Archive for March, 2015


Parma’s palate

Parma has the look of prosperity.

Parma has the look of prosperity.

Parma is more or less halfway between Florence and Milano, and the drive via the A1 autostrada is a little over two hours, but the road through the mountains from Pistoia to Sasso Marchoni affords an opportunity for a more leisurely drive and scenic stop-offs.

 

The gas station just beyond Pistoia has the look of the last one for a few hours, and the mountains are no place to run out of fuel.

 

A grocery dedicate to Parma's favorites.

A grocery dedicate to Parma’s favorites.

 

Incredibly (anywhere but Italy),  the little mom-and-pop establishment has an espresso machine inside and the cashier brews up a world-class cappuccino while the attendant fills ‘er up.

 

The back road experience is well worth the hour or so that it adds to the trip.

 

Parma's signature ham and cheese in a local grocery.

Parma’s signature ham and cheese in a local grocery.

 

The road winds through the mountains past picturesque villages, and lake-and-valley views are beautiful.

 

About halfway into the mountains, the highway crosses from Tuscany back into Emilia-Romagna, a reminder that Parma, like Bologna – is another Italian town with a great culinary tradition.

 

Parma sits within Italy’s Po River Valley breadbasket and is an major agricultural center, but its two claims to culinary fame are Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto dry-cured ham

 

Disability is no obstacle for this cyclist in Parma, Italy.

Disability is no obstacle for this cyclist in Parma, Italy.

 

The production techniques for both nurture these products with all of the care of fine wine-making.

 

This hard, pale yellow cheese less often eaten by itself than it is grated and used as a condiment for pastas, salads, and pizza.

 

In the U.S., the name “parmesan” is used for any cheese inspired by Parmigiano-Reggiano.

 

Prosciutto hams curing in Parma, Italy.

Prosciutto hams curing in Parma, Italy.

 

Within the European Union, the term is origin-controlled and may only be used to refer to authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano.

 

Prosciutto is an uncooked, dry-cured ham – a prosciutto crudo – that’s usually served thinly sliced.

 

Each ham is cleaned and salted, then is gradually pressed over a period of weeks until the meat is thoroughly dry.

 

Bridge over the Torrente Parma, Italy.

Bridge over the Torrente Parma, Italy.

 

 

It is then washed to remove the salt and hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment.

 

When the ham is completely dry, it is hung to air to further cure for up to eighteen months.

 

Cold climates yield the best results, and in the days before refrigeration, prosciutto was customarily cured in winter.

 

Food specialties like these have made Parma into one of Italy’s most prosperous cities, and its well-kept streets look the part.

 

Palazzo del Governatore, Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, Parma, Italy.

Palazzo del Governatore, Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, Parma, Italy.

 

There is easily a day’s worth of sites to see here for anyone passing through at a more leisurely pace.

 

The Teatro Farnese is a four-hundred year old theater that has been restored following damage by Allied bombing during World War II.

 

The University of Parma maintains a botanical garden here, and the birthplace of favorite son Arturo Toscanini is now a museum commemorating his life and achievements.

 

The main cathedral and its signature hexagonal-shaped bapistry are also worth a visit, but in truth Italy has so many cathedrals, baptistries, basilicas, and convents that the visitor soon learns to reserve time only for the most unique or historically significant.

Astronomical clock, Palazzo del Governatore, Parma, Italy.

Astronomical clock, Palazzo del Governatore, Parma, Italy.

 

There are also several hot spring spas within half an hour’s drive.

 

This Parma stopover, though, is limited to a long lunch hour, and after a walk through the city streets of the city center, the place which suggests itself is an outdoor cafe on the Piazza Giuseppi Garibaldi in front of the Palazzo del Governatore.

 

Its astronomical clock is claimed to be the world’ largest, and dates from the late 1500’s.

 

Lunch on the piazza, Parma, Italy.

Lunch on the piazza, Parma, Italy.

 

As in Bergamo and Ferrara, a mid-day stopover in Parma has proven to be yet another pleasantly impromptu surprise.

 

Now it’s on to Milano and the last two days of 10 Days In Italy.

 

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

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View of the Pitti Palace overlooking the city of Florence, Italy.

View of the Pitti Palace overlooking the city of Florence, Italy.

Today, Florence’s Pitti Palace houses some of the city’s most important museums, but it was for most of its life a private residence.

