Of course, if you’re having a jaunt through one of Italy’s most historic regions, eating and sleeping in medieval castles, you expect the odd ghost story or two. However, being told not to stand in the centre of the room, because that’s the trapdoor where prisoners were thrown to their deaths down the tower, was probably not on my list of expectations. Neither was the cage hanging high on the outside of a cathedral tower, where local villains were literally hung out to dry. But the bizarre award of the week has to go to the statue of the Virgin Mary, pierced by rows of daggers, and standing across the room from a glass cabinet where assorted body parts from a long dead saint were displayed. Before we really had time to take it in, Attila the Tour Guide had flicked the switch, plunging us into an eerie darkness, and ushered us on through the gloom to another gallery, where lay a collection of medieval torture implements. It was the last evening of a fascinating foray into the heartland of northern Italy, and our private tour of the Rivalta Castle was both intriguing and bizarre. But don’t let the scary stuff put you off. Modern day Italians are far more welcoming than their aristocratic predecessors. Just a axe throw from the castle gates were our food and accommodation for the night. The Residenza Torre
di San Martino nestles in a cobbled courtyard that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval movie. The individually styled bedrooms seem to reach out and hug you as you close the heavy oak door, and the adjacent restaurant was equally warm and enticing. Of course, the meal was unbelievably good, and lubricated by some choice local wine. I say ‘of course’, because this is a region where food is king. In fact we’d been seduced by so much idyllic cuisine, I was amazed the Italian women all looked to have such perfect figures. The previous evening was a shining example, when we joined a hundred or so other revellers in the majestic Castello Fontanellato. It’s an opportunity for the locals to get dressed up, gather in the courtyard under the illuminated towers, and sip a glass or three of Frizzante. We were then invited for a tour of the upstairs galleries, which are home to art and antiques covering four hundred years of the castles’ history. No sooner had that finished, and with the air full of anticipation, we took our places for the main event. The Ricordanze di Sapori (‘Remembering Old Flavours’) is a popular culinary festival, and tonight we were to be spoiled by not one, but three Michelin starred chefs. The local community feel was further enhanced by the use of some thirty school children as waiters and kitchen hands. The food was absolutely amazing, and duly accompanied by specially selected local wines for
each course. The ambience and majesty of the castle setting made it a thoroughly delightful evening. If, by now, you’re thinking that you need to spend your children’s inheritance to have a good time in this area (or even to eat well), well think again. Just around the corner from Piacenza’s main square, is the Michelin starred Antica Osteria del Teatro, where the three course set lunch with wine is sure to impress any self-respecting foodie. And will only set you back €30. Chef Filippo Chiappini Dattilo is not one to shout about his success, but this quaint and comfy little restaurant is one that those in the know regularly frequent. Talk nicely to Filippo, and he may even take you below stairs to visit his Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production in Baganzolino
Founded 8 in Roman times, Parma has always remained important both strategically and politically. During the renaissance period the wealthy ruling Duchy of the Farnese family greatly improved the centre, with impressive buildings and grand squares. The Farnese Theatre still retains the grandeur of a bygone era, and is a major attraction during the Verdi Festival.
Situated on the Via Emilia, it may not be as large as Parma, but its history is every bit as long and impressive. It was founded around 175BC as a Roman settlement, and its strategic position has maintained its importance and wealth over the centuries.
With its maze of historic streets, and stylish architecture, Piacenza is the classic gateway to entice you into the Emilia Romagna region.
In the remains of the Palazzo Pilotta (an immense square palace, now sadly partially destroyed by fire) masterpieces by Da Vinci, El Greco, and Correggio are amongst the exhibits of the National Gallery of Parma. Parma is a bright, welcoming city, and the wide streets of orange and yellow buildings give it a warm feel even on the cloudiest of days. In a corner of the Piazza Garibaldi is the magnificent Romanesque Cathedral, built with pink marble from Verona. The interior is a masterpiece of Gothic columns & classical paintings. Somewhat hidden until you are close, is Correggio’s stunning painted dome It’s an amazing piece of art, as well as a lesson in optical illusion, creating extra layers and ledges that are not actually there. Take a few Euros with you, as it is only illuminated by feeding the meter! Elsewhere, there are plenty of chances to sample authentic local produce, including the Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses, Parma Ham, Culatello di Zibello, Porcini Mushrooms, and the area’s balsamic vinegars.
Occupying one whole side of a paved square is the Valli Theatre, which has been the focal point of the city’s cultural life for a century and a half. Facing it is a busy street lined with ornate, pastel coloured buildings, which hail from the days of Reggio Emilia’s glorious past. Lines of quality shops, & refined eating establishments lead you to an older piazza, with a tall bell tower at one end. In the centre is the Cathedral, which, like many in the region, was never properly finished. That doesn’t detract from its beauty however, as certainly on the inside it is a cornucopia of glorious frescos, carvings, and art works. At the far end of the piazza is a building that is now the Town Hall. It was here, in 1797, that the Italian tricolour flag was created, thus cementing the city’s place in its nation’s history. It’s worth a visit, not just to see the original flag, but also to muse over the design of the council chamber. The architect, it seems, had only designed theatres before this commission... and it’s not hard to see he did little to change his style!
