When visiting Italy there are certain feelings we all develop. Maybe it’s the pleasure of a more leisurely pace of life. Is it the reverence of style? Perhaps it’s the near extreme enthusiasm for food.
Whatever it is, somehow the soul of Italy just gets inside you. Here are tips on five classic cities north of Rome.
Parma is a prosperous small city situated in Emilia-Romagna. My first breath in Parma, was filled with the scent of sweet flowers.
Parma ham is available anywhere but you’ll find the best in Parma because the Parmese keep the best for themselves. Undoubtedly, when you visit Parma you will be sampling some Culatello Di Zibello P.D.O. cured hams at the Unesco city of gastronomy, like we did.
Only sea salt and pepper are added to the pork leg, pressed into a natural casing before being tied, dried and cured at the Villa Gambara cellars.
A PDO badge guarantees authenticity from their company whose history dates back to 1322. Each Parma ham has its age carefully recorded. With a caramelised appearance, pleasantly salty and perfectly formed, the ham does literally melt on the tongue.
Trattoria Corrieri is known for their s buttery pasta dishes. Swiss chard, potato or pumpkin raviolis dressed in butter and Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese were memorable.
Next came the San Secondo (a type of cured ham) cooked with a dollop of potato purée for a main course and crumbly almond cake with zabaione (baked biscuity-bits with a warm rum and caramel sauce for desert)
This was Parma cuisine with a true home-cooked feel — a restaurant with a real Italian heart.
As if we couldn’t eat any more ham over the next five days on our Italian journey across Bologna, Florence, Genova and Verona, we began to appreciate the nuances in Italian regional cooking.
Italians are generally territorial towards their food. People from Bologna have acquired some strong opinions about spaghetti Bolognese, saying that ‘it doesn’t exist’ unless Bolognese sauce is served with tagliatelle.
We discovered food has a real importance and meaning for Italians and it can get personal. Whereas Spaghetti Bolognese is widely popular around the world, it is generally considered a culinary blasphemy in Bologna.
To underscore this point, we met with chef Stefano Boselli at the beautiful Villa Orsi who explained his frustration regarding the endless myths surrounding ‘what makes a perfect, traditional spaghetti Bolognese.’
With his frustration building year-on-year, Stefano became obsessed with instituting “international Spaghetti standards.”
With his own recipe, which contains a higher ratio of pork to beef (more fat), peas, and pasta made with a higher proportion of eggs, we felt privileged to taste his magical take on a the classic dish. .
The result is a fuller taste and a cleaner end palate. Why? The egg in the pasta absorbs more of the tomato sauce rendering a richer pasta.
Disclaimer! Its didn’t take long to discover that some Italians have developed a new love for their twist on tradition – Sparkling Red Wine! Nope! We’ll stick to Red, White, Rose. Thanks Italy!
We arrived at the Grand Hotel Majestic -già Baglioni situated in the oldest part of Bologna. Our room was a ‘grand deluxe’ suite featuring antique furnishings.
Delicate fabric wall coverings surrounded a central, four-poster bed. A Murano-glass chandelier with mirrored wardrobes completed the “look.”
The dressing area with bathroom was entirely Carrara marble and long enough to include two washbasins, a shower and a bath tub.
The I Carracci Restaurant on the ground floor offered a visual spectacle with its 15th century painted ceilings. The Bolognese menu features all the recipes of Emilia Romagna cuisine. Expertly executed as one would expect with a Leading Hotels of the World property.
If you arrive in the evening, leave your phone at home escape with your companion to meander aimlessly before the city awakes again. Obviously, you will visit the Ponte Vecchio with its myriad of jewellery shops.
Florence is known as the city fashion and craftsmanship but to get a true feeling for this preserved city, just stumble across the pizzas, gelaterias, trattorias and glittering wine bars of the old town.
Our hotel room at the Hotel Bernini Palace was styled from the renaissance period. With a nod to medieval Florence, the room was primarily all-wooden in its appearance with metal studs bordering every angle, giving the room a gothic elegance which we was unexpected.
At the hotel’s grand ristorante, La Chiostrina, our table was a candle-lit, sparkling display of classic elegance. Italian authenticity with its bare plaster and washed walls of soft colours.
The following morning, we visited an ancient silk factory where Leonardo Da Vinci’s original hand crafted machinery still exists and enjoyed Florence’s Gucci Museum which displayed classic pieces. After that, things got blurry when we dined at restaurant Frescobaldi — breads, beautiful steak and rich red Tuscan wines, of course.
Our room at the Bristol Palace was the largest of the rooms we stayed in with a towering view from the balcony staring down Via XX Settembre towards the huge fountain in the Piazza De Ferrari.
The Bristol Palace has a stubbornly vintage ethos with a glimmer of the production design in Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby movie set in the 1920’s. When you first enter the lobby of the hotel a neck bending spiral staircase makes for a competitive Instagram post.
You’ll never think about dressing down in this hotel or using the lift when the red-carpet staircase guides you through the heart of this Art Nouveau building dating back to the late 1800s.
For the evening’s dinner, director Giovanni Ferrando and Deputy Manager Fiorenza Peyrot kindly hosted us in a private room at the hotel’s restaurant Giotto serving famous Genoese pesto pasta.
If you get bored of the city, you’ll take a 40 minuet walk to Boccadasse to discover a tiny fishing village where the pace of life decreases and you find your zen.
The untouched village is a bounty of stacked cabin-like colourful houses balancing on the hillside of a tiny cove. Make your way through the village’s narrow alleyways to discover tiny wine bars, coffee shops, gelaterias and fresh fish restaurants.
Live the simple life on the little beach with a collection of old rocks, drift wood, a coffee and some more relaxing Italians.
Never does Shakespeare’s infamous tale of Romeo and Juliet become more reminiscent than in Verona.
Although Juliet’s Verona Balcony gathers crowds of onlookers and Sharpie written messages to Juliet, it is actually a man-made replica to represent the fictional story, but at least it was built onto a real house owned by the Capuleti family dating back to the 13th century.
In the same court, a bronze statue of Juliet stands, and legend has it that it will bring you good luck in love.
The Due Torri Hotel Verona, had the most beautiful terrace bar overlooking a bed of roof tops – a winning postcard view accompanied by welcoming canapés and sparkling white wine.
The ceilings of the grand entrance, which used to be horse stables, is now covered in stunning art. Our great friends and some of our favourite hotelier staff, GM Silvano de Rosa, and Sales Manager, Giorgia Gazzuola, fed us laughs over wine.
We walked deep into the Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheatre built in the 1st century guided by Verona Opera House PR Tania Cefis. Holding up to 22,000 spectators, it’s a real ‘see it to believe it’ view.
Climb to the top 44th row of seats like we did for a selfie or two and watched cranes lift production staging into place for the next big show. Verona is one of the music capitals of the world; the arena has seen performances from Adel, Sam Smith and Elton John.
In the U.K, we’re used to running around in our stressful lives imagining and dreaming of possibilities or solutions to our problems, but in Italy it’s different.
I admit, it’s not like the two countries are up for comparison, but if the English could take a couple of leaves from Italy’s book firstly it would be to love more, right from from the heart, and secondly, let things be more, right in the name of tradition.
Lewis Andrews travelled as a guest of the referenced hotels and restaurants.