A Morning In Modena

A whimsical take on a cup of coffee
A whimsical take on a cup of coffeeIllustration: Nitin Chaudhary

It was still the early morning of a weekday when I left my hotel to walk the streets of Modena. I sought the perfect cup of coffee that I had come to Italy for. “Why didn’t you go to Rome?” asked the hotel receptionist with a smile when I sought her advice on which café I should visit. “After all, tourists come to Modena for Parmesan and aceto balsamico. But, well, one can find good coffee anywhere in Italy.” With that, she pulled out a map and circled a few cafés of her choice.

In the crisp May air, I walked the stone-laden pedestrian pathway to Café Viola, a small, family-run place that has been operating for over 50 years. The café is in Modena’s historical centre, surrounded by tightly packed small kiosks and homes. I ordered a cappuccino per Italian tradition and sat outside in the weak sun, waiting for my coffee. The air was filled with the chitter chatter of boots hitting the cobblestone streets of those hurrying to their work. Mothers held hands with their children headed to school, while grandmas, with heads covered in scarves, headed to the corner stalls to buy fruits and groceries. Somewhere in the distance, the church bells tolled.

The server brought my coffee. I held the warm drink and sipped the frothy caffeinated milk. Here I was, away from work and choreographed routines, sitting at a café and watching people pass by. The gentle hum of conversations, and the clinking of coffee cups, scattered with the street sounds, blended into soothing background noise. I was fully present for a few moments, observing the world around me with curiosity and openness.

A thought crossed my mind: How many hours have I lost rushing through the world robotically without observing what unfurled around me? Perhaps that’s where lay the importance of breaking away from routines and travelling to different places.

Next, I walked to Piazza della Pomposa. From this square several lanes spread out, each jammed with bars and cafés with large outdoor terraces. In the evenings, especially on weekends, tourists and partygoers enjoy cocktails till late night and spill over onto the streets. Late hours are often drowned in noisy cheer. And in the mornings, a civil silence marks these paved streets.

I walked past these mellow streets to the bustling Mercato Albinelli, a large, covered marketplace where locals come to buy groceries. It reminded me of Borough Market in London. Mercato Albinelli was first established in the 1800s, and the name “Albinelli” comes from the square where the market is located, named after a local noble family. It has several tightly packed, colourful stalls selling fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and other local delicacies. Italian grannies haggled with stall owners over tomatoes while retired men sat in groups in the corner sipping their espressos and discussing, I presume, politics and other affairs.

Mercato Albinelli seemed like a hub for the locals. I picked a block of Parmigiano Reggiano and Amaretti di Modena—soft almond cookies that are a Modena speciality—to take back.

An hour later, I stepped out of the bustle of the market and back onto the streets. Having had the coffee and almond cookies, the typical local breakfast, I walked to Piazza Grande. A 12th century Romanesque cathedral, Corso Duomo, and Ghirlandina bell tower mark this UNESCO-certified cultural site. The late morning sun reflected on the white-marble facade of the bell tower, giving it a messianic appearance against the bright blue sky.

With nothing else to do, I decided to watch the locals passing by again. And what better way to do so than over a cup of coffee? With that thought, I walked over to another café, Café Concerto, and ordered another cup of coffee.

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