Thursday, December 10, 2015

to Parma

I enter the dining room for breakfast. I'm the only guest this morning and so the table is set (by Luciana -- you can tell!) just for me.


It feels sumptuous, but I eat sparingly. It's too easy to linger, to listen to Luciana's stories (ask about the one where Claudio drives her to Verona at full speed!), to load the plate again and again with her home made bread, the cheeses, with the local almond cake, and before you know it it's lunchtime and you've missed your train. And so I force myself to get up, to pass on most of the food, to continue with the day.

The train station is just minutes from the Palazzo Arrivabene b&b and so I have time for a cloudy and misty morning walk through Montava's beautiful squares.

Because the distances are small, the blocks are starting to feel very familiar. Our street has the toughest cobbled stones to navigate.


The next street has the modest line of shops and it has several independent bakeries, even as to my eye they seem to be selling goods that look nearly identical -- the almond crumble, the panettoni...


Then I come to the square with the clock tower. If I were to walk two more blocks I'd be at the square with the Palazzo Ducale. No, no. Let me not go that far. Besides, at the foot of the clock tower, there is a bustling market today -- the type where it's more about cheap goods than food. Well, and flowers. Always there will be flowers.


It's really crowded now. A single armed police woman walks back and forth. I suppose she is part of Europe's escalated watch over crowded spaces.


But here, in Mantova, Paris and Brussels and even Milano and Roma seem far away. The imagination cannot conceive of those cities' dangers. We compartmentalize, based not on a reality out there, but based on what we want to believe. And perhaps that's okay. Anything to get through the day with a smile, no?

Did I really just arrive three days ago?

Back at the Arrivabene, I say my goodbyes. Luciana tells me -- we'll see you next year I hope. If travel decisions were based only on the graciousness of hosts, I wouldn't hesitate in saying "certo!"

Claudio walks me part way to the station and then I continue on my own. With my camera to keep me company. Photographing what is most visible to me now: the amicable conversations between people who take pleasure in that which is shared.


Alright. Let me not miss my train. Or rather trains. Remember, Mantova isn't easy to get in and out of. I must first travel to Piadena, wait there for 48 minutes, then catch the train to Parma. Nearly two hours of travel, even though Parma is only 65 kilometers southwest of here.

(The trip turns out to be actually easy. Piadena has a bar right by the station and I sit in the company of some dozen men -- they're all drinking fizzy white wine and talking in small groups as only older Italian men can talk. I sip my macchiato and pretend I'm not paying attention to any of it. In my head I calculate how many glasses of wine a grown man can consume if he starts in on it before 11 a.m.)




And now I'm in Parma. You should already be thinking cheese and ham thoughts when I take on this city here, on Ocean. Let's put some more context into your associations.

First of all, you should know that Parma, at 180,000 inhabitants,  is more than three times the size of Mantova. It's a university city and recent discoveries (say the Parmigiani) indicate that the Parma University is actually slightly older than Bologna's university (whose birth dates to the 11th century, which just boggles the mind), making Parma U. effectively the oldest university in the world.

Now for the impressions. I'll start with one offered by Caludio (my Mantova host). He's no small town boy - he has a sister in Rome, a daughter in Milan and another in Montreal. But when I told him that I was going to Parma next, he said -- it is much more bourgeois than Mantova (I believe he used a different word, but this is what he meant).

I see his point. Part of it is the size factor, but mostly it is that Parma is, well, more bourgeois.

It's face is impressive! You know how when you first get off the train, a city will give you a feeling of unease, or excitement, or well being? Well, Parma does the latter. It is one visual delight!


My three nights will be at Al Battistero d'Oro - a three room b&b located in an 18th century townhouse, owned and managed by the absolutely gorgeous and gregarious Patrizia. Here's my room, quietly looking out on the courtyard.


Patrizia is the kind of person you want for a friend back home. She is compassionate and kind, full of clever ideas, with the good instincts you learn to admire. And she smiles reflexively and frequently.  You don't need to always love your hosts, but when room and owner align to form one lovely package, you feel enormously lucky. So I'm feeling enormously lucky right now.

