Not many travellers set out on a trip to Italy with the specific intention of visiting Parma: this is a connoisseur’s destination and more often than not a favourite of gourmands, keen on sampling the authentic Parmesan cheese and other local delicacies. This is, of course, also the kind of area that you might happen to visit on business, both because its charming countryside makes for a great incentive travel destination and because the whole Emilia Romagna region is a hub of creativity and enterprise. Whereas Bologna is still the main tourist destination – with Rimini and the riviera stealing the spotlight over the summer, the region holds several smaller gems, such as Parma, that are well worth taking a day off to explore at leisure. As usual, we will offer a few tips on what to do and see when you are in town and on a budget. Here’s what to do in Parma for free.
1. Visit the Cathedral
Standing on one square in Parma, you will have three of the city’s most notable landmarks close at hand: the main Cathedral or Duomo, the San Giovanni Cathedral and the Baptistery. The entry is free to all three of them and all happen to be examples of religious architecture, but for the sake of diversity, we will only focus on the main Cathedral. As you step through the gate, nine centuries of art and history will be surrounding you. The Cathedral was built in 1074 a.D. after a pre-existing paleochristian Basilica was burned to the ground, and it has been accumulating artistic treasures ever since. The gothic steeple was a subsequent addition, dating back to the XIII century. Among the Duomo’s several remarkable features, the majestic dome with frescoes by Correggio is probably the best known and also the one that will leave you breathless and speechless, looking up at the ceiling. It shows the Assumption of Mary and it is chatacterised by a masterful use of light and perspective, bringing to live the depicted action in a unique style. It echoes the pictorial language of the Renaissance, with some of the daring traits of the baroque aesthetics. It was an incredibly innovative work for its time and widely criticised by Correggio’s contemporaries as being too unconventional, bordering on outrageous.
2. Have a stroll through the Botanic Garden
When in Parma, you will be visiting gardens a lot: the natural beauty of this region makes it simply impossible to pass through without admiring the stunning parks and villas that every town and village has to offer. The Botanic Garden is a historical institution and it is managed by the local University – incidentally, one of the most prestigious in the Country. Originally, the herbs grown in this garden were meant as a resource of the local faculty of Medicine, providing Parma’s University with its own, home-grown pharmaceutical stock. Over the years, the garden underwent several major alterations, it was moved at least twice and its production was expanded to include exotic plants and trees as a result of academic exchanges with notable seats of learning all over Europe. Many a brilliant scholar has furthered our collective knowledge of botany and chemistry based on the researched they were allowed to conduct in this garden. As you have a pleasant stroll through these three acres of hothouses and carefully manicured hedges, you will come across XVIII Century fountains and English gardens, rare and ancient trees, Italian gardens, ponds with several common and rare varieties of water-plants and hundreds of other species from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
3. Spend an afternoon in Parco Ducale (Parma’s garden)
This magnificent park is known among the locals as “the garden”, which, as far as understatements go, is a masterpiece of a definition. These 52 acres of land near the Parma creek are a carefully composed symphony of natural and architectural beauty. The original project dates back to the mid XVI Century, but the garden was expanded and redesigned several times by the noble families that owned the estate over the years. The latest major restoration was undertaken in the early 2000s and was based on the original neoclassical designs. This particular style is still evident in the garden palace and the Trianon fountain, as well as the several statues, little temples and vases that are artfully located at the cross of boulevards or in other points of interest. The Garden Palace is probably the most notable architectural feature of the park: its construction started in the late XVI century in what was intended to be a renaissance style, which was contaminated with neoclassical influences when the building was restored and expanded in the XVII and XVIII century. Nowadays, the park is equally appreciated by tourists, willing to immerse themselves in the history of the noble families that ruled Parma over the centuries, and by locals enjoying its handsome lawns and patches of woodland on a weekend outing.
4. Visit a bird sanctuary
You might not have heard of LIPU, but the Italian Society for the Protection of Birds is a very active organisation and it has managed a number of remarkable feats throughout its history, spanning over half a century. One such is the creation of Torrile (short for Riserva naturale di Torrile e Trecasali ), a bird sanctuary created in 1988 by reconverting farmland to a sanctuary for the local birdlife. The sanctuary currently measures nearly 280 acres, a considerable part of which are composed of swampland, since most bird species that thrive here need a water-rich environment. Over 300 species of wild birds have been observed in this area, but if you visit in spring you might be lucky enough to spot a rare specimen of black stork or an absolute local favourite: the black-winged stilt. These long-legged waders are easily recognised by their white and black plumage and the bright red colour of their legs. Join the crowd of birdwatchers, school-trips and nature enthusiasts and support one of the finest institutions in Italy.
5. Stand in Piazza Garibaldi, at the very heart of Parma
In Piazza Garibaldi you will be able to contemplate the history of Parma almost in its entirety. The roman origin of the city is evident in the structure of the square itself, which still partly resembles a roman forum, while the Governor’s Palace – today a prestigious modern art gallery – will offer you another example of the beautiful Italian neoclassical architecture and the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi at the centre of the square itself will connect you with the Country’s history, particularly the movement that brought it together and that is knows as Risorgimento. Layers of history have shaped this square, with each governing institution placing the symbols and embodiment of its power here, thereby acknowledging it as the rightful centre of the city. The Communal Palace is one such example of secular power establishing itself – and, since it was erected during the renaissance, it was mostly competing with religious power. Just by standing in this square, you will have the whole history of Parma at your fingertips and deciding which historic building to visit next will determine what aspects of that history you will be delving into. Choose wisely.
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