Parma: a city of endless delights
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
The dulcet tones of a piano filled the evening air, competing for primacy with an orchestra of noisy cicadas as I sought shade from the searing heatwave in leafy Parco Ducale. Finding the source of the music - a lone musician quietly practicing outdoors behind the Teatro al Parco - it seems I'd inadvertently stumbled upon a rehearsal for a piano concerto that was taking place later that night. There was no-one else around. I sat quietly beneath the trees and let the beautiful sound wash over me - my own private concert. Welcome to Parma - a city that never fails to delight, often in unexpected ways.
Parma is a university city in Italy's northern Emilia-Romagna region, internationally renowned for its contributions to Italian cuisine, namely parmesan and prosciutto (known outside Italy as Parma ham). So it goes without saying that it's a haven for food lovers. It's a beautiful city with some truly magnificent architecture, its narrow, winding streets opening onto stately piazzas.
It has a grand and elegant feel without being showy or ostentatious. My overall impressions were of a neat, compact and beautifully preserved city, eminently walkable with a chilled out, youthful vibe. Despite its small size it packs a punch, with some truly top-notch sites to explore. Here's a little taster of what to expect
First port of call - the artistic tour-de-force that is Parma Cathedral. Two sculpted lions guard the entrance on Piazza Duomo, overlooked on one side by the 13th century Gothic bell-tower and the extraordinary 12th century Baptistery on the corner. The cathedral dates to 1106 and boasts a striking gabled façade of three blind arcades above a sculpted portal. The piazza is at its best at sunset, when the low evening sun casts a golden glow on its terracotta-coloured buildings.
Step inside and prepare to be overwhelmed by the exuberant decoration that covers every square inch of space. Stand at the heart of the action beneath Correggio's masterful dome, a mass of swirling drama and pictorial illusion representing the Ascension of the Virgin. Located directly above the altar, figures of the apostles stand on the ledge while others sit perched with their legs dangling over into our space.
At the centre of it all is the Virgin Mary, surrounded by circles of clouds crammed with angels and saints as she ascends towards the golden light of heaven above. It was one of the first major examples of 'di sotto in sù' perspective, namely using extreme foreshortening of figures on a ceiling to create an illusion that they are suspended in the air above our head. It's extremely effective, if not a little disconcerting. Regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the High Renaissance, it was completed in the 1530, a precursor to many great examples of illusionistic ceiling painting to follow.
A personal highlight was the poignantly beautiful Deposition, a sculptural frieze by Benedetto Antelami dating to 1178. Tucked away on a side wall, it's easy to miss. The depth of emotion achieved in stone is quite remarkable: Joseph embraces the body of christ on the cross, supporting him as he tenderly places his face against his wound. One of his arms is supported by the angel Gabriel who leads his hand towards his mother's face. It's heartbreaking.
Next up, we're about to see a lot more from Benedetto Antelami.
Baptistery of Parma
Next door to the cathedral is the extraordinary Baptistery, a striking octagonal structure in pink Verona marble. Despite its almost modern appearance, it was designed by Benedetto Antelami and built between 1196 and 1216, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
The north, west and south sides showcase three fabulous Romanesque portals with a profusion of sculpted detailing on every surface. The lunettes and architraves above each door tell a different story: the west door, Portale del Giudizio, tells the story of the Last Judgement and features a figure of Christ sitting on his throne, his hands raised and surrounded by angels. The frieze above is dedicated to the twelve apostles.
The northern portal is the main entrance point for visitors, its central theme the Adoration of the Magi. Here we see the figures of the Madonna and Child in the centre, with the three kings and Joseph on the either side. On the architrave below are scenes from the life of John the Baptist, the saint to whom the Baptistery was dedicated. The scenes from the southern Portale della Vita tell the story of the Legend of Baarlam.
A series of 79 panels, known as the Zooforo Tiles, run all the way around the lower part of the Baptistery featuring all sort of animals, strange beasts and fantastical creatures such as mermaids, griffins, dragons and unicorns. All of this before you even step inside the door.
The interior can only be described as jaw-dropping, entirely covered in 13th century frescoes from floor to ceiling. Stand beneath the dome to admire its unusual umbrella vaulting: between each of the sixteen ribs are friezes of biblical and celestial scenes.
But the star of the show is the remarkable series of sculptures by Benedetto Antelami representing the months, seasons and signs of the Zodiac. Illuminated beautifully, each one tells a story and we can see the exquisite level of detailing. Astonishing to think that they date back to the late 12th / early 13th century.
