This is the third in a four-part series: You can read from the beginning here.
I am fortunate to be staying with such wonderful people, as the Euro is worth something like $1.37 to the dollar.
Compared to other trips I have made in the past, hotels, restaurants, and everything else is incredibly expensive. It is easy to spend $24 US for a basic breakfast, especially in the area of Parma, which is a bit more expensive than much of the country. For this reason, we either go to restaurants owned by friends or eat meals prepared by Nona in the kitchen of the main house. I’m not complaining in the slightest; these people can really cook! The morning after our trip south, I got up early and wandered to the kitchen for a simple plate of Parma ham and scrambled eggs with truffles, something I’m not sure I’ll be able to live without in the future. Though it was cold, I wandered out to the terrace, a hot cup of coffee keeping me company as I watched the sun rising over the hills. For me, time by myself is the best part of traveling; moments frozen for recall years later. I don’t worry much about cameras and films. A few words on a page wake memories and bring me back.
An hour later we were off to Ferrara, another Renaissance city. As you wind your way towards the town, it is surrounded by hectors of perfect, pollarded trees, bare at this time of year, thick branch ends stretched as if embracing the sky. Bundled against the wind, we explored the medieval section; arched Via delle Volte, a labyrinth of alleyways and tiny old shops filled with smiling locals and almost devoid of tourists. It’s strange to see a city of around 140 thousand people surrounded by nine miles of walls. It has a European feel, with joggers, bicyclists, and walkers everywhere. I’ve never seen another Italian town that seemed so health-conscious. There is something rather odd about all the residents jogging along in brightly colored sweats among the ancient medieval walls – little moving splashes of modern color against the old gray stones. So many bicycles are parked in one square, it reminded me of Amsterdam. It was a photographer’s wonderland.
We had lunch at La Romantica, a restaurant in what used to be 17th-century stables. For me, a regional dish of salana da sugo, a local sausage sautéed and served with buttery mashed potatoes. This time I managed to beg off on the wine, and my family allowed it. Then, more calories to walk off, we climbed the 15th-century walls to look down on the town. I spotted Via Cortevecchia, a little street lined with salumerias, bakeries, and cheese shops… all that raw cheese! For a moment it occurred to me that I may have fallen off the wall and gone to heaven. This section is pretty much dominated by locals, so I felt like an insider as I bought a few things to fortify myself for a planned solo train ride the next day.
One can’t visit Ferrara without coming across Castello Estense. An imposing building, it is surrounded by a moat with four impressive towers. This place has more drama associated with it than an English castle. Spurned lovers, trysts, and murders are just part of the stories interwoven with its history. There’s a requisite dungeon deep below with stories of torture and lingering ghosts. We also visited Il Duomo cathedral which towers over the square with thick marble walls. Originally built as Romanesque, it was restored to Baroque after an earthquake in 1570, giving the building somewhat strange architecture. We spent a contented hour wandering through before heading over to the Duomo Museum to see works by Cosmé Tura, the most famous of which depicts St. George slaying a dragon to save a damsel in distress. She’s wearing red stockings; I guess this is one racy damsel, but then, this is Italy. Even more odd,like he’s wearing Apple earbuds. Overall, it’s a stunning museum, worth walking if only to see the tapestries.
I would have enjoyed spending more time here, but the itinerary wasn’t up to me, and I had been promised a surprise at the end of the day. We had one more destination before my visit to the Parma area would come to an end – Maranello, a small town known as the home of Maserati and Ferrari. Once again we squeezed back into the car for an hour ride towards Modena and then south to the Ferrari Museum. It is larger than I expected, loaded with rare Formula One cars, engines, and original drawings. 40 cars are on display at all times, all arranged in a modern, highly stylized Italian design. As I visited, the exhibits were based on the first sixty years of Ferrari production. Well worth a stop if you are in the area, especially if you are a car lover.
Back on the road, past the Giorgio Armani factory, it is a short distance to the Duomo of Modena. Duomo means cathedral, and the one in Modena is one of the most important in Europe. You may have seen this Romanesque building on the news during the funeral of tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The inside is incredibly beautiful, gleaming in the light spilling through a beautiful rose window that dates back to the 13th century. Being a Leo myself, I’m a sucker for lions and loved the two Roman-era beasts supporting the entrance columns on their backs. It’s a gorgeous building and standing in front of the crib, one can almost feel God’s breath on their back.
Since I had decided this would be my last day in the Parma/Modena area, my hosts insisted on a final meal at a restaurant called Real Fini. I was still full from lunch, but as they say, when in er… Modena… so I managed to drag myself in the door. The trivia that this was Pavarotti’s favorite restaurant didn’t really impress me, but the food was darn good. Since this was in Modena, I ordered duck breast with vinegar which was perfectly cooked, the waiter making a show of slowly drizzling good syrupy balsamic across the breast when the food was delivered, bright grapes calling from their pool alongside. The end result unfolded in layers on the palate. For dessert, Parmigiano-Reggiano with more local vinegar, and a few bites of an exceptional pumpkin soufflé. With the low dollar, the prices were… cough… around $70 US for an entrée.
Lying in bed that night, listening to the roof creak under the wind, I realized how lucky I was. I had been given a high-speed tour of many areas but had met people and gotten to see places not normally open to tourists. Even better, my time in Italy so far had cost me less than $100. Someday I will return to this region for a more relaxed vacation, as I could happily spend a few weeks here. [FD – a fear years later I did!]
On the last morning with my hosts, I spent an hour helping with various kitchen chores, happily slicing and dicing vegetables for a sauce, the recipe which I promised to keep to myself – and immediately lost, so promise kept. I had a few hours before my train, so one of the sons took me on a short hike up onto the hillside above the family home. As we walked, we’d occasionally come across bits and pieces of an old rutted road winding along the ridge. He explained the grooves were caused by the wheels of passing Roman chariots, something I’d heard about before, but never seen. Once again, something so ancient I was at a loss for words. Once again I wanted to drop to my knees and feel the history in my fingers, feel the chariots, the dust, and the sounds.
That afternoon, I was supplied with bread, a large piece of cheese, a bottle of wine, and a polished bottle of balsamic vinegar for my short train ride. With hugs all around and a promise from me to give hugs from them to Emiliano, they dropped me at the train station. From here I am heading to the famous Cinque Terre, along the coast of Northern Italy.