Parma Italy - Travel Guide
Parma, Italy - The city of delights.
One among only a handful of restaurants in Italy to hold two prestigious Michelin stars, Enoteca Pinchiorri is a dream come true for any gourmet. And the setting, a grand 16th century palazzo close to Michelangelo's birthplace, is only fit for such a masterpiece of a restaurant.
Parma’s history goes as far back as Etruscan times, and it
probably began its existence as an Etruscan encampment. The word Parma has Etruscan origins, and the name could have been a reference to either the shape of the encampment or its function for the word was later imported by the Romans to mean a circular shield.
It owes its Roman phase to Consul Marcus Emilius Lepidus, who established it as a Roman colony on the Via Emilia in 183 BC.
Parma gained in importance and wealth through the Middle Ages, coming under the rule of the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the French and the Popes till it was made a duchy in 1545 and came under the jurisdiction of Pier Luigi Farnese, illegitimate son of Pope Paul III. The Farnese family kept control of Parma till the last scion of the dynasty died in 1731.
The Burbons then had control over it till it was given to Marie Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria and second wife of Napoleon. After her death in 1873, it went back to the Burbons till, by a plebiscite the people elected to join the kingdom of Italy.
All its rulers have left their marks on this multi-faceted city with many claims to fame.
Today, Parma offers a veritable feast – in terms of art, architecture, culture, haute couture, gastronomy and Parma has been voted the "City with the highest standard of living".
Easily accessible from Milano and Bologna, both of which are serviced by airports, Parma is the provincial capital.
Inhabited by about 200,000 people, it is a jewel adorning the fertile Po valley. It is surrounded by verdant green hills, themselves dotted with castles, and the river Parma runs across the city.
Bars, boutiques, shopping centers, restaurants and hotels of every hue cater to the growing number of tourists who put this city on their itinerary.
The Piazza Garibaldi lies at the heart of Parma, and the city ripples out from this central point. A statue of Garibaldi, the Governor’s Palace and the Town Hall, both dating back to 1673, are located in this square.
The Battistero or Baptistry, made of pink marble, is an octagonal building and a fine example of Romanesque architecture. Sculptures and reliefs by Antelami and a ribbed dome depicting the months and seasons of the year as well as the signs of the Zodiac are part of its attraction.
The church of San Giovanni Evangelista, a notable piece of
Renaissance architecture, and the Stoica Speziera di San Giovanni Evangelista, a pharmacy founded in 1201, are well worth a visit. The pharmacy was working till 1766, after which it was restored and reopened in 1959. It is fascinating to see the ceramic jars and huge mortars, dating back to the 17th and even to the 15th centuries, stocked here. Apart from the tools of the pharmaceutical trade, the building also has beautiful frescoes and antique furniture.
The Dumo, or cathedral, a bell tower and the baptistery nestle close to each other, each a superb example of the architecture of its kind. The 11th century cathedral, dedicated to St. Mary of the Assumption, has a dome painted by Corregio, and three rows of loggias. Valuable frescos and the famous ‘Deposition’ by Antelami are among its notable artistic merits.
The Galleria Nazionale, or the National Museum, one of Italy’s most important museums, is located in the Palazzo della Pilotta. It contains works by Correggio, Parmigianino, Beato Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Van Dyck, Tiepolo, Canaletto and others.
The Palazzo della Pilotta also houses the Palatina Library and the National Archaeological Museum.
One of Italy’s major opera houses, the Teatro Regio, or Royal Theatre, is also to be found here. The original playhouse was destroyed in World War II, but it was rebuilt according to the same plan in the 1950s, and is today numbered among the most beautiful buildings of this kind in the world.
The Bodoni Museum, on the top floor of the Palazzo, is home to the work of Giambattista Bodonoi, who took over the management of the royal printing house in Parma in 1768 and turned it into a center of international repute. The museum has a fine collection of the original blocks, dies and other tools, manuscripts and master-copies. Its most valuable exhibit is probably a Greek version of the Book of Illiad, dating back to the year 1808.
The Chinese and Ethnological Museum, the brainchild of Guido Maria Conforti, Bishop of Parma, is another highpoint of this city. It houses ancient examples of the culture of various lands, which the bishop insisted that missionaries brought back with them in order to expose the people of Italy to different aesthetic traditions. Thus, bits of China, Pakistan, South America and Africa can be found in this little corner of Italy.
The Duke’s Park and Palace are two other places of interest in Parma. The park is an elaborate arrangement of greenery, first laid out in 1560 and enlarged upon later. The Palace itself is a fine example of Renaissance architecture, the work of Giorgio Erba. Its attractions include some beautiful frescoes by Agostino Carracci, Bertoja, Tiarini, Malorosso and Cignani. It now houses the carabinieri or police headquarters.
The Citadella or fort, planned by Pier Luigi Farnese in 1546, shaped like a pentagon, has five ramparts. Today, lawns take the place of the erstwhile moat, and a beautiful park inside its walls offers sports facilities.
Satiating culture aside, Parma is also known as the food capital of Italy, having given to the world two sublime items of cuisine – Parmesan Cheese and Prosciutto Ham.
Made from the milk of cows fed on the green grass of the Po valley, Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced today just as it was seven centuries ago. Milk from two different milkings goes into the production -- the evening milk is skimmed after it rests overnight and mixed with the following morning's new milk. The mixture is poured into a funnel-shaped boiler made of copper and heated gently over an open fire. Rennet is added, the mixture is whipped, then, when the curd separates, it is molded, pressed and drained, after which it is soaked in brine for about a month, drained again and then aged till it acquires its distinctive flavor and grainy texture. The whole exercise takes about two years, and some 500 litres of milk go into the production of one Parmigiano-Reggiano. Used both as table cheese and for pasta, it costs about $20 dollars per kilo.
The whey that separates from the curd during the cheese-making process is fed to the pigs of Parma, and probably contributes to the special flavour of Porsciutto di Parma or Parma ham, along with the climate of the region. The production of Parma ham is also strictly regulated, and starts with breeding and feeding, going on to salt rugs and rinsing and culminating in long hanging and curing in progressively warmer rooms. The process takes between 10 months and a year, at the end of which, only if all the criteria are satisfied is the five-point ducal crown stamped on the silky, pale pink hams with their distinctive flavour, to distinguish them from other, lesser varieties.
Once every two years, Parma hosts Italy’s most important food industry trade fair, CIBUS, and visitors throng the city for a week to experience untold pleasures of the palate.
The presence of companies like Barilla, which exports spaghetti, pasta, biscuits and bread to countries across the globe, and Parmalat, specialists in milk and dairy products, contribute to Parma’s reputation as the food capital of Italy.
To round off the sensory delights that Parma offers, there is the Violetta di Parma, the perfume that owes its existence to Maria Lugia, duchess of Parma. Napoleon’s wife loved this flower and used the colour as a signature tint – even the livery of her pages were of this shade. She encouraged the Benedictine monks at the Monastery of Annunciata to distil the essence of the flower, and at last, their long and patient efforts bore fruit. The first bottles of this perfume were produced exclusively for the use of Maria Lugia, and the technique was for long a closely-guarded secret. But it was eventually given out in 1870, and the scent of violets spread beyond the boundaries of Parma.
Step out of Parma feeling replete – in every sense of the term.