Day trip time!

If you’re staying in Florence, Milan, Bologna, or Verona, Parma is a day trip worth taking. From Rome, you’ll have to spend the night (poor you). I had never been there before, and then my friend/English student Vanda (about whom I just wrote here) said I should come visit her there. She splits her time between Rome, where she worked as a doctor, and Parma, where she grew up and her mother still lives. She’s been telling me about it for a year. “It has the most beautiful baptistery in all of Italy!” “The best food in all of Italy!” “You can bicycle everywhere!”

Ok, Vanda, let’s see if it’s true.

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My train from Rome was set to leave at 7am. At about 3 a.m. the night before, I finally finished some legal work I’d been doing and emailed it to the client. I decided to just stay up the rest of the night and sleep on the train.

Big mistake. Huge.  I fell asleep and missed the train. Thankfully, unlike the national rail system Trenitalia, Italy’s new competitor rail company, Italo, actually employs some customer service. There was actually a number I could call, explain I had missed my train, share a laugh with the nice girl on the phone, and receive my new e-ticket via text message and email within minutes. I had to pay the difference in fare, but not the entire new fare or any other penalty. I’m a huge fan of Italo, and you should see if you can take it instead of Trenitalia next time you need to get somewhere here.

So I got on the next train and made my way up through Tuscany and Emilia Romagna to Bologna, then I hopped on a little local train to Parma. Vanda met me at the station armed with snacks, and we walked to her house. She then whipped up the most incredible lunch! She told me that lots of Parmesan people, including her, make use of community gardens so they can grow, collect, and consume their own produce. She had made some kind of eggplant spread and she had locally made parmesan cheese and Parma ham.

Oh yeah – parmesan cheese and Parma ham come from Parma. Both of them are salty, hearty, earthy foods that meld into a chunk of bread and melt in your mouth.

I HAD to take a nap – I had been up all night! – and then afterwards Vanda and I hopped on her bicycles (she reserves one for guests like me; her husband does not ride) and went all over Parma. We bicycled through parks under towering pine trees, around ponds with statues of lovers and benches with real lovers, around Roman ruins (which make me swoon every time), and up and down the river. We biked through piazzas and alleys and sunny roads with shops and cafes, and we stopped at a lot of them.

The town reminded me of a large college town in the United States, apart from the ruins, piazzas, cathedral and baptistery.  I think it was all the citizens, young and old, on bicycles, in addition to the pine-lined parks, and very good paved roads that made the place look less like Rome and more like Bowdoin, Maine or Williamsburg, Virginia.

And I am happy to report that after twenty years away, riding a bike is just like riding a bike.

That afternoon, we parked our bikes and visited Parma’s Duomo and Baptistery.  We visited another lovely church where nuns hide behind walls, communicating with the outside through vents. We heard them talking – they were conducting mass! And a few straggling parishioners were listening through the walls, unseen by the nuns. I wondered out loud what the point was. Where in the Bible did it say that you can get closer to God by becoming a hermit in the middle of a city. Wouldn’t their energy be better used by working in a hospital or orphanage or refugee center? Vanda said, who knows, they obviously feel some kind of calling to live like that. I also wondered practical things like, who brings them toilet paper?

More cheese and ham that night, and a visit to the community gardens in the morning. Excellent croissant and cappuccino for breakfast.

Parma is overlooked by tourists but you can be the cool one in your group of friends who travels to Italy and goes not only to Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also to Parma! It’s a day of your life well-spent.

Getting there: From Milan, Florence, or Padova, take the Italo train to Bologna and then the local Trenitalia train to Parma. There are many each hour. If you’re already in Bologna, you’re almost there. Same deal from Rome but it’s a bit too far for a day trip. Book a hotel in the historic center and relax.  Of course, you can drive from wherever you are. From Milan, Florence, Padova, Verona, and Bologna, it’s less than two hours.

Some pictures. I didn’t bring the good camera so I made do with the point-and-shoot, and this is the result:


Piazza in Parma. People on bicycles.

Piazza in Parma. People on bicycles.

Random courtyard seen while walking around. Parma is lovely.

Random courtyard seen while walking around. Parma is lovely.

The Baptistery. Vanda says it's the most beautiful in Italy. I'm still voting for the one in Florence, but y'all have already seen that one, right? I'm going to say that this one is number two.

The Baptistery. Vanda says it’s the most beautiful in Italy. I’m still voting for the one in Florence, but y’all have already seen that one, right? I’m going to say that this one is number two.

Inside the Baptistery. Gigantic well inside for sprinkling on foreheads, carved from one solid hunk of marble, no seams.

Inside the Baptistery. Gigantic well inside for sprinkling on foreheads, carved from one solid hunk of marble, no seams.

The Duomo. If this isn't worth a two-hour drive, I don't know what is.

The Duomo. If this isn’t worth a two-hour drive (or less!), I don’t know what is.

What do you think, friends? Have you been to Parma? I went home with a heavy wedge of Parmesan cheese in my bag that I am still nibbling on. You should do the same!