"Turisti?" repeated shoemaker Guiseppe Valli, surprised by the notion of tourists in this quiet place far from the throngs in Rome, Pisa and Venice. "En Modigliana?"
Sure enough, it was true, as the city's 4,749 residents would find out when 17 members of our boisterous family climbed out of a van and several cars for cappuccino as the sun climbed in the summer sky or gelato as it faded behind the hills.
Modigliana, in southwestern Emilia-Romagna, just over the border from Tuscany, doesn't get many tourists, which didn't stop the city from making the enthusiastic Americans they unexpectedly found in their midst feel welcome.
"America is good," one smiling woman said in Italian after moving over on a bench to give me a seat, a gesture that symbolized the warm reception we got everywhere.
"There is a great tradition of hospitality here," said our host, Bruno Samori. Indeed, when I first arrived where we were staying, late at night after a long travel day, the house was empty, and I had no lire to pay the cab driver who had brought me. A man next door whom I had never met loaned me the money for my fare.
But make no mistake, Modigliana doesn't miss the tourists who descend on nearby Brisighella, a spa town whose baths draw a good number of outsiders. With two thriving manufacturing plants, a number of skilled craftsmen and fertile land that has supported families for generations, the town, which has only one hotel, does quite well without them.
"What does it tell you about a town that has five banks but only one restaurant?" asked Samori, a friend of my brother Chris. "And the restaurant's closing because nobody is going."
Modigliana doesn't need tourists, but a week's stay here revealed more than enough history, beauty and charm to lure them if it were so inclined.
All three of those enticements were evident in our home for the week, a centuries-old sandstone farmhouse called Settimana.
Documents indicate that portions of the house date back to at least 1292, and a map from the late 1700s shows the house's location on the road between Modigliana and it's biggest neighbor, Faenza.
Samori and his brother Cesare, along with their wives Claudia and Laura, had just completed a total renovation and modernization of the building that, for years, had housed the workers on the family farm.
The house has been sectioned off into three apartments that were tastefully appointed with antique furnishings. Our accommodations -- baths, kitchens and beds -- were all new, as was the retractable roof panel that opened to a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. But signs of the building's age were everywhere.
Outside, pig pens built into the thick walls were reminders of earlier times, when animals were housed below the living quarters. Inside, centuries of footfalls had worn grooves into the stone steps on the main stairway.
Settimana is still very much a working farm, although its chief product was a surprise. Within the last 15 years, most of the vineyards that occupied the rolling farmland were replaced by kiwi trees. Modigliana is in the heart of Europe's kiwi country, and celebrates that fact with a Kiwi Day Festival at harvest time in early November.
Of course, many of the area farms still grow wine grapes, including the farm across the street, where we purchased a large urn of the local San Giovese wine from an 84-year-old farmer who explained in great detail how he still made it the way his father had taught him.
This delicious nectar was our constant companion as we ate, mostly meals we put together from produce plucked from the garden outside and meats from the local markets grilled on the Tuscan grill attached to the loggia, a covered outdoor picnic area.
But we also had two memorable meals prepared for us. A woman whose kitchen skills are well known in town cooked a typical banquet -- cheese-filled tortellini in chicken broth and roasted rosemary chicken and potatoes -- that brought us all back to the comfort food my Italian grandmother served us so often.
And the outside bread oven, unused for years, was cleaned for a visit by a man who created a thin-crust pizza that was, simply, the best I've ever had.
Our week at Settimana allowed us a glimpse at the side of Italy most tourists, intent on getting as much out of their visit as they can, don't experience: the rhythms of every-day life in a small hill town. Modigliana, which none of us knew anything about before we got there, gave us that -- and much more.
It has legends, including one that involves a local baby switched at birth who would later become king of France. It has history, including a key moment in the Italian risorgimento (the fighting that led to the unification of the country). And it has a captivating townscape dominated by the peculiarly dissected ruins of an ancient castle.
