Lee Marshall, The Daily Telegraph, October 10, 2013
Parma distils all that is best about Italy’s cultured northern towns. Big enough to have a wealth of sightseeing draws, many of them linked to the years when this was a Farnese and Bourbon dukedom, it’s also compact enough to make for a perfect leisurely long weekend visit. And like so many other historic Po Valley cities, Parma has a strong and proud sense of regional identity.
One expression of this is the way it has elevated a taste for the good life into a global brand: made by a galaxy of mostly family firms to strictly regulated standards, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese are served across the globe from Toronto to Tahiti. But Parma is also one of Italy’s great music towns.
While not as well known as La Scala in Milan or La Fenice in Venice, the city’s Teatro Regio (Via Garibaldi 16a, teatroregioparma.org ), founded in 1829, is considered by opera buffs to be one of the true homes of the great Italian tradition, and the well-informed audience is famous for giving voice to its approval or disapproval – not just from the gallery.
The intricately decorated Verdi theatre in Busseto dates to 1868
Singers have been known to walk out on productions after ferocious first-night boos, with insult added to injury when the hotel porter – loyal to his fellow music-lovers – refuses to carry their luggage to the waiting taxi. Parma is, of course, Verdi territory, and the bicentenary of the composer’s birth in nearby Busseto (see below) on October 10, 1813 (some authorities argue for October 9), is being celebrated with a special edition of the Teatro’s annual Verdi Festival, which runs until the end of this month.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to take in an opera or concert at the Regio (an event that requires some serious advance planning), it’s worth going on one of the guided tours of the Teatro (Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-1pm and 3pm-6pm). The richly gilded auditorium that we see today is largely the work of set designer and decorator Giuseppe Magnani, who worked closely with Verdi on the Cairo premiere of Aida and went on to design sets for 20 of his operas.
Busseto’s Piazza Giuseppe Verdi
The Regio was built under the reign of Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, who was awarded the Duchy of Parma at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and whose mild nature and good works in her 30-year reign endeared her to her subjects.
An earlier duke, Ranuccio I Farnese, commissioned the delightful Teatro Farnese (Palazzo della Pilotta, gallerianazionaleparma.it, open Tuesday-Sunday, 8.30am-2pm) in 1617 as a princely viewing platform for Baroque pageantry, with a Roman-style cavea in the arena where tournaments and even scaled-down naval battles could be staged.
Parma’s beautiful historic city centre favours charm over global chains
Destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1944, the wooden theatre was painstakingly reconstructed after the war, and today it acts as the entrance foyer for Parma’s other great Farnese-dynasty legacy: the Galleria Nazionale. For me, the gallery’s prize exhibit, Leonardo’s La Scapigliata, is perhaps the most moving of the Renaissance genius’s many masterpieces: a study of a young woman’s head in umber, green amber and white lead, it has often been considered a preparatory drawing for another work, but this damsel radiant with inner joy is no quick doodle, and there is evidence to suggest that it was produced on commission for Isabella d’Este.
Whatever its status, it’s a ravishing tribute to feminine grace. As, in a more coquettish vein, is Parmigianino’s Turkish Slave, another of the gallery’s highlights.
Another kind of grace, of a more simple and devout variety, is on display at what is perhaps Parma’s single standout monument: its 13th-century Baptistery (Piazza Duomo, open daily, 9am-12.30pm, 3pm-6.30pm) in blushing-pink Verona marble. The building’s architect, Benedetto Antelami, was also responsible for the sculptural decoration inside and out, in which themes from nature, courtly life and astrology merge with Biblical themes; you can still feel the Classical heartbeat in these scenes, seven-and-a-half centuries after the demise of the Roman Empire.
In Parma, culture is about more than art, architecture and music. It permeates a city where even shopping – at least in the centro storico – is a civilised activity, not monopolised by global chains. It’s there, too, in the local passion for good food: get into a discussion about prosciutto di Parma, or the region’s other two cured ham specialities, culatello di Zibello and spalla cotta di San Secondo, and you might as well be arguing the finer points of quattrocento gold-background painting.
