A magical little trip to Parma
The Castle of Torrechiara, near Parma, is one of the best preserved examples of 15th Century castle architecture in Europe.
Until recently, my knowledge of the northern Italian town of Parma was confined to its delicious cured ham and cheese. In fact, Parma has a history of being neglected - even by other Italians.
The city has the misfortune to be compared unfavourably to its close and glamorous neighbours - Venice and Milan. So, it was with limited expectations that I flew into Bologna, en route to Parma. The midday sun was beginning to warm the stones of this ancient city when I arrived, but my hotel room was cool and welcoming. The Grand Hotel de La Ville is situated in the heart of Parma; originally used as a pasta factory, it has been tastefully modernised.
It can get very hot in summer, but there was a light breeze as I strolled along the Strada della Republica - just off a street that was built by the Romans when the city was founded in the second century BC. It was Sunday, so most of the shops were closed, but I found refuge in one of the nearby Churches. Apart from one devout old lady, I seemed to be the only person in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that afternoon - and I was astonished by the quality of the art work on display, and the exquisite carving of its massive timber roof.
That night, I dined at the Enoteca Tabarro. The restaurant was small, and spread across several different levels, spilling out into the street. The passion of its owner, Diego Sorba, for food was only equalled by his love of all things Irish. He had initially been attracted to Ireland by the poems of Louis MacNeice, but had ended up working in Galway for Sheridan's, the cheesemongers. Back in Parma, he has tried to combine some of the usual features of an Italian Osteria with those of an Irish pub. His restaurant is named after a traditional cloak worn in the region which envelopes you and keeps you warm - a little like his restaurant.
I was served sample plates of cooked meats, with local breads and cheeses. This was washed down with a selection of the local beers. Until then, I had associated Italy primarily with wine, but I found the range and flavour of these beers was quite exceptional - and they included an Irish stout named after the composer Verdi.
I was up early the next day to visit one of the largest Parma ham producers in the region. The owner of this factory may have been elderly, but he carried himself with all the elegance and charm of a traditional Padrone. The years did not seem to have dimmed his enthusiasm - either for ham, or for women. He spoke at length about both - indeed, it was sometimes hard to figure out which he was talking about. He served me some of his own produce - along with a glass of sparkling Lambrusco. Parma has a long history of winemaking, and Lambrusco has been associated with the region since Roman times. It is a frizzante wine - designed to be drunk young - and an ideal tonic to start the day. Later, I lunched in Osteria Maesta, a rustic restaurant set in the hills that overlook Parma. This time, the local ham was served with a soft bread roll that had been freshly baked, along with a mixture of pickled and roasted vegetables.
After lunch, I took the opportunity to explore more of the city. The construction of Parma's Cathedral began in the 11th Century, and was commissioned by the anti-Pope, Honorus II. The Cathedral is impressive from the outside, but it is only when one enters that its full magnificence becomes apparent. It includes many fine examples of the work of Antonio da Correggio, who was responsible for some of the most dramatic paintings of the Italian Renaissance. In the huge dome of the Cathedral, there is a famous fresco of the Assumption by Correggio, which is still able to make one's jaw drop. Beside the Cathedral lies another architectural gem. The octagonal Baptistery is clad in pink marble from Verona, which changes colour and seems to glow as the sun moves across the sky.
Ristorante Cocchi was located just a few minutes walk from my hotel, its walls are lined with vivid prints and paintings, and the ambience was loud and vibrant. One of the local specialities was an indecently rich risotto, cooked with Parmesan cheese, butter and porcini mushrooms, and rolled in Parma ham. This was followed by another Parma specialty: stuffed breast of veal, and rosemary potatoes. By the end of this very rich meal, I was barely able to rise from the table.
Skipping breakfast the following morning, I headed straight for a cheese producer a few miles outside the city. There, I was served a number of different vintages of Parmesan - cut in front of me from huge industrial size blocks. All Parmesans are bathed in salt water for at least 18 days, and this gives the cheese its distinctive edge. As it ages, the texture becomes harder and the flavour more intense.
I decided to walk to the nearby Castle of Torrechiara, one of the most important and well-preserved examples of 15th Century castle architecture anywhere in Europe. It is constructed entirely out of yellow brick, and looks almost modernist in the brutalism of its design. Inside the courtyard lay a series of stunning frescos and wall paintings. Later, I visited Santa Maria della Steccata. In the crypt are the tombs of 26 members of the once-powerful Farnese family - who turned Parma into a city-state back in the sixteenth century.
My final meal was in the Ristoranti Parizzi. The ultra-modern design of this restaurant felt as if it had only been opened for a few weeks, but it has been in existence for more than half-a-century. I began with Parmesan gratin, red mullet, and white and green asparagus. This was followed by strichetti - a home-made fresh pasta, served with lobster and artichokes. That was followed, in turn, by grilled salmon, with green mayonnaise, and Jerusalem artichoke. It was only then that we reached the main course: possibly the most succulent lamb I have ever tasted. Finally, I was served with an artist's palette that was composed of original and unexpected desserts - such as a painting tube filled with raspberry fondant. I drank a Flaccianello red wine - well-bodied and robust - and also sampled some of the local desert wines.
I arrived back in Dublin, reeling a little from the rich diet during my few days in Parma. There is a lot more to this beautiful and historic city than ham and cheese - but, it certainly helps if you like them!
Aer Lingus has weekly flights to Bologna from March - October. Car rental is available at Bologna airport and it is a 94km drive to Parma
A direct train from Bologna Centrale is available to Parma and departs regularly
Grande Hotel de la Ville: www.grandhoteldelaville.it
Park Hotel Pacchiosi : www.parkhotelpacchiosi.it
Mercure Parma Stendhal: www.mercure.com
Things to do:
Visit a ham producer: www.eliprosciutti.it
Visit a Parmigiano Reggiano producer: Caseificio San Lucio www.venditaparmigianoreggiano.com/caseificio-san-lucio.
Where to eat:
Osteria Maestà: www.osterialamaesta.it
Ristorante Cocchi: www.hoteldaniel.biz/ristorante.html
Ristorante Masticabrodo: www.masticabrodo.com
Ristorante Parizzi: www.ristoranteparizzi.it