Let's do some modest amount of sight seeing. I have a few hours before the sun sets (well I may ask -- what sun? It was supposed to be sunny in Parma today, but then, this mist rolled in...).

Two minutes from the b&b I come to the Piazza Duomo. Sure, there is the cathedral, but before we get to that, take a look at what I think is Parma's most spectacular sight -- the Baptistry. Begun in the 12th century, with long pauses of inactivity (when Verona's pink marble ran out), completed in 1307.


Inside -- frescoes and columns and statues -- all beautiful and all beautifully preserved. Stunning.


I may as well give you a glimpse of the Cathedral while we're on the same square, even though I actually went inside when it was already getting dark. You cannot appreciate the art of Correggio and Antelami from my photo, but hey, there is only so much that Ocean can do for you!


The historic center of the city is car free and therefore very quiet. Eerily so.


But when I enter Piazza Garibaldi (just a fragment of which you'll see below), there is a burst of activity and I feel the pulse of the city again.


What are they selling in those holiday booths?


Aged parmesan of course. And dried mushrooms. And ham.

It's interesting that Parma is regarded as, on the average, demographically older than most of Italy. It seems so young to me! Is it that the university has sprinkled its student population throughout, so that suddenly I see many men and women my daughters' age or even younger?

I'm hungry for lunch. It's not hard to find an interesting spot -- I pick a cafe-bakery called Malva. As in all such places, sandwiches are displayed on a tray and I see that there will be a lot of cheese and prosciutto in my diet for the next three days!

I sit down and order a focaccia with the ham, the cheese and arugula. It's absolutely delicious! (Accompanied by frizzante water and a warm tea. It really is cold outside -- surely not more than 40F, with 100% humidity.)


As I sit in the crowded with young people dining room and think about my good fortunes, I can't help but notice a very lively table of about fifteen people, young and old. A woman (herself probably around thirty) is clearly the focus of a celebration. I wonder why she is wearing a wreath of bay leaves. And then I hear it -- their chant: dottore! dottore!

A cake comes, photos are taken. Of just her. Of her and her parents. Of her and her grandma. Of her and her boyfriend.

And then -- and this is so out of the blue! -- she pushes back her chair and comes over to me and offers a piece of cake. I ask her if she is a doctor. She says yes, of engineering. And she returns to her group.

I don't know what prompted the move. I'd been so engrossed in my note taking and focaccia munching that I hardly saw her coming. Was it that I was sitting alone? Was it that somewhere in the course of the half hour we exchanged smiles?

(The young woman proudly welcomes my photo and stands up for it. The grandma looks stern, but her face softens quickly when she looks at her granddaughter, the dottore.)


Slowly, I walk back at the b&b. Passing pastel blocks and holiday lights.


And small shops, some selling lovely holiday sweater dresses for little ones...


Ah yes.. there's always the tug at grandmother in me. I see a granddaughter holding tightly to the hand of the grandma -- tug!


I let Patrizia choose my restaurants for the days I'm here. She has lived here all her life -- she knows what's what. ("People in Italy move only 100 meters from where they were born." She exaggerates, of course, but for many, this is not a great exaggeration.)

I ask her, too, about a place to grab an aperitivo. Somewhere not too far from where I'm to eat.
Can I suggest a terrible place? But of course. It really is terrible, but it's the place I go to and it is in many ways perfect.

And so in the late late evening, I am sipping a glass of white wine at Osteria Rangon and just a tiny bit missing the secret wine and bitters combination at the Caravatti.


I eat at the Gatta Matta -- just around the corner from my b&b. I love many things about the place, not the least of which is the fact that it has things on the short menu that I would never make: gray rabbit with almond milk and spices, boar with chocolate, raisins and polenta, deer fillet with pear sauce. I choose none of those, but it's grand to give them a moment's consideration.

In the end I eat the far less exciting cauliflower soup with cabbage gnocchi and pasta with pumpkin, sausage and squid.

Sometimes excitement has to take a back seat to the warm and the familiar.