If You Go To Italy, Do A Day Trip To Modena

…but don’t stay there longer than a day, it’s surprisingly unpleasant.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Italy for DFRWS, a digital forensics conference. The conference itself and the work surrounding it lasted 4-5 days, but I tagged on a couple of extra days either side.

The conference was in Florence, but when I googled that I realised it was close to Modena, where they famously make balsamic vinegar. You can only buy proper traditional balsamic in Harrods here in London, so I thought it might be fun to tour a real balsamic vineyard, and probably cheaper to bring some back in my suitcase than to buy it here. I was right on both counts.

I also imagined that Modena would be a pretty city surrounded by beautiful countryside. I was wrong on that one.

I arrived in Modena on a cold and rainy Thursday. I was exhausted and not in the best mood, and that probably didn’t help. The next day when I woke up, it was snowing.

I’d booked a room in the Hotel Estense, allegedly a mid-range place (three stars, about £75 per night). I didn’t want anything that was too much of a dump, but I also wanted to spend most of my money on vinegar and didn’t think I’d be spending much time in my room, because surely I’d want to explore the beauty of the area?

Um. No.

First off, the hotel was far from deserving of its three-star rating. I reviewed it on TripAdvisor so I won’t repeat myself here. This would have been OK if the rest of the city had been nice. It wasn’t.

Modena is full of orange and brown buildings, making you feel like you’re walking through a 70s nightmare.

The colour palette of Modena

Determined to enjoy myself, however, I resolutely explored the town. I got completely lost several times (always one of my goals in a foreign place) and sampled the local cuisine in various restaurants, cafés and shops. All the food was bad except for a brunch I had at a little café that looked like it belonged in Shoreditch circa 2006.

See what I mean about the colour palette? It even extends to the napkins.

I did wonder how much of the city’s lack of beauty had to do with the time of year. If the sun had been out, these buildings might have looked nice.

But there were good bits. Of course there were. There are almost everywhere, if you look hard enough.

This little door at the bottom of a very tall building, for example.

There were little details hidden throughout the city, which I quite enjoyed noticing.

And the Duomo. Ohhh, the Duomo. In fact it deserves its own section.

Il Duomo di Modena

I spent a lot of time here. I accidentally went to mass three times: my first masses. They were interesting. It was so beautiful inside and out, even though they were currently renovating so a lot of it was under dust sheets, which probably helped me to feel more at home.

The structure itself is imposing, rising out of a little side street which you suddenly stumble upon when you’ve been tiredly trudging down the cobblestone tourist-ridden pavements of Via Emilia.

“Oh look,” you think to yourself, “some sort of cathedral.” Personally I love churches, so I always end up inside them when I’m abroad. This was by a long shot the best one in Modena, and it also wasn’t too busy. At one point I spent a couple of hours sitting quietly inside it and there were barely any other people there – it’s very much still a working church where people go to worship. Occasionally someone will wander past you to genuflect at the altar or something, but mostly you’re able to sit alone with your thoughts.

You will of course have to deal with the tourists snapping photos inside, but on the whole they’re respectful; it’s the kind of space that demands it.

Even though I didn’t love Modena, I would go back there just to visit the cathedral once the restoration is complete. And then once I’d done that, I’d go on a balsamic tour.

Acetaia Villa San Donnino

I can’t remember why I picked this one out of all the acetaias (balsamic vinegar making places) available – I think it probably had good reviews. And rightly so: it was excellent.

On the drive over I was surprised by how unpretty the countryside was – I’m normally very easy to please when it comes to landscapes, but no. My taxi driver informed me that Modena and the surrounding areas are “like the corn-growing regions of the USA”: very flat and a bit desolate-looking. I have never actually been to the USA’s corn-growing regions, so apologies if this is wrong. I’m just going on the word of an Italian cab driver.

I arrived a bit early, because I always do, and was led into a room stacked floor-to-ceiling with balsamic barrels. It smelled amazing. The very nice gentleman who’d let me in put on a short film about the vineyard for me to watch while I waited for the rest of the group.

