of the best of Italian culture. Now all I have to do is work out how to afford a Maserati…
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.