 

It lies about a kilometer south of the Duomo across the Ponte Vecchio, adjacent to the vast Boboli Gardens, which are also part of the estate.

 

 

 

Tourists sun themselves in front of the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy

Tourists sun themselves in front of the Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy

 

 

The palace takes its name from the family for whom it was originally built by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who also designed and built Florence’s famous Duomo.

 

A century later, the property was acquired by the Medici family, and became its primary residence.

 

Pitti Palace with formal garden and skyline view, FLorence, Italy.

Pitti Palace with formal garden and skyline view, Florence, Italy.

 

The Medicis remodeled and dramatically expanded the structure, and it rivals many palaces of European royalty in its size and grandeur.  The family lived in the palace for nearly 200 years.

 

Pitt Palace with formal garden, Florence, Italy.

Pitt Palace with formal garden, Florence, Italy.

 

 

Today, its first floor is occupied by the Palatine Gallery, a collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings by artists including Raphael, Titian, and Rubens.

 

It also houses the Royal Apartments.

 

 

 

Close-up of the view of Florence from the Pitti Palace,

Close-up of the view of Florence from the Pitti Palace,

 

The Silver Museum, located on its ground floor and mezzanine, contains a staggering collection of Medici household treasures.

 

The Gallery of Modern Art occupies the top floor, and  houses a collection of Tuscan 19th and 20th century paintings.

 

The Palazzina of the Meridiana is home to the Costume Gallery, a showcase of the fashion spanning 300 years.  It is the only museum of fashion history in Italy and one of the most important in the world.

 

The Grand Boulevard entrance to the Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

The Grand Boulevard entrance to the Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

The Pitti Palace overlooks the city of Florence, and the vistas of the city are spectacular.

 

Behind the Pitti Palace are the Boboli Gardens, which are among the first and most familiar of the 16th-century formal Italian gardens.

 

Ramses Ii obelisk, Boboli Gardens. Florence, Italy.

Ramses Ii obelisk, Boboli Gardens. Florence, Italy.

 

The Medicis also initiated work on the adjacent Boboli Gardens at about the same time that they expanded the palace.  The garden’s open design was unconventional for its time.

 

Pegasus, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Pegasus, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

It is an outdoor museum of garden sculpture that includes Roman antiquities as well as 16th and 17th century works.

 

Grotto with statue of Paris and Helen of Troy, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Grotto with statue of Paris and Helen of Troy, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

 

It contains expansive promenades, sculpture galleries, fountains, and intimate grottos decorated by statuary and frescoes.

 

Here there’s a space to suit almost any mood, and the sense of tranquility transcends even the hordes of tourists who seem insignificant in its expanse.

 

Triton Fountain, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Triton Fountain, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

 

During the Medici residence, no one other than members of the immediate family were allowed access to the gardens, and no entertainment or parties were ever staged there.

 

The garden lacks a natural water source, and its elaborate irrigation system is fed by a conduit from the nearby Arno River.

 

Perseus On Horseback, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Perseus On Horseback, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

 

On the Garden’s upper slopes, the Palazzina del Cavaliere pavilion houses the Porcelain Museum.

 

The gardens have been enlarged and restructured several times, and currently occupy 111 acres (45,000 square meters).

 

Clear water fountain, Boboli Gardens, FLorence, Italy.

Clear water fountain, Boboli Gardens, FLorence, Italy.

 

Catherine de Medici was born here, and when she became queen of France commissioned work on Paris’s Luxembourg Garden, which is inspired by the design of the Boboli Gardens.

 

The Palace and Gardens are a fitting end to a tour of Florence.  Tomorrow it’s on to Parma.

 

Dwarf Bacchus statue, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Dwarf Bacchus statue, Boboli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

See my related post on Luxembourg Garden

 

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

 

Fabulous Florence

Arno river bridges, Ponte Vecchio in foreground, Florence, Italy.

Arno river bridges, Ponte Vecchio in foreground, Florence, Italy.

The much-photographed Ponte Vecchio is only one of the bridges which tie the halves of Florence together across the River Arno.

 

It looks less like a bridge than like a village hovering above the water.

 

Most of it is lined with shops, among which some seem to cling precariously to the bridge.

 

 

 

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

 

 

And it is packed with tourists.

 

In fact, the real challenge in Florence is finding any spot in which there is not an ever-present reminder that visitors often outnumber locals, or that the twentieth century is ever pressed against this bubble of history.

 

 

Musician plays for tips on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

Musician plays for tips on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy.

 

 

This city’s modest size belies its role as, arguably, the cradle of modern civilization.

 

The list of notables who were either born or worked for much of their lives here is a list of Renaissance Who’s Whos.

 

Carousel in piazza, Florence. Italy,

Carousel in piazza, Florence. Italy,

 

Writers Dante, Boccacio, and Machiavelli.

Artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Donatello.

Navigator and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci.

Architect Brunelleschi, who designed and built Florence’s signature Duomo.

Ice cream cones in Florence street window

Ice cream cones in Florence street window

 

Tourists take a break to sun themselves, Florence, Italy

Tourists take a break to sun themselves, Florence, Italy

 

 

And, of course, the Medici dynasty, whose power extended to Papal Rome and the court of Paris.  The family’s legacy survives as the private art collection now open to public viewing in the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace.

 

In Florence, works of art are not just reserved for museums and galleries.  Classically inspired sculptures fill its piazzas and crown its fountains, turning the mundane into public works of art.

 

Michelangelo's Davids abound in Florence, Italy

Michelangelo’s Davids abound in Florence, Italy

The Duomo of Florence’s signature Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore rises up out of the surrounding neighborhood as if it had been thrust up from the depths of the earth.   It is the first structure of its kind ever raised without supporting framework.

 

Its scale is so staggering that it is visible only in piecework glimpses from the surrounding streets, and in their dim light it often appears in monochrome.

 

Homework sits in a sculpting workshop, FLorence, Italy.

Homework sits in a sculpting workshop, FLorence, Italy.

Duomo and baptistry mark the signature skyline of Florence, Italy.

Duomo and baptistry mark the signature skyline of Florence, Italy.

 

It’s hard to appreciate the effect that this place must have had on the ordinary citizens who went about their daily business in its shadows.

 

 

 

 

To approach the cathedral is to fall deeper and deeper into an image that continually reveals new details unseen in full frame.

 

The scope of the elaborate, hand-chiseled details is mind-boggling.

 

 

 

Duomo and facade, Florence, Italy.

Duomo and facade, Florence, Italy.

 

It’s no surprise that it took more than 140 years of labor before first services were held, or that the final touches were not added to the facade until 500 years after construction was begun.

 

Duomo facade, Florence, Italy.

Duomo facade, Florence, Italy.

 

It’s about a ten minute walk through narrow city streets to the piazza from which the facade of the smaller Santa Croce Basilica is fully revealed.

 

 

Duomo facade, Florence, Italy.

Duomo facade, Florence, Italy.

 

Medieval buildings around the piazza add to its sense of timelessness.

 

Medieval facade across from Santa Croce Basilica, Florence, Italy.

Medieval facade across from Santa Croce Basilica, Florence, Italy.

 

The Basilica is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and the Franciscans’ appears prominently on the facade of the temple.  Santa Croce is the burial place of notables including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Gentile and Rossini.

 

Santa Croce Basilica, Florence, Italy.

Santa Croce Basilica, Florence, Italy.

 

 

It’s an interesting bit of historical trivia that the basilica’s 19th-century neo-Gothic facade was designed by Jewish architect Niccolo Matas, who worked a Star of David into the composition.

 

As a non-Catholic, he was denied permission to be buried among his peers within the church’s walls, and was instead buried under the porch.

Gold leaf workshop, museum at Santa Croce Basilica, Florience, Italy.

Gold leaf workshop, museum at Santa Croce Basilica, Florience, Italy.

 

 

 

The Basilica museum has preserved the workshop of monks who worked gold leaf for application to sculpture and to create beautifully illuminated manuscripts

 

Tomorrow is reserved for a visit to the nearby Boboli Gardens.

 

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

 

Appetite for Bologna

Narrow streets of the old city, Bologna, Italy

Narrow streets of the old city, Bologna, Italy

A self-driven tour allows for lots of flexibility and spontaneity, but it has occasional drawbacks.

 

 

One is finding a place to park in the narrow streets of historic city centers.  Another is finding your way about them.

 

 

 

 

 

Portico and promenade, Bologna, Italy.

Portico and promenade, Bologna, Italy.

 

The hotel was easy to find on a map, but challenging to find from behind the wheel of a car.

