Piacenza and Fontanellato

Planning our route to Bologna we were careful not to cross the path of the Mille Miglia, a 1,000 mile race of vintage sports cars, heading along the same route.

In theory, our plan was workable but we hadn’t counted on the magnitude of the race being such that entire sections of the region’s motorways, as well as whole towns, would be in lock-down for hours at a time. Coming off the A1 motorway at Piacenza in heavy rains, a stream of traffic was already queuing to leave the town, which we put down to it being lunchtime on Friday.

Piazza Cavalli

In the handsome centre, admiring the buildings and gigantic equestrian statues of the ruling Farnese dukes, we walked solidly for an hour before returning to Bertha to head on towards Parma.

The roads were empty as we sailed along to the town’s exit onto the motorway, and ended up in traffic chaos. Police sirens wailed, frustrated drivers honked horns and flag-waving officials tried to give individual instructions to every vehicle explaining that the motorway was shut. It must be the Mille Miglia. No, it’s the Giro d’Italia – Italy’s version of the Tour de France!

The leading three riders

The sight of the packed peloton of colourful cyclists was impressive as the 200 or so athletes whizzed by on fragile carbon racing bikes, creating a ‘whoosh’ of wind, aided by the overhead TV helicopter, and followed by a fleet of support crew in team cars carrying racks of spare bikes.

At the head of the pack three bikers gamely pedalled to a short lead following the carnival procession of local and regional Polizia on motorbikes waving and tooting to the crowds lining both sides of the road. It was a terrific high-octane spectacle!

Back on the slip road to the motorway the queue of traffic waiting to leave the A1 and enter the town must have been a couple of hours’ long and already, on our side an accident had just happened. Driving past the two groups of gesticulating Italians and across the shards of a broken back end, we headed onwards to Fontenallato.

Sanvitale Fortress

A pretty medieval town built around its central star, Sanvitale Fortress, a fortified castle complete with a moat, it was hosting an annual conference of ‘merviglio’, or magic. It was built by the Sanvitale family after they bought the rock and defensive earthworks from the Visconti family of Milan in 1386.

By 1503 it was a vibrant Renaissance court within the River Po valley, with frescoes commissioned from Parmigianino. The Sanvitale family lived in the fortress until 1948 when they sold it to the town.

We watched the light play off the moat onto the castle’s walls, and swallows dip into its waters.

For the first time since arriving in Italy, we treated ourselves to a pizza dinner loaded with the local specialities of Parma Ham and Parmesan cheese – a taster of tomorrow’s destination.