I haven't said much about Parma, the first stop on my June trip to Italy, and it really was a delightful small city. I was especially struck by how many people there spoke French and Italian, rather than English as a second language. That's a result of Parma's interesting history, and helpful to me (since my French, while faulty, is far better than my Italian language skills!)
It seems that at the tail end of the 18th century, the Duchy of Parma was occupied by French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte. And by 1814, Parma and several other duchies fell under the power of Napoleon's Habsburg wife, Marie Louise, who was to rule them for her lifetime. (She died in 1847)
Marie Louise's presence, and a whiff of the French culture, remain in Parma.
It's a very wealthy city and that struck me, as people seemed slightly reserved, very proud, calm and deliberate -- I didn't feel a lot of hustle and bustle. The centre was also quite small, making it very easy to stroll despite June's heat and humidity.
There are some beautiful buildings, including Parma's lovely Duomo and a stunning Baptistery (pictured above) which both have some interesting frescos. My favourite (which I visited a few times for shock value) is the Assumption of the Virgin by Correggio in the central cupola of the Duomo. Painted in 1534, the fresco features the Virgin Mary ascending through a sea of limbs, faces and swirling drapery. (Shown in the photo below by Bill Tyne for Sacred Destinations)
Heck, I even liked the BACK of the Duomo!
An unexpected pleasure was the delightful Church of San Giovanni, the Renaissance church of St. John's, which is fronted by a lovely square and belfry and lies directly behind the Duomo.
The hulking Palazzo della Pilotta was also interesting, with large grounds boasting several monuments including this one to composer Giuseppe Verdi. The Palazzo complex includes the Galleria Nazionale and the wooden Teatro Farnese (which are both worth visiting) along with the University of Parma's Institute of the History of Art, and the Museo Archaeologic Nazionale.
I also ate really well in Parma -- fantastic cheese (of course!) and I had an especially good dinner at Trattoria Tribunale.