 

With each turn, the ancient, one-way streets became narrower and narrower.

 

Just when it seemed that they could no longer accommodate a car, a major intersection appeared and the hotel was soon in sight.

 

With much of the afternoon still remaining, there was easily enough daylight remaining for a walk around the city center.

 

 

 

 

University of Bologna, Italy.

University of Bologna, Italy.

 

Bologna is ancient, even by Italian standards.

 

More than 3,000 years old, it pre-dates not only the Romans, but also the Etruscans.

 

The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is among Europe oldest universities, and is Italy’s first.

 

 

 

Sidewalk caffè in Bologna, Italy.

Sidewalk caffè in Bologna, Italy.

 

The old city is expansive and well-preserved, and eminently walkable.

 

There are narrow lanes and porticoed promenades, and the Italian palette is played across the city in ochre and mustard and olive.

 

There’s a sophistication about this place.

 

Posters for art exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical performances appear everywhere, and there’s a sense that the locals are very urbane, if unpretentiously so.

 

Neighborhood grocery, Bologna, Italy

Neighborhood grocery, Bologna, Italy

 

Bologna seems the perfect stage for La Dolce Vita

 

But Bologna is a feast not just for the eyes.

 

In a nation which takes its food perhaps more seriously than any other, this city is recognized by many as Italy’s gastronomic capital.

 

 

Neighborhood grocery, Bologna, Italy.

Neighborhood grocery, Bologna, Italy.

 

 

 

The reason becomes soon apparent.

 

Arrayed on grocery stands are fruits and vegetables so flawless and colorful that they look like wax.

 

 

 

 

Pasta artisans at work, Bologna, Italy.

Pasta artisans at work, Bologna, Italy.

 

Foods that account for a single shelf in chain supermarkets are available here in so many varieties that shops are often dedicated to only one.

 

There are those which make and sell only pasta, and those that sell only aged balsamic vinegars made from a staggering array of varietal wines.

 

Pasta comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors in Bologna, Italy.

Pasta comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors in Bologna, Italy.

 

Aging hams and cheeses hang in storefront windows and from shop ceilings.

 

Shoppers are so routinely offered a taste by friendly merchants that it’s easy to spoil a dinner appetite.  Pacing is the key.

 

The afternoon walk wanders along the Via della Grada past Ristorante Posta.

 

 

Even though Bologna sits in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, the menu here is billed as Cucina Tipica Toscana, and is irresistible.

Inside a neighborhood grocery, Cologna, Italy.

Inside a neighborhood grocery, Cologna, Italy.

 

Ristorante Posta so highly regarded that reservations must be made well in advance.

 

It takes a combination of  wheedling, begging and flattery to produce a table early in the evening on the condition that it will be vacated by the time guests with reservations begin arriving.

 

The trade-off proves well worth it, and this spur-of-the-moment meal turns out to be another delightful Plan B.

 

As the restaurant begins to fill, this is an evening destined to end on the streets of the old city with a gelato and an espresso.

 

 

Mountain lake, road from Bologna to Florence, Italy.

Mountain lake, road from Bologna to Florence, Italy.

 

 

Bologna begs for a longer visit, but the ten day itinerary calls for check-in at Florence on the next night.

 

The drive there promises to be as memorable as the destination.

 

Although Bologna’s altitude is less than 300 feet above sea level, it sits at the edge of Italy’s Apennine Mountains, and the road to Florence passes through them.

 

The climb begins almost immediately, and less than twenty minutes outside the city, the drive begins winding past mountain lakes and through hillside villages that look almost Alpine.

 

 

Apennine village, road from Bologna to Florence, Italy.

Apennine village, road from Bologna to Florence, Italy.

 

Peaks in this part of the mountains reach up to 2,500 feet.

 

Tomorrow’s drive from Bologna to Florence is a bit over 100 kilometers – around 60 miles – which allows for plenty of stops along the way to admire the scenery or grab a bite and drink in one of the villages.

 

There will still be plenty of daylight left by arrival in Florence.

 

 

 

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”

 

Unexpected Ferrara

Gate through the old city wall, Ferrara, Italy

Gate through the old city wall, Ferrara, Italy

Travel is full of surprises, and the seasoned traveler is always open to a ‘Plan B’.

 

Even after the workout of wandering the streets of Padua all morning, the satisfying breakfast at the hotel in Venice still makes the case for a late lunch.

