There’s more to Parma than ham and cheese

The city of Parma, without the ham and the cheese, is more than just eggs. That said, it takes a little getting used to as from first glance, it’s not the most inviting Italian city that I’ve been to. But that said, it’s a grower, and there are some serious sights to be seen.

IMG_0255 (800x600)Top of my list is the Teatro Farnese – billed as the prototype of the modern playhouse. Work started on this in the early seventeenth century and it was apparently built in just one year, although it wasn’t inaugurated for ten – something to do with changing schedules of visiting dignitaries. The stage is massive. The seats are stadium-style, and the floor space can actually be flooded for special effects. But what’s most enthralling about it is that it’s entirely made of wood. Wood everywhere. Carved, ornate wood that looks other-worldly when the sun hits it. Even the bits that look like marble are wood. I know it was purely my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the air stirring with faint rumblings of the masses as they waited for the curtains to rise.

parma 2Next up would have to be the D’uomo – the cathedral – with its magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady painted by Correggio in the sixteenth century. And, quite surprisingly, even given how little I know about art, this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece isn’t listed among his most famous works in any of the bios I’ve read of him. And if this doesn’t rate, then the rest of his stuff must be out of this world altogether. Quite cleverly, portraits of church elders were used as the faces of prophets – no better way to a man’s wallet than through his vanity.

sun-on-christ-smallIMG_0303 (600x800)Third up would be the Baptistry. This is somewhat of an astronomical marvel. On the feast day of St John the Baptist, the sun (if there is any) hits the baptismal font in some way reminiscent of what goes on at Newgrange and other ancient sites. On various dates of the year, the sun hits certain figures  on the fresco-covered walls. Beginning on 25 March and until about 10 April, what sun there is strikes a painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All quite astonishing and once again has me asking – how, back then (it was completed in 1220) could they do so much with so little and today, with all our progressive technology, we slap up buildings that don’t stand the test of time. Mad.

And it’s not all happening inside, either. The carvings on the outside walls tell stories and are well worth taking the time to read.

IMG_0309 (800x600)IMG_0285 (800x600)IMG_0243 (800x600)It wouldn’t be this part of the world if it didn’t lay claim to a famous composer. Verdi grew up about 20 miles from the city of Parma and has been officially adopted as one of its own. There’s a massive monument to him that’s IMG_0241 (600x800)worth a look-see but bear in mind that it’s only part of the original – the rest having been ‘sacrificed to expansionism’ (?) after the War. It’s down by the rather impressive Piazza Pilotta, which is living testament to the damage done by war. What isn’t there says as  much again as what is.

I can’t quite decide why it took me a while to warm to the city. But I did. And I’d go back. It’s very walkable and has lots of surprises. Home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, it has a culture that has been earned. Perhaps it’s more a university town than a tourist mecca and perhaps it was the absence of large swathes of tourists that made it seem a little ordinary.

IMG_0236 (800x598)It was given by Pope Paul III as a gift to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese back in the day when cities were given as presents. Parts of it still have the ability to transport you back in time and have you stepping aside for imaginary horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in hooped dresses and parasols. Definitely one to put on your list, if you’re in the vicinity.




The price of popularity

Driving in Italy was quite the experience, not least because my Italian is worse than my Hungarian. Figuring out the caveats that came attached to parking places was a nightmare. Working out how to use a parking meter (I’ve never had to enter my licence plate into one before) was only possible with the help of a street vendor.

IMG_0415 (800x600)IMG_0421 (800x600)I had my heart set on seeing Cinque Terre – the five villages on the Italian Riviera that belong on a chocolate box. They’re perched at seemingly ridiculous angles on the cliffs and beg the question as to how the builders got the materials up there to build. I’d taken advice and decided to park in the first of the five, Riomaggiore, and then take the 20-minute train journey to the last one, Monterossa, stopping off at Vernazza, Corniglia, and Manarola on the way back. You can get a stop-off train ticket that’s valid for 6 hours which gives plenty of time to see what has to be seen.

So we drove to Riomaggiore, down to the village, and parked, only to be told that parking was for residents only. We hadn’t passed any public parking on the way in and so, with frustration levels mounting, we drove on to Manarola. There we found a public carpark about 15 minutes walk from the village and figured that was as close as we’d get.

It was April. And yet the trains were jammed to capacity with the ‘kids-in-college-time-to-travel’ brigade that numbered Germans, French, Americans, Australians, and Canadians in their midst. Bedlam. And having wasted time trying to find somewhere to park, the train schedule meant that we were doing the Japanese thing – hopping off, running round for half an hour and hopping back on.

