Not by Balsamic Vinegar Alone

Today we arrived in Modena. I only heard of Modena as the place producing the famous balsamic vinegar. After Parma, I had no expectations. Not that I didn’t like Parma, it was ok – nice, clean, bourgeois, but a bit blah. The main turn off for Parma was the shortage of greenery and color – mostly grey stone under our feet and on the sides of the streets.
In Modena, even the boring postwar neighborhoods are green and the buildings themselves painted in terra cotta colors.
In the old city, the real terra cotta houses are an explosion of color – vivid, rich hues of ochre, orange, red, golden brown, yellow. The grand square is a Unesco heritage site, with its magnificent cathedral, a clock tower, and a palace or two. The streets leading to the square are covered arcades with shops and restaurants. The shops are not high end but local designers. Beautiful things are artfully arranged in the store windows. This is a wealthy town. Why did I think it was not when it’s home to Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati?!
We went to the Ferrari museum: sleek, mostly red cars, which could be sculptures, are arranged on a tilted glistening white floor on different levels, and you can walk up to them or look down at the entire assembly from a balcony. To complete the picture, the sound effect is of Pavarotti singing the most popular arias.
The taste level of Italians is second to none. Nobody can arrange a shop window with merchandise in perfect proportion to each other, perfectly folded, perfectly wrinkled, and positioned. Same with this museum. It is housed in two buildings: one – the original auto shop of Mr. Ferrari senior – with huge windows that offer glimpses of medieval roofs, and wood-beamed ceilings. Next to the original auto shop is an ultra modern crazy structure of glass, metal, and wavy yellow roof. Both buildings are in perfect harmony with each other.
Back in the heart of the old city, we walked under the arched colonnades from one square to another until we happened upon a synagogue. Even the synagogue is upscale in this city! Most old European synagogues were built as nondescript as possible, hidden between buildings, with no decorations in order to attract as little attention as possible. Not this one. At the head of a lovely green square flanked by palatial houses, it boast a marble facade, columns, and large-lettered Hebrew writing. Clearly, the Jews who escaped from Spain and came here in the early 1600’s were welcomed, and didn’t have to hide. Sadly, even though not many Jews are left here, they are in peril. There were two army trucks stationed by the front door and two military guards were keeping guard.
Off to the side of the massive front door, there was a regular-sized door with three door bells: Cohen family, secretary, and something that looked like Hebrew community. We decided not to bother the Cohen family and first rang the door bell of the secretary, and then of the community. Neither answered. At that point, the soldier guarding the front wanted to know what we were up to. We told him, we wanted to see the inside. In his halting English he explained that “it’s Easter, and the church is closed until April 12. And the church’s boss lives here, but it’s closed because of the holiday”. Oh, well, too bad – will have to come back another day, another time, another year, another era.
Would like to visit one of the places where they make the famous balsamic vinegar then, and maybe visit the Maserati museum, and could also do some serious damage shopping.
But we had to rush to Mantua, to check into our hotel by 7 PM.
Now here was another contrast! Where Parma was somber, tidy, proper, and bourgeois, and Modena was wealthy, stylish, aristocratic, and cheerful, Mantua – is more like Sicily than a Northern Italian town. Poor and rundown, it reminded me of the impoverished Lisbon – with shabby buildings, faded paint, Kmart-quality shops, and abandoned houses, some in the prime locations, looking out on squares with glassless windows.
Quite a shock!
But we are staying in a palace here. Like the Duke of Mantua 😉

Well, this was once a noble palace of the Valenti Gonzaga family. This is quite an experience! Several rooms of the palace double as a hotel. The place is Baroque. The ceilings and walls are painted with mythological and biblical scenes, the wall niches hold plaster sculptures, the ceilings are held up by angels, the walls are faux painted marble.
The guy who commissioned the palace was either not terribly wealthy or didn’t have a refined taste, because despite all the outward opulence, at a close glance, he cut corners and had it done cheaply: the art is quite mediocre or just plain poor. It also has a slightly moldy odor – well, it’s over 500 years old, so it has an excuse. Still, it’s enchanting spending a night in a medieval palace. I’ll report tomorrow if we will be visited by a ghost or two tonight.

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