Described by the guidebooks as a "city of noble grace", Parma is also a place that's utterly flat. As a non-driver, I decided to follow local custom and travel by bike: only Amsterdam has more bicycles per capita. Safety in numbers is the guiding principle in town: droves of confident cyclists plough ahead of buses at intersections; couples cruise side-by- side through pedestrian zones, chatting animatedly. Beyond city limits, the roads hold little danger. The occasional farm vehicle carrying livestock or produce will honk in a friendly fashion, then swerve to give you a wide berth. Traffic is light and the views unobstructed except by swaying rows of poplars.
Where visitors see only flatness, Parmesans discern hidden beauty. "I like thinking there's more land over the horizon," mused Giovanni Guareschi, the author of the Don Camillo books, explaining the discreet charm of this uneventful topography. His principal character, a litigious village priest, spars with his indefatigable adversary, the commu-nist mayor Peppone. Quintessentially Italian as they may seem to most foreigners, other Italians recognise the feuding pair as uniquely Parmesan. This is a region that breeds strong passions and petty tyrants.
The fiercely crested profiles of the castelli cast long shadows over the landscape, a reminder that today's gastronomic valley was yesterday's theatre of war. Feeding and fighting sometimes overlapped. When one medieval oppressor met his fate, a chronicler reported: "Peasants in the surrounding area had his liver cooked and ate it."
During the Middle Ages, Parma was squabbled over by powerful north Italian dynasties - Visconti, Este and Sforza - as well as by France and the Papacy. These were the days when, as Stendhal observed, every lordling's chief aim was "to elevate himself, to please, to serve, or to harm". The most notorious of all was Count Pietromaria Rossi, called Petro Rosso. Red Peter was the scion of an ancient family of mercenaries, "whose cradle was a castle, whose grave almost always a battlefield". His love nest was Torrechiara, the "pearl" among Parmesan castles, built in 1448-60 for Bianca Pelle-grino, his married Milanese mistress. The ideal itinerary for any tour of Parma's castles is mapped out in some of its frescoes.
The heart of Torrechiara is the Camera d'Oro, or Golden Chamber, which still exudes a compelling aura, more of earthly rapture than courtly love. The walls are lined with ruddy terracotta tiles which were once gilt, stamped with two hearts set close, surmounted by a crown. The traditional lovers' vow, "Now and forever", runs continuously around the room's high wainscoting. This is a three-dimensional Valentine.
Rossi allowed himself an ungallant joke at his lady love's expense. He ordered the vaulted ceiling to be frescoed with punning pictures of Bianca che va pellegrina per i castelli: Bianca wandering from castle to castle like a pilgrim in search of her lord. With outstretched arms and fluttering gowns betraying her urgency, Bianca picks her way through Rossi's 21 castles scattered at her feet.
Of all his castles, Torrechiara was Rossi's favourite. As the statelet he had patched together began to disintegrate of 1482, the ailing 69-year- old commander was carried on a litter through the lines of combat to Torrechiara. On his death, Pietro-maria's body, wrapped in gold brocade, was enthroned for three days in the Camera d'Oro.
Even Pietromaria Rossi was not bold-faced enough to leave this erotic shrine to any of the 10 children he sired by his own wife, Antonia Torelli. The reaction of one of Rossi's legitimate descendants was typically Parmesan: "Regardless of God, if I held the heart of Pietromaria in my hand, I should eat it."
The Torelli seat, which Antonia left as a 10-year-old bride in 1428, is Montechiarugolo, just a few kilometres away. At a crusty, unprepossessing establishment opposite the castle gates, I sampled salame di Felino and spalla di San Secondo - the cured hams that are Parma's pride. People here enjoy telling strangers that pork resembles Verdi in that "every part is good". In the original, unbowdlerised version of that old saying, the pig is compared not to the most famous local composer but to a woman. In Parma-speak, food and love are practically synonymous. The colloquial term for flavour is amore, and "eating tortelli" is slang for making love.
Montechiarugolo's small triangular walled garden juts out like a ship's prow over still meadows and the River Enza. I lingered over the graffiti on the walls of the loggia which for centuries served as an informal logbook. One entry commemorates the passage of what was probably Halley's comet on 13 June 1456. The final scrawl, dated 1945, belongs to an unimpressed American GI.
Pietromaria was incurably afflicted with mal di pietra - that is, building sickness. For Antonia and their brood, he restored the ancient San Secondo some 40 miles away on the far side of Parma. Today, converted to municipal offices, it exudes a distinctly decrepit appeal. In frescoed halls, listless employees distribute documents ranging from birth certificates to building permits. The latter are all democratically priced at 100,000 lire - except for private chapels, which cost five times as much. The spirit of Don Camillo's communist mayor rules here.
