Sunday, 2 December 2012

More of Italy - Como, Piacenza, Parma & around there

After spending some of a very hot summer in Italy earlier in the year,  I was sure I'd had enough of the place to last me a lifetime.  But then I started thinking about all the places I hadn't been to yet, including some of the smaller towns.  Coming down from Switzerland, I had a quick stopover in Como and late on a November afternoon, it was as pretty as a picture.

Next stop was Piacenza and it too was charming with streets and streets of pastel coloured buildings and almost no traffic in the centre of town. The no car rule has made all of these places so much more enjoyable to visit and no doubt, to live in.

The main square is dominated by a civic building rather than a church

and a couple of bronze 'men on horse' statues.  This is the better looking of the two horses.

One of the main sites in Piacenza is their Farnese Palace (yes, another one! Those Farnese just couldn't help building palaces wherever they set up home).  At first glance, Piacenza's Farnese Palace looks enormous

and if it had been finished it would have been.  In fact, it would have been the biggest of all the Farnese Palaces and completely out of proportion to the rest of the town.  But times changed, things went downhill for them in Piacenza and the place was only partially completed, as you can see when you go around the back.

It is now the city's main museum where, amongst other things, are the remains of the few rooms that were finished and lived in by the Farnese.

A lot of what was there is missing because once the Bourbons took over in the mid 18th century, they picked up everything they could get their hands on and carted it off to Naples where apparently it all still sits, locked away in some dusty storeroom, just waiting for someone with enough clout to get it moved back to Piacenza.

The highlight for me though was coming across the Tondo of Botticelli, also known as Madonna adoring Child with little St John, painted around 1480.  The frame dates from about then too.

Back out on the streets it was mostly a fairly quiet Sunday

Note the white cobblestones on the crossing - blocks of marble.

until later in the afternoon when things started to pick up

and there was even a bit of a 'festa'  in one of the parks

where you could eat and drink some of the local wonders including birra calda (yes, that's 'warm beer'). Maybe I should have tried it but at the time it just didn't sound that appealing.  And in fact, it still doesn't.

From Piacenza, I took a day trip to Parma, the home of Italy's best ham (for anyone who's not a vegetarian), Parmesan cheese and, of course, Parma violets.  It also has an incomplete Farnese Palace

with, inside, a reconstruction of the original wooden Farnese theatre destroyed by allied bombing in WW2.  This is the exterior of the theatre and you go through this to get to their fabulous art gallery

where they have a couple of the original plaster statues from the palace that somehow survived the bombing and are now kept in the crates to remind people of how precious and fragile they are.

You're not meant to photograph anything inside the gallery but I only found that out about a milli-second after I took this pic of Head of a Young Girl  attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Of course, they've also got rooms and rooms of other masterpieces especially some great pen & ink drawings by Parmigianino but I had put my camera away by the time I got to them.

Something I was hoping to see in Parma was Correggio's fresco in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista.  For some reason I couldn't find it so I ended up visiting three churches and a baptistery in my search, something of a record for me. Finally, I found the right place.  It's the church at the end of this street

and inside, I believe the fresco is right there, just behind the scaffolding and plastic.

At lunchtime Parma has a rest so I headed to the botanic gardens where I found a perfect carpet of gingko leaves,

some wonderful autumn colours,

and a display about violets.  The only one in flower, I was delighted to see, was Australia's wild violet, Viola hederacea. 

Much of the centre of Parma is now traffic free so I'm not quite sure how this one snuck in but I liked it and its message.

I also liked this bike, colour co-ordinated to the wall it was propped up against

and this one, contrasting beautifully to the pot plant behind

and these too, just picturesquely placed around the main door of the post office.

Not quite so picturesque, however, was this sign in the butcher shop window.

Piemontese meat.  Horse meat.
and when I saw these seat warmers a bit later on, even though I know they don't eat zebras, I did feel just a tiny bit queasy.

Parma has streets full of Renaissance era buildings many of which are now used as commercial premises.  

This one dates from the middle ages, was enlarged in the 1580s and is now overflowing with lawyers

who I'm sure enjoy their beautiful surroundings even while using the courtyard as a car park.

One of my other day trips was down into the hilly region south west of Piacenza to a very pretty medieval town called Bobbio. It's in a lovely setting, with an unusual stone bridge assumed to be Roman

that zig zags across the river bed & river.

Some say Bobbio is the town that features in the background of the Mona Lisa but my bet is there are any number of small towns all over central Italy that could fit that bill.  And anyway, if it is Bobbio, why did he forget to include the bridge?

There are plenty of fully functioning churches in town but the one that really caught my eye was this one

and the monastery next door, both built in 1230 but put out of action by Napoleon in 1803. The church now belongs to the town council (they have plans to turn it into a civic hall) and the monastery is in private hands and while it looks derelict, someone still lives there.

The last place I visited in the area was Grazzano Visconti

another incredibly pretty village just a short bus ride from Piacenza.  It's right next to the Grazzano Visconti castle

and despite appearances

it's not medieval at all but rather an early 20th century reconstruction of what the village outside the castle walls might have looked like. The person responsible for its construction was a wealthy aristocrat, one Giuseppe Visconti who, as well as planning, financing & actually helping with the construction of this project, also financed La Scala in Milan and was the father of the film maker Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Leopard, Ludwig etc).  In a way this little place looks just like a film set with the occasional 'typical' Italian popping up to add to the atmosphere.

During the year there are special medieval shows put on to entertain the masses

and there's also an open air museum of now obsolete farm equipment

including a number of old barrels used in pre-industrialised wine making.  The grapes were loaded in, the farm workers climbed in on top (hopefully after a bit of a foot rinse) and then stomped up and down until all the juice was out.  Sounds like fun to me.

There's also a huge park around the castle (and behind this wall)

some enormous trees

and pretty street-scapes

While Visconti Grazzano is mostly a tourist destination, not everyone living there is friendly

Attention.  This area is defended by trained guard dogs.  Do not come close.  Do not enter.
Be careful of the biting dogs.
and what I suppose is the Visconti family crest looks like it too might be a warning to the tourists to behave themselves.

Just to finish off, here's a not very happy looking lion I spotted in Piacenza

and some more autumn leaves.

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