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ONE DAY IN PARMA

One Day | City Tour | Parma

Tastebuds should be tingling as soon as you arrive in Parma; who hasn’t heard of Parmesan Reggiano or Parma ham? But there’s so much more to the city where ‘il porco’ is king.

It’s the birthplace of music conductor Arturo Toscanini and artist Girolamo ‘Parmigianino’ Mazzola, hosts the world-famous Verdi Festival, and its fascinating history includes the establishment of one of the oldest universities in the world.

 

The city lies between the snow-capped Pyrenees and the Apennines – both visible on a clear day – and its position made it a strategic point for Roman consul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to set up an important trading post.

His Via Emilia stretches almost 300 kilometres from Rimini to Piacenza, passing through two more gastronomic big-hitters, Bologna and Modena.

The city’s location later made it an ideal resting place for pilgrims en route to Rome and, by the 16th century – now a Duchy run by the art and antiquity-collecting Farnese family – Parma entered a golden age of art, music and architecture.

 

In spite of Charles of Bourbon lifting many of the city’s treasures when he left to claim the Kingdom of Naples, Parma still has plenty to offer its visitors, not least its elegant buildings. The colourful painted façades hark back to the Bourbon era when young designer, Petitot, encouraged the use of yellow (now known as Parma yellow) to emulate the gold of the court. This has the added effect of bathing the city in a permanent golden glow.

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria and Duchess of Parma, also had an extraordinary influence on Parma; as well as securing the return of many of the city’s artworks and commissioning the building of the Regio theatre, she persuaded the monks to create an essence from her favourite flower – the Parma violet.

 

As the entire city is closed to all but local traffic and much is pedestrianised, it’s wonderfully walkable, with many taking to a more sedate two-wheeled mode of transport, giving the city a feeling of civilised calm.

If you’re in town on a Wednesday or Saturday, a good place to start is the morning market on piazza della Ghiaia, so-called after the pebbles of the riverbed where the nearby stream – Torrente Parma – used to run. Local Parmigiani rummage through piles of clothes, bags and little known perfumes before heading down to the subterrannean Mercato Alimentare (food market, open daily) for fresh produce.

 

A sense of Parma’s ancient history can be found in the nearby sottopassaggio (underpass) where you’ll discover fragments of Roman arches. From here, music fans should cross the bridge to Oltretorrente, the oldest part of the city and historically where the city’s workers resided.

Arturo Toscanini was born here and his birthplace is now a museum filled with historical artefacts and memorabilia celebrating the life of one of the greatest orchestral conductors of the 20th century.

 

One of the region’s other famous sons is Giuseppe Verdi and at nearby La Corale Verdi restaurant it’s possible to enjoy a choral recital, if it wouldn’t disturb dinner too much having a stageful of choristers belting out songs from Aida or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

The restaurant backs on to the Parco Ducale, which is dominated by the Palazzo of Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma and brother of antiquity-collecting Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. It now houses the European Food Safety Authority, which is fitting considering that more DOP products hail from Parma than anywhere else in the world. In February and March the park is covered in a purple haze of scented violets. 

 

Crossing back over the Ponte Verdi you’re face to face with one of the largest and most impressive collection of institutions in Parma; now home to the National Gallery, the Archaeological Museum and the Farnese Theatre, the 16th century Palazzo della Pilotta was badly bombed during World War II but the spectacular theatre is an exact replica of the wooden original built in 1619.

 

The National Gallery has an entire section devoted to another regional talent: Antonio Allegri, more commonly know by his hometown, Correggio. One of the foremost artists of the Renaissance Parma School, Correggio was considered to be quite ahead of his time thanks to his talent at foreshortening (possibly influenced by Mantegna and Leonardo).

The gallery is shared with his former pupil Parmigianino, whose minxy subject in La Schiava Turca was clearly neither Turkish nor a slave. There is also a wonderfully delicate Da Vinci cartoon of La Scapigliata (the ‘disheveled’, referring to the young girl’s ‘bed-head’ hair).

 

For another exquisite Correggio moment, visit the Camera di San Paolo to admire the ceiling decoration that was originally commissioned by the Abbess Giovanna da Piacenza. The frescoes seem to depict an allegory about Diana, the goddess of hunting, but are widely understood to refer to her battle at the time with civil and religious authorities that were intent on curtailing the intellectual and social freedom of the convents.

 

Those with children in tow, or fans of puppetry, shouldn’t miss the Castello dei Burattini next door where they’ll find a collection of Giordano Ferrari’s puppets.

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Between 1pm and 3pm most museums close so it’s a good time for lunch. Gourmets should head for La Greppia, one of Parma’s finest restaurants.

Chef Paola Cavazzini is renowned for only employing female kitchen staff, while front of house it’s all men, including owner and maître Maurizio, but, quirks aside, the quality of the menu isn’t in dispute: treats include an antipasto of radicchio stuffed with mushroom and truffle, primi of own-made tortelli filled with vegetables, secondi of trippa alla parmigiana (tripe) and, leaving the best until last, the trolley of torte heaving under the weight of unmissable desserts. For grappa-lovers there are dozens to choose from.

 

A more pocket-friendly option is Trattoria del Tribunale where a hearty plate of Parmigiana Melanzane (baked aubergine) can be had for less than €10 and you also have the rare experience of hearing your waiter ask if you’d like your glass of house red ‘con gas?’. Parma is also the home of fizzy Lambrusco.

 

The Museo Glauco Lombardi is dedicated to Napoleon and his second wife, but it is Marie Louise (or Maria Luigia, as she became known) who dominates here.

