The Modenese territory is the home of an extraordinary number of castles, fortresses and palaces, erected at different times in strategic and likewise panoramic areas.
Important testimony to the past, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, these places are filled with the echo of ancient wars, princely families and conspiracies.
Are you ready to plunge into the magical atmosphere of these arcane manors?
Let’s commence our journey from castle to castle, starting from the typical landscapes that surround country mansions in the Po Valley, over the gentle Modenese hills up to the Apennines.
Our tour begins in Modena, which once had its own castle, later replaced by the Palazzo Ducale, a lovely residence of the House of Este, today the headquarters of the city’s Military Academy. Given our central position in the old town, let’s explore Piazza Grande, the Cathedral and the Ghirlandina Tower, the splendid Romanesque complex designated in 1997 as a World Heritage Site.
After having a well-deserved snack with typical local products from this area, let’s now head towards Carpi, a Renaissance gem and ancient dominion of the Pio noble family, searching for one of Italy’s largest and most beautiful squares: Piazza dei Martiri. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the “long portico” with its spectacular 52 arcades are located here, faced by the complex of Palazzo dei Pio.
Originally conceived as a proper fortified castle, the building was enlarged over the centuries with the construction of towers and dungeons, later connected through the definite transformation of the castle into a princely dwelling.
If you wish to stop off here and eat something, you’re in the right place, surrounded by ambrosial specialities, not limited to the most widely known Modenese excellences- such as tortellini, cotechino and zampone PGI, but also famous for rice, pumpkins, fine mostarda and pears.
Heading back towards Modena we encounter the lovely town of Formigine, located 10 km south of the city, whose history is closely linked to its imposing and noble Castle.
The Rocca Calcagnini operates still today as a "living room" for the city, used in manifold ways. Apart from some municipal halls and a restaurant, the fortress hosts the Multimedia Archaeological Museum, which depicts the building’s history through innovative multimedia stations. Furthermore, a beautiful archaeological area with the ruins of the ancient pieve of San Bartolomeo lies in the castle park.
Moving towards the hills, we arrive at Fiorano Modenese and then to the nearby Castle of Spezzano, a stronghold of the Este family, linked to several historical events and tarnished by a mysterious murder which still today remains unsolved.
The Castle of Spezzano also houses the Ceramic and Manpower Museum of Fiorano, whose innovative multimedia wing enables visitors to listen to the voices of those men and women who shaped the history of industrial ceramic.
Let’s continue our itinerary in the nearby town of Sassuolo, visiting what was once a castle and later converted by the Este into the Palazzo Ducale, a modern suburban residence for the court. The building is today a true baroque gem, with its grand staircase, its royal apartments, the Bacco Gallery, the Duke Apartment, the Guard Hall, the Plastered Room and the Duchess Apartment. Thirteen new halls complete the palace’s main floor, with 374 works borrowed from the Este Gallery in Modena. Don’t miss a visit to the Palatine Chapel of San Francesco and to the wonderful fish pool as well.
Let’s begin our second day with a trip to the gentle peaks of the Apennines, starting from the Fortress of Montese. After running along a beautiful panoramic road (SP4 of Vignola, then SP27), we get a stunning glimpse of the castle overlooking the upper valley of the river Panaro like a vigilant sentry standing against an extremely vast landscape, from the Apennines to the Po Valley. The castle can be reached from the town of Montese by way of a cobblestone road going around the building’s walls, up on a hill covered with a lush pine forest. First mentioned in the 12th century, the castle belonged to the dominions of Mathilda of Tuscany, and later, starting from 1212, to the family of Montecuccoli. The fortress now houses the Montese Historic Museum.
Continuing downstream in the Panaro Valley, after a break for an unwinding walk in the magical medieval town of Montecorone di Zocca, nestled in the rolling mountains, we arrive at the Castle of Guiglia, a thirteen-century fortalice whose imposing structure can be seen from tens of km away. Surrounded by an illustrious history, the castle stands on a scenic location embracing the course of the river Panaro and all its valley.
One should not miss a short break at one of the Apennines’ most beautiful Romanesque churches, the Pieve di Trebbio.
