For years, neighbouring provinces have looked on enviously at Tuscany luring in a golden flow of middle-class tourists and wondered: why not us, too? In fairness, Emilia Romagna, just over the Apennines to the north, has fewer grounds for jealousy than most.
After all, the province – the Emilia bit of it from a Roman consul who has given his name to every girl called Emily – has more than its fair share of beautiful cities. Parma, Modena and Bologna have for years topped numerous polls pondering quality of life in Italy.
The region has plentiful employment in light industrial businesses, and that minority of countryside that isn’t as flat as a plate is very pretty and almost… well, Tuscan.
The Emilia Romagna region has more than its fair share of beautiful cities – Parma, Modena (pictured) and Bologna have for years topped numerous polls pondering quality of life in Italy
Emilia Romagna’s food products – parmesan cheese, Parma ham, tortellini, balsamic vinegar – are famous throughout the world, and have been for years. An anxious Samuel Pepys buried his wheel of parmesan in the garden to save it from the Great Fire of London.
Emilia Romagna even has a bucket-and-spade mass tourism money-earner around Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
But 20 years of a flat-lining Italian economy are taking their toll, and a trickle of that touristic gold pouring into every corner of Tuscany would be very welcome.
The province’s marketing alchemists think they have come up with something that will do the trick: welcome to Emilia Romagna, home of fast cars and slow food.
Assembled in little ateliers rather than factories – and all accessible – are the sort of automotive riches that will make any petrol-head blow a gasket.
Modena, a beautiful little town about the size of Guildford in Surrey, has Ferrari, Maserati and Pagani. Lamborghini and Ducati are 25 miles away in Bologna, and Dallara is just outside Parma in the other direction.
These are points of pilgrimage for car- lovers, even when they cannot quite stretch to £2million for a Pagani Zonda, or £200,000 for a Maserati.
In total, there are 15 motor museums, and the intrepid can even have a go on the race track of Italy’s own – no sniggering at the back – International School of Safe Driving, just outside Parma.
In my case, this involved the terrifying experience of being hurled around hairpins and chicanes at 110mph in a £60,000 Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, described as an Italian take on the SUV.
After doing what a Chelsea tractor most certainly shouldn’t, it was a relief that the next couple of laps were in a proper sports car – Alfa Romeo’s 4C Spider – which stuck to the road like wet spaghetti.
‘So, what do you drive?’ asked the driver, Lorenzo, smilingly as we squealed to a stop.
Works of art: The Modena Enzo Ferrari museum where the cars are displayed like ‘works of art’ says Sebastian
‘A 20-year-old Volvo 940 estate,’ I replied. The smile flickered slightly, but Lorenzo’s attention had moved on at slightly faster than 110mph.
It is a curious form of tourism to champion the motor car as the world wearies of the gas-guzzling type and considers less polluting alternatives. But Emilia Romagna already lures in 1.8 million people for the boutique auto museums and events, and they spend about £300million a year. It relishes the prospect of more. All of which must be very comforting to the 66,000 employees whose livelihood depends on this industry.
May saw the launch of the region’s Motor Valley Fest, coinciding with the arrival at Modena of the vintage car Mille Miglia (1,000 miles) race.
There was a black-tie dinner at the ducal palace from the ‘world’s best chef’, Massimo Bottura, a Michelin three-star campaigner against food waste; opera in the Luciano Pavarotti Theatre; gleaming cars in all the piazzas; and then an ear-splitting roar on a Saturday morning as the Mille Miglia tore through the medieval streets.
Emilia Romagna’s food products – parmesan cheese, Parma ham, tortellini, balsamic vinegar – are famous throughout the world. Pictures is mouth-watering deli items in Bologna
Yet even the most uninterested in motor cars – that would be me – cannot visit the Ferrari museum in Modena without appreciating the astonishing beauty of the models from the 1950s and 1960s. They are displayed as works of art, and quite possibly they are.
Slow food is the other lure of the region, and this year’s challenge for Emilia Romagna is to make the local frothy red Lambrusco popular again. No 1970s party in Britain was complete without some guest bringing along a cheapish bottle and parking it beside the Blue Nun before then choosing a glass of something else.
But Lambrusco is ripe for reassessment, as it is a seriously well-made product for those who find supermarket prosecco a bit thin.
A curiosity of Lambrusco is that once pressed, it is chill-stored, and later fermented throughout the year according to demand. This keeps the wine, which is only 11 per cent alcohol, young and fresh.
‘You think it is rubbish, no?’ was the oddly defensive query from the wife of the owner of the historic Cleto Chiarli winery in Modena (www.chiarli.it).
Sebastian was impressed with the Lambrusco he sampled at Cleto Chiarli winery in Modena (stock image)
Certainly not. I even bought a couple of bottles, at £8 each, as a rarefied, novelty aperitif.
Just when Lambrusco went flat in the 1980s, Modena began to have better luck with its unlikely, yet most interesting, food product: balsamic vinegar. For a start, it is not really a vinegar, which is a fermented product left to acetify.
Balsamic vinegar is grape must, first boiled to a reduction and then left to mature in a sequence of open barrels of diminishing size.
The smallest and last barrel has the nectar which requires at least 12 years of maturation.
