Parma, Italy: a cultural city guide
Sara Evans offers a cultural guide to travel in Italy – here she talks about Parma, a city of Renaissance splendours where even the ham is presented as a work of art.
By Sara Evans
1:41PM GMT 19 Dec 2011
As the afternoon sun fades in Parma, a genteel northern Italian city known for its art, music and gastronomy, the streets look as if they’ve been dipped in honey. Everything I pass appears mellow and muted. Sepia-coloured stucco houses on elegant cobblestoned streets take on a vintage, old-gold feel. In the piazzas, the sun-kissed water in the fountains shimmers softly and feels warm to the touch.
In Piazza Duomo, the city’s 12th-century Romanesque cathedral casts hazy shadows over the square. Inside, I’m drawn to the golden fresco that covers the cupola. Like an open window into heaven, it depicts the assumption of Mary. As she ascends, saints and angels, buffeted by fluffy clouds, swirl around her in a fantastical celestial circus. This is The Assumption of the Virgin, a 1520s masterpiece created by Correggio, one of the greatest painters of the High Renaissance.
Correggio was born in Parma. I come across examples of his work all over town. In the nearby National Gallery, housed within the refined 16th-century Pilotta Palace, I find my favourite piece, the wonderfully delicate and tender Saint Jerome with the Madonna and Child. Correggio is in good company – paintings by Parmigianino (also from Parma), Leonardo da Vinci, Holbein, Brueghel and El Greco all hang here too.
Leaving behind the hush of the gallery, I head somewhere livelier – to the Teatro Regio, one of Italy’s major opera houses. The auditorium, with its wonderfully frescoed ceiling, sumptuous red seating, shining white and gilt balconies and one of the largest chandeliers I’ve ever seen, is as well dressed as the most glamorous of theatregoers. Operas by Verdi, who was born nearby, are performed regularly at the Teatro as part of a popular annual festival. And Paganini and Toscanini, other musical sons, are cherished here too.
In the past, audiences showed their displeasure at divas singing off-key by throwing ham bones at them. This being Parma, one of Italy’s top gastronomic cities, famous for its mouthwatering ham (prosciutto di Parma), its delicious cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and handmade pastas (tortellini, cappelletti and anolini), I imagine the food throwing must have been a tasteful affair.
As are Parma’s numerous delicatessens. On Via Garibaldi, I pop into Salumeria Verdi. Here, the finest local produce is presented as carefully as a work of art. Spicy sausages dangle decoratively, cured hams hang high and shelves are stocked with yellow wheels of salty Parmesan and rows of sparkling Lambrusco. The colours and textures are as seductive as the aroma. I struggle to decide which of these delicacies to buy, but know that whatever I do choose, I have no intention of throwing it around.
|Did you know?|
|Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and Napoleon’s second wife, had local monks distil violets, producing the first Violette di Parma perfume|
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Parma from Stansted from £39.98 return. A shuttle bus to Parma’s train station costs €2 (£1.75); taxis cost around €15 (£13). For further information visitturismo.comune.parma.it.
City-break specialist Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights for the price of two at the Palace Maria Luigia from £637 per person, including breakfast, BA return flight to Bologna from London, private car transfers and concierge services. The price is valid until March 31, 2012.
The inside track
Entry to the cathedral is free (9am-12.30pm and 3-7pm). Also visit the adjacent pink-marble baptistery (€5; £4.30; daily 9am-12.30pm and 3-6.45pm), four storeys of marble with fine carved portals and friezes.
Entry to the National Gallery (Piazza della Place) costs €6/£5.15 (Tuesday-Sunday, 8.30am-1.30pm). Entry includes the Teatro Farnese.
More frescoes by Correggio can be found at Camera di San Paolo (Via Melloni 3) and San Giovanni Evangelista (Piazza San Giovanni 1).
Operas generally run December-April and the annual Verdi festival is in October. Check details and book online at teatroregioparma.org (Via Garibaldi 16a; from €23/£19.78).
The best delicatessens are Salumeria Garibaldi (Via Garibaldi 42) and Salumeria Verdi (Via Garibaldi 69a).
Food tours abound in and around the city; try parmagolosa.it for ideas. Check festivaldelprosciuttodiparma.com for details of 2012’s Parma Ham Festival.
The best hotels
Hotel Stendhal ££
Tranquil and tasteful four-star, situated close to the cathedral and the National Gallery (0039 0521 208057; hotelstendhal.it; doubles from €105/£90).
Palace Maria Luigia ££
Comfortable hotel, centrally located, with genteel décor and friendly staff. The restaurant offers regional cuisine (0521 281032;palacemarialuigia.com; doubles from €107/£92).
Hotel Toscanini ££
Modern hotel by the river, close to public gardens and city centre. Marble bathrooms in all rooms, plus free bicycle hire (0521 289141;hoteltoscanini.it; doubles from €121/£104).
The best restaurants
Gallo D’Oro £-££
Well-regarded trattoria with relaxed bistro feel serving delicious tortellini – try the pumpkin filling. Very popular, so booking is essential (Borgo della Salina 3; 0521 208846; closed Sunday).
Parma Trattoria Ai Due Platani ££
Just outside of the city, but worth the trip for its traditional Emilian food with a contemporary twist – think gnocchi with nettle pesto (Via Budellungo 104a, Coloreto; 0521 645626; closed Mon at dinner, Tuesday).
La Greppia ££
Beautifully presented dishes made with local ingredients to authentic and unusual regional recipes. Booking recommended (Via Garibaldi 39; 0521 233686; closed Monday and Tuesday).
Food n Walk tours of course! Absolutely the best quality and value
What to avoid
Some museums close during lunchtimes and on Mondays; check opening details before visiting.
Many shops and cafés close on Sundays. Plan shopping for another day.
Parma’s historic centre is mostly pedestrianised, but cycling is popular. Look for cyclists before crossing roads.
Most restaurants in Parma are busy, so book.