Parma is a place for the senses, you see, hear, feel and taste it…
A genteel town that still thrives on ‘la dolce vita’ it is rumoured to be packed with delicatessens selling sumptuous meats and cheeses, although we couldn’t find many. It is full of thronging street-side cafes, dark, mysteriously- curtained restaurants, artistic and ancient treasures and a marvellous medieval square.
We planned a full day of quiet and meandering enjoyment and arrived in the official camper stop early to bag a space and catch a bus to the centre and into… chaos.
The central streets were barricaded and having the effect of funnelling swarms of people in both directions against each other. Locals on bicycles ploughed on regardless, black street hawkers mobbed anyone standing still, and wailing police sirens sounded every other minute. It took a while to realise we weren’t in the middle of an ordinary Saturday morning in Parma, but just ahead of the expected arrival into the town of the Mille Miglia.
Entering the fray, we were swept along arcaded shopping streets catching glimpses of high street fashion stores, perfumeries and shoe shops in between patisseries and chocolatiers, to Piazza Garibaldi where the jodhpur-wearing and high-booted Polizia officers were proudly exhibiting their own vintage police cars and motorbikes, the cause of the constant sirens.
Peace reigned in Piazza del Duomo, a remarkable ensemble of medieval architecture and ambition. The 11th century Duomo dominates the square and has a graceful 13th century bell tower. We peeked inside to see the famous frescoes by Correggio in its main cupola of the Assumption of Mary and the Apostles.
It was extraordinary to stand and spin slowly beneath the dome gazing up at the feet, limbs and floating garments of a crowd of bodies, heavenly and human, being sucked inexorably upwards. Corregio was a leading light of the Parma school of painting in the 1500s.
The exquisite octagonal baptistry begun in 1196 by the sculptor Benedetto Antelami shone a faded pink in the sunlight. It was built out of Verona’s orangey-red marble and you can still see the bright colours where the sumptuous carving and pillars remain in shade. It must have been dazzling when newly unveiled in the 1200s. It is only surpassed by its interiors, fully painted in byzantine-style frescoes by artists unknown.
Austere brick-built Palazza Pilotta, a colossal ducal fortress built for the rulers of Parma, the Farnese family, is now the town’s museum complex.
It is home to Teatro Farnese (1617 – 1618), a stunning wooden stage and auditorium built to accommodate complex technical staging, designed to wow the crowd and enhance the magic of theatrical performances. We lingered to listen to a strange musical score being played, sung and spoken by a choir and orchestra.
Without any real tune, more a sequence of drones, poetry, percussion and strings, it was being enthusiastically conducted and meticulously recorded. Simon, of course interested in the technology used by the Italian music producers, established it was a rehearsed recording of a new score for ‘Game of Thrones’. It’s eerie and epic notes certainly suited the imposing and other-worldly setting.
Passing wooden cherubs that originally greeted theatre-goers at the entrance to the auditorium we dallied in the Pinacoteca Nazionale looking at portraits of Milanese dukes and their families, and a small but beautiful exhibition of partially completed religious frescoes by Correggio.
Having saved a small fortune by picnicking on last night’s pizza leftovers we had money for a beer with a view of the Baptistry alongside Swedish and German families gathering to see the first arrivals of the Mille Miglia.
However, we were forearmed with knowledge that the expected leaders weren’t due to thunder up the Strada Duomo until 9pm so left the town in a hot sunset to return to stormy skies and a rainbow over Bertha. It had been a tremendous day!