The highlight for many is undoubtedly the vast Palazzo Farnese, whose sprawling, lavish interior is home to an extensive collection of treasures and artefacts. In typically Italian style, its grandeur is not obvious from the outside, in the same way as Versailles or Neuschwanstein. That’s often the case in this country, where what’s on the inside counts for much more. The collection would take an article of its own to cover, but the highlights include Botticelli’s 15th Century circular masterpiece ‘Madonna adoring the Child with Little St John’, which is in an equally awe inspiring original frame, carved and gold plated by Benedetto da Maiano. In the underground galleries lays an Etruscan mystery, in the shape of a sheep’s liver. The rare bronze model dates back over 2000 years, and is covered with inscriptions relating to the religious beliefs of the day. The grand piazzas of the old city centre give a spacious, elegant feel. The largest, Piazza Cavalli, is a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike. It is dominated along one side by the magnificent gothic styled ‘Gotico’, which has become the symbol of the city. The Palazzo del Comune, to give it the correct title, is decorated with porticos and merlons that indicate an undoubted influence from the neighbours in Lombardy.
real passion â€“ the immaculate and well stocked wine cellar. Alongside the impressive range for the restaurant, is his own eclectic collection. He is justifiably proud of the rarer examples, but when he mentioned the values, we all became far more cautious as we walked around! The whole region has an air of quality about it. Unlike my hometown, where the buskers seem to limit their repertoire to Oasis, Elvis, and The Beatles, in the art cities along the Via Emilia youâ€™re much more likely to encounter Verdi being performed on a street corner. To be fair, the great composer did come from the area, and there is an annual Verdi Festival in Parma. The coming year is a milestone, as 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Earlier in the year is the Reggio Parma Festival, which is steadily expanding as itâ€™s popularity increases. The city
literally springs to life with classical music, opera, dance, theatre, films, and most recently jazz. However, no visit to Parma and its surroundings would be complete without paying homage to two of its most famous exports; Parma ham, and Parmesan cheese (or Parmigiano Reggiano to be absolutely correct. For the latter, head a few miles out of the city to Baganzolino, and the Consorzio Produttori Latte. This communal dairy serves the best farms in the region, and will arrange tours to show exactly how the famous
Castello di Agazzano
cheeses are produced. The flimsy white hats and overshoes that you need to wear may not be the height of Milan fashion, but the jibes from your fellow travellers are a small price to pay for the experience. As you watch from the gallery, it takes three men to lift the new cheeses in the giant nets. They are forced into wooden moulds, which then float on water beds in another room. Finally you take your life in your hands, as you walk amid towers of maturing cheeses, some of them many years old, and learn how those ruthless cheese-masters will reject any poorly performing examples without mercy. There are also ample places to witness the production of Parma ham. One of the best is undoubtedly at another castle, this time in the flat lowlands of the Po valley. The Antica Corte Pallavicina once stood on the banks of the great river, until the river decided it preferred a different course. Nowadays, just a small tributary flows past, and the castle is now the home of yet another Michelin stared chef – Massimo Spigaroli. As you approach, there are hints as to the owner’s passion, since every spare bit of land seems to be planted with (or grazed by) something that can be eaten. Once inside, you carefully thread your way down the ancient stone steps to the castles dungeon, at which point the unmistakable aroma of ageing culatelli races up to confront you like a medieval guardsman.
How to Cheat at Wine Tasting... A short drive into the foothills of the Apennines, south of Piacenza, lays the village of Agazzano. The Scotti family, who are somewhat famous in these parts, built an imposing, turreted castle here way back in the 13th Century, and they are still here. Nowadays, the original quadrangle of the fortifications plays host to weddings and events, for those who like to do things in style. The later residential part of the complex now has a more subtle way of waylaying its visitors, as deep in the dungeons it now houses an exclusive winery. The limited production means the wine can only be purchased from the castle, or a few select outlets in the region. But they are worth seeking out. Wine tastings can be arranged for small groups, and they will pour from de-labelled bottles of Milione Rosso, Ca’ del Barigello, and Rocca Barbera, to see if you can tell which is which. Let me give you a hint... look at the ‘MR’, ‘CB’, and ‘RB’ that are helpfully marked on the bottom of the bottles!
Negotiate the low doorways, skirt around a dimly lit passageway, and you are in a dark mysterious world,
with objects gently brushing you on the shoulder as you manoeuvre around. It takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust, and several more for your sense of smell to catch up, and then you realise that you are surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of hanging hams. To the uninitiated they seemed to be randomly strung from every available inch of ceiling and wall space. I was advised, however, that there is a very precise system, and that the markings on each one help determine how far they are placed from the drying air which creeps into the tiny window. Unbelievably, there are over 6000 in these vaults, and with values nudging the â‚Ź200 mark, you can see why they slice it very thinly. As you exit, there is a short, but informative film, before you get to try or buy for yourself. The Antica Corte Pallavicina also has a small number of exclusive rooms in which you can stay. Personally, I loved them, although I would suggest taking a look; as features such as a bath in the middle of the room may not be to everyoneâ€™s taste. They ooze character, though, and in the wider setting of the castle you can almost feel yourself letting your long-suppressed eccentric side loose on the world... albeit temporarily.
USEFUL CONTACTS Tourist Information: Residenza Torre San Martino:
Antica Corte Pallavicina: www.anticacortepallavicinarelais.it Matilda di Canossa Resort: www.matildedicanossaresort.com Palazzo Farnese: Castello di Agazzano:
Published on Feb 28, 2013
Awarded the prize for the Best Online Article of 2012, at the Italian State Tourist Board Travel Writer Awards