City of hams, cheeses and edible violets
On Route 9, 60 km North West of Modena. If you can explore only one city of the Po plain, make it Parma, city of edible violets, hams and cheeses. These days the hams and cheeses are made in factories lower down the plain and stacked in rustic, thermostatically-controlled warehouses.
Parma’s history, like that of its Via Emilia neighbours, begins with the Roman garrison established around 180 BC. It continues with the struggles of acquisitive barons – Visconti of Milan, Cangrande della Scala (or Scaliger) of Verona, Gonzaga of Mantua and Este of Ferrara. Her medieval overlords were King Louis of Bavaria, blind King John of Bohemia and finally the Farnese dynasty. Alexander Farnese, son of a Pope, built the extraordinary Farnese Theatre, made entirely of wood. It was damaged in the Second World War but can be viewed as one of the attractions of the Galleria Nazionale – (http://www.parmabeniartistici.beniculturali.it/galleria-nazionale-di-parma/en) The same Farnese when Duke of Parma conceived the vast Pilotta Palace (it spread over a courtyard where pilotta, the game of pelota, was played). This is the second of the Galleria’s attractions. The third is the gallery itself, a palace of splendid facings, high stucco ceilings and mosaic tiled floors with works by Tiepolo, Van Dyck, Holbein and especially Parma’s own painter, Correggio, along with specialist museums of various kinds. Palazzo Farnese, the Duke’s own elaborate mansion, stands opposite.
Parma is a city of spacious piazzas. Piazza del Duomo has the Lombard-styled cathedral with red marble lions, the huge square campanile and the octagonal baptistery in grey and red Verona marble. Coloured marble and Roman brick are the trademarks of this well-preserved and restored ducal capital.
Piazza Garibaldi, also very large, is the place for cafés, evening promenades and as often as not political dernonstrations. The Duomo has a renowned work of art in its dome: Correggio’s Assumption, a daring flight of fancy in which the Virgin appears to lift off with radiant power. His contemporaries called this fresco a ‘hash of frogs’ legs’.
There are many music shops. Parma produced Arturo Toscanini (he played in the theatre orchestra) and more than its share of great operatic tenors and divas. The Teatro Regio, notorious for its harsh and unforgiving audiences, has been the graveyard of many a young singer’s hopes. See https://teatroregioparma.it
For railway enthusiasts: Running north-south from Parma is the picturesque Taro Valley line: Parma and Fidenza to Sarzana and La Spezia. There many tunnels, but you have frequent glimpses of untameable scenery. Some tiny stations have been closed, but the train stops at them just the same.
The city is very dry in summer. Its fountains expire and even the sizeable River Parma contributes nothing to the Po, 24 km away, which needs all the water it can get. But the public gardens have shady walks and meadows bloom in the neighbourhood, under the Apennine walls.