If you’ve visited Rome and checked out Venice and are now looking for your next Italian city to explore or you are a sucker for a food (so that’s all of us then), then Parma needs to be next on your list. Less touristy than the other major cities but with just as much history, culture and even more food, here are ten reasons to visit the city:
Culatello di Zibello DOP
Like salumi? Then you have to try Culatello. The salty, garlicky, cold meat made from the hind legs of adult pork is recognisable from its signature pear shape stuffed inside a pig’s bladder. Tasty. Made from a limited number of producers in the flatland along the Po River north of Parma, they’re so proud of it that in 2009, The Consortium for the protection of Zibello DOP Culatello was founded to protect and ensure the quality of the product. All you really need to know though is that it goes excellently with bread and pairs very nicely with sparkling wine.
The Opera House
Once the New Ducal Theatre, the Teatro Regio di Parma was founded by Duchess Marie Louise of Habsburg-Lorraine the second wife of Napoleon. After the Congress in Vienna, the Duchess was sent to the support the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla and work began on the theatre in 1821. Whether you’re into opera or not it’s well worth a visit just to see the impressive neo-classical architecture, if however, you do like opera and happen to be visiting Parma between the 27th September and 21st October then make sure you check out Festival Verdi.
If London was to have its own colour maybe it’d be London Grey to reflect our streets or maybe a more striking London Red which could either represent our pride, buses or our passive aggressive tendencies on the tube. Parma, however, has Parma Yellow. A sunny, pale yellow which colours the houses in the historical centre. Rumour has it that architecture Petitot was inspired by the Strada San Michele and Santa Lucia who painted their houses golden yellow after watching Isabella of Bourbon pass through their streets during her wedding procession. Petitot then painted the buildings golden yellow whilst restoring the important buildings such as the Piazza Grande in the 18th century.
Parmigiano – Reggiano PDO
You can’t go to Parma and not eat Parmigiano – Reggiano, it’s like going to Reims and not having Champagne. Made today in the same way it was nine centuries ago, the cheese must pass two summers to express all it flavours and must be packaged and grated in the area of origin. Then every wheel is given the distinctive dots marking its origin, which to qualify must be from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. No dots = it’s just an imposter. No trip to Parma is complete without a stop for wine and a Parmigiano-Reggiano to snack on.
The Cathedral of Parma
If you’re in need of a break from the food, then head to the Parma’s 11th century cathedral. Dedicated to the ascension of the Virgin Mary look out for the two lions representing Jesus at the door, the 12 sculptures depicting the months of the year and the ‘scandalous’ frescoe The Assumption of the Virgin by Correggio. Why is it scandalous? Because of the tangle of figures surrounding the Virgin as she descends to heaven, a mass of limbs and a more ‘realistic’ portrayal of how it would have looked.
San Giovanni Old Pharmacy
Five minutes from Piazza Garibaldi, is San Giovanni Old Pharmacy, an apothecary that dates back to 1201. The pharmacy was run by Benedictine Monks until 1766 when it closed. Then in 1959 it was bought by the state and reopened to the public. It won’t take long to get around, but the cool, shady building will give you some respite from the hot sun and at just a a couple of euros to visit, it’s a wonderful chance to see 16th -17th century frescoes and all the apothecary vases, mortars and equipment used by the monks.
UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy
In 2015 Parma was officially invited to take part in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, making it the first Italian Creative City of Gastronomy. This year saw the city’s first City of Gastronomy, a celebration of food with chefs from all over Italy and the world descending on Parma for workshops, pop-ups and tastings. Parma’s proximity to the sea and the low damp plains make it an ideal location to create many products including Coppa di Parma, Salame, Felino, the Black Truffle of Fragno and Proscuitto di Parma. Making it perfect for visiting foodies, maybe not so ideal if like me, you bought a pair of trousers before you visited Parma which no longer fitted by the end. Awkward.
Palazzo della Pilotta
You can’t really miss the Palazza della Pilotta, the imposing building was once built for the Farnese family, but now it is home to the Archeology Museum, the National Gallery (where you’ll find Leonardo da Vinci’s, Head of a Woman) and my favourite, the wooden theatre. The incredible, ornate theatre was built entirely from wood but made to look like expensive marble for the Farnese family between 1617 and 1618. However, it wasn’t put too much use, unfortunately they didn’t realise just how expensive it would be to run a show there… still it look impressive for when guests came to visit. It was bombed in 1944 although was later restructured in 1956 and now you can still see examples of the baroque carpentry.
An impressive, octagonal, building, the medieval baptistery represents the eight day of creation, rebirth through immersion, and is still used today. Whether you take an interest in the history and religious importance or just marvel at the structure made in pink Verona marble and with four tiers of open galleries, it’s well worth visiting. Again, you’ll find more ornate frescoes (spoiler alert, Italy is big on frescoes) and the dome of the baptistery was frescoed in the 13th century and is influenced by Byzantine iconographic models. Get ready for neck ache.
Museum Glauco Lombardi
If you’re just passing through Parma or you want to fill your days with cheese and meat but want to pick up a few facts to bring home, so your friends don’t just think you’re stuffing your face, (even though that’s exactly what you’re doing) then head to Museuem of Glauco Lombardi which is home to over a thousand pieces detailing life in Parma between the 18th and 19th centuries. It particularly focuses on Duchess Marie Louise and her time in the city – check out the rather too handsome bust of Napoleon and look out for the pieces about the wooden theatre.