This unusual Parma by camper is rich in tradition, all tied to the history of a woman who made the city great: stories of small towns and historic shops that are still active today to learn about, and two museums dedicated to two classic local products.
Discovering a large city usually means visiting new points of interest, and in Parma, we strongly recommend:
- the cathedral
- the Farnese Theatre
These are beautiful places rich in history and art.
But today, instead, we would like to suggest a camper tour of places in Parma that generally people do not visit, and which no-one ever talks about.
So let’s start.
Morning: the Glauco Lombardi Museum
We are in the centre of Parma, opposite the Palazzo della Pilotta: the Museum takes its name from Professor Glauco Lombardi, who set about gathering documents and historic objects relating to the period of the Duchy of Maria Luigia. There are over 1000 objects on display in different sections, which also recount the daily and personal life of the Duchess. So you are now asking yourself, who was Maria Luigia and why is her name so closely linked to that of Parma? She was not from Parma, but she grew to love the city, and she is known as the “good duchess”: see our longer article here
Lunch in the city
Our tour of the museum ends about lunchtime, so off we go to find somwhere for a brief lunch. We suggest that you visit one of the restaurants in the historic centre: see our main article here.
Afternoon: a walk in the centre
Continue your visit to Parma passing close to Parco Ducale, passing the Palazzo della Pilotta on foot and crossing the Verdi Bridge: now you are in what Parmesans consider an oasis of relaxation. Parco Ducale is 208m², the real lungs of the city that occupies an area of the city called Oltretorrente (which means “beyond the river”). The Ducal palace is on your right (today the headquarters of the Ris), and following its paths, you find fountains, statues by the French sculptor Boudard (in neo-classic style) and the beautiful plants and trees that the Duchess chose to make her park green. At the end of the path, you will find a small pond and in the centre the magnificent Trianon Fountain. You can also see the greenhouses in which the park’s violets are cultivated.
Maria Luigia’s violets.
The Duchess loved to surround herself with flowers, the violet was her favourite, and so it became the symbol of the city. We know that she loved to personally grow and take care of the violets that grew in her botanic allotments both in the city and at her summer house at Colorno, 20km from the city. This explains the existence of the “Violetta di Parma” perfume, since it was Maria Luigia who personally encouraged and supported the work of the monks of the Convento dell’Annunciata: after long and patient research, they were able to obtain an essence from the flowers of the violet that evokes perfectly the aroma of the flower itself. The first flacons of the Violetta di Parma, created thanks to the skill of the monks, were solely available for the personal use of the Duchess.
It was from the same monks that Ludovico Borsari obtained the secret formula for the perfume sometime around 1870, a formula that had been jealously guarded: it was Borsari who decided to try and produce the perfume for sale to the public. And so began the career of the future Sir Ludovico Borsari, transforming his basic idea into the first large-scale Italian perfume production company, that would be known across the world. The perfume was accompanied by precious boxes and packaging created by skilled artists, and above all beautiful glass phials: these elements characterised the Borsari 1870 production for more than a century.
You can still find today an ancient shop, in Via Repubblica, which hosts every possible object, item or document that relates to the perfume. It is undoubtedly unique, and so is not to everyone’s liking. For us, the aroma reminds us of the grandmothers of Parma, who would always make sure that they had a bottle in the house.
We continue our walk towards the Piazza della Ghiaia alongside the Palazzo della Pilotta: today it is covered with sail, but it was not originally like that. We shoudl remember that where the square stands today, there was originally in fact the Parma river (which today runs beyond the steps and adjacent road). In 1100, its path was shifted by an enormous overflow, which moved the river bed: as a result, the old Roman stone bridge (which you can still visit today) was left high and dry, along with large areas around it which were left covered with stones and other river detritus. Which explains why it is called Ghiaia (gravel in Italian).
The subsequent decades saw the city start to expand and new areas built, and so from then on, the Ghiaia was used for centuries for cattle-trading. Around 1500, Duke Pier Luigi Farnese decided to build the public butchers in the square. The cattle-market remained active until 1838, when the new Foro Boario was constructed on the orders of Maria Luigia, in the area where today you find the small Dalla Chiesa square.
At the same time, to improve the hygienic conditions in shops across the city and put an end to epidemics, the Duchess organised the construction of the new Beccherie in piazza Ghiaia, buildings located under 50 columns where 21 butchers were located, along with a cold-store. The warehouses were on the first floor. Maria Luigia then donated the entire building to the Council of Parma.
