Piacenza was our rest stop en route from Milan airport to Parma. The town’s description didn’t look very promising but we needed a break driving after a long flight. It actually turned out to have two lovely squares anchored by impressive duomos. It also offered delectable gelato at mere 1.50 a cup and cappuccino at 1.40 (small town prices). Yet that alone doesn’t warrant making Piacenza your travel destination. Make it Castell’Arquato. Castell’Aquato is a hill town rivaling those in Tuscany. There is a reason why it is considered to be one of the most beautiful towns in Italy. It’s out of a fairy tale: perched on the top of a hill, overlooking a river, comprising a castle, a basilica, crooked narrow streets, stone houses, and views opening at each turn. Shockingly, it’s a real living town – most houses are not hotels and restaurants but actual homes!
In Parma, we are staying in the old town, in b@b Al Battistero d’Oro located in an 18th century building, where from the street, we walked through massive wooden doors into a courtyard, and then through a cast iron gate enter into an inner courtyard equipped with a well, and then use a skeleton key to unlock the door to our room. It’s a cute little room for only 110 euro a night, and included in the price is breakfast of freshly squeezed blood orange juice, coffee, homemade yogurt, fruit, fresh breads, and jams delivered to our room.
Parma itself is only ok. The old town is nice but far from a wow. It’s a bit somber, reserved, not much charm. The duomo is spectacular on the inside – decorated to the gils. The opera house here, Teatro Regio, is second only to La Scala. Alas, no performances are held here during our stay. We tok a tour of the theater – nice, but not on par with the most beautiful opera houses I’ve seen. But the other opera house of Parma, the Farnese Theater, is downright magnificent. It’s part of the Palazzo Pilotta museum complex. Alas, it is no longer an active theater. The house is quite large, in the typical horseshoe shape, but carved out of wood in its entirety. It was built in the early 1600’s and the shape it’s in is remarkable. Some wood retains very well preserved remnants of paintings it was once decorated with, entire frescos in some places. There is a photo of the theater after an ally bombing of 19444 – so sad looking! Actually, I’m surprised it didn’t burn to a crisp – being made entirely of wood!
This was the highlight of Parma. That, and lunch of a delicate pasta roll stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with white sauce. Sounds boring? Far from it! The quality of produce here is superior to anything you can find in the States – it’s simply heavenly!
From Parma, we went to Busseto – the town that gave he world one of its greatest composers – Giuseppe Verdi. Well, technically, it was Roncole, a tiny village nearby where the maestro was born into a family of a simple grocer. But it was in Busseto he was first discovered at the age of 10 by a wealthy music lover Antonio Barezzi, who became his benefactor and later father-in-law. Verdi actually lived in this man’s house after he married Barezzi’s daughter. The house is now a museum – not worth a visit overall, but for a single pianoforte, once upon a time played by the Composer himself! The town, naturally, is milking the name of Verdi for all it’s worth. There is Verdi Square, Verdi Museum, a pint-size Verdi Theater, where the composer never set foot. Nonetheless, it was built in his honor and as a venue to perform his operas, although I don’t know how they managed to staged any operas in a house so small that it barely sits under 300 spectators. The town also boasts a darling watering hole founded in the mid 1800’s, which Verdi actually frequented (and there is a photo in the window to prove).
So we paid homage to all the sacred places, and then headed to the nearby outlet mall, Fidenza Village. As most European outlet malls go, this one also stinks. The prices are cut only 25-30% and the selection is limited. Perhaps, they don’t allow cutting prices too much here in Europe, otherwise, how can you explain that the more plentifully represented Italian designers at Woodbury Commons sell their wares at at least 50% off and with a much better selection at that?