One enthusiast is Pierce Brosnan, who has bought a series of six barrels at the Villa San Donnino ‘vinegary’, or acetaio (villasandonnino.it). His biggest barrel is dated only 2017, so the star will have to wait until 2023 to get something half-decent, and 2029 before it will qualify as the real thing.
Balsamic vinegar is a wretchedly prosaic name for what was originally a medicine prescribed in less scientific times for everything from plague to toothache. This explains the word balm. It is an extraordinarily rich condiment. Locals are as happy to put it on steak as they are on ice cream, which sounds ludicrous, but is actually delicious. Expect to pay about £40 for 100ml bottle.
As for the stuff in supermarkets, that is ordinary wine vinegar and caramelised sugar, and it gives only the most watery hint of the flavours the real thing can yield.
For a more relaxed, less crowded version of Tuscany, Emilia Romagna deserves a shot.
You don’t need to be that interested in the fast cars, but it would be a surprise if none of the slow foods hit the spot.
Tour Amalfi in an Alfa – or Rome in your ‘baby mouse’
Not only is Italy the home of glamorous cars, it also has exciting roads on which to drive.
Here, The Car Miscellany author and former Top Gear writer Simon Heptinstall picks his favourite driving experiences.
When in Rome…
Hot wheels: Simon, The Car Miscellany author and former Top Gear writer, pictured in a classic Fiat 500 ‘Topolino’
Negotiating Rome’s unruly traffic and illogical road system can be a nightmare – unless you’re driving an original Fiat 500 from the 1960s.
Nicknamed the ‘Topolino’ (it translates as ‘baby mouse’), it is so small that if you open the sunroof and stand up, the car ends at your waist. It makes a charming, nimble vehicle for exploring the city. Roman drivers normally blare their horns and pedestrians gesticulate rudely, but both smile and wave happily at the sight of this national icon.
A local tour company based in a back street near the Coliseum runs a fleet of Fiat 500s. Visitors hire one and follow a guide in another. Over a walkie-talkie, he gives colourful commentaries as you explore Rome in convoy.
It’s great fun, like driving a dodgem car, and a very Italian experience, with no airbags, rear safety belts or time to practise. They simply hand you the keys and you head out into the traffic. Toot toot!
From £230 for two, driving a Fiat 500 in convoy with a guide in a separate car (rome500exp.com).
Enjoy a Hepburn moment
Heavenly: A classic open-top Alfa Romeo can be delivered to your five-star waterside hotel so you can drive the famous Amalfi Coast road. This spectacular route wiggles along the coast south of Naples
A classic open-top Alfa Romeo can be delivered to your five-star waterside hotel so you can drive the famous Amalfi Coast road. This spectacular route wiggles along the coast south of Naples. See sheer mountains on one side and steep drops to the sea on the other. This year is the 165th anniversary of the building of this road.
Dream of being Audrey Hepburn in the Galaxy chocolate advert, which was filmed here – or Dustin Hoffman whizzing around in the same 1960s Alfa in The Graduate.
Drivers are offered period sunglasses, leather driving gloves and driving caps to complete the style package.
The antiques-filled Hotel Santa Caterina is just a short distance from the historic centre of Amalfi, and has terraces leading down to the sea.
Two days’ B&B plus two days’ classic car hire starts at £815pp (hotelsantacaterina.it/en).
Visitors to Milan can take a short extra tour this year – in a 200mph Ferrari. A specialist agency is offering a selection of Italian supercars for short- term hire to give visitors a brief experience of what it’s like to drive one on the outskirts of Milan
Visitors to Milan can take a short extra tour this year – in a 200mph Ferrari. A specialist agency is offering a selection of Italian supercars for short- term hire to give visitors a brief experience of what it’s like to drive one on the outskirts of Milan.
The experiences start from about £85 for a 30-minute trip. However, owner Ricardo Moro recommends his top-of-the-range driving thrill: an hour behind the wheel of a Ferrari on a 20-mile round-trip on a scenic stretch of motorway heading north towards the Alps, passing twice through a four-mile mountain tunnel to savour the amazing sound of the car’s engine in the confined space.
Traffic is unlikely to be a problem: Italian drivers have such reverence for the Prancing Horse marque that they often pull over to let Ferraris pass.
The tunnel route was a favourite test drive for late Formula 1 hero Ayrton Senna.
A one-hour Ferrari drive costs from £258. A video of you driving the Ferrari is an extra £129 (scuderiamoromilano.com).
High speed museum visit
Thousands of car fans visit the home of Ferrari near Modena every year. Now there is a chance to drive the cars there as well as to ogle them. The ultimate extra after a visit to the museum is to jump in a £200,000 Ferrari 458, drive to the Maranello circuit nearby and tackle five high-speed laps in the 200mph supercar. The hour-long racetrack experience starts at about £769 (motorsportmaranello.com).
Your very own Italian job
Here’s a chance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Michael Caine’s classic car caper The Italian Job, and the 60th birthday of the real star of the film, the original Mini. At the Renaissance Tuscany Hotel, about an hour from Florence, you can choose from 15 different Minis to drive around the local countryside. Two nights’ B&B with half a day’s car hire costs from £998 per room (marriott.com).