Now that you know some basic information about what to expect in Italy, we can start talking about destinations.
Parma is known all over the world for its famous ham, prosciutto di Parma, and it’s UNESCO culinary heritage site, but it also has incredible history and art. It’s the capital of the province of the same name, situated in the region of Emilia Romagna. Both the city and its surroundings are incredible jewels of Italian history, culture and food tradition. Even if Parma isn’t traditionally included among the most popular tourist destination, its easy distance from must-sees such as Milan or Verona makes it an appealing chance.
Parma can be easily reached by train from Milan (one hour and a half) and Bologna (less than an hour), but if you want to plan a tour of its surroundings, renting a car is the best solution. In fact, public transportation is less efficient between smaller towns.
Spring and Autumn are the best seasons for this kind of tour. Summer is really hot in this part of the country, while Winter can be harsh. However, if you have no choice but going during Summer, you can find relief from the heat inside beautiful churches and ancient castles. Just remember to bring plenty of water with you.
My wife and I went on a three-day tour of this area. We had a two-nights package a friend bought us, so we chose Hotel Nazionale in Salsomaggiore Terme. This is a medium-price facility with comfortable bedrooms, a car park and a restaurant. However, you can find any accommodation in the area, from luxury hotels to B&B. Salsomaggiore Terme, due to its location, can be an excellent base for your tour.
In the map below, you can see our stops.
Our exploration started with the small village of Torrechiara (verbatim Bright Tower), hamlet of the nearby town of Langhirano. The main attraction is Torrechiara Castle, which rises up on a hill overlooking the village. Originally built during the Middle Ages, the castle was repeatedly destroyed and finally rebuilt during the Fifteenth Century.
This castle is fascinating thanks to its majestic towers, its stone passageways and its halls with beautifully frescoed ceilings. Among the many rooms, the most famous is the golden chamber, with its magnificent frescoes, its walls decorated with bas-relief stuccoes, and terracotta tiles.
After visiting the castle, which took us about an hour, we left towards Langhirano.
Langhirano stands only five kilometers (about three miles) away from Torrechiara. It’s famous all over the world for its prosciutto crudo (raw ham). We wouldn’t miss for anything a visit to the Ham Museum, which tells the story and evolution of this delicious ham. I highly recommend a stop here. The museum offers a wide range of information on ham’s history, its production all over the centuries, but it is also a cross-section of life and culture in this area. If you want, the museum has a restaurant inside, where you can taste delicious local products.
However, if you prefer a cheaper solution, you can do as we did and stop in one of the small groceries at the town centre, where you can ask the shopkeeper to prepare you a raw ham sandwich (panino al prosciutto crudo), obviously with DOP Parma ham.
After lunch, you can have a walk around Langhirano’s town centre. Unfortunately, during our visit, the beautiful town’s square was undergoing restoration.
Since most of the places of interest are closed during lunch time, you can take it slow before leaving again towards Felino, where the namesake salami is made. The main place of interest is the imposing castle, erected in the year 890 and rebuilt after its destruction at the end of Fifteenth Century. Unfortunately, the interior can’t be visited; you can only access the basement, where the Salami Museum is.
After this delicious stop, you can drive to Sala Baganza, famous for its Rocca Sanvitale, most commonly known as Sala Baganza Fortress.
This beautiful fortress, built in the Thirteenth Century, held a place of great strategic relevance in history. However, it didn’t emerge unscattered from the earthquake in 2008, which caused extensive damages. Today, after more than ten years of restoration and stabilization, most of the building is accessible again. We were able to enter the church, the beautiful Hercules Hall, and other adjoining rooms.
Once out of the Fortress, if you are an enthusiast, you can go in the basement to visit the wine museum or go for a leisurely walk in the gardens.
Now it’s time to go back to Salsomaggiore Terme, your base for the tour, where you can end your day with a by-night tour of Salsomaggiore’s centre and a dinner in one of the many restaurants.
Salsomaggiore Terme, as its name suggests, is renowned for its thermal baths, where you can relax and enjoy treatments. If you plan to visit the baths, you should probably add a day to your tour.
Since Irene and I aren’t very fond of thermal baths, the following morning we immediately left towards Parma. The city is rich of places of interest, but it’s relatively small, so you can park your car and leisurely walk down its elegant streets.
One of the most important places is the Palazzo della Pilotta (Pilotta Palace). Inside this building, there are two main attractions: the National Gallery and the Farnese Theatre, almost destroyed after four hundreds years of glory and then rebuilt after Second World War’s bombing. Even if it has been restored, it’s still a breathtaking view, definitely worth a visit.
If you want to take a tour of downtown, a few places you can hold as landmark are the Church of Santa Maria della Steccata, built during the Renaissance, and Garibaldi Square. Then you can go up to the Church and Monastery of St. John the Evangelist (Chiesa e Monastero di San Giovanni Evangelista), up to the arma’s Cathedral, built during the Eleventh Century, has many interesting cultural elements, such as the frescoes cycle by Lattanzio Gambara and the frescoes in the apsis, even if nothing can compare with the frescoed dome by Correggio.
The last place of interest we visited in the town centre was the St. Paul Monastery. You can access through a walkway coming from Strada Macedonio Melloni. Inside the Monastery you can only visit two rooms, the first made by Alessandro Araldi and one by Correggio.
Immediately outside downtown Parma, there is Parco Ducale, an ideal place for a stroll and for admiring the outside of Palazzo Ducale, closed to the public.
If you are not too tired after your tour of Parma, you can follow our steps and head towards Colorno, a village nearby, where you can find a beautiful mansion: the Reggia di Colorno. This mansion welcomes the visitors with its elegant French garden, from where you can see the building in all its magnificence. Visitors can access the palace through guided tours only. I highly recommend taking the tour, which also includes the Cappella Ducale di San Liborio. Even if only a few rooms are furbished, due to historical and dynastic upheavals and years of negligence, the knowledgeable tour guides will tell you many interesting stories about the palace’s history and its inhabitants.
During the return trip to Salsomaggiore, you can stop halfway between Colorno and Parma, to visit the Cistercian Abbey of Valserena, built during the Fourteenth Century. The abbey hosts the research facility of Parma University and some temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
To conclude your day in the best possible way, I suggest an excellent dinner at Osteria del Castellazzo, downtown Salsomaggiore.
Our third and last day in this area started with a stop at San Secondo Parmense to visit the Rocca dei Rossi. In this case more than ever is true the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, because this building seemed so fragile and neglected outside as it was rich and worthy inside.
The interior of the castle has plenty of frescoed halls. One of them, the fables room, contains 17 frames with paintings inspired by Aesop’s stories. The real masterpiece inside the Rocca dei Rossi is the Sala delle Gesta Rossiane (Rossi’s’ deeds hall), thoroughly frescoed to celebrate the actions of this family, particularly influential between 1200 and 1500.
The last stop of this short but intense tour is Soragna, where the Rocca Meli Lupi stands. This castle, built in 1347, stands in the heart of the beautiful old town. Unexpectedly we found ourselves in the middle of a street food festival, with all the connected problems regarding parking and booking the mandatory visit at the Rocca.
Anyway, it was worth it, because this castle, surrounded by a wide moat, is fascinating due to its grand frescoed halls and fully furnished rooms. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures of the inside.
With Soragna’s Rocca we concluded our tour. Don’t hesitate to ask for further information and tips in the comments.
I can’t wait to see you at the next stop around Italy!