The ruins of the Rocca dei Conti Guidi are perched on a hill overlooking the town center. Known locally as Roccaccia, it was built between the 7th and 9th centuries. It partially collapsed in 1918, leaving an exposed cross-section that is closed to visitors. During the Christmas festival, a lighted crib shines over the town from the castle's sliced-open tower.
But the Roccaccia is one of many old structures in town. The Ponte di San Donato is a humpback stone bridge crossing the Acerreta River that dates back to medieval days.
And local historian Lorenzo Savelli, who graciously spent a morning giving me a tour of the town, took me into the back rooms of the Church of Saint Ste Fano to show me columns that were part of the original church built in 892.
Savelli also brought me to the Church of San Domenico, which houses one of the oldest bells in the world, the Campagna da San Savino. Believed to have been first struck in 1169, the bell was moved after its original home was destroyed during World War II.
In the city's public garden stands a statute of Modigliana's most revered patriot, Don Giovanni Verita. Verita was a local priest who hid Guiseppe Garibaldi, the charismatic military leader considered the father of modern Italy, from his enemies in 1849.
Verita's house was turned into a museum in 1932, and inside is a portrait of Garibaldi painted by Silvestro Lega, a Modigliana native. (The city has no connection to Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani.)
A short walk to Don Minzoni Plaza took us to the shop of Valli, who learned to make shoes from his grandfather. He would have custom-made me a pair, but, not wanting to wait, I purchased a pair of cognac-colored derbies that wear like they were made for my feet.
At the edge of the plaza, a bridge led to the Tribuna, the entrance into the walled old part of the city below the Roccaccia. The gateway was built in the 16th and 17th centuries and consists of two bell towers aside a semi-circular tower topped by a statute of the Virgin Mary.
The first thing Modigliana says about itself in its tourist guide is that it is terre di belle donne, a land of beautiful women. It got this reputation, the guide says, because during the Industrial Revolution, workers in the new city factories found the country girls in town irresistible, to the point where the men organized expeditions for the purpose of finding brides.
Going a little back in history, legend has it that a local woman, the wife of a prison guard, gave birth to a boy who was swapped for a girl born to the Duchess of Orleans in 1773 because the Duke needed a male heir. The swap is supposed to have taken place in Pretorio Square.
The boy would later become King Louis Phillipe of France. The girl, goes another legend, would later marry Lord Newborough of Britain.
Our favorite stop was the Cafe Garibaldi, located at the only intersection in town with a traffic signal. We spent several mornings sitting in the patio out front, watching the passing scene. Alongside us, some of the city's retirees did the same, greeting friends and neighbors while engaging in animated conversations.
For the children, the favorite place to hang was the large municipal swimming pool, which is another of the town's most popular gathering spots.
When we did feel the need to branch out, we found all manner of diversions within a short drive.
Modigliana is tucked into the foothills of the Appenines, the mountain range that forms Italy's spine, and a short climb brought us stunning views of the still largely undeveloped countryside.
Faenza, a 25-minute drive, has long been known as one of the ceramics capitals of the world, and the shops were filled with gorgeous pieces. The International Museum of Ceramics houses a vast collection ranging from pre-Columbian artifacts to the works of masters like Picasso and Matisse to the winners of its annual competition for contemporary work.
In Ravenna, perhaps 45 minutes by car, we toured the beautiful mosaics in Church of Sant'Apollinare in Class, parts of which date back to the sixth century. Brisighella has the spas, and we happened to be there the weekend the old city was transformed by its annual Medieval Festival.
Bologna, nicknamed the City of Towers, was about an hour's drive away. Just beyond there lies Modena, noted for its balsamic vinegar, and Parma, home of proscuitto ham.
But our days ended back in Modigliana, where the city and its people made the strangers in their midst feel right at home.
The Samoris are still in the process of determining a policy for taking guests at Settimana. Anyone seriously interested in a stay can write or e-mail me (email@example.com) at The News, and I will pass the inquiries along.