I never thought it would be so beautiful
Okay, sure, I had been there several times, mostly when I was very young, since it was my mother’s hometown. I have vague memories of my nonna with her hair pulled up in a tight bun, and it had a sort of a bluish hue.
I recall being there as a teen, unhappily dragged along by my parents for some holidays, begrudging the fact that I would not see my boyfriend for several days. But I was too involved in my own dramas to pay much attention.
This time it was different. And I owe it to them, my wonderful cousins, whom I hardly knew, but who gave me the precious opportunity to spend a longer period in this absolutely lovely city, welcoming me and my daughter to their pretty home with touching warmth and kindness. Not a reception one receives often as a guest.
Taking a walk around town on the very first day, I felt swaddled in a vibrant golden light: the stunning yellow and orange buildings of Modena, reflecting and intensifying the sunlight, warming the city and our hearts, as we wandered through the magnificent centro storico. I’m fascinated by the superb architecture, the splendid Romanesque Duomo – the main cathedral- and its Ghirlandina, the bell tower that has become the beloved symbol of the city. Elegant streets, shaded by classic arched portici, graced with chic shops, bars displaying a dizzying array of mouth-watering pastries, charming bicycle parking areas on the side (Modena is a serious bicycle town, the most common method of transportation!). Rich in history, with its surprising, mysterious underground canals, with the beautiful Piazza grande, carpeted by thousands of river stones, smoothened by centuries of human footsteps, including my own, as I walked on them, a little tentatively in my heels, which I rarely do without.
I grew up in Naples, since my modenese mother had fallen in love with this city during her honeymoon journey, and she and the city embraced each other with a love that would last a lifetime. Therefore, because of the distance, Modena and all of mamma’s relatives, had been somewhat placed in the background, as my siblings and I lived a totally Southern Italian childhood.
But they were there, those Modena roots, strong and everlasting, just waiting their turn to be uncovered.
With anticipation and wonder, I approach the “Mercato coperto”, the indoor market in the heart of the city. I remember going there with my uncle, lo zio Walter, my mother’s younger brother. He was a tall gentleman and had a beautiful shiny, flame red Fiat 600, of which he was very (very) fond. I was an insecure and shy child, always felt a little in awe of adults, but when he offered to buy me a panino al prosciutto, freshly made at a deli counter, I eagerly accepted. And here I am, surrounded by delectable prosciutti, parmigiano, salami, and other local delights, and don’t even know what to look at first. What a great food city is Modena! Nobody makes tortellini like they do here, and those fat, overstuffed tortelloni, savory with ricotta, parmigiano and greens, the dough tender and so intensely yellow, their delicate flavor enhanced by fresh sage leaves; golden tagliatelle with a rich, white, porcini sauce; freshly made tigelle, spread with lard or stracchino, one of my favorite soft cheeses. Breakfast is perfection when you bite into a heavenly diamond-shaped piece of gnocco, flaky and tender, warm and puffy right out of the fryer, ideal with your foamy cappuccino. And the bread, so unique in its many whimsical shapes, chalk-white and dense, yet light and easily snappable. I also discovered a product called savor, which is a thick jam made of multiple fresh and dried fruit, used to make fantastic crostate and tortelli dolci, lovely tiny crescent-shaped pies, stuffed with various fillings and deep fried. My mother used to make tortelli when we were small, usually filled with sour cherry jam (a specialty of Modena), and it was always a feast. I hear her accent all around me, at the mercato, as the shoppers chat and laugh, and my eyes become slightly blurry.
As I gaze at the ‘roofs of Modena”, sipping my espresso, out on the kitchen balcony, in the shade of the many trees that help cool off the fiery summer heat, I realize that this trip has changed me: my connection to my mother’s land is more solid, and I’m so fiercely proud to belong to this city and to these beautiful people.
Modena, you’re in my heart.