Tuesday, October 06, 2015

2015 Italy Trip, Day Two – Traveling to Parma, Italy

The second full day of our trip was primarily given to traveling by train to Parma. Both Evie and I enjoy traveling by train in Europe....the primary trains for distance travel are bright, clean and comfortable.  With a host of different train options, both in schedule and quality of train, traveling by train across Europe is relatively easy once you understand a few basics. 

One of the basics is understanding the differences in the quality of trains, the speed at which they travel, and the ticket design. Nearly every train has at least one first class car as well as several second class cars. Not only is the class of a car clearly marked on the car but so is the coach number. With assigned seating will be coach number. On many platforms there are signