TRAVEL: Parma - the medieval Italian town



Ask what the northern Italian town of Parma ever did for the world and there are three instant answers. Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and the composer Giuseppe Verdi.

And that's not all this bite-sized medieval wonder has to serve up. Here you can carve yourself a slice of history without having to clock up the same kind of pedestrian kilometres required in Rome or Florence or push your way through the same kind of crowds, especially in the winter.

The fact is that Parma (population 180,000) is not so much a spread-out smorgasbord of sights as a compact ready meal.

At the heart of the feast is the town's colossal Palazzo del Pilotta, a sort of 16th century South Bank arts complex. Not only does this power station-sized structure house an archaeological museum, a 250-year-old library and a National Gallery (paintings by Da Vinci and Canaletto), it also contains, on its first floor, the astonishing Teatro Farnese, built in 1618.

This all-wooden playhouse is roughly the size of the Centre Court at Wimbledon, with steep banks of seats rising on three sides. Apparently, the local dukes liked nothing better than to flood the orchestra pit with water to stage mock naval battles for the public's entertainment.

In keeping with the compactness of the Palazzo itself, Parma's other attractions are all within a quarter-mile radius. Take a two-minute stroll in one direction and you're in the elegantly symmetrical Parco Ducale, a pleasure garden laid out with a mixture of Parisian style and Pythagorean geometry.

Walk the other way and you're at the imposingly pillared, multi-tiered Teatro Regio, built at the behest of Napoleon's opera-mad wife Marie Louise and which has staged, for the past 150 years, the works of Parma's most famous non-edible export, the composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Best place to get your teeth into the taste of Parma is at the Gran Caffe in the town's beautiful, old Piazza Garibaldi where they carve the ham off giant, 20lb mature pork legs.

In Parma, they like prosciutto with a past, one that's been hung up to cure for at least two years, and not so much carved from the bone as coaxed.

This is a place of pilgrimage for the food-minded. At the Salumeria Garibaldi, they sell jams made with everything from lemons to courgettes, and mustards made with everything from quince to honey and pears to pumpkins. So heavily marinaded is the whole area in food, that within a 15-mile radius, there's a Museum of Ham, a Museum of Parmesan Cheese, a Museum of Tomatoes and a Museum of Salami.

On top of all the gastronomy and music comes the final course, which is the architecture. Stand in the cobbled heart of the Piazza del Duomo and it's hard to think of a more beautiful building than the one which stands before you, the 13th century Baptistry.

An extravagant octagonal structure on the outside, it has a dazzlingly decorated interior, from its spectacular, frescoed dome down to its simple, stone sculptures of agricultural workers, carved circa 1200.

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