One of the reasons we chose Padua as our month-long base is the ease and proximity of all the other amazing old cities in northern Italy, pretty much all of which have UNESCO World Heritage designation for something.
Since we hadn’t done a lot of pre-planning about what we wanted to see while we’re here (we were mostly just focused on getting to Italy!), Chad and I spent some time on our train from Milan to Padua researching where we’d take our day trips. We agreed our top priority and first trip should be Bologna, which would pair nicely with either Modena or Ferrara. We picked Modena because we were intrigued by its famed balsamic vinegar.
Modena first, then Bologna, but first, Bologna
We decided to start our day in Modena, which is far smaller than Bologna, figuring we’d find better restaurants and bars for the evening in Bologna. But to reach Modena from Padua, you have to take the train south to Bologna, then get on another train to go west to Modena. So our day actually began with a brief breakfast picnic at the Parco della Montagnola near the Bologna train station.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
We finally arrived in Modena about 11 a.m., almost three hours after leaving Padua. We went directly to a balsamic vinegar seller I’d researched online that offers tastings in English called La Consorteria 1966. More elaborate tasting tours take place at the vineyards where the vinegar is produced, but they are outside of town and require transportation.
We were warmly welcomed at the little shop and had a brief wait while the guide finished with the prior customer. They had literature on the table about balsamic vinegar so we got a little preview of what we would learn. When it was our turn, the guide explained the difference between balsamic vinegar of Modena, which we commonly see in supermarkets all over the world including the U.S., and traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, which is only sold in specific 100-milliliter bottles and has been aged at least 12 years. Those aged at least 25 years are labeled extravecchio (“extra-old”). We tried their house balsamic vinegar, that was aged three years, and then a few examples of the traditional and extravecchio, including one from 1959. That was our favorite, but at 150 euros a bottle, out of our budget. The other extravecchio versions weren’t much less, but we liked them much better than the traditional. In order to avoid traveling the next few months with a 100-plus euro bottle of balsamic that we wanted to buy, we decided to buy their house version (for “just” 25 euros) and made plans to order an extravecchio traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena to meet us at home that we could let friends and family taste.
It really is very different from the balsamic you buy at the store, mostly due to the fact that it does not have added sugar to give it its color, and it is much more mellow and less acidic tasting. It was fun learning about this Italian specialty.
Modena UNESCO Site
After our tasting we wandered around Modena, focusing on the UNESCO heritage site area that includes the Piazza Grande, cathedral, and tower. These were built in the 12th century and Chad read something in our research that called them “a masterpiece of human genius.” We weren’t that impressed, but we did really like the interior of the cathedral.
After our sightseeing, we visited the old market and bought some figs and a sandwich shop to try the northern Italian specialty called piadina for our lunch. This is made with a flatbread that closely resembles a tortilla, so ends up looking a lot like a quesadilla. They were delicious! We enjoyed our lunch in the garden behind Modena’s ducal palace and then caught the train back to Bologna.
University of Bologna
The big attraction for us to Bologna is that it is home to the oldest university in continuous operation in the world. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and is still considered a prestigious university. We started our visit at the present campus, which is just to the southeast of the train station. School hasn’t resumed from the summer break yet, so there wasn’t a lot to see there or many students around, but it is a pretty neighborhood. We stopped for a coffee (for Chad) and fresh pear juice (for me) and just enjoyed being near a college.
Then we walked to the Archiginnasio Palace in the old city, which was the historic campus. This building is partially open to the public today. We had our CDC cards checked at the entry and then were directed up a flight of stairs to the ticket counter. The ticket you can purchase is just three euros and includes access to the building to go to the teatro anatomico (anatomical theater, where dissections were conducted in front of the medical students) and the Stabat Mater lecture hall, where classes were once held.
The building dates back to the 16th century and all of the rooms and exhibits were interesting to see, especially the coats of arms that decorate the hallways.
Miles of Porticos and Two Towers
Another of Bologna’s claims to fame is the longest portico in the world, and its historic porticos in general were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site just this year. Walking through all the porticos was fun and practical, since they provide great protection from the sun. We briefly visited the Piazza Santo Stefano and then wandered back toward the main part of the old city, easily identified by the famous Two Towers.
They were built in the 12th century, so are nearly 1000 years old now. You can climb the taller of the towers, the Torre degli Asinelli, by purchasing a timed ticket online in advance. I bought ours on the 20-minute train ride from Modena to Bologna. There was only one time available, 4:45 p.m., but that seemed like a good time and I felt lucky we were able to get it. The tickets are just 5 euros each. We actually were feeling a bit tired (okay, I was feeling tired) from all the walking around and may have chosen to skip the tower, but since I’d already paid for the 5 euro tickets for each of us, I was determined to do it. So we took another break at a caffe near the towers to fortify ourselves with a beer and bar snack.
When we arrived at the base of the tower we had to show our CDC cards again and then after a prior group exited, we and the others waiting (maybe 8 of us) were allowed to go up. The tower is 300-feet tall and has over 400 steps to climb, but it wasn’t too bad. Wearing a KN-95 mask while walking up steps in an enclosed space is not ideal but there were periodic windows giving a breeze and the view at the top was worth it. As was the general cool-factor of walking up a nearly-1000-year-old tower.
Drinks and Dinner Out
After our tower climb we walked north to check out our potential restaurant options for the evening. Because we were trying to catch the last regional train from Bologna to Padua at 9:20 and the restaurants don’t open until 7 p.m., we thought it would be good to eat in the area between the old city and the train station. There were a lot of cute restaurants and bars around and Chad liked the look of the one that I knew was recommended by a blogger I follow, so it was a unanimous decision. We walked a bit more and found a cute cocktail bar to while away the time until the restaurant opened. It was a great choice because our waiter was very friendly, the cocktails were good, and when Chad wanted something different for his second cocktail, the bartender made the recommendation of the Milano-Turino, which he ended up liking a lot (as mentioned in my prior post that covered Campari drinks).
A little after 7 we wandered back over to the restaurant and got an outdoor table for two. The service was a little too fast and attentive, indicating this was probably more of a tourist place than a local place, but the food was good (lasagna for Chad, since it was associated with Bologna, where they serve it with green noodles; I ordered a saffron tortelloni, which was also tasty). After dinner, we walked up toward the train station and found a gelateria. We chose the flavor most mentioned in the Google reviews – cremino mediterraneo (a very rich pistachio flavor) – and its neighbor zabaione (like an eggnog flavor). Best gelato we’ve had so far.
Our day trip was a lot of fun but visiting two cities in a single day was pretty exhausting. It was nearly midnight by the time we got back to our apartment, making it a 16-hour day for us. But, we had great experiences throughout the day and I wouldn’t trade any of it. This is exactly what we wanted from our time in Italy.