This post is by Chris Bienemann.
Modena is a picturesque old city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The historic centre has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its impressive Romanesque architecture. The city is also famous for fast cars, for its opera heritage, and for producing exquisite balsamic vinegar. Despite these obvious charms, it is slightly off the tourist radar and if you visit Modena you will find it pleasantly free from crowds.
A fairly small area in the historic centre of Modena encompassing the Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
The site has been inscribed on the world heritage list thanks to being a fantastic example of early Romanesque art with exceptionally good architecture and sculpture.
Read more about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites In Emilia-Romagna.
The Cathedral is the main highlight when you visit Modena. It is a fine piece of Romanesque architecture that was built under the Canossa family, from 1099 to 1184. It is the joint creation of architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo and is considered to be a masterpiece of human creative genius where a new relationship between architecture and sculpture was created.
Lanfranco created a bold new form of architecture while Wiligelmo added intricate carvings of plants and fantastic creatures all around the Duomo. The highlight of his work is the “Reliefs from Genesis”, which are carved onto huge slabs and include incredibly expressive depictions of the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark.
You can also visit the Musei del Duomo (there’s a €3 entry fee, the cathedral itself is free). The museum showcases fragments of sculptures from the cathedral and other items from Roman times.
The Torre Civica is the bell tower of the cathedral and stands over 86m (282 ft) tall. It has become the emblem of Modena and has its own nickname – Torre Ghirlandina. The nickname was given as the ringing of the five bells was thought to be “as light as garlands”, or ghirlanda in Italian. Or, maybe it’s because the top of the tower is decorated with two marble railings in the shape of garlands. I am not sure which it is, but both stories are told by locals.
The tower played an important role in the past as the bells were rung to announce the opening of the city gates or to warn of approaching danger. The Torre Civica was not completed until 1319, over 200 years after the construction of the cathedral began. Since it’s the tallest building in the town it’s a fabulous place to take in views of the city. To get there you will need to climb 201 steps, but it is well worth the effort.
Opening times for the tower vary throughout the year, entrance is €3.
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The Piazza Grande was included in the UNESCO listing thanks to its cultural and historical relationship to the cathedral rather than because the buildings surrounding it are particularly noteworthy. But, like most Italian piazzas, it’s very beautiful.
Piazza Grande is very much the heart of the city and public life has revolved around this plaza for centuries. It makes for a fabulous place to stop and watch the world go by with a coffee or gelato.
There is much more to Modena than the World Heritage Site. Car enthusiasts will want to visit the Enzo Ferrari Museum which is in his childhood home. The city is also famed for its opera heritage and was the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti. You can visit his home at Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti (outside the city), or enjoy a show at the 280-year-old opera house that was renamed in his honour.
The city is a food lover’s delight and is particularly well known for its balsamic vinegar. Numerous Balsamico producers allow you to tour their facilities and learn how grapes are transformed into “liquid gold”. A little way from the city is the Prosciutto di Parma Museum where you can discover – and taste – the famous local ham.
If you are travelling by car Modena is just off the A1 highway.
Chris is a keen traveller who aims to explore as much of the world as he can with his young family. He shares travel tips and inspiration at morelifeinyourdays.com.