Around the same time, the fruit and vegetable market was moved into the square, while the weekly town market was added in 1851. A stone staircase was added in 1856 by the Council to make access easier, that directly connected the Mezzo bridge to the square. In 1880, horsemeat production started here too, while fish sellers arrived three years later: for them, two large metal canopies were added (in Parma, it is traditional to eat “caval pist” on Saturdays, that is horsemeat with oil and salt). In 1900, after the construction of the new butchery outside the Barriera Saffi, the Beccherie lost its original purpose and slowly turned into shops and apartments. Nonetheless in 1928, to create the Lungoparma (the road that today divides the river from the square), the council ordered its demolition, despite strenous protests: under the new road, a space was carved out for a market covered with a sail.
Historic shops in the city
There are still some historic shops open in the city, such as the butchers in Borgo 20 Marzo, where you can still see the typical original entrance. We are in the historic centre of the city, and following our path, we head towards the Basilica della Steccata, and the statue of the Parmigian in the centre of the square. Behind it, there is another historic shop, the Cavalieri hat-shop. Working with the Borsalino company, the shop has been able to offer a wide and popular range of hats, from 1940 onwards.
But instead let us find out about the “Duchessa of Parma”: we have discussed this in a previous blog, and you can taste this speciality in a cake-shop in via Pisacane, right next to the Glauco Lombardi Museum. You will see how beautiful it is and how well it represents the much-loved Duchess.
As we continue our exploration of the city’s historic shops, we head towards via Farini and then Borgo Giacomo Tommasini, where you can also find a recently-opened agricultural biodiversity shop (see here for more information: Rural). It houses many local products, and ancient lost varities that have been patiently tracked down and brought back into cultivation. One of these is the Parma Riccio, an ancient type of tomato, that dates back apparently to 1800. Tomatoes are also the subject of a dedicated Museum. We also found various producers who welcomed us as camper-users, so that in the end we enjoyed their hospitality, parked overnight and so discovered how they are bringing back biodiversity. Our day ends back at the camper rest-area, a day rich in history and culture filled with products of high quality and excellent food.
We suggest that you take your camper to the two food museum, to be found alongside each other at the ancient Court of the Giarola at Pontescodogna di Collecchio, in the first of the Parmesan hills. You can park in the carpark and enter the court on foot. It was built as a fortified defence point for a nearby ford across the river Taro at via Francigena. Given how close it is to the water, the area was known as the Glarola, maybe a Latin word, in reference to the huge amount of gravel deposited on its banks.
It was later transformed into an independent agricultural court, with walls and houses, stables, a dary and a water-driven mill served by the Naviglio canal; the French confiscation of the religious orders saw the area given over to local farmers. These devoted part of the nearby lands to the cultivation of tomatoes, and built nearby a puree factory, and a modern dairy with space for pig herding managed by third-parties. The Second World War saw the area seriously damaged by Allied bombing raids. What remained was sold in 1957 to businessman Ercole Azzali, but was closed a few years later, although the dairy continued in activity for some more time. Once closed, the court and its connected structures were bought in 1998 by the Regional Park River Organisation of the Taro, which began reconstruction work, and moved part of its own activities into its buildings.
The west wing saw reconstriction work start in 2007, and in 2010, the Tomato Museum was opened in the old stables. In 2013, the old pasta factory and mill were also reconstructed, becoming in the following year the home of the Museum of Pasta. Finally, in 2014, the roof of the church at San Nicomede was rebuilt.
The Tomato museum
The ground flour of the west wing, which originally served as the court stables, now houses the Tomato Museum. The displays are divided into seven sections dedicated to the history of the tomato and its production. And so you will discover how the one of these, the Riccio of Parma, was so important to the history of the city and its industrial success. There are many unique things to learn, the cans and their construction (who would have thought that once they were made one by one), the can-openers, and the important factories that work what is now considered one of the most important Italian food exports across the world.
The pasta museum
Moving onto the first floor, we find the Pasta Museum in what was once the large space of the court granary. The museum is divided into six sections that tell the story of grain and the production process of pasta. You will find:
- the structure and form of grain
- ancient tools and equipment
- water-driven mills and how they produced flour for pasta
- modern mechanical industrial milling
Today, the largest Parma company involved in making pasta is the international giant Barilla.
The uniqueness of the Museums lies also into the rich collections of wheels used to make pasta sheets, which helps us understand the depth of tradition of these simple objects.
Next to the court walls, we find the Corte di Giarola restaurant: booking is recommended, especially on Sundays. The restaurant offers traditional dishes, including 12 different types of filled tortelli. In summer, it is beautiful to eat outside in the ancient court. The venue is perfect also for groups and camper-groups.
And after lunch we move to…
…visit another very special Museum, but the distance is short. It is the almost compulsive collection (as it would be considered today) of everyday objects by a genius, the Ettore Guatell Museum: an infinite collection of objects that placed on the walls, ceilings and doors become works of art, displayed with simplicity and precision. You will enter a world that you did not even know exists.
And so your tour of the history and traditions of Parma and its surrounds is complete: we hope that you enjoyed it. We are pleased to have been able to offer an Unusual Parma itinerary for your consideration.