Little remains of the original splendour. In the paintings known as grotteschi, griffons, camels and sphinxes mingle with crayfish, turtles and crabs to form what looks like a surreal food chart. Then there's a series inspired by Aesop's fables, illustrating rough existential truths. In one, a herd of donkeys stands knee-deep in a golden stream. They peer up expectantly at Zeus, who has promised to improve their lot in life if they can but pee enough to make a river. The moral: once an ass, always an ass.
In order to combine his busy extramarital schedule with family and political concerns, Pietromaria erected yet another fortress for Lady Bianca in the vicinity, where the Taro pours languidly into the River Po. He ordered its rosy brickwork blanched with lime to provide an excuse to call it openly by his love's name - hence Roccabianca . Today the castle serves as a commercial distillery, where the proprietor produces the traditional walnut cordial nocino, as well as a kind of whisky called Cleverly.
This entire region seems to have been governed by a Pythonesque Minister of Funny Names. As a child growing up in Italy, I remember a friend's father regaling us with tales of the luckless Piovipapa, born on the feast day of Pope Pius the Sixth. Conscientiously, uncomprehendingly, his parents had copied on to his baptismal papers the letters and numerals from their kitchen calendar: Pio VI Papa.
Diofebo Meli Lupi is a mouthful of another sort. Master of the castle in nearby Soragna, his surname translates as "wolves"; his given name means "God-fearing". Both wolves and the sun god Apollo feature prominently and implausibly in the intricate family lore.
The Meli Lupi seat, referred to as La Residenza, boasts every aristocratic amenity: throne room, poet's gallery, armoury and a neoclassical temple dedicated to Apollo. In the prince's private quarters, the walls are adorned with an animal procession in which albino bunnies jostle unicorns and scowling human-headed leopards. Discovered under four centuries of grime, this fantastical frieze turned out to be by a teenaged Nicolo dei l'Abbate, who went on to bigger things at Fontainebleau. Retainers obligingly swear to the existence of a window-slamming phantom, the ash-blond Donna Cenerina - Lady Cinderella.
At an old-fashioned osteria nearby, visitors are greeted with the traditional ceramic bowl of foaming Lam-brusco wine. This rambunctious red pours out of the cask, as they say here, hissing and bounding like a cat. Fragrant and young, it is the ideal accompaniment to cucina bianca, the white dairy- based cuisine which Parmesans prefer to the tomato-seasoned recipes of the south.
"Pasta, made from water, flour and leftovers is our women's true masterpiece," says one local gourmet. Nothing is ever discarded in this frugal land, where leaving scraps on the plate constitutes a double affront, to peasant economy as well as to the cook's skill. To judge from butchers' displays, no organ of any creature is ever discarded as inedible. "It simply takes more imagination and goodwill to transform something like tripe into a really delicious dish." In one restaurant, before I could even place my order, the waitress apologised in a mortified whisper: "I'm afraid there's no more raw horse."
A few kilometres away, the castle of Fontanellato rises majestically from a glassy-green moat. From the mid-14th century, it belonged to the Sanvitale family (like the Meli Lupis allied by marriage to the Rossis) until 1948, when the last count sold it fully furnished to the town as a museum. Today it has a poignant air of abandonment, as if the owners had left not forever, but for a lengthy voyage.
The heart of the fortress is the Strufetta, which may have been a boudoir, or perhaps an alchemical study. Whatever its purpose, this sanctum - with its circular overhead mirror and gilt Medusa masks - is magical. In a bloodless frescoed version of the myth of Diana and Acteon, the goddess punishes the mortal who espied her bathing by changing him into a hunted stag. With almost human expressions of dismay, the hounds nuzzle up to the antlered Acteon, gently nibbling at his neck before the kill.
Ideally, to experience the full effect of the glittering decor, it should be examined by flickering candlelight as Parmigianino painted the once windowless chamber of 1518. (If your guide is accommodating, he will switch off the deadening halogenic foot lamp, and invite you to light a match. Or he will diplomatically absent himself.)
The glory days of feudalism, with its tiny fiefdoms and huge egos, came to an abrupt end in 1545, when Pope Paul III, a member of the powerful Farnese family, granted the Duchies of Parma and Piacenza to his nephew, Pierluigi. Members of the local nobility opined that it was "indeed a strange thing to make a duke of two such cities overnight, the way a mushroom is born."
