Notes from an author: Tobias Jones on Parma

Longstanding local obsessions — football and gastronomy — are two of the chapters in this northern Italian tale of two cities.

Friday, 3 April 2020,
By Tobias Jones
Street in Parma
Strata della Repubblica, running through the centre of Parma, where "each house is a different height and colour, like spines of books on a shelf".
Photograph by Alamy

I first visited Parma, in Northern Italy, over 20 years ago for the slightly absurd, or romantic, reason that I had a crush on a girl who lived here. It was December and the whole city was, as it usually is for much of the winter, wrapped in a gelatinous fog. As you walked through the cobbled streets, it felt as if you were sharing a duvet. It was eerie and moody and intimate.

A couple of months later, I decided to leave London and move to Parma. It was a professional, as well as a personal, decision: I fancied trying my hand as a foreign correspondent in a country that’s constantly producing news due to its politics, food, football, fashion and crime. Being a football nut, I also knew that Parma, back then, had just about the best team on the planet. Parma won the Uefa and Italian cups in the first few months I was here. The first game I saw in the stadium, they beat the mighty Inter Milan 6-1.

The only flat I could find, or afford, was in a rundown area known as Oltretorrente (‘the other side of the river’). That river dissects the city and it’s crossed by various bridges with weird names like Ponte Caprazucca (or ‘goat-pumpkin bridge’ — don’t ask). On one side of the river, the city is slightly up-itself: snooty, formal and fashion-obsessed. But as soon as you go Oltretorrente, the city reveals its other side: it feels anarchic, humorous and earthy. This is where the barricades blocked the Fascists in 1922. Even the buildings look different: each house is a different height and colour, like spines of books on a shelf. There are artisan workshops: cobblers, bookbinders and tailors. There are almost as many social initiatives as there are shops, teaching bike repair or furniture restoration and so on.

I slowly got to know the rest of this city, with its pentagonal citadel, grand opera house, pink marble baptistry, and ochre-brick, war-ravaged Farnese palace. But I would always be happy to get back to ‘the other side’. It wasn’t grotty, but it was far removed from all the poseurs. And it was this side of the water that I began to understand the city. Against pretty stiff opposition, Parma is the culinary capital of Italy. It has produced, among dozens of other delicacies, Parma ham and Parma cheese. It’s also the birthplace of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini and the burial place of Niccolò Paganini. But what living in this slightly rundown suburb showed me was that subjects that might sound hifalutin elsewhere (fine wine, esoteric recipes or the soprano from last night’s opera) are, here, the talk of the humblest classes. That erudition — the appreciation of classical music or a particular grape — is a natural part of who the Parmigiani are.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since I first moved here. I married that girl. Parma football team went repeatedly bust (sinking to Serie D before rising back to Serie A). The Oltretorrente gentrified (a bit) and the rest of the city — after two decades of financial crisis — became far more down-at-heel. But Parma still feels like a city which is both extraordinarily cultured and also intimately connected to the land: there’s a village just outside the city where dozens of agricultural labourers in the early 20th century formed string quartets to escape poverty. In every season, you’re reminded that this chic city is, really, a place of farmers: when Italy won the World Cup in 2006, within half-an-hour of the final whistle the city’s streets were full of tractors pulling trailers of dancing, singing fans.

Maybe that’s why Parma, slightly inexplicably, is almost unknown by tourists. Because the real allure of the city isn’t about seeing things, but tasting and hearing them. Parma has many magnificent sites, but really it’s a place of food, drink and song. Its osterie (hostelries) are often noisy, even bawdy. And the best of them, still, are the other side of the water.  

Tobias's tip: The football at the Stadio Tardini is usually pretty impressive, and even if you’re not into football, it’s fun watching the fans. Most games are played on Sunday afternoons: the Curva Nord is for hardcore support, whereas the Tribuna is for the gentry. Tickets are available from the ticket office outside the stadium.

Tobias Jones is the author of Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football, published by Head of Zeus, RRP: £20.

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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