When the opportunity arose to visit this city I found a 'jewel' - a small town with charm, off the beaten tourist path, yet possessing all those essential ingredients - aside from its renowned prosciutto and parmigiano cheese, it had great historical monuments and museums, it is the home of Opera, The city has been home to musical luminaries such as its favourite son, Giuseppe Verdi, Paganini and Toscanini. Painters Correggio and Il Parmigianino were native sons, and their work is seen as a transitional period between the Renaissance and the Baroque. There is a first class University, its students adding a vibrancy to the city, it has first class hotels and most of all it has pure undiluted Italian ambience.
Reggia di Colorno
Elegant and monumental residence of the Farnese
then of the Borbone family, then Duchess Maria
Luigia of Austria turned it into one of the most
prestigious houses of Europe
Parma's history in brief ... a
city with Etruscan roots, Parma became a Roman settlement
around 183 B.C. Rulers from the ruthless Sforza and Farnese
clans turned the town into an important centre of trade and
commerce and they owed their good fortune to Pope Paul III
who gave it to his grandson Pier Luigi in 1565. But it was
the city's period under Bourbon rule from 1731 that left its
lasting French influence behind. Napoleon's second wife, Marie-Louise,
was Duchess of Parma in the 1800s and the city still loves
her very much. French notables such as Stendhal and Proust
made the city a literary mecca for a time.
The Parma Lowlands is home to magnificent
Fortresses and Castles. Many powerful dynasties and
ancient aristocratic families have left evidence of their
domination: Meli Lupi of Soragna and Rossi of San Secondo,
Sanvitale of Fontanellato and Sanseverino of Colorno, lords
of small states or administrative jurisdictions that survived
until the beginning of the 19th century. Most have undergone
extensive restoration and presents an opportunity to encounter
the refinements of the Renaissance court.
Castello di Torrechiara
Surrounded by two circles of walls the castle,
built by Pier Maria Rossi at the end of the XVth
century raises on a solitary peak with its two
proud towers. Famous as one of the largest and
best preserved castles of the region, it is remarkable
for its wonderfully decorated rooms.
Parma's historic centre - Via
Garibaldi is one of two long straight streets, originally
laid out by the Romans in 183BC to cross at right angles in
the centre of what once was Roman Parma. Walking along Via
Garibaldi you reach the inner core of Parma's historic centre,
a compact mass of buildings a half a kilometre square, traversed
by a tangle of narrow, twisting alleyways - medieval reminders
of times past. Via Garibaldi, cuts straight through to its
intersection with Strada della Republicca, once the site of
Parma's Roman forum, and the splendid Piazza Garibaldi. As
residents must have done ever since early times, the Piazza
is a gathering place for friends and acquaintances to meet
and discuss the latest news and events,whether standing clustered
in small groups or taking coffee together at one of the cafes
in the piazza's.
The crisp stucco houses of Parma sport
many cheery shades of yellow and as you walk the narrow streets,
the brilliant colour abounds. I continue on to walk
through the city's French gardens - some of the finest in
Italy. I have the park almost to myself, until a cyclist passes
me, her basket filled with flowers and fresh bread from the
market - she gives me a smile and cycles on through the Park.
This is why Parma is so different from other Italian cities,
I've visited. People are being friendly - the hordes of tourists
seen in other major cities are few and far between here and
the Parmigiani have no end of patience. This leaves me with
just one question - why don't I recommend people bypass the
smog and traffic of Rome and the impossible overcrowding of
Venice and come straight to Parma, or perhaps I should keep
this gem all to myself!
Two marble lions guard the entrance of
the Romanesque Cathedral. And whilst the humble facade
may fail to impress at first glance, once inside, you will
understand why the Parma Duomo is known as the finest example
of this style to be found in Italy. Don't be surprised if
you have Correggio's soaring fresco "Assumption of the Virgin"
all to yourself. It includes an elaborate swirl of hundreds
of biblical characters, saints and angels, composed in three
concentric circles surrounding a soaring Virgin ascending
together among clouds up to heaven. It was instantly recognized
as a great artistic leap forward and the phenomenal Venetian
painter, Titian, no less, said of it, "Turn the dome upside
down and fill it with gold and even so, you will still not
have paid a just price for it."
"...an elaborate swirl of hundreds
of biblical characters, saints and angels, composed in three
The warm-hearted man who runs the cathedral's museum shop next
door enjoys my attempts at italian and rewards me with a bag
of free postcards - one of the cards depicts Parma's favourite son,
Verdi - The shopkeeper treats me to an impromptu aria, then
grows sombre describing how Verdi's first wife, Margherita Barezzi,
and both their infant children died within the span of a year.
He digs into a pocket for a handkerchief to wipe away tears
that have sprung to his eyes as though this tragedy occurred
last week. This is Italy after all.
