Thursday, January 15, 2009

Parma... more than just ham

Parma is renowned for its food, particularly ham and cheese, and is, of course, about an hour outside Milan. The train left the Milan Central and plunged into an impenetrable fog so I can’t describe the countryside or even be sure there was any.

Parma is quite a pretty place but you wouldn’t know it from the view from the station. Do not despair – scamper between the buses and their attendant cloud of pollution, and head straight on. On your right you will see a totally baffling sculpture of some Italian guy overawing the natives of somewhere by his sheer insouciance, dashing posture and bristling moustache. Ignore it and carry on.
The town was in the throes of a Correggio frenzy with a, it goes without saying, ‘retrospective’ exhibition of his work in the gallery and viewings of his frescoes in the basilica and duomo. Correggio is a favoured son of Parma and they let you know it. Every spare surface and almost all the lamp posts bore huge banners or posters reminding you that there was an exhibition on.

Being us we ignored all this and went to the archaeological museum. We were the only visitors and as we ambled about taking photographs we were followed about by attendants who would suddenly scurry ahead and turn on the lights. Otherwise they just watched us to ensure we didn’t pocket any roman columns, basalt sarcophagi etc.

After the archaeological museum we decided to visit the natural history museum. It was, of course, closed for the season although nobody had thought to put up any signage to suggest this was the case. The museum was housed in the local university which is a slightly run-down building of epic proportions. In keeping with their habit of respecting intellectuals, the locals had lined one hallway with busts of, I assume, previous deans – one of whom looked extremely surprised on receiving the news of his death.

Disappointed we resorted to Plan B – look at churches. We wandered about struggling with locked doors like two remarkably unpopular penitents. Puzzled and thinking “They can’t have closed the churches for Christmas!” we realized it was lunch-time, which in Parma seems to go from eleven until three. We looked about for somewhere to eat and found a little place that was developing a ‘nouvelle traditione’ – go figure.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I am not a ‘foodie’-- I have only recently acquired the habit of eating three meals a day. So I won’t pretend to be a food writer and you’ll have to settle for this. The place was called ‘Madinitalia’; it was decorated in a lush but not quite tacky fashion; the food was excellent. The meal started with a plate of the local ham products which were so good that I now believe that when pigs die they go to Heaven and return to Earth as Parma ham.

I had lamb cutlets and Shiralee ate another rabbit (see: Bergamo) for mains. We enjoyed them so much we even decided to have dessert. Dessert was a chocolate and mint concoction that could kill at twenty paces. The chef said it was based on the ‘After Eight’ dinner mint – which is a bit like saying the Eiffel Tower is based on a Meccano set.

I think the restaurant was fairly new and the chef was taking a bit of a risk, but the food was great so who cares? The chef was very nice and almost pathetically grateful for our custom and glowing praise for his food. So much so that he insisted we have some Grappa and Sicilian biscuit things. Both of which were much better than we expected. I know ‘nice Grappa’ is an oxymoron but it is true.

After lunch we returned to our normal routine of looking at architecture and being mortified at the behavior of the ‘local’ tourists. In one church while people were praying, confessing and using the building for its intended purpose; others were stomping about, talking loudly into mobile phones, using the flashes on their cameras and walking their dogs. I don’t have much time for religion, but good manners cost nothing.
Having had our fill of ceilings covered with writhing frescoes and marble statues of contortionist saints we decided to head back to the station. Unfortunately, an earthquake, of which we were blissfully unaware, had delayed all trains and the station was filled with a crowd doing what crowds do – milling about and being annoying. We chose to go for an espresso and Grappa (always a brilliant fall back plan) and then stroll the back streets.
The backstreets of Parma look like a set designer’s idea of an Italian town - all Venetian reds and rich ochres offset by contrasting widow shutters. The sun had set and the fog, which had only thinned slightly during the day, snuggled back down for the night. As the streetlights came on and the fog flattened the perspective the sense of artificiality was heightened. The effect was astounding. I half expected Gene Kelly to come bursting out of a side street (in a slightly too tight outfit) and, accompanied by a bunch of androgynous street apaches, go dancing down the road singing a bowlderised song about French prostitutes. I was most disappointed this did not occur.

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