 

So it’s back to the autostrada and on toward Bologna in search of a lunchtime ‘Plan B’.

 

 

Fortunately, the city of Ferrara sits just off the autostrada between Padua and Bologna, and the impulse for an unscheduled stop proves irresistible.  Sometimes the best Plan B is the one that presents itself to you.

 

Facade of the Cathedral of Ferrara, Italy.

Facade of the Cathedral of Ferrara, Italy.

 

Another of Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, Ferrara is about half the size of Padua, and the feel of this place is decidedly more intimate and timeless.

 

This is not a town of ornate marble and Baroque as much as one of brick and Romanesque.

 

 

 

Moat around the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

It’s still surrounded by more than 6 miles/9 kilometers of ancient walls which are among the best preserved in Italy.

 

Maybe that’s because Ferrara’s medieval and Renaissance history are considerably less turbulent than those of many neighboring towns.

 

Tower of the Castello Estense,  Ferrara, Italy

Tower of the Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

 

In fact, one of the most violent episodes in Ferrara’s history occurred in 1944, when  a synthetic rubber plant located here became the target of Allied bombing.

 

The city’s silhouette is dominated by its signature Castello Estense, a once-fortified castle.  It’s still surrounded by its original moat, which makes it a sort of urban island.

Gothic arch at the entry to one of the old city's streets, Ferrara, Italy

Gothic arch at the entry to one of the old city’s streets, Ferrara, Italy

 

The best way to see Ferrara is to park at the edge of town and walk or cycle in.

 

Not surprisingly, Ferrara is known as the ‘City Of Bicycles’…  no small achievement in a country where bicycles often outnumber motor vehicles on historic streets.

 

Hotels here are even known to furnish bicycles to their guests, and bikes can also be rented in many points within  the city.

 

Whether you walk or cycle Ferrara, it’s a place where you’ll not have to vie with motor traffic.

Bicycles really do outnumber cars in the old city, Ferrara, Italy

Bicycles really do outnumber cars in the old city, Ferrara, Italy

 

Ferrara’s Corpus Domini Monastery is the tomb not only of local notables, but also of Renaissance-era princess and femme fatale Lucrezia Borgia, whose third and last husband was the Duke of Ferrara.

 

The Ferrara Synagogue and Jewish Museum is located in the former Jewish Quarter, which was maintained as a ghetto for over 300 years, until the unification of Italy in 1859.

 

No Italian piazza is complete without its clock tower.  Ferrara, Italy.

No Italian piazza is complete without its clock tower. Ferrara, Italy.

Few Italian towns this size have so many palaces, but their more modest scale only adds to the city’s intimate ambiance.

 

Visitors with more time to spend here will want to see the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which is now home to the National Picture Gallery, and the Casa Romei.  The Palazzo Schifanoia is now home to an impressive collection of Renaissance artifacts.

 

Jewish synagogue and museum, Ferra, Italy.

Jewish synagogue and museum, Ferra, Italy.

 

Those with even more time and a cycling inclination will find the surrounding countryside laced with excellent bicycle routes over unchallenging terrain.

 

Ferrara is on the main rail line from Bologna to Padua and Venice.  It’s also connected by rail to Ravenna, the last Italian capital of the Roman Empire.  The trip one-way takes little more than an hour.

Afternoon sun casts a warm glow on brick walls, Ferrara, Italy.

Afternoon sun casts a warm glow on brick walls, Ferrara, Italy.

 

The point of this impromptu visit, though, is finding place to have lunch.   A perfect setting  presents itself as an outdoor table beneath the canopy of a trattoria facing the piazza.

 

There’s nothing quite as quintessentially Italian as people-watching while you savor a freshly pressed panini… or sip a cappuccino, Campari, or Cinzano.

 

 

Piazza in Ferrara, Italy.  A perfect place for lunch.

Piazza in Ferrara, Italy. A perfect place for lunch.

The piazza cafe is an experience that can be had in just about any town in Italy, but in Ferrara it’s particularly tranquil and unhurried.

Far less trafficked by tourists then larger or more well-known destinations, it’s arguably the most laid-back stop of these 10 Days In Italy.  It’s only half an hour’s drive further to Bologna, where a room in the old city and a ‘foodie’ heaven await.

See these earlier posts from “10 Days In Italy”