I have been in Italy at least once a year for the past five years of my life. I've been on a gondola in Venice and a scooter in Rome. I've eaten pizza in Naples and been cheated in Salerno. I've been to Verona and Mantua and Trento and Turin. But, until last weekend, I had never been to Parma, supposedly the town with the highest standard of living in Italy, and certainly with the best ham and cheese. And anybody who has known me for any length of time knows that ham and cheese are very important to me.
In the interest of having a restful weekend, we took the train to Parma. Driving can be stressful for Mr A because he has to avoid the maniacs on the motorway and for me because I take my responsibilities of paying the road tolls, calling the other drivers morons and waving like the queen at people who stare at Mr A's British car very seriously. Taking the train was a great idea, apart from the fact that we had a very long walk in the heat to our hotel, which according to the booking website was “centrally located” but turned out to be on the wrong side of the motorway from the centre of town.
That aside, we really did have a restful weekend. On Saturday morning we had a little bit of excitement when Mr A tried to buy a pair of sunglasses from a market stall and the vendor was very persistent, following us and trying to convince Mr A while at the same time running away from the police. We had lunch on the terrace of a cafe, where I had what must be the pinnacle of ham and cheese sandwiches and Mr A had a roasted vegetable panino with parmesan cheese.
We wandered around the town for a little while before what turned out to be the long walk to the hotel. Apart from the fact that our non smoking room was equipped with two ashtrays and smelled of cigarettes, it was worth the walk. We had a lovely big room with a nice bathroom and, to Mr A's delight, a TV with one English channel. The best thing about it, though, was having breakfast on a huge terrace in 25 degree sunshine.
Everybody told us that the point of visiting Parma is really to eat, so we did. We walked back into town from the hotel and, after exploring the centre a little bit, sat down in the square under the impressive clock tower for a delicious aperitivo served in tiny dishes and watched the well-dressed world go by.
For dinner, I had filled pasta in a butter and parmesan sauce and Mr A had asparagus risotto that was also loaded with parmesan. We're going to try recreating it at home this weekend with the cheese that we bought.
On Sunday, we managed to be a little bit cultured and visited the cathedral. All the paintings have been restored and it has a gorgeous octagonal dome with a painting of Mary's ascension on it. The work was controversial at the time because Mary, as seen from below in her billowing dress, does not look pious or dignified, but more as if she has been swept away by the wind, and today, even to someone with very little knowledge of art like me, it still stands out as different from your normal religious painting.
We had a lovely walk in the Parco Ducale, where we watched terrapins swimming around the pond and had a glass of Malvasia wine in the cafe. I'm not usually a big fan of sparkling white wine but this one had a lovely delicate flavour that matched the setting among the spring greenery perfectly.
We finished our visit to Parma with a classic regional dish: a board of ham, salami and cheese served with fresh crusty bread and a glass of local wine, then sat in the park in the sunshine. Parma is a great place because it's quite a small town where you can wander around and sit and relax without being hassled, but at the same time it has a university and seemed to have a fairly large immigrant population, so it was still quite lively and interesting to visit.
This blog probably gives the impression that I spend a lot of my time in Italy sitting around eating and drinking. Often, this is true. Eating, drinking and visiting churches is what you do in Italy. In my own defence, though, I would like to point out that I weighed myself last week and I was actually 3 kilos lighter than I was when I arrived in Milan in August, so my lifestyle may sound indulgent but it appears to be doing me good. Admittedly, I haven't quite dared to step on the scales since last weekend...