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Parma, Italia 13 September 2011

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Parma, Slow Food Capital

The autostrada from south of Bologna to Milan is pretty straight, fast, and uninteresting. Lots of industry encroaching on obviously fertile land, but still lots of land under intensive cultivation.

About an hour on the autostrada passed us around Bologna and on to smaller and more manageable Parma. We roosted at a lovely B&B near Sorbola in the rice growing region of the Po Valley, Il Ghirone, hosted by the wonderful Ilaria, who runs the place with her family. We dropped off our baggage, were shown our lovely rooms, and got Ilaria's recommendation for a restaurant in Parma, Trattoria Corrieri.


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Italian cities have embraced the idea of pedestrian centers with gusto, and so the easiest thing to do is find a good place to park, and then walk. Amazingly civilized. On our walk along the Parma River to the center, we admired the riverside houses that have been adapting to the times for centuries. As we searched out our restaurant, we walked among busy, purposeful mobs of people also headed for food.

What a restaurant! We were seated among earnest Parma citizens tucking into their principal meal of the day, and started salivating. Of course we ordered Parma ham and Parmesan cheese – it's called grana in these parts; Parmesan is a French word. These lived up to expectations, especially the brasaola with grana, pictured at left. The Melanzane parmigiana (Eggplant parmesan) was perfect, just as I have always tried to make it, but never succeeded. Maybe I'll have learned something?

But the two serious hits of the dinner were vegetables: roasted peppers and amazing onions – I know how to make those peppers, but I have no clue how the onions are made. They were sweet, oily, luscious, not at all cloying.

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Most Italians eat their principal meal at lunch – they believe (probably correctly) that eating big before going to bed makes one fat. We have noticed that there are not very many fat people here, so they may be on to something.

Worth a note about the service. Our Italian being sketchy, we nevertheless do our best to interact, whenever we can, in the language of the land. Sometimes this irritates service people, but here we clearly amused our waiter, who played with us. There was a wasp trying to eat Sienna's ham. Other diners were flailing. Damiana deftly trapped it in a wine glass borrowed from the next table. The waiter gave a dramatic approving shrug.


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After Firenze and Siena, Parma was not very interesting: it's a small but wealthy modern Italian city with very little preserved from any past it might have had, due mostly, I'm guessing, to the fact that it has prospered right through the years without ever having gained prominence – a good thing if you are a city. We noticed that it had an extraordinary sundial on the face of its town hall, making the city's context, amongst other important commercial centers of the world, very obvious to the residents. This also suggests that the sun shines a lot here.

It was hot and sticky when we emerged from the restaurant, and the people had mostly vanished. A few tradespeople remained in their flea market stalls, because picking up and then setting out again would be so much trouble. We sat for a few minutes in the Ducal Gardens, admired the Palace, and then wandered through shaded back streets through the oldest section of town -- I believe Parma was severely bombed during WW2 -- and rescued our trusty steed, a Lancia, from its garage, and bumbled off southward in search of a castle Ilaria had suggested we might enjoy.

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Another Castle

This castle, Torrechiara, guarded the place where the Parma river enters the Apennines, an important trade route in the time it was built. Occupying a hill above the river, it was situated to send out parties to interrogate and tax travelers entering or leaving the Po River plain. This is an older castle than the one at Dozza. This can be known from the fact that its towers are square, something that went out when cannons came in. (Corners are easy to shoot off.) Nevertheless, where Dozza's Rocca was an outpost, this was the residence of royalty, and so taller and provided with even more layers of defensibility.

No personality here -- no pictures of castellans or family -- but this was a Sforza castle, and they were not especially into memorializing their portraits. There was a tiny kitchen, far out of the way, and a kitchen garden. Our favorite feature was the outside oubliette -- a black door in an otherwise blank wall with a seat with a hole in it within.

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And much more richness in the decoration, despite the fact that the commune of Torrechiara (the local government) has not chosen to spend as much money on preservation and restoration. Their pride and joy is the Gold Room, its walls and ceiling covered in spectacular gilded plaster tiles. The imagery is wonderfully strange, apparently influenced by the tarot and the 15th Century world view – topless towers, bare breasted half-women with horses bodies, steaming curlicues. What were they smoking?The elaborate lasterwork, the decorated surfaces, the elaborate decoration and brickwork suggests that this was a time when there were many, many gifted artisans, and wealthy patrons with the ability to keep this army of craftsmen on the job. As at the Uffizi, it doesn't appear that there was much critical supervision. The artists painted what they wanted, or what ideas they were given, without much rhyme or reason. Decoration for its own sake.


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In possession of a good high resolution local map, we headed across country for our B&B, but always with an eye for a gelateria. Finally stopping in a likely looking suburb, Montecchio, we bumbled around for awhile, and finally asked, in our halting Italian, where we might find gelato. After a moment's misunderstanding, our two lady informants couldn't be more welcoming and informative, and we were soon consuming pomplemo granita, a much more appropriate snack for the muggy hot day

It was Tuesday night, and many restaurants were closed. We again took Ilaria's advice, and went to a local open-every-night place where we treated rudely (but so, most likely, was everyone else) but served adequate margherita pizzas, salads, and, best of all, pitchers of cold Italian beer. We slept like rocks.

Wednesday morning we were regaled by Ilaria with a lovely breakfast, yogurt, filled cookies, stuffed spinach pockets, rice pudding cake, home-made fig jam, foccacia, salami, cubes of grana, and, of course, cappuchino. As we finished, Ilaria engaged with us, telling us a bit of her story – born and raised in the house we were in, locally schooled and then trained as a physicist, employed for several years in Ireland, hence her excellent English. An unusual woman, much headier than most we have met, and so we asked questions we had been itching to ask. The winner was her response to the question, "Do you think there's been a change in your climate in your lifetime?"

Where farmer Davide said, emphatically, "No! It is just the same, ups and downs, colds and hots, wets and drys," Ilaria's answer was a physicist's: "Yes, of course. Our weather patterns have completely changed in my lifetime. Of course it has always been hot here in the summer, but where our hot spells used to come from the Atlantic, passing over Spain and France, now they come from Africa. We see the patterns change on the television. It is a dryer heat, and wilts the trees and dries the water courses."

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