It was a Sanvitale who in 1612 made a last, ill-fated stand against Farnese rule. Described as "more beauteous and fresher than ever", even at the ripe old age of 40, Barbara Sanvitale led a brazenly dolce vita. Arrested on charges (probably trumped up) of treachery, Bar-bara was last to confess and first to be beheaded. She did not go meekly, struggling against the executioner on the scaffold. He botched the job, and had to finish it off with a dagger.
Her property, which included the castles of Sala Baganza and Colorno, was confiscated. Nestled into a crook of the River Parma, Colorno's tawny facades are reflected in its smooth black waters. The Farnese and their Bourbon successors converted Col-orno into a sumptuous palace, celebrated throughout Europe as the "Versailles of Parma".
The vast, scenographic Aranciaia, or Orangerie, with its tall white forest of ogive arches, is attributed to Galli Bibiena, Italy's great 18th-century set designer. Today it houses the Museum of Popular Ingenuity, an encyclopaedic jumble of peasant chattels. Among the cheese moulds and harnesses, I noted a capacious rectangular wooden tray. The curator assured me it was a multi- purpose appliance used for washing laundry, slaughtering pigs and as a flotation device during floods.
The other castle at Sala, set on a slight rise above the Taro river, was downgraded over the years to a hunting lodge. The French princess Louise Elizabeth came prepared for the worst in 1749 when, as Philippe de Bourbon's reluctant bride, she journeyed to this outpost from Versailles with a cortege of 34 provision-laden coaches. Surveying her new home, Louis XV's spoilt daughter cried despairingly: "We are but zeros in the world!"
A short ride away is the Casino dei Boschi, not really a castle but the woodland retreat of Her Imperial Highness Maria Luisa Hapsburg Bonaparte. Napoleon's estranged wife, known familiarly as Maria Luigia, was Parma's sovereign between l8l5 and 1847. In the entrance to the picturesque pavilion, tiny seashells set in patterns on the ceiling and walls dropped at my every step like hailstones. I could scarcely make out Maria Luigia's initials inlaid in the parquetry floor of the bedroom where she was secretly happy with her second, morganatic husband. The white marble tub in which she bathed, swathed in linen to protect her from its chill, has been ripped out. But the romantic park Maria Luigia planted is one of Italy's rare wildlife preserves.
Dismissed by most historians as a dull woman who gave her name to a style of cardboard frame, the marie-louise, in Parma Maria Luigia is venerated. Only 23 when she arrived, she metamorphosed into the original Caring Royal. "I have in my hands the means to make 400,000 souls happy, to protect the sciences and the arts", she enthused. "I am not ambitious, and I hope to spend here a great number of years, which will all resemble one another, but which will be sweet and tranquil."
Maria Luigia kept her word. She built the Teatro Regio, still one of Italy's premier opera houses. She opened shelters for unmarried mothers, whose plight particularly moved her because, after her son by Napoleon, she had three children out of wedlock. She summoned experts to deal with urban waste and the water supply. "You've seen much with your eyes," she would tell guests, "but you haven't smelled anything with your nose."
From her trademark violets, which give their scent to the Violette di Parma perfume, to genuine Parma hams which are to this day branded with her coronet, Maria Luigia's imprint is everywhere. She transformed Parma into what it still somehow appears to be, a "bourgeois capital with imperial touches". !
GETTING THERE: Parma has no airport but is almost equidistant from Milan and Bologna. Alitalia (0171 602 7111) offers return flights from London to Milan or Bologna for pounds 133 in March, rising to pounds 174 in April. The train journey to Parma takes around an hour from Bologna or an hour and a quarter from Milan and costs pounds 3.50 and pounds 5.50 one way respectively.
CASTLES TO VISIT: Torrechiara is open mornings to 2pm, except Mon-days. Montechiarugolo is open Satur-days and Sundays from 3-6pm. San Secondo is open daily to 2pm, except Sundays. Soragna is open daily, except Tuesdays, 9am to noon, and 3-5pm. Fontanellato is open daily (except Mondays from October to March) 9.30-11.45am and 3-6.15pm. You can wander around Sala Baganza grounds, but to visit the interior, call the Munici-pality (39 521 833144). At Colorno, for guided tours and access to the Oran-gerie, call the Pro Loco between 10 and 11.30am (39 521 816939). For information on the Casino dei Boschi, ring 39 521 834804. The Glauco Lombardi Museum (Via Garibaldi 15; tel: 39 521 233727) is a wonderfully eccentric shrine dedicated to Maria Luigia.Reuse content