SALSOMAGGIORE, Italy — Giuseppe Verdi, opera stars and other luminaries of the music world have come to this pretty little northern Italian spa town in the foothills of the Appenines for 150 years to take the cure, and the melody lingers on.
While you may hear snippets of "Rigoletto" or "Nebucco" from the orchestra playing in the equally pretty main piazza, their usual fare runs closer to "Volare" and "Summertime." Perhaps they know that here in Emilia Romagna, particularly near Verdi's birthplace just up the road, you don't tamper with the master's music.
Gauls discovered the value of local waters, albeit for the strong iodine content that made it perfect for extracting valuable kitchen salt. But after centuries of packing the stuff around Europe, a local doctor in 1839 decreed that the town's waters and mud baths would either cure just about anything that ails you or prevent it. And the influx began.
But even without taking the waters and mud baths, Salsomaggiore is a delightful town to visit. Some hotels and their amenities go well beyond lavish, shops and boutiques are crammed with daydreams spun by Europe's finest designers, and tables set with the food of Emilia Romagna are hands down Italy's best.
Here to there: Fly Alitalia or TWA to Milan. From there take a train to Fidenza, another smaller one the five miles on to Salsomaggiore. Or drive the Autostrada del Sole from Milan in about 90 minutes.
How long/how much? Plan two weeks for the full spa cure, a few days just to relax, have a couple of beauty treatments and see some of the fetching villages nearby. Lodging and dining costs are moderate to expensive, depending upon your choice of bed and table.
A few fast facts: Italy's lira was recently valued at .00077, about 1,298 to the dollar. Late spring through late fall is beautiful here, the winters of northern Italy often bone chilling. Walk the town, or take a bright yellow bus to Parma and other nearby places.
Getting settled in: Hotel Valenti ($101 to $120 full-pension double, half that for room alone) is a large and attractive spa hotel in its own park-like setting. Marble floors and brocade chairs in spacious public rooms, spa treatments within hotel, excellent dining room with many regional specialties. This one is a favorite of Americans.
Cristallo ($86 to $103 full-pension double, about half that for room), right at town center, has a very contemporary look inside and out. No spa facilities but, as with many hotels, they're nearby in one of the town's two excellent spa centers. Flowers everywhere, airy feeling in lobby and superb dining room, another characteristic of many spa hotels.
Regional food and drink: The region is Emilia Romagna, which makes just about anything on the table special. The renowned prosciutto and cheese of nearby Parma, just-gathered porcini mushrooms, mortadella and other sausages and salami are all at their best here.
Local dishes include \o7 malfatti, \f7 pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs, then covered with melted butter and grated Parmesan cheese; \o7 torta frita, \f7 pasta fried with sausage or salami; a local \o7 cappelletti \f7 of cap-shaped pasta stuffed with bread crumbs and a butter-Parmesan sauce.
While Lambrusco is much heralded hereabouts, it has never been our cup of grape. Better you try the white Trebbiano, which also has a slight fizz but is considerably less cloying than the former red. \o7 Barboncini all' arancia, \f7 delicious almond-flavored cookies made locally, are in every shop window.
Moderate-cost dining: Many visitors take at least half-pension in their hotels, but we've dug out a few dine-only places for you. Al Tartufo (on a hill above town) is indeed special for its treatment of local dishes, including the marvelous white truffle. Risotto with porcini about $8, a bit more with truffles; young wild boar cacciatora; duck, veal and chicken all given superb treatment. The wine selection here is outstanding, views over town the same, owner Rino Azzali most exuberant and helpful.
Two attractive spots for pizzas and calzones, both at center of promenade shopping area, are Il Gioello and La Porchetta. Either place will turn out a pizza the size of Garibaldi's hat, colorful as the flag, both cafes with sidewalk tables.
Going first-class: Grand Hotel Milano ($124 to $139 B&B double) is Salsomaggiore's luxurious best, regal, dignified and most typical of a traditional spa hotel in the grand manner. Huge rooms with balconies, baths big enough to hold their own massage tables, pool and lovely grounds. Milano has spa facilities and consulting doctor. The dining room does fantastic things with Parmesan pastas and veal dishes.
On your own: During summer a series of Verdi operas and operettas are presented al fresco in front of the marble, art nouveau facade of the town's world-renowned spa building. Other cultural demands here are slight.
But the surrounding area is beautiful and rich beyond belief with things to see and do. Start with Parma (20 miles) and its magnificent 11th-Century cathedral with frescoes by Correggio as vibrant as any Breughel. Sharing the same piazza is a Verona-marble baptistery that Dante considered the most beautiful in Italy. You can spend a full day in Parma and just scratch the surface.
Other nearby towns include Fidenza with a gorgeous Romanesque cathedral of the 12th Century; Soragna and its handsome castle of the same period; Busseto having enough sights associated with Verdi's life to keep any admirer of his music happy, including the nearby village of Roncole where he was born in 1813.
For more information: Call the Italian Government Travel Office at (415) 392-6206, or write (360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108) for a brochure on Salsomaggiore and its surroundings.