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A Visit to Modena Italy: Molto Meraviglioso

Modena is a city of contrasts: ancient churches, blocks of modern shops, two beautifully restored theaters (The Storchi Theatre and City Theatre) and two schools of higher education (the University of Modena, begun in 1183, and St. Charles College).

It is a place where one can shop for souvenirs or just sit quietly at an umbrella-shaded table and feel the stress of everyday life drift away like the steam from your cup of dark espresso coffee. And there's much more.

After you have had your fill of the busy tourist centers of Italy,consider a visit to one of Italy's oldest cities: Modena. I discovered Modena when I accepted an invitation to visit my pen-pal and her husband who make their home there.

As I stepped down from the air-conditioned train into the August heat of Modena, my hosts were at the station welcoming me with smiles and embraces. They gave me a wonderful tour of the city of Modena on the drive to their home. The touring would start the next day. Modena began as an Etruscan colony early in 9th century B.C. when the town site was chosen for its strategic position at the meeting of two mountain passes and between the rivers, Panaro and Sacchia. Later, Modena came under Roman rule and flourished as a military outpost and trade center until 452 A.D., when it was overrun by barbarian tribes from the north.

Through the years the city endured floods, famines and plagues, but in 1099 the Cathedral and Town Hall were begun in the Piazza Grande and they soon became the heart and symbol of the city.

Town Hall

On the first floor of the Town Hall, a famous pail is displayed. This pail was stolen from Bologna in 1325 during the Battle of Zappolino. It was recovered soon after by the people of Modena and has become a symbol of the city's public spirit ever since.

Take the marble staircase that leads to a small cell at the top of the bell tower revealing magnificent views of the city.

This Cathedral (begun in 1099), the Town Hall and bell tower were declared a part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

Lapidary Museum

The Lapidary Museum along the left side of the Cathedral holds interesting exhibits depicting mythological figures and other works of art. The museum is divided into two sections: Greek-Roman and Medieval-Modern (this was of special interest to me for the wonderful collection of illuminated texts on display there).

Civic Museum and Historical Archives

Modena's Civic Museum and the Historical Archives hold some of the world's finest Renaissance drawings, maps and illustrations and on a hot August afternoon, these museums are deliciously cool inside.

Ducal Palace and Military Academy

A short walk through narrow streets where Roman soldiers once marched, will take you to the Ducal Palace which now houses the Military Academy (a school for Italian Army officers). If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the uniformed cadets in training there.

Delicious Regional Specialities Make for Fun Tours

My friend Grazia serves us a delicious meal at their home that evening. Her dinner features some of the regional specialties including: Parma ham, sausage and prosciutto, Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese (made from the milk of a special breed of red cow) and the famous Modena Balsamic vinegars (some aged for over 45 years with tiny bottles nestled in padded boxes like fine perfumes). Several companies will arrange tours to these factories, either all in one day, or one at a time. Learn more about Modena, Italy

Ferrari Factory and Museum: The factory motto: "The best Ferrari car we have ever produced -- is the next one."

At breakfast the next morning, Giorgio asks if I would like to visit the Ferrari factory and museum at Maranello, a short distance from Modena. He doesn't have to ask me twice. I have been fascinated by Ferrari cars ever since I saw photos them performing on the international race courses of Europe and flaunting their elegant lines in countless movies.

In 1946 Enzo Anselmo Ferrari founded the company that bears his name and adopted the signature prancing stallion insignia (borrowed from the Spad SXIII fighter plane of a World War I Italian flying ace) as his own. (photo)

His racing cars, some of them driven by the great Argentine driver, Juan Manuel Fangio (who captured the world title an amazing five times) and American driver Phil Hill (three time endurance winner in Le Mans, France and winner of The Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy 1961) brought him racing fame in the '50s and 60's.

He soon began branching out into the field of luxury touring cars. (photos) and in 1994, he was posthumously inducted into the International Hall of Fame. Ferrari's most recent sports car, The Enzo (valued at $1.5 million) was named after him. Only four of these cars were produced and one of them was totaled during the filming of the movie, Red Line.

Today, we tour the immaculate factory buildings (outside only and no cameras allowed) in a sleek little bus that takes us around the driver's training track where each turn is a replica of a similar turn on one of the international racetracks. Anyone purchasing a Ferrari car must put in a mandatory training session here before being allowed to take delivery on it. At the museum, you can examine (but not touch) some of the famous cars, see race photos, movies, trophies and driver's regalia -- everything a true fan could hope for. And if that is not enough excitement, you can arrange to actually go for a half-hour supervised drive in a Ferrari at the Push Start station outside the museum!

Near the factory there is a large shop selling all things Ferrari. I left with a radio-controlled "California" touring car model (red of course) and a red and black polo shirt with the Ferarri logo.

The Crypt of Luciano Pavarotti

Driving back Giorgio parked his car on a quiet street. "We are going to visit the crypt of Luciano Pavarotti," he told me.

Pavarotti was born in Modena in 1935, and died there in 2007. Modena was his home and his gift for singing was discovered when he was a small boy singing with his father in a local church choir.

Luciano's soaring tenor voice and larger-than-life showmanship helped him popularize opera throughout the world. He achieved a wide following through his appearances in opera houses, on television, (sometimes performing with Placido Domingo and Jose Carerras as one of The Three Tenors) and through his recordings. At the opening of the Winter Olympics at Turin, Italy in 2006 (one of his last appearances) he performed "Nessun Dorma" and made it his own.

As I gaze through the glass covering the front of the Pavarotti Family marble crypt, I see several framed photos of a smiling Pavarotti and my eyes fill with tears at a display of the good luck charms -- a pink plush pig, a small wooden puppet and two crucifixes -- he always carried when he performed.

A Day Trip to Cremona

Two hours north of Modena is the old Roman town of Cremona, a town made famous by the master stringed instrument makers, Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today the craft continues at little shops throughout the town and at the International Vocational School of Stringed-Instruments and Wood Craftsmanship. Here new generations of artists are creating fine instruments to satisfy a world-wide demand -- especially for the Stradivarius violins and cellos.

My friend Georgio's family has lived in this area for over 900 years and his grandfather was a well-known cellist in the 1800s. He wants to show me the Stradivarius cello that his grandfather played during his concert career. It is now on display at the Stradivarius Museum including the oldest violin (created by Andrea Amati in the year 1566).

After dinner on my last night in Modena I walk through the quiet streets of Modena with my friends to visit one of their favorite ice cream parlors. Although it is well after nine o' clock and very dark, there is a long line of convivial Italians waiting outside the shop -- everyone ordering ice cream. What a fine way to end my stay in Modena.

If You Go

One of Italy's fast and comfortable trains will take you from Venice to this compact city in about two hours -- or you might prefer a leisurely half-day drive there in a rental car. Distances and time from other Italian cities will vary.

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Linda Martin has always loved to travel and explore new places. She spent her childhood years growing up in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, explored Mexico studying folk art and visited ancient pyramids during her college years. She then shifted to exploring Europe and Japan. More recently she has traveled in a number of South American countries and retraced Magellan's Passage around Cape Horn. Besides a love of travel, Linda Martin is a published author of children's plays and stories and an animal lover ... especially her two Corgi dogs, Betsy and Panda.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated May 17, 2016

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