Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that, after Turin, my travels through Italy went by without any mention. There are various reasons for this, the most significant being chronic bone idleness on my part.
We have now been back in Poitiers for two weeks, and already the trip is receding quickly from my memory. In order to counter this, I am tidying up a few scribbled diary entries that I made on the way. The ones here cover Parma.
Monday 4th April
8.10 train to Milan. Trenitalia premier seats cost only a few euros more and are very comfortable. Free coffee, water, and snacks. Milano Centrale, Mussolini’s fascist temple, now full of fashion stores and fast food outlets. Still impressive, though.
09.22 train to Parma. Twenty minutes’ walk to Hotel Button, just behind Piazza Garibaldi. Immediately obvious town is less prosperous than Turin and on a smaller scale. Pleasant enough, though.
The manager bemused by Irish passport, Scottish wife, and French address. I tell him we are spies. He doesn’t smile. Room and bathroom v. warm. Handy for DIY laundry.
Out for walk. Two old ladies in the street, slightly sinister, like the two telepathic ladies in Don’t Look Now.
Unsatisfactory lunch in Gran Caffè Cavour. Snotty waiter. Triangular slice of focaccia-based pizza covered in Prosciutto ham, about a kilo of mozzarella, and sliced tomatoes. Some weird aubergine concoction for Madame. A glass of Chablis each.
Walk around the historic centre, all rather dull. Better is the nearby Palazzo della Pilotta.
It’s huge but was almost completely destroyed in World War II. The remains are impressive and eerie.
Home for a nap.
Fare better in the evening. Just a street away from our hotel is Strada Farini, a busy street full of bars, shops, and galleries. At Panino d’Artista, an Aperol spritz for me and a tomato juice for Madame, who is pacing herself. Generous with the free nibbles (cold pizza, ham, cheese, nuts, crisps). On to Bar Il Tribunalino. Campari spritz for me, glass of Sauvignon for Madame, and more complimentary nibbles. Young man on nearby table with an elaborately tattooed head, red frock coat, and Yorkshire terrier.
Decide to skip dinner and go to Tabarro wine bar. Small and attractively scruffy. Good jazz. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker. Persuaded by very large proprietor to drink red Lambrusco. He says, ‘It is local’. It is also disgusting. Order Valpolicella and ‘a platter’. Proprietor delivers huge plate of fatty ham and cheese. He’d said he was on his own, but an equally large, more genial brother suddenly appears, wearing a blue woolly hat that makes him look like a Smurf. He takes a shine to us and tells us he learnt to speak English in Galway and had spent some time in Scotland, where he had gone to buy pigs: ‘They have pigs with wool, like sheep’.
Final drinks sitting outside Dolce Vita. Two glasses of Valpolicella to Madame’s one of something white. More nibbles.
Back at the hotel, the wardrobe door comes off in my hand.
Tuesday 5th April
No breakfast. Out at 09.30. Trip round Duomo. Famous Assumption ceiling by Correggio – the Virgin Mary floating up through a sea of limbs, faces, and swirling clouds.
One contemporary called it ‘a frog leg stew’. Dickens said it was something ‘no operative surgeon gone mad could imagine in his wildest delirium’. According to the guide book, Correggio, a notorious miser, was paid with a sackful of small change – the story goes that he carried the sack of coins home in the heat, caught a fever, and died aged 40.
Coffee in small place nearby. Have worked out that Americano is the best option. Croissants are horribly sweet here and covered in sugar. Everyone eats cakes for breakfast, pastries that have cream or jam shoved in every available nook and cranny.
Locate Dubh Linn, an Irish bar mentioned in the guide book. Possible spot to watch tonight’s football. Don’t see any point in mentioning it to Madame at this stage.
A stroll around the market. People say that in any city you are never more than six feet from a rat. That’s probably an urban myth, but in Parma you are never more than six feet from some Prosciutto ham or a lump of Parmesan cheese. If you linger too long in a bar or café you will be force-fed with the stuff.
Visit APE Parmo Museo. Two exhibitions currently on: A Century of Portraits featuring works by father and son, Renato and Luca Vernizzi, and Amedeo Bocchi: The Art of Elegance. Both are interesting, particularly the Vernizzis. The gallery is very well laid out, and we have the place almost entirely to ourselves. A real treat.
Lunch at Bar Le Malve. Tagliatelle bolognese for me (‘do you want some Parmesan?’). Madame orders Insalata pollo but gets Insalata mediterranea and settles for that. A glass of something white each. Another glass of wine, sitting in warm sunshine outside Enoteca Fontana, and then a wander around a bookshop, La Feltrinelli Libri e Musica. Take a photo of the recently published first Italian edition of Finnegans Wake. Good luck to anyone trying to read that. Home for a snooze.
In the evening, go for another walk around Palazzo della Pilotta. Hardly anyone there. Eerie atmosphere compounded by a busker playing a sad dirge on his accordion, but it’s suddenly interrupted by the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ ringtone on his mobile phone.
Aperol spritzes and nibbles at Panino d’Artista again, and then dinner at Gallo d’Oro next door to the hotel. Recommended by guide book. Decent enough. Most of the diners seem Italian. A nervous-looking couple whom Madame says are on a first date. Madame has some fancy ravioli. I order Vecchio cavallo, which translates as ‘old horse’. It’s quite tasty. Bottle of Barbaresco. Neither of us has room for dessert,
Madame retires for the evening, and I go to Dubh Linn, which turns out to be delightful. A very Irish-looking Italian barman. Two solitary customers about my age, drinking Guinness. All three avidly watching what looks like a televised radio programme in which a female disc jockey is playing heavy metal hits. I order a pint of Guinness and hesitantly mention football. The barman expresses surprise that there is a match on, and immediately switches over to the Liverpool v. Benfica game. Neither of the other customers moves or says anything. They just continue staring at the screen. I watch most of the second half, and when it is obvious that Liverpool are going to win, I ask the barman to switch to Man City v. Atletico Madrid.
Again, no response from the others. Two pints of excellent Guinness, complete with shamrocks. In the loo, there is a strange anthropomorphic device on the wall. I take a photo, praying that no-one will come in and see me doing so.
The barman and I bid each other good night, and he immediately switches the TV back to the heavy metal channel, which they all resume watching. Neither of the other two customers had said a word the whole time I was there. It was like something out of Flann O’Brien.
I walk back to the hotel, feeling distinctly mellow, at 23.15. From about a hundred yards away, I see a man standing outside it by a street lamp, staring fixedly at his phone. From there till I reach the hotel and go in, he doesn’t move a muscle. Bit of a strange place, Parma.
There are more photos here.