As beautiful as Parma's Cathedral is,
its octagonal Baptistery built around 1200 consciously set
out to top the older church. Its pink marble and its
collection of rich bas-reliefs on its exterior are outdone
by the extremely rare Duecento murals on its interior. After
feasting on the refined work of Correggio, the eye adjusts
slowly to these almost primitive frescoes, that share the
same artistic niche as contemporary manuscript illustrations.
Yet, the scope of these scenes from the bible and the lives
of the saints must have had a powerful emotional affect on
the medieval minds of their original viewers, the measure
of which is now impossible to calculate.
Rocca Sanvitale di Fontanellato
Rich in precious frescoes, perhaps the most extraordinary
cycle is by Parmigianino (1524) about the myth
of Diana and Acteon.
The Palazzo della Pilotta dominates the
historical centre of Parma - it was badly damaged in
bombings in 1944, but it has since undergone partial reconstruction.
It currently houses the Palatine Library, the Archaeological
Museum, and the National Gallery. At the National Gallery
or the Pinacoteca you'll enjoy hip, modernized gallery spaces
and have a Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio, el Greco and Canaletto
to yourself. And a good-natured museum guard might sidle up
to offer a well-informed opinion on a painting's history.
Opera is big in Parma - the Teatro Regio
built in the early 1800s is renowned for its discerning audiences.
It's not unknown for supporters of one singer to gather in
cliques during the opera and discuss his or her virtues with
supporters of a rival. The city's other great theatre, Teatro
Farnese, one of the most elaborate theatres in Italy was built
during the 1600s. Duke Orlando Farnese had it added to the
ducal residence, Palazzo della Pilotta. Although the theatre
was severely damaged during World War II, a loving restoration
has put it right again.
The Maestro and favourite son
Market Day each week is set up in the
courtyard of the Palazzo della Pilotta - vendors from
Bologna and further afield sell all manner of items, including
leather goods and high-end designer shoes with the lamentable
fate of having last year's heel! Parma is also known for its
perfume stores and it will be difficult to by-pass the purchase
of a small bottle of Violette di Parma, a lavender perfume
still manufactured to honour Marie-Louise. The Duchess was
so notoriously fond of Parma violets they became the symbol
of her rule and she often signed official documents with the
flower next to her name. Violette di Parma is manufactured
in the building that houses the Borsari Perfume Museum, another
good place to spend an afternoon.
"Savoir Vivre" the pleasure of eating,
is even greater in Parma. Parma is not well known for
its nightlife, because the locals tend to prefer long sessions
in the many excellent restaurants, or head for the theatre
or opera. The best food in Italy is in Emilia-Romagna, the
province in which Parma is located. There are three very special
products from this region and these have established a worldwide
reputation. These are Prosciutto ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano
cheese and Aceto Balsamico vinegar From the elegant restaurant
to the small country one, in Parma as far as cuisine is concerned,
you are spoiled for choice. In the old town, as on the city's
outskirts, there are typical restaurants, from trattorias
to more chic restaurants. One of the city's most famous restaurants
is in the historic centre, Parizzi. The owner, offers top
quality Parma dishes: The cured meats are excellent, as is
the wine list. Even more centrally located, in an enchanting
location is the Angiol d'Or: overlooking Piazza Duomo and
even here, typical dishes are served. Tradition meets innovation
at the La Greppia, which offers a top class menu including
an excellent sweet trolley with a good selection of wines.
Leon d'Oro is a must for lunch and its regional specialties.
The restaurants and cafes abound and great dining can be experienced
no matter the budget.
The pleasure of eating
For picnic food, the market by the river
on Piazza Ghiaia is the great source for ingredients, sandwiches
and ready-made dishes and who can resist the window display
at Salumeria Garibaldi the genial staff assist you with your
purchases, because once inside there is a tempting array on
display, make your selections and they happily package it
up for you for your dining pleasure later. Fancy a coffee
after lunch or a short stop between museums? The Caffè
Cavour has a lovely salon, which is French and "retro" in
style, situated right next to the old San Paolo monastery
overlooking the very central via Cavour, the city's main walkway.
A break at the Cavour for breakfast is one of the locals'
preferred pastimes. Or if you want to sit down in Piazza Garibaldi,
the city's main piazza, you might opt for the Caffè
Orientale, very popular in the early hours of the morning.
But what really sets Parma apart are
the people. They are among the best dressed and sophisticated
in Europe. You can take advantage of the quaint specialty
stores, high quality designer shops and some of the finest
foods available anywhere - an atmosphere that is exciting
and vibrant. It is clearly one of the most affluent areas
of Italy. Best of all, tourism is not a major industry so
you will experience a taste of "real" Italy where you can
relax at a café on any piazza, sip a cappuccino or
a glass of Malvasia or Lambrusco wine, and experience the
real Italy which we rarely find elsewhere.
"...What sets Parma apart is the people..."
An elegant and refined city - the home of artists and
thinkers, a style-setter for centuries, it offers a feast
for the mind, the eye and the senses.
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