A prolific writer, watercolourist, embroiderer and, however unlikely, fisherwoman, you’ll find many of her letters, drawings and ‘tackle’, as well as dresses and jewels.

Her Teatro Regio along the road hosts the annual Verdi festival and, such is the city’s passion for the composer that it formed the rather eccentric Club 27; each of the 27 members is assigned one of Verdi’s operas and is expected to know the piece in its entirety.

 

Some museums don’t reopen in the afternoon so, remembering that there is no duty free at Parma airport, it’s worth checking out the shops.

 

Strada Garibaldi offers a host of gastronomic delights: Salumeria Garibaldi is where hams garland the walls, parmesan wheels are piled high and every surface is covered with sweet and savoury delicacies.

Parma takes its produce seriously: is aged for a minimum of two years and a maximum of three, and the distinctive flavour is inextricably linked to the cow’s diet – the winter cheese has a deeper, earthier taste, while the summer cheese is lighter.

 

The whey from the cheese-making process is fed to local pigs who may end up in the window of nearby La Verdi (no.69/A): there’s culatello di Zibello made from the ‘little backside’, fennel-flavoured fiocchetto salami, pancetta flavoured with red wine and garlic from pork belly, coppa di Parma port shoulder, cotechino coarse sausage, and the intriguingly named prete nostrano (homegrown priests) made from pork shoulder folded into the shape of an old-fashioned priest’s hat. You’ll also find great pasticcerie: San Biagio (no.42) and Torino (no.61) being two of the best. A clutch of antique shops and an old-school hat shop, Cavalieri (no.7) are also worth a look.

 

Strada della Repubblica has a good mix of boutiques, small chain and independent shops, including Color Viola (no.2/g) where you can buy the Violetta di Parma perfume and pretty violet-themed souvenirs. The slightly more sophisticated Acqua di Parma, originally created to ‘scent the handkerchiefs of elegant men’, is ubiquitous.

 

At the end of the street Righi (no.106) the knife shop, sells everything from mushroom and cheese knives to a frankly terrifying sciabola del sommelier, a sabre for slicing off champagne corks, we like to think.

 

Pedestrianised Strada Cavour boasts the Maria Luigia Profumeria (no.5), Battei (no.5c), a wonderful old bookshop and Oliva (no.7) for first editions and artworks, while Via XXII Luglio has La Gourmanderie (no.8) for fine wine and macaroons, and nearby Lanzola for the boys: pipes, cards and poker sets.

Modernists shouldn’t fear that Parma is all old masters and maestros either, there are some fine design outlets, such as Faraboli, and, at the end of Strada della Repubblica is the Barilla Center.

Built on the grounds of the old Barilla pasta factory, the site was expanded and redesigned by Renzo Piano to create a 4-acre home for the Paganini Auditorium, Grand Hotel, culinary institute and a host of gourmet shops and fashion labels such as Max Mara, Coccinelle and Sisley.

There are a couple of restaurants here too, such as the Neapolitan chain, Rosso Pomodoro, a sushi bar and San Biagio, a popular lounge bar.

 

Feeling guilty about maxing out the credit cards, it’s the appropriate time to visit the religious heart of the city, piazza Duomo, where the 12th century Romanesque cathedral dominates the square.

Correggio’s Assumption fresco in the cupola is considered to be one of his finest works; not by Dickens however, who felt that the hundreds of foreshortened limbs all ‘jumbled together: no operative surgeon, gone mad, could imagine in his wildest delirium’. Correggio was a melancholic character and something of a miser and it’s said that, in order to irritate him, the misanthrope was paid for this work with a sack of small change; the exhaustion in struggling to carry it home led to his catching a fever and he died, aged 40.

 

The Duomo also houses a bas-relief of the deposition of Christ by Benedetto Antelami, a 12th century architect and sculptor, but it is the stunning pink four storey octagonal Baptistery next door for which he is best known. The shimmering exterior is made entirely of pink marble brought, by canal, from Verona – a distance of 140 kilometres; the feat seems all the more remarkable when you consider that the enormous font was sculpted from a single block.

As well as the frieze that surrounds the building, Antelami sculpted the reliefs inside: twelve figures representing the months of the year are variously planting, threshing, and harvesting while twelve corresponding constellations (now regarded as signs of the zodiac) and the four seasons complete the cycle of nature.

 

In nearby San Giovanni Evangelista church you’ll find more works by Parmigianino, and Correggio’s Vision of St John decorates the dome. Finally, just around the corner, the old pharmacy (Spezieria di San Giovanni) dates back to 1201. Initially set up by the Benedictine monks for their own use, they eventually extended their care to the many pilgrims passing through.

 

By now it’s surely time to eat again. Opposite the Baptistry, the converted Palazzo dalla Rosa Prati has a modern café serving good coffee and light snacks.

Or there’s modern Michelin-starred Parizzi: chef Marco offers a tasting menu for €70 which includes the likes of raw and slightly cooked seafood, grilled octopus, roast lobster with rosemary mash and chestnut tiramisu. 

 

To finish things off nicely, head to Strada Farini, just off piazza Garibaldi, where, thanks to outdoor heaters, La Movida spill out of bars such as Le Malve and Dolce Vita, even in the coldest weather.  

 

 

COULD CUT OR EXPAND A day clearly isn’t enough to do justice to this wonderful city so a return visit could coincide with one of the region’s many festivals such as the Vinegar Festival (Modena, May-June), Parma Ham Festival (Langhirano, September), Verdi Festival (Parma, October), Truffle Festival (Fragno, October), Chestnut Festival (Fanano, November) and Olive Oil Fetival (Brisighella, December).

 

 

 

 

Article and Images by Jan Fuscoe

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