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The highlight of Monterossa is definitely the huge statue of Neptune that hangs off the cliff face. It’s quite spectacular and worth the faffing around. The villages have sold their souls to tourist tat but they’ve also managed to retain some of their other-worldly charm, with tiny churches and cinemas and houses that defy gravity. The boutiques sell high-end Italian-made clothes that play to the vanities of wealthy tourists. Local artisans do a steady battle with the Made in China/Turkey souvenirs that seem to be a ‘must-have’ for today’s tourists, and the artisans appear to be winning.

IMG_0479 (800x600)Of the five villages, my favourite was Corniglia. To get to the top you need to climb 33 flights of steps – a total of 382 steps in all – and come back down them again. It’s ancient. With its narrow, cobblestone streets, quaint buildings, and tiny piazzas, it’s a gem of place borrowed from a world where time stands still.  I discovered muscles I never knew I had and was feeling them for days afterwards. But it was worth it.

IMG_0521 (800x599) Manarola is quite sweet, too. Lots of mad stairs climbing up alleyways to nowhere and windows appearing randomly, calling to mind the sanity of those who built the place. All five villages have something to offer and six hours is ample time to wander around, but if you want to really enjoy it, go off season. At the height of the melée, it’s like Grafton Street on Christmas Eve or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. And the villages weren’t built with tourists in mind.

IMG_0531 (600x800)IMG_0523 (600x800)Another option of course is to walk from village to village – lots of up hill and down dale – a natural roller coaster. But again, there were plenty of walkers, too, so if it’s a solitary sojourn you have in mind, it ain’t likely to happen. That’s the price of popularity.


Auto correction

If I’m already in a bad mood, auto-correction on my phone has been known to drive me over the edge, into a world where I even irritate myself. I know that it’s nigh on impossible to proofread my own work as my eye sees what my brain thinks I’ve written. That I can accept. But to read back over a text I’ve sent and see errors not of my making – that does my head in.

In Milan, in the D’uomo recently, my camera died. The lens stuck open and wouldn’t close. I’ve had it fixed twice and given its age and mileage, it owes me no favours. So I bought a new one. No research (not that I’d have done any anyway), no clue of what I wanted, other than it had to be smaller and have a bigger zoom. I went with Canon again – a little number that apparently would do everything my G9 did except offer me a viewfinder – something I never used anyway. And, he said, it was smarter.

I’ve come to dread that word – smart – especially when applied to technology. Smartphones my arse. They do the dumbest things. A smart camera was something  I could without. The bells and whistles do nothing but confuse me. I played around with the features and found one that distorts – I tried it out in Pisa.

IMG_0039 (800x600)The famous tower, probably the first and only thing that comes to mind when you hear mention of the city of Pisa, took 800 years to complete. It stood straight for the first five years, when it had only two floors, but as more were added it started to lean. It’s part of the Piazza Dei Miracoli (field of miracles), which is also home to the amazing D’uomo, the interior of which has a much bigger wow factor than what is arguably the best known tower in the world. Rumour has it that to demonstrate that the mass of an object has no effect on how quickly it falls  Galileo Galilei dropped two cannonballs of differing mass from the tower. This has yet to be confirmed though.

IMG_0031 (800x600)IMG_0029 (600x800) (600x800)Anyway, back to my smart camera. Too lazy to read the instructions (which were in Italian anyway), I played around with the settings and whatever I did, the display screen kept showing a straight tower. Auto-correction taken to a new level. And even what little tilt it did show was in the wrong direction. Piazza Dei Miracoli  indeed. I finally gave up but, when I uploaded the photos, what I was seeing on the screen wasn’t what came out on my laptop, begging the question as to whether my laptop is really smarter than my camera. It was enough to drive me to drink… but I was driving.

Pisa was my first taste of tourist Italy. There are a number of ticket combinations you can purchase that will take you up the 294 steps on the north side and down the 296 steps on the south side as well as into the Baptistery and the Camposanto and the museums. But I wasn’t in the mood for a climb and have long since lost the urge to do things just to say I’ve done them. Thankfully, entry to the cathedral (D’uomo) is free as I object in principle to paying to go into a Catholic Church considering I’ve been a lifelong member. [Tip: You have to get your admission ticket in advance though and enter at your allotted time so if you go, do that first before you wander around.]

