A TASTE OF WINTER.

There were moments in Parma when we would look at one another and laugh, simply because in this was the overflow of our contentment. I had hoped that a weekend there during the opera season might be rewarding, but had not dared to suppose that it would prove unadulterated joy.

Driving from Genoa, we arrived soon after dusk and were embraced by the warmth of the Hotel Stendhal.  A good hotel in the centre of an agreeable city provides for a feeling of instant belonging. In Parma this sense of participation is especially valuable, for it is a tight little, intimate city. Down the last of your breakfast cappucino and within a few hundred yards you can be looking at the Correggios of the National Gallery, the magnificent Farnese Theatre, the Baptistery, the campanile of San Giovanni, the Church of the Steccata, and on Saturday mornings the brown–faced peasants from the rich surrounding countryside exchanging their news and making their bargains in Garibaldi Square.

All these things we saw. All memorable.  And then, the Teatro Regio. We walked its red-carpeted corridors, stood with the chattering crowd in the Empire Room, admired the burgundy and gold and white of the tiers of boxes and the gallery, saw the house lights dim on the gold candelabra while all eyes turn to the great stage.

Opera is part of Parma life. From the end of December for a few weeks nothing is more important in the city. Papers are full of it. People live for it. Men whistle arias in the streets. Opera audiences here are said to be more knowledgeable and critical than any in the world. Verdi’s Il Trovatore filled the bill that evening and when the curtain rose upon a scene which by tradition depicts a castle courtyard but which, at the whim of its designer, was now dimly lit with mere symbols where a recognisable wall should have been the hisses and groans rose in protest. In the gallery strangers appealed to one another for help in understanding what manner of fool had done this thing.

Nothing else about the evening was avant-garde. Our host was one of Parma’s leading citizens. In the intervals, in our little withdrawing room behind the box, were elegant women, costly fragrances, champagne and paper-thin Parma ham on crisp, Parma bread.

And withal was January. Winter brings to Parma contrasts of cold and warmth, of outdoors and indoors, that are exquisitely beautiful. Outside were flat fields with pollarded willows and mulberry trees veiled in mists, old castles, snow-covered battlements, ice-covered moats, cattle sheltering in the byres.  Inside was a wood fire in an 18th-century mansion which is now a restaurant. Tortelli di erbette and anolini and quail, wild boar and pheasant were on the menu. Parmesan cheese was an education in excellence. White wine was from Piedmont, red from the Veneto. Tradition ruled and was a delight.

Adapted from Travel ’67, published by Collins, 1967

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One Comment on “A TASTE OF WINTER.”

  1. Bridget Moser says:

    “There were moments in Parma….” As I read that first sentence again, I was genuinely moved. I know the piece well, I know your writing well! We visited Parma in 2006 with that article as our only guide to begin with. We had tickets for Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in the Teatro Regio and I think you would have been moved by that. After A TASTE OF WINTER,
    I was gripped by the The Winter of ’44 and Christmas ’44 and then I HAD TO STOP and write this! Just to let you know that the ‘girl with an uninhibited appetite’ that you refer to in the End Piece of Travel ’67 still enjoys reading your articles even though she no longer has to type them! So please let’s have lots more of your reminiscences! Bridget


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