Long reckoned to have one of the highest standards of living in Italy, Parma, 28km along the Via Emilia northwest of Reggio, is a comfortable town, though its general air of affluence has been shaken by the recent recession. You could easily fill a day or two seeing the sights and sampling the city’s excellent restaurants. A visit to the opera can be an experience – the audience are considered the toughest outside Milan’s La Scala – and the city’s works of art are dominated by two great local artists, Correggio and Parmigianino.
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The countryside around Parma is a strange mixture: some of the major roads follow bleak gorges, skirting the edge of blank rock walls for kilometres; others look as if they will lead precisely nowhere before emerging into meadows and orchards with rich farmland stretching into the distance.
Prime targets are any of the twenty medieval castles strung out across the foothills to the south, many built by the powerful Farnese dynasty. The website has a useful map locating all the castles and can help you plan a tour. It’s also worth buying a Castelli del Ducato card, available from tourist offices or the castles themselves, that will give you a reduction on admission fees and is valid for a year.
One of the finest castles is at Torrechiara, about 18km south of Parma. It provides a superb vantage point over the surrounding area and also has frescoes by Bembo in its Camera d’Oro.
Some 35km west of Parma is the beautiful Castell’Arquato, a nicely restored medieval town set on a hillside overlooking the Arda Valley. At the top of the town, Piazza del Municipio is lined with some stunning buildings. The thirteenth-century Palazzo del Podestà isn’t open to the public, but you can visit the Chiesa, a magnificently preserved Romanesque monument with an eighth-century baptismal font in the right-hand apse (the entrance is round to the right). The restored tower of the fourteenth-century Rocca Viscontea offers amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
About 30km northwest of Parma, the small village of Le Roncole marks the start of Verdi country. By the main road on Piazza Giovannino Guareschi – named after the author of the Don Camillo books who also lived here – you can visit the humble house where the great composer was born. Some 5km up the road is Busseto, the childhood home of Verdi and the centre of the industry that has grown up around the composer, with regular opera performances during summer. It’s an appealing little battlemented town, but the main attractions are strictly for Verdi pilgrims. The Casa Barezzi, now a Verdi museum, was the home of Antonio Barezzi, a wealthy merchant who spotted the young Verdi’s talent and brought him in as a teacher for his daughter. Verdi lived here for a while and later married his pupil, Margherita. Now restored to its nineteenth-century state, the museum contains the piano that Verdi played on and memorabilia such as the baton that Toscanini used to conduct his Verdi memorial concert in 1926. The tourist office can give you information about the sights and about tickets for concerts in the Verdi Theatre.
Given its reputation for ham and cheese, it is hardly surprising that Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma) and parmigiano-reggiano features strongly on menus, but you will also find other local specialities such as guancia di manzo, cheek of beef. You can eat more cheaply in the bars around Strada Farini, with snacks such as prosciutto stuffed into pastries and other local delights available for around €2 from the many bakeries. Picnic supplies can be bought at the Farmers' Market by the river on Piazza Ghiaia (Wed & Sat 7am–2pm).
Top image: Parma, Italy - Piazza del Duomo with the Cathedral and Baptistery, built in 1059 © cge2010/Shutterstock