Europe: The exquisite charm of Parma

Elegant, dignified and secretive, this Italian city has architectural glories to rival those of its cheese and ham, writes Natasha Edwards
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Parma, a misty calm of palazzos and hidden squares, lacks the magic appellation "Tuscany" that has led to lesser towns being overrun with tourists. This wealthy town in Emilia-Romagna has a calm dignity, and an elegance that epitomises the Italian senso civico; even the swarms of mopeds seem better behaved than most, and the place is blessedly free of souvenir-hawkers and horse-drawn charabancs. This ancient fief of the Farnesi, between Milan and Bologna, is well worth a visit, thanks to two artists (Correggio and Parmigianino) and an architect (Antelami) who made their mark here.

Orientation is simple. The historic centre is enclosed within a circle of boulevards on either side of the sleepy river Parma.

Our hotel, the family-run Hotel Button (one of the few in the historic centre) lay down a narrow side street beside the 17th-century town hall and the elegant cafes of Piazza Garibaldi. It was perfectly positioned for exploring on foot the narrow streets lined by palazzos, and for peering into secret courtyards.

"Secret" is the key word. Many of the best things in Parma are carefully hidden, so that the streets - with their shoe shops, and bars selling wickedly strong espresso coffee - give little hint of what lies behind.

First stop: just near the tourist office, iron gates and a shady grove lead to the Camera di San Paolo (also known as the Correggio chamber), convent buildings famed for the extraordinary, umbrella-vaulted room painted with frescoes by Correggio in around 1518.

Within a mass of fruit and foliage are lunettes containing chubby cupids - an obscure allegory much debated by art historians - while, below, trompe- l'oeil pillars and monochrome figures of the Three Graces and other mythological characters further display the artist's virtuosity. It's a peculiarly intense fantasy, playing with perspective and chiaroscuro, and lacks the over-sentimental pathos with which I'd associated Correggio, and which made him so popular with the Victorians.

Drop into the post office across the road, too: the outside looks Baroque; the interior is surprising Art Nouveau, with murals and a glass roof.

Past the shops of Strada Cavour and the narrow Strada del Duomo lies the magisterial cathedral square, with its bishops' palace on one side. The Duomo has a stepped facade in northern Italian Lombard style, and a pink portal supported by two gentle-looking lions. The Romanesque interior is awash with paintings: the Cappella Valeri, with frescoes by Bertolini de' Grossi's life of Christ, a Baroque pulpit with baldaquin, and a dome painted by Correggio. Here he lets fantasy go full swing as tiers of tiny, unidentifiable saints and angels disappear into a pyramid of fluffy clouds. In the transept is a bas-relief of the Deposition, from a tomb signed and dated Benedetto Antelami 1178; it is one of the few clues to this mysterious sculptor and architect.

Antelami's masterpiece is next door: the baptistry. If there was one thing - other than the first true Italian ice-cream of the season - that really made me fall for the city, it was this. Its pink marble exterior is pretty, but the inside is an awe-inspiring octagon of numerous open galleries, with frescoes by Italian primitives illustrating the saints and the life of Jesus.

Back on the Via Garibaldi, another church merits a visit, the Chiesa della Madonna della Streccata. Its decoration is by Parmigianino, the other huge talent of Parma, and features outsize, twisting female figures, typical of 16th-century Mannerism.

From here it's only a minute to the austere-looking Palazzo della Pilotta, home to the archaeological museum, the fine arts museum - more Correggio, Parmigianino and other local artists, as well as a few other treasures, such as a tiny Leonardo head - and the extraordinary Teatro Farnese.

The theatre was more important in its conception than in its use. It was built in the 17th century by Duke Renuccio I, who was determined to impress his Milanese rivals, but it was rarely used. It could seat 3,000 people, and was once the biggest theatre in Europe, a vast wooden structure modelled on Palladio's Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza. The theatre was badly damaged in the Second World War and beautifully restored only a few years ago; it is all the more impressive for being unexpected, at the top of a draughty staircase.

Another fine theatre, the Teatro Regio (entrance in the Via Garibaldi), is famed for its operatic performances; it is the best place to hear Verdi.

Of course, Parma is also about food, and it is hard to escape evidence of two of Italy's most delicious gastronomic exports: Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. We discovered a perfect delicatessen at either end of the Via Garibaldi and the Strada Farini, the ceilings laden with huge, dangling hams and windows full of tempting artichoke salads, aubergines and fresh pasta, but every Formica-furnished cafe produces little rolls filled with melting Parma ham.

We ate well at the Ristorante-Taverna Gallo d'Oro (the golden cockerel), a warren of little rooms and levels, dining on vitello tonnato and generous ravioli. Less conventional was the place we stumbled across on our first evening, the colourful Cafe Rangon, so named, according to a long explanation propped on the fireplace, because the aforesaid Rangon received Garibaldi here on his descent through Italy. Today it's simple, friendly and local, with a slightly arty crowd, and bright paint. The chef rustled up a plate of local ham and cured sausages and salad, and a delicious sweet, sticky tart made of amaretto biscuits. The waitress, meanwhile, recommended a glass of dark fortified wine - a perfect invitation to la dolce vita.

Getting there: the closest airport is Bologna, with flights from Gatwick on Alitalia, and Heathrow on British Airways. The lowest fares are likely to be available from discount agents such as Sky Shuttle (0181-748 1333). For a long weekend later in March, the company is quoting a fare of pounds 196 including tax on British Airways from Heathrow. There are frequent fast, cheap trains from Bologna to Parma.

Accommodation: Natasha Edwards paid pounds 40 a night for a double room at the Hotel Button (00 39 521 208093). The other centrally located hotel she recommends is the Best Western Hotel Stendhal (00 39 521 208057), which costs pounds 100 per night.