IMG_0069 (800x600)IMG_0068 (800x600)IMG_0067 (800x600)The black-and-white marble is something else. Stunning. Galileo also spent time here apparently (he studied at the University of Pisa so it makes sense), as rumour has it that he developed his pendulum theory by watching an incense lamp swinging from the ceiling in one of the naves. The frescoes are spectacular and the whole place has a genuine feeling of sacredness, something missing from so many churches today. But it wasn’t the marble or the frescoes that did it for me… it was the statues of two lions at the base of the pulpit. They look as if they are in agony. I was mesmerized.

IMG_0078 (600x800)IMG_0081 (600x800)I don’t remember ever seeing a marble statue being so real. I’m not sure whether it was the combination of the open mouth and the huge eyes, but it took very little, if any, imagination to feel the angst. I rather fancied that it was guilt at killing the antelope – but did that make sense? To be guilty about what, in your very nature, you are? To apologise to the world for how you were born? To have to seek permission or validation or public sanction to feel as you do?  Now there’s a distorted picture.IMG_0026 (800x587)




Grubby, dirty, and graffitied to within an inch of its life, Naples is a city you’ll either love or hate. There are no half-measures. I knew this even before I came, such was the degree of polarity expressed by friends who’d already visited with more hating it than loving it. I had zero expectations and these expectations were more than met. I’m in the LOVE NAPLES camp – love it so much that were it not for the complete absence of any sort of order, I’d even consider moving there. And perhaps I might, in time, even get used to the chaos.

IMG_6077 (2) (800x600)IMG_6074 (2) (589x800)It’s a dirty city. The streets are littered with cigarette butts and beer tops. Bins overflow. Every wall within writing reach is covered in graffiti – not the Bansky type though;  more of the ‘I wuz ‘ere’ banality that gives the art a bad name. Not even churches are spared. In fairness, there is the occasional gem, but for the most part, it’s names and dates and monosyllabic words. Grime aside, it’s full of life with a tangible  energy that makes it vibrate. The locals, who by all accounts consider themselves Neapolitan first and Italian second,  take an inordinate pride in their city and there’s no quicker way to please than to tell them how much you love it, too.

IMG_6079 (2) (800x600)We stayed in the Old Town, Centrico Storno, on Piazza Bellini. It’s a favourite hangout of Napoli football fans and at night, people spill out of the tiny bars onto the streets in what at first seems like a loud, rambunctious melée but in actuality is just the locals having  a good time. All are drinking, few are drunk. The roofs and bonnets of parked cars double as tables and although it was chilly enough, tables inside were empty – the street is where it’s at. Now that’s something I doubt I could get used to. My standing around days are over.

Naples was once Europe’s second city, after Paris, a description it’s long since lost. While its people are beautiful, their style is more urchin cool than catwalk. They are a law unto themselves and patterns of behaviour, if there are any, are not easily discernible. Queues don’t exist. Social propriety, or the absence thereof, borders on an appearance of rudeness. There is no holding back with opinions [shop assistant to me: your pronunciation is soooooooooo bad].  And what they want takes priority [Waiter to me: Just order a pizza. We are busy]. In some places you pay immediately; in others you pay whenever the humour takes the waiter, regardless of whether or not you’re finished; and in more still, you might be waiting all night before you can find someone to give your money to. They like blanket pricing and a little consistency – all drinks, be they alcoholic or not, are €2.50 or €5.

IMG_6108 (2) (600x800)With coffees and drinks paired with nuts, crisps, pastries, bruschetta, and the odd ham and cheese sambo, you could quite happily go about your day without ever having a proper meal. But when you do – it has to be pizza. The home of the Margarita, Naples is famous for it pizza – that is something everyone I spoke to recommended to do. Eat pizza. And the toppings are generous and exotic. But the opening hours are hit and miss. No patterns. So take it when you can get it. IMG_6105 (2) (600x800)IMG_6069 (600x800)It’s narrow medieval streets are strung with laundry, that had one either the time or the inclination to ‘read’ would speak volumes as to who lived inside. Given the small cars and vespas that drive at breakneck speed through the veins of the city, it’s a wonder that the laundry is ever clean.

There are many police, many different uniforms. Italian policing has to be as convoluted as it comes, with state, provincial and municipal police to name just three. In Naples, one particular lot fascinated. A weird mutation of Captain von Trapp and General Patton – it was hard to know whether they’d shoot or yodel.

We had three days and based on accounts from others who had been before us, we all set to desert the city and head to Sorrento or Pompeii or up the Amalfi coast. But we never  made it outside the city limits. Naples – a great city with so much to offer. Should I ever get tired of Budapest, that’s where I’d head to next.