Once we’d all arrived, the tour began. Our guide started by talking through the process, then he took us up to the attic room to show us the barrels that were currently in production. If you’re using a wheelchair, the attic part isn’t accessible (or not that I could see, anyway – it’s an old building with steep staircases), but the rest of the tour takes place at ground level so you’d be able to participate in about 70% of it. And the family who run it are very kind so I’m sure they’d be open to accommodating their guests’ needs however they could.

The attic room

Up here is where the magic happens, in barrels bought by the current owner’s grandfather.

The vinegar starts out in the biggest barrel, and each year is moved into smaller and smaller barrels as some of it evaporates; the bigger barrels are then topped up with the new year’s vinegar. The entire process takes a minimum of either 12 or 25 years – you can tell how long your vinegar has been aged for from the top of the bottle. Bottles with red tops contain vinegar that has been aged for at least 12 years; gold-topped bottles have been aged for at least 25 years.

Some of the barrels are very very old. This one’s from 1512:

It’s possible (presumably only if you’re rich) to have your own set of barrels there: Pierce Brosnan has some (“Who’s he?” asked the young students on the tour with me, making me feel about 70), and so does some tech entrepreneur in the US. I’d love to know how much it costs, but I didn’t want to ask because knowing me I’d have ended up spending all my savings on it.

Once you’ve done your tour, they take you downstairs again to the Magic Table of Dreams, where the tasting happens. They left me alone in a room with this for at least fifteen minutes and I did not steal any. Go me.

They started us off with a “balsamic vinegar” of the kind you’d buy at the supermarket. These aren’t made in the same way – they’re mixed with other stuff rather than just being pure grapes, and they’re not aged for as long. Giving us some of this was a good move, because when we graduated on to the good stuff the comparison blew me away. It didn’t even taste like the same category of food.

There were a few options, the first of which was Nerone. This is San Donnino’s cheapest option and is a sort of compromise between your supermarket vinegars and the real thing: it’s made in the same way, but only aged for six years. It is very very nice.

(c) Villa San Donnino

The Affinato is the first of the actual traditional balsamic vinegars you get to try. Aged for 12 years, it comes from the barrels you’ll have seen in the attic. It tastes wonderful and not really like vinegar at all. There’s barely any acidity and a lot of fruitiness, plus a hint of something darkly sweet: molasses?

Just when you think it can’t get any better, they give you a spoonful of the Extravecchio, which has been aged for at least 25 years (‘vecchio’ means ‘old’). This again tastes like a whole new thing in its own right; fruity yet complex, like a really good wine; notes of dark sugar and wood. Which wood depends on the barrels in which it’s been aged, and on whether your palate is well-adjusted enough to be able to tell. Mine isn’t. But it was amazing.

At the end of the tasting they present you with some ice cream drizzled with Nerone, and that is very nice too.

While you’re tasting the excellent vinegars and then enjoying the lovely ice cream you’re looking at the cabinet where they have all these things for sale, so obviously you end up spending £300 on vinegar and not having any money left for the rest of your trip.

If you’d like to buy traditional balsamic vinegar in the UK, you can, but it’s hard. I could only find it in Harrods in London and I’m not sure which other places sell it. Batches tend to be small – San Donnino only produce about 3,500 bottles per year – and demand is high.

Keep an eye out for the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) stamp – not to be confused with the IGP stamp, which looks similar and is probably just there to trick you. ‘IGP’ means it was genuinely made in Modena, but it wasn’t made the traditional way. ‘DOP’ means it was made in the right place and using the right methods.

You can also tell by the shape of the bottle: true balsamic will be in the same shaped bottles as the two on the left of the picture above (‘Extravecchio’ and ‘Affinato’) – but it can be difficult to remember the exact shape of the bottle when plenty of people put it into similar-shaped ones to trick you into buying them. The best thing to do is look out for the DOP stamp.

So in summary: if you’re planning a trip to Italy, go to Florence (more on that in a future post). But while you’re there, take a day trip to Modena, do a balsamic tour at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, and visit the cathedral.


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