Except that rather than a gallery, your sounding board will be the many delis, wine bars and trattorias of a city that regards gastronomy as one of the liberal arts.
Parma is known worldwide for its delectable prosciutto
Born in the village of Roncole, Verdi soon moved to the nearby town of Busseto (25 miles north-west of Parma) with his family. Like many provincial market towns in northern Italy, it had a lively amateur music scene, and after his studies in Milan, Verdi became the local music master. In the years of his fame, he would develop a love-hate rapport with his town. He saw it as a welcome refuge from his globetrotting career, but he was infuriated by the bourgeois morality of the place. When Busseto made plain its disapproval of his live-in lover and eventual second wife, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi pointedly chose a villa just across the border, in Piacenza province, as the couple’s country retreat and love nest. This surprisingly modest perch, Villa Verdi (Via Verdi 22, Sant’Agata, 0039 0523 830000; villaverdi.org ) is a good place to begin a tour of le terre verdiane – Verdi country.
Afterwards, pop into nearby Il Casello (Via Mogadiscio 12, Vidalenzo, 0524 98125), a wonderful Parmesan dairy that belongs to a family who were once the composer’s own personal cheesemakers. Then head back into Busseto itself and look into the delightful little Teatro Verdi (guided tours via the tourist office, Piazza Verdi 10, 0524 92487; bussetolive.com ), inaugurated in 1868, and the venue for a jewel of a Verdi Festival in October (information at bussetolive.com ) that over the years has attracted talents such as Toscanini, Franco Zeffirelli and Riccardo Muti.
Give the disappointing and overpriced Museo Nazionale Giuseppe Verdi a miss, and head instead for lunch or dinner at wonderful Salsamenteria Baratta (Via Roma 76, 0524 91066, closed Mondays, average £25 a head), a good-value deli-restaurant where Verdi memorabilia vies for space with cured culatello hams.
Ryanair ( ryanair.com ) operate thrice-weekly flights to compact Parma International Airport; from here, bus line 6 runs to Parma’s central station in under 15 minutes. Served by British Airways ( ba.com ), easyJet ( easyjet.com ) and Ryanair, Bologna - less than an hour away by train - is another good point of entry.
Where to stay
Parma’s standard hotels are still firmly stuck in the commercial traveller era. Better to look at an upmarket “residence” like Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati (Strada al Duomo 7, tel +39 0521 386429, palazzodallarosaprati.it, doubles from £155), which for location, charm and service stands out from the crowd. You can almost reach out and touch the Baptistery from the higher floors of this Pompeii-red palazzo, which has been in the Dalla Rosa family for centuries and features seven elegant suites full of heirloom antiques, plus eleven self-catering apartments which are ideal for families or longer stays. Breakfast is served in your room or in the downstairs café, a popular aperitivo spot.
Another good centro storico berth is stylish B&B Al Battistero D’Oro (Strada Sant’Anna 22, tel +39 0521 239 369, albattisterodoro.it, doubles from £85), run by the personable Patrizia Valenti.
Leonardo’s graceful ‘La Scapigliata’ is a Galleria Nazionale highlight
Where to eat
Though the creative, Michelin-starred Parizzi (Via della Repubblica 71, tel +39 0521 285 952, closed Mon, taster menus from £60) is perhaps the city’s culinary high point, most locals would argue that Parma’s foodie soul is more to be found in local trattorias like La Greppia (Strada Garibaldi 39a, tel +39 0521 233 686, closed Mon and Tue, average £32 a head) or, in the countryside seven miles north-east of the city, the deliciously cheap and cheerful Il Cacciatore (Via Aia 15, Frassinara di Sorbolo, tel +39 0521 697 400, closed Mon, average £23 a head).
La Gatta Matta (Borgo degli Studi 9a, tel +39 0521 231 475, closed Sun & Mon, average £35 a head) is a good compromise between high and low, offering creative takes on the local tradition in a relaxedly elegant bistro setting.
Parma’s main tourist office is at Strada Garibaldi 18, tel +39 0521 228 152, turismo.parma.it .