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.