It’s lunch time, and what better place to eat than the birthplace of borlenghi, crescentine (also known as tigelle) and the scrumptious pasta dishes offered by the local osterie and restaurants, to be enjoyed with a good glass of Lambrusco wine.
We now stop just next to the river, in Vignola, city of cherries. Its undisputed symbol is the Fortress, a splendid fifteenth-century stronghold that will make you travel back in time with its evocative Renaissance atmosphere. In its dungeons, two beautiful halls are nowadays used to hold conferences and concerts, while the ground floor is occupied by boardrooms and by a bookshop located inside the old kitchens; on the first floor you can admire the royal apartments, while the second floor was used by the troops stationed at the castle, who would rest in the so called Sale degli Armigeri. The last floor is occupied by walkways that connect the structure’s towers.
Before leaving, we recommend that you taste the delicious Torta Barozzi, an artisan cake made of dark chocolate and prepared according to a secret recipe which has popularized this little town throughout Italy.
Our itinerary moves towards the lovely hamlet of Castelvetro di Modena, located right in the production area of the refined Lambrusco Grasparossa DOP, and stops in Levizzano with its spectacular Castle. Made up of surrounding walls crowned by the so-called Torre Matildica, the castle hosts Rosso Graspa, Wine and Rural Society Museum.
We start our last day moving upwards to the Apennines’ peaks. We first stop in Pavullo nel Frignano, welcomed by the immense structure of the Castle of Montecuccolo where the legendary deeds of its famous resident Raimondo de’ Montecuccoli echo through the halls. In the heart of the old province of Frignano, looking over the roads leading to Tuscany, the castle was the noble dwelling and the military garrison of the House of Montecuccoli, who owned dozens of towers and strongholds at the time. This beautiful feudal manor, now under the control of the Municipality of Pavullo, hosts the CEM- Centro Museale Montecuccolo, the Frignano Natural Museum and a pictorial cycle of 58 paintings by the local artist Gino Covili (1918-2015). The CEM also includes the Donazione Raffaele Biolchini, a collection of sculptures, marble objects, terracotta title blocks, wooden objects, plasters, sketches and artworks by the great contemporary artist.
After leaving the echo of ancient battles behind, let’s move upstream towards the High Apennines all the way up to the lovely town of Sestola, an important winter holiday destination located on the slopes of Mount Cimone, dominated by the Castle of Sestola. The building, which now hosts the Castle Museums, is protected by massive fourteenth-century walls, where you can walk looking over the town and the stunning surrounding valleys.
Stop off in the area for lunch to try some unique food excellences linked to the local mountain traditions and to the woods, such as mushrooms and chestnuts, blackberries of the Apennines and the scrumptious homemade almond brittle of Frignano.
Continuing on the SP324 along the high slope of Mount Cimone, along a suggestive and panoramic road, we stop for a short break in the territory of Pievepelago, dominated by the Castle of Roccapelago, perched on a rocky outcrop and once residence of the legendary Obizzo da Montegarullo, a powerful feudal lord of Frignano. Some parts of the fortress are still visible, like the walls and the gatehouse. In 2011, an impressive discovery was made underneath the church’s crypt, where more than 300 bodies, among which 100 mummies, buried here between the 16th and the 18th century, were exhumed and placed on display, together with grave goods, in the Castle Museum “Sulle orme di Obizzo da Montegarullo”.
Our final stop is the fascinating Montefiorino, ideal destination for history and nature lovers. Located in the middle of a pastoral natural environment, the town is the largest human settlement of the Secchia Valley, right between the peaks of Mount Cimone and Mount Cusna. Guest star of our visit is the massive Fortress, the location of the Museum of the Partisan Republic, one of the most complete exhibitions about the Italian resistance movement. Through the exposition of important findings such as arms, uniforms, documents, everyday objects and the protagonists’ testimonies recounted by special showings, visitors can relive the events of the Montefiorino Republic, which existed between the 18th of June to the 2nd of August 1944.
If you still have some time left before coming back downstream, try the area’s typical food, the Truffle from the Dolo and Dragone Valleys, to be bought in its various re-elaborations at the town shops or to be tasted in local restaurants.