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TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE- La Dolce Vita: Art, Arias and Gastronomy in Parma, Italy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Victoria Looseleaf Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 31 May 2012 01:33


Whether it's music, art, architecture, food, fashion or fantastic natural scenery, Italy's got it. And for those who've done the Rome/Venice/Florence route and don't want the crowds, Parma is one of the country's best-kept secrets. Located in the northern Emilia-Romagna region between Milan and Bologna in the Po River Valley, this sleepy town of 170,000 is a magical destination, its eponymous Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese only part of its appeal.

Not for nothing did French writer Stendhal (nee Marie- Henri Beyle) pen his masterpiece, "The Charterhouse of Parma." Following in Stendhal's footsteps, a good place to start is in the lovely older section of town at the Piazza Duomo, where the 12th- century Romanesque cathedral houses the author's favorite artist and Parma's most illustrious painter, Correggio. It was here that he decorated the interior of the dome with his Renaissance fresco, "Assumption of the Virgin," a kaleidoscopic swirl of angels that seems to glow at the top of the cupola. Moving to the south transept of the cathedral visitors will find Benedetto Antelami's earliest work, the glorious carved frieze "Descent From the Cross."

Steps away are the Bishop's Palace, an impressive structure framed by Romanesque arches; a Gothic bell tower; and the Baptistery, Antelami's six-story octagonal edifice of pink-and-cream Verona marble. Often referred to as the most original work of the Italian Romanesque era, the Baptistery was built at the beginning of the 13th century and features dazzling paintings of biblical tales, as well as a set of figures representing the signs of the zodiac.

A short walk away is the centrally located Garibaldi Plaza, a hub of shops, cafes and restaurants, many with umbrella-shaded terraces. A stroll through the verdant Ducal Park, an example of a French style garden, leads to the Ducal Palace, Town Hall and the Governor's Palace and then on to Parma's National Gallery. Once a stately home to the Farnese family, this vast site, which also includes the national archaeological museum, was restored after World War II, with the Gallery boasting a number of royal portraits, as well as paintings by Correggio, da Vinci, El Greco and others.

Most unusual, perhaps, is the re-creation of the 16th-century Teatro Farnese. Originally built to celebrate a marriage between the Medicis and Farneses, the cavernous 4,000-seat horseshoe- shaped wooden structure plays host to occasional operas and concerts. Music being central to Parma's cultural scene, the resplendent Teatro Regio, a 19th-century neoclassical theater rich in gold and stucco work, also offers concerts throughout the year. With its elegantly designed ceiling sporting figures representing comedy, tragedy and romantic drama and 20 rows of orchestra seating surrounded by five tiers of boxes, this intimate venue lends itself to a first-class listening experience. A recent recital by tenor Leo Nucci is proof that Verdi is alive and well today.

And why not? Giuseppe Verdi, composer of 28 operas, including such beloved works as "Aida" and "Rigoletto," was born in the neighboring village of Roncole, near Busseto. And while Parma celebrates the composer every October with a festival bearing his name, Verid's music can be heard year-round in Busseto. The 16th-century Villa Pallavicino, now site of the Verdi National Museum, is where the composer lived and worked. Displaying relics such as his piano, composition books and walking sticks, the villa also houses the magnificent 300-seat Teatro Verdi, where the composer may never have actually attended a concert but did contribute 10,000 lire toward the construction of the theater in which he maintained a personal box.

Another legendary musician and native Parma son was conductor Arturo Toscanini, whose birthplace and residence is also a museum. Filled with batons, concert photos and memorabilia, the house is notable for its library of all the recorded works Toscanini ever conducted. Crowds are never a problem here, as no more than 25 visitors at a time are permitted inside the museum to watch an hourlong biography of the maestro for whom the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created in 1937.

A trip to Parma, Italy's food basket, cannot be complete without visits to Parma ham and Parmesan cheese producers, the latter dotting the area with centuries- old dairy farms. Handcrafted from partly skimmed milk that is added to whey then aged from 18 to 24 months in large storage areas, the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is branded before being sold in giant wheels, each weighing up to 90 pounds.

As for Parma's famous prosciutto, the word comes from the Latin, prae exuctus, which means drained. In the 14th century, locals began using salt from nearby Salsomaggiore, which, thanks to the presence of sodium, bromine and sulfur, prevented the growth of bacteria, allowing the meat to keep longer. The breezy hills south of Parma are ideal for curing hams, which are aged up to 10 months, then branded with the fivepointed crown of the old duchy of Parma. Ham devotees might also wish to visit the Museum of Parma Ham to delve further into the history, techniques and recipes from the origins to the present.

Verdi, who was said to favor culatello, a refined prosciutto not available in the United States, would have loved Massimo Spigarolli's farmrestaurant, Al Cavallino Bianco. The Spigarolli pigs are raised like royalty, with cured hams hanging in the cellar bearing nametags such as Princes Charles and Albert, of England and Monaco, respectively. Spinach-stuffed tortelli and anolini soup along with salumi dishes make lunch nothing less than a feast.

Regional wineries and castles are also popular, with Lamoretti vineyards a source of delicious Lambrusco. Drinking a glass is the perfect start for a tour of the spectacular Torrechiara Castle, a 15th-century fortress that overlooks the valley. Its numerous rooms include the erotic "Golden Chamber," a series of colorful frescoes depicting scenes of love.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 May 2012 01:54