Parma
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Parma - City of Art / Parma - Città d'Arte

'Discovering' Parma was serendipitous ....... an article about the best small cities in Europe included Parma, a classic 'Città d'Arte' situated in the north of Italy. In the Emilia Romagna region, it is about 120 kilometres south east of Milano and about 60 kilometres from Bologna.



Reggia di Colorno

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

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.

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.

Castello di Torrechiara

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.

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.

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!

"...an elaborate swirl of hundreds of biblical characters, saints and angels, composed in three concentric circles..."

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."

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.

Rocca Sanvitale di Fontanellato

Rocca Sanvitale di Fontanellato
Rich in precious frescoes, perhaps the most extraordinary cycle is by Parmigianino (1524) about the myth of Diana and Acteon.

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.

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.

Giuseppe Verdi

The Maestro and favourite son of Parma Giuseppe Verdi

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.

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.

The pleasure of eating

The pleasure of eating

"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.

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.

"...What sets Parma apart is the people..."

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.

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.

This feature article has been abridged for the website if you wish to receive a copy of the full article email info@esplorandolitalia.com and we will happily forward.


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