Italy's Parma: more than just ham & cheese

IN Parma there's a gentle irony when, staring into the photo lens aimed at you, someone tells you to smile and ``Say cheese.'' Among this northern Italian city's numerous claims to immortality is just that: cheese. Specifically, parmigiana-reggiano, that salty nugget that singlehandedly makes Italian cuisine Italian and, thus, is considered so precious it's stored in banks as collateral.

Yet as the seasoned traveler to Parma knows, the city's attractions are as rich and diverse as its famous cuisine. Its cultural and commercial successes have been celebrated since its founding as a Roman colony in 183 BC. Parma has refined its specialties so well that over the centuries they have assumed a civic identity. Indeed, the city's name serves as a prefix for Italy's more famed delicacies. Parma ham. Parma violets. Parmesan cheese.

But Parma's culinary legend tends to overshadow its other, deeper identity. Quite simply, it's a city that for well over a thousand years has aspired to excellence. In everything.

Parma is a city of and for connoisseurs. For food lovers, it's the recognized capital of Italian cuisine; the finest cooking, whose recipes date from Roman and Renaissance times. For music lovers, it's the second home of Verdi opera; Parma's audiences rivaling only La Scala's in critical acuity. For art devotees, it's the showcase of Correggio and Parmigianino and the home of Italy's finest annual antique fair. For history buffs, it offers the rich ducal legacy of the Farnese and Bourbon courts. For Romantics, it's where Napoleon's wife, Marie Louise, ruled; where Stendhal set his most famous novel, ``The Charterhouse of Parma,'' an evocation of that French-dominated era.

Situated at the foot of the Apennines in the northwest corner of the province of Emilia-Romagna, Parma is a half-hour car or train ride from Bologna. The approach is instructive. Traversing the flat, fertile plains rich with agriculture, one sees why Parma's economy has prospered since Roman times. That prosperity, in turn, is immediately evident in Parma itself. The city is dominated by monuments from its aristocratic past: heroic arches and palaces from the Farnese dynasty, which ruled from 1545 to 1731, and later, from 1731 to 1859, the French influence of the Bourbon court.

Today, that elegance is everywhere in Parma. Shops, restaurants, hotels gleam with urban well-being.

Since the 13th century, Parma's guilds and gentry, craftsmen and statesmen have united in fierce civic pride on one point: the quality of what they do and how it affects the city. Whether you talk, as I did, to an art curator or a ham curer, Parma's inhabitants love what they do and love doing it well.

Like Bologna, its neighbor, Parma does not disclose her secrets easily. Understatement is the key, even in sightseeing. Parma has none of the instant, astonishing beauty of Florence or the visual dazzle of Venice. Why see it? Because it offers a more complete, authentic glimpse of Italian life than is possible to sense in larger tourist cities. To walk Parma's streets is to experience Italy at its most relaxed. It is to be lured, street corner after street corner, by the smells of tiny artichokes baked in pastry or pasta stuffed with pumpkin pur'ee.

The best way to see Parma is, historically speaking, backward. Starting at the busy Via Cavour, proceed to Via al Duomo. On the right stands the octagonal-shaped Baptistery. Built between 1196 and 1214, it contains some of the finest Romanesque frescoes in Italy. Directly across looms the cathedral and its 12th-century campanile. Inside the cathedral, in its massive dome, is Correggio's famous Assumption fresco. His earlier work can be seen just a minute away in Camera di San Paolo, just off Piazza della Pace.

Traversing that same piazza, one comes to the massive Palazzo della Pilotta, the 16th-century complex that houses the city's magnificent art collection. Its central attraction, though, is the Teatro Farnese, an all-wooden theater, built from 1618 to 1628 by Palladio's pupil, Aleotti. Once the largest theater in the world, this 4,500-seat amphitheater was the center of court life and intrigue.

On the way to the nearby Piazza Garibaldi, the heart of Parma's daily life, visitors should make three stops. The first is the 16th-century church Madonna della Steccata, and, just down Via Garibaldi, the Teatro Regio, where Verdi premi`ered many of his operas. A few blocks away is the Museo Lombardi, a small jewel of a museum devoted to Napoleon's wife, Marie Louise. Credited with refusing to sell Louis XVIII a Correggio for a million francs, Maria Luiga, as the Italians call her, is much beloved in Parma for her beautification of the city.

Checking one's watch against the time-perfect 13th-century astronomical clock in the Piazza Garibaldi, tourists can sit leisurely taking in lunch or, as I did, head out for a quick tour of one of the dozens of cheese cooperatives that rim the city. It is well worth the trip. To watch the process is to see real artisans engaged in a craft that dates from the 13th century.

In 1955 the Italian government decreed that only cheese made in Parma could bear the premium label parmigiana-reggiano. So important is this honor that workers, usually one family, work 365 days a year, weddings and Christmas included, to keep the process perfect. Visitors will watch milk boiling in large copper vats stirred by wooden paddles. An interesting part of the tour is the warehouses where the cheese is kept to age for two or three years. It resembles a library or bank vault, with shelf after shelf of Parma's famed product.

Having worked up an appetite, visitors are urged to head out in the direction of Torrechiara, one of the 25 major castles dotting the hills just outside Parma. There one can eat lunch cheaply and deliciously, stopping almost anywhere.

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