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Ham, Cheese and More in Parma

June 23, 1991|DENYSE SISTO

PARMA, Italy — Nestled in the Po Valley, between Bologna to the south and Milan to the north, this handsome town has the enviable reputation of being one of Italy's food capitals.

But there's more to Parma than ham and cheese.

It's a city rich with art, culture and a past that reads like a fairy tale. It has beauty, pride and, yes, gorgeous food.

Through the centuries, Parma has seduced princes and artists alike. French author Stendhal wrote a famous novel set in these surroundings, "La Chartreuse de Parme," for he was under the city's spell, as were the Bourbons, composer Giuseppe Verdi and Correggio, who painted the magnificent cupola in the cathedral.

I also fell in love with Parma as I strolled through its narrow flagstone streets on a balmy spring morning. The old part of town is a maze of buildings colored in soft yellows and deep ochres. The people of Parma have a definite penchant for yellow, which was, with blue, the ensign of the House of Bourbon-Parme, which took possession of the tiny dukedom in 1749.

The Duchess Louise Elizabeth, daughter of Louis XV of France, and her husband, Don Philip, soon introduced their city-state to French culture: intellectuals, architects, artists and cooks from the court of Versailles came flocking to Parma, and, to this day, Parmesans cherish their French heritage.

The last duchess to reign in Parma was Marie Louise of Austria, Napoleon's second wife. Although a Hapsburg, Maria Luigia, as she is affectionately called, maintained the French tradition and charmed her subjects to the extent that, 150 years after her death, their descendants still speak of her with great affection. Her presence is felt everywhere and her name crops up in conversations as if she were family.

Parma is studded with beautiful museums, churches and parks. The town is divided in two by the Parma River. After crossing the Ponte Verdi on foot to the left bank, you can stroll through a huge park called the Parco Ducale that was created in 1560. This magnificent property includes two palaces--the Sanvitale Palace and the Garden Palace (Palazzo del Giardino), which was home to the Dukes of Farnese.

Facing the Parco Duacale, on the right bank, stands a massive piece of austere architecture: the Pilotta Palace. It's home to the National Gallery and the Farnese Theater on the second floor of the building. You can admire this awesome wooden structure (the stage alone is 10 feet deep), which was built in 1617 by the Duke of Parma as a wedding present to his son. It is a stunning example of the lifestyle of the rich and famous of the day.

Spectacular performances were produced here before a dazzled audience. The waters of the Parma River would flood the floor of the theater to give realism to naval battle scenes. Although badly damaged during World War II, it has been beautifully restored and is once again one of the wonders of Parma.

The National Gallery is also a must. It's home to an extensive collection of masterpieces by da Vinci, Correggio, Parmigianino and many more. There you can have a glimpse of Maria Luigia in a lovely portrait painted by Giovan Battista Borghesi. If you enjoy memorabilia, the Glauco Lombardi Museum on Via Garibaldi is dedicated entirely to the duchess and Napoleon. You can feast your eyes on their wedding gifts, jewelry, personal letters, her gowns and many paintings of her in splendid settings.

The Piazza Duomo and the Baptistery are just a short walk away from the Lombardi Museum. These are fine examples of 11th- and 12th-Century architecture. Two major artists contributed their talents to this remarkable center of religious life: Benedetto Antelami and Correggio. In the cathedral you can marvel at the famous cupola painted by the master himself, Correggio, and if you are a lover of frescoed ceilings, you will enjoy St. John the Evangelist's Church, the Camera di San Paolo, the Palazzo Marchi and the Church of the Madonna della Steccata.

The city abounds with lovely piazzas, and after the Piazza Duomo, the most famous one is Garibaldi Square. Every evening, young and old congregate here to share a sip of espresso or a glass of wine before dinner. Parmesans are urbane and sophisticated, and the people who crowd around the piazza are chic and very elegant, even the teen-agers.

Although fewer than 200,000 people live in Parma, the city is no provincial small town. Good taste pervades everywhere. The buildings that are restored have to meet with the approval of local government and museum officials, and the colors on the walls of the facades are also tested for shade and hue before being painted on. The result is a striking city where harmony and consistency prevail.

The people of Parma are intensely proud of their food. With good reason. It is in this region that real Parmesan cheese and real prosciutto ham are made.

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