Tickets: €12 for adults. Under 13s go free. Details here
Palazzo della Pilotta
Dedicate an entire day to this enormous and imposing palace complex which today houses the National Archaeological Museum, the Palatine Library and Bodoni Museum. It's also home to the National Gallery with its world-class collection of art including work by Da Vinci, El Greco and Canaletto.
A highlight is the remarkable Teatro Farnese, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence, and the first example of a modern theatre in the western world. Made entirely from wood and painted plaster, it dates to 1618.
Rest your legs out at the Piazzale della Pace, a peaceful public park at the front of the complex. Here you'll find a vast green space and water feature which subtly reflects the ancient architecture. Plants and trees provide a welcome reprieve from the searing temperatures. In the evenings, it's a popular hang-out spot for young people.
Palazzo della Pilotta, Piazza della Pilotta, 3
And now for something a little more modern... APE is a museum, gallery and cultural institution dedicated to promoting the arts in all its forms including visual art, theatre and music. We were lucky enough to catch the wonderful exhibition by father and son Renato and Luca Vernizzi featuring over 100 portraits of well-known figures from the cultural and artistic world, in addition to a number of affecting self-portraits.
Tickets: Adult €8 - includes temporary exhibitions and permanent collection
APE Museum, Str. Luigi Carlo Farini, 32/a
Parco Ducale is a fabulous public amenity, across the river to the west of the city. Designed in the mid 1600s, its leafy tree-lined avenues provide some much-needed respite from the summer sun. Dotted throughout the park are examples of classical statuary, the elaborate Trianon fountain and the Temple of Arcadia.
During the summer months, the park is a hub of cultural activity. Arena is a six-week long festival of events that takes place in the Teatro al Parco including plays and musical performances. There are also large-scale outdoor concerts which take place in front of the Ducal Palace. The July 2022 programme included performances by Andrea Bocelli, Sting and Italian favourite Zucchero.
Factor in a pitstop at the groovy little kiosk beneath the trees. daMAT Chiosco Parco Ducale offers a terrific selection of
gelato, cakes, coffee, beer and cocktails in a relaxed leafy environment.
Parco della Cittadella
Enclosed within immense citadel walls, this large public park sits on the site of a 16th-century fortress. Located to the south of the city, it's popular with walkers and joggers and instantly recognisable by its elaborate entrance gate designed by Simone Moschino. There's a cool playground for kids, complete with a merry-go-round; a sport tracks for jogging and a bar.
The Orto Botanico is a small but tranquil botanical garden maintained by the University of Parma, located to the south of the city. This lush green space was designed and completed by the late 18th century and is home to a number of trees dating back to this time. Look out for the vibrant exotic plants on display in the greenhouses, and some rare botanical species including the Ginkgo biloba planted in 1795. Inside you'll find an important scientific library and a National History Museum where you can get up close and personal with the animals of the world.
Str. Luigi Carlo Farini, 90
Eating and Drinking:
Parma is a haven for foodies and despite its compact size, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants. But it's during aperitivo time, those magic hours between 6 and 8, that the city really springs to life. Tables and chairs spill onto the pavements of its many beautiful piazzas and line its narrow streets as people down tools for the day, kick back and enjoy a Spritz or other refreshing pre-dinner drink. Or two.
Lunch with a view on day one was on Piazza Steccata, overlooked by the magnificent Basilica. The 42 degree heat had all but depleted our appetites but luckily we stumbled upon this lovely spot in search of a small snack. We shared a tasting plate of Prosciutto, each aged for a different period of time, the difference notable between each one. Simple but delicious, washed down with a refreshing Birra del Borgo.
Piazza della Steccata, 3E
Borgo 20, Borgo XX Marzo, 14
I still dream about the meal we had here. Without question, this was one of the foodie highlights of a 12-day trip. Borgo 20 is a trendy bistro with an innovative menu featuring creative and modern twists on traditional Italian dishes. It's very popular so you'll need to book ahead for those coveted streetside tables. And maybe wear some stretchy pants...
What we had: some fresh and juicy Gamberi Borgo and a luscious creamy Parmesan Risotto to start. This was followed by a beautifully presented Tagliolini with courgette, lemon and mint, and a perfectly cooked Tagliata for M. Portions are generous but try to save space for dessert. Or don't but heroically manage to squeeze one in anyway. And make it the Sfere di Passione (Spheres of Passion) which has to be one of the greatest desserts in the world. Why, you might ask? Well this might answer your question: circles of salted caramel mousse with a passionfruit heart, passionfruit gel and pink pepper sablé, dramatically displayed in gold leaf like a work of art. Utter perfection!
Osteria dello Zingaro, Borgo del Correggio, 5
Dinner on our first evening was locals' favourite Osteria dello Zingaro. We bagged one of the last streetside tables on this tiny street behind the Duomo and enjoyed a feast of simple food, made well. Regional ingredients are king here but just something to note - horse features quite prominently on the menu in this establishment, as it does in many places in Parma so if this is not to your taste, avoid anything with the word Cavallo in it.
What we had: a Prosciutto fest for me kicking off with Prosciutto with melon followed by one of their classic dishes Tagliatelle al Prosciutto with Parmesan. M opted for a simple spaghetti dish with tomatoes and basil to start, followed by rabbit, all served up by a very sweet young waiter. When we ordered a lemon tart to share he winked 'I'll made it an extra-large piece so'. Happily the super location is not reflected in their prices - it's good value for money too.
Our first evening was rounded off with drinks at the quirky Mama Bottega e Piaceri, on a tiny side street behind Piazza Garibaldi.
Décor is bright, funky and eclectic with lots of interesting art, and staff are fun and friendly. They make a mean cocktail too. As always, expect a tray of (free) snacks to munch on with your drink. Even if you've just eaten a three-course meal
Via Goffredo Mameli, 9/c
If you think it's strange to include a sandwich shop in a Best Places to Eat list, then you have clearly have never tasted a panino from Pepén. This is a local institution - a little hole-in-the-wall spot on a lane off Strada della Repubblicca that serves the most incredible sandwiches, including the lip-smackingly good Prosciutto Crudo di Parma Farcito served with mayo and pickles (Parmesan on request) and the spicy Arrosto Spaccabale with roast pork, mayo and tomatoes. Mayonnaise is the secret sauce that unites most of the sandwiches but their unique recipe has not yet been revealed, and all are served in a crusty bun. Yum!
Not hard to find - just follow the long line of people queuing down the lane from noon each day, mainly workers from the area but sometimes the occasional curious tourist. Join them and eat yours standing up at the counter on the wall opposite.
Vicolo Sant'Ambrogio, 2/C
Trattoria del Tribunale, Vicolo Politi, 5
The unassuming façade belies the culinary delights that await you in this traditional trattoria, a short walk from the APE Museum. Book ahead if possible to ensure a table on the lovely terrace running along the narrow street. Expect a variety of classic regional dishes using high-quality local produce: simple, delicious and cooked to perfection. And unfortunately some chaotic service from a number of disinterested young waiters.
What we had: artichoke flan with parmesan cream and lemon tagliatelle to start, followed by saffron tagliatelle with Prosciutto and courgette for me (divine...) and a fillet of beef served with potatoes for M.
J. Roger Speakeasy, Str. Agli Ospizi Civili, 6
It's Prohibition vibes a-plenty at this cool 1920s style cocktail bar. Press the buzzer to gain entry and enjoy some classy high-end cocktails in an intimate setting.
Relive your student days in this grungey little dive bar beside the Palazzo della Pilotta complex. Try one of their potent €5 Spritz, a glass of local wine for €3 or live on the edge and let them make you a cocktail. Some seriously unique combinations going on there for a mere €6. It's vibey and good fun though we were definitely the oldest people in the bar. Average age is approx 22.
Piazza della Pace, 5B
This is a great spot for an aperitivo: away from the main tourist area, on the corner of Piazza san Uldarico and overlooked by a pretty church of the same name. They have a carefully chosen list of wines and bubbles, and it's good value for money. A Campari Spritz, a beer and two bottles of water set us back a mere €10.
Str. Luigi Carlo Farini, 64/a
Another great aperitivo spot and their accompanying snacks are seriously good. Expect a plate with a variety of warm Italian breads to appear alongside your drinks so arrive hungry. Nab a table on the street for some prime people-watching opportunities.
Str. Luigi Carlo Farini, 16b
Where we stayed:
We stayed in an AirBnB right on Piazza Garibaldi. As locations go, it couldn't have been better. Modern, clean and well-equipped, it was the perfect city pad for our three night break. It also had excellent air-conditioning - a godsend during the heatwave.
Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, 23
The closest airport is Bologna, approx. 96 kms away. Flights are through Ryanair
From there it's about an hour's drive, or slightly longer on public transport. At the airport, take a taxi or the Marconi Express to Bologna Centrale - there are frequent departures to Parma. Journey time is just over an hour.