Nobody indulges the five senses quite like the Italians. Taste their cooking. Feel the texture of their fine leather. Smell the aroma of thick espresso, the scent of garlic swirling in the wind. Hear the roar of a sports car, or simply watch the vines rustle in the slow breeze. Amongst the cities of Bologna and Modena, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, these senses collide.
Racing along the 130 km/h autostrade, the chaos of Rome fades into the sprawling countryside. Already, the cheap pizza at a roadside stop tastes better than anything back home, as if magic is baked directly into the dough. By the time I arrive in Modena, a late afternoon sun casts a yellow glow over the busy piazza. Students are drinking beer, enjoying the summer heat. Locals ride past on bikes, food in the baskets up front, not a helmet in sight. I'd stumbled into a seductive Italian cliché, and I was only too happy to find a patio table, order some wine, and enjoy it.
A half hour away is Bologna, where lasagna, tortellini and bolognaise first attained glory. To the west is Parma, which blessed the world with Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. But if you look at any bottle of balsamic vinegar, you'll see it comes from Modena. This oil-black condiment can only be called balsamic if it comes from this particular region. There is, however, a vast difference between real balsamic vinegar and the stuff you buy at the supermarket. Modena has been producing it since the Middle Ages, using a technique that incorporates a daisy chain of wooden barrels, and a complicated process of cooking grape must. Most of all, the secret ingredient of balsamic vinegar is time. The elixir is literally passed from generation to generation. You'll know the stuff you have is "industrial" (as they call it here) if you didn't pay $100 for a 100 ml bottle, as you would for certified Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
I visit Azienda Agricola Galli, a Renaissance farmhouse that has been producing balsamic vinegar for centuries. The family matriarch, Galli Giovanni, simply cannot believe I have never tasted the real deal. Using a glass baster, she gently leaks some onto a spoon. My tongue touches the liquid, and my palate explodes. It tastes like everything good in the world. Upstairs in the attic, I learn about the aging process, as the vinegar is transferred from barrel to barrel, gaining its sweetness by losing moisture to evaporation (the "angels' share").
Downstairs awaits a feast: a brick of soft gorgonzola, fresh olive bread, a variety of meats and cheeses, blood-red cherry tomatoes, eggs and two bottles of Balsamic Tradicionale, to be dribbled over it all. Galli sternly reminds me to never cook with it, never waste it, but still eat it with just about everything, even ice cream.
The region is beloved for its vinegar, but it attracts another kind of connoisseur: those drawn to the golden circle that surrounds the cities of Modena and Bologna to come face to face with the mythical brands whispered on the lips of car lovers everywhere. Maserati. De Tomaso. Pagani. These are the Italian sports cars that introduced the world to speed, design and luxury, and here are the factories of its most famous sons, Lamborghini and Ferrari. Their machines have transcended the metal and bolts within them, commanding religious-like reverence from drivers, dreamers and travellers, too.
Entering the municipality of Bologna, my small rental car arrives at the modern headquarters of Lamborghini. The eponymous bull logo appears boldly on the walls of the factory building. Only 2,000 cars are hand-built each year, so the buildings are smaller than one would imagine. Although Lamborghini has had its fair share of challenges, it continues to produce vehicles - like the Murciélago, the Diablo and the spaceship-like Countach - that redefine car envy. These models, along with one-of-a-kind prototypes and concept cars, are on display in the company's onsite gallery, open daily to the public.
I drool over the Concept S, which has adjacent seat booths protected by individual windows, creating the distinct look of a jet fighter. From the mid-1980s, the LM002 looks like a futuristic Humvee, built way before its time. Also on show is a Lamborghini police car, one of two donated to the police force for transporting emergency organ transplants. It is a car I wish I could be arrested in.
Valentino Balboni, a 62-year-old test driver, pulls up outside in a silver Gallardo LP 560-4 Spyder. He's been driving supercars longer than I have been alive, and I've arranged for him to take me into the countryside and demonstrate what Lamborghinis can do. Valentino presses a button, the engine growls to life, and we roar out of the parking lot. There isn't a head on this planet that wouldn't swivel at the sight of this car on the road.
Valentino races alongside wheat fields, demonstrating the Spyder's incredible power. The acceleration feels like a roller coaster, my body lurching forward, my eyeballs trailing behind. We find a quiet stretch and Valentino invites me to take the wheel. With an advanced paddle shift transmission, he assures me that I can't make a mistake - the car will automatically adjust. This low to the tarmac on a hot summer day, I can feel the heat radiating from the ground. The convertible's thermometer reads a blistering 50 C. I'm already sweating with nerves, driving a vehicle worth more than I could ever afford to replace. Fortunately, the Spyder is beautifully forgiving, guiding my gear changes, injecting fuel when needed, and sticking firm around corners. For a brief moment, a travel writer owning a half-million-dollar sports car makes perfect sense.
It is a short drive from Bologna to Maranello, the home of Lamborghini's nemesis, Ferrari. Maranello is not so much a small town as a Ferrari theme park. I drive past Ferrari stores, schools, Ferrari-themed restaurants and red-painted hotels. Images of the famous prancing horse logo are everywhere. It is immediately clear that Ferrari is a much larger enterprise than its competitor.
At the Galleria Ferrari, some of the most famous Ferraris are on display for the public. There are original race cars built by Enzo himself, all the way to Formula 1 triumphs, and even an accurate recreation of a pit stop. Upstairs are the road cars: the powerful Testa Rossa, the F40, and Magnum PI's red 308GTS. The Enzo Ferrari, named in tribute, is the only road-licensed Formula 1 vehicle. I notice a marked difference between this display and the sleek tones inside Lamborghini's showcase gallery. Ferraris seem to exude brute strength, with more muscle than finesse. A special showcase houses a 1957 black 250 Testa Rossa, which sold at auction for a staggering $12.1-million (U.S.). It doesn't even have headlights.
Ironically, the 430 Scuderia waiting for me outside is metallic blue, with two racing stripes down the middle. My test driver's name is Gabriel, and we both agree that a job requiring one to drive in a Ferrari all day is a job worth keeping. Gabriel makes the tires scream around the quiet country roads, the engine snarling as he shifts the transmission. I feel like a tiger lurking in the concrete jungle of automobiles, ferociously hunting a Toyota. After screeching past a chicane, I ask Gabriel how fast he was going. With a wry grin, he says it was too fast to look at the speedometer.
It is late afternoon when we drive back to the Galleria in Maranello's rush hour. It seems cruel for the 430 Scuderia - with a top speed of 320 km/h - to trot along at 40 km/h, all the way back to the stable. I thank Gabriel, awkwardly exit the cockpit, and walk over to my Peugeot rental. Like most cars in Italy, it is a tiny vehicle capable of squeezing through narrow cobblestone alleys, barely slotting into minuscule parking spaces, but still exceeding 130 km/h speed limits on the highway.
I had one more item on my agenda, one that easily meets the need of both culinary and car connoisseurs. Located just a few miles from Maranello, the Hombre Dairy Farm is owned by Umberto Panini, who made his fortune designing and distributing trading cards. It has two magnificent collections of wheels, both open to the public. First, one can sample melt-in-the-mouth organic Parmigiano-Reggiano. In a chilled room, I walk among 8,000 rounds of cheese that fetch about $800 each. The smell is rich, the texture creamy, almost like caramel. Just metres away is the world's largest collection of Maseratis. These cars are less flashy than other Italian supercars, but just as expensive. The collection includes automobiles driven by legends like Sterling Moss, and dozens of antique motorbikes and bicycles. I ask Matteo Panini, Umberto's son, how much the collection is worth. He skittishly replies it is worth as much as anyone would pay for it.
Whether you're into sport cars, Italian cuisine, or just Old World countryside, Emilia-Romagna will appeal. And while you might not have the means to attain your own collection of supercars, or even a bottle of real Aceto Balsamico, travellers are invited to sample and enjoy at the source. It's just a taste, but sometimes, that's all one needs to truly indulge.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CityTV series Word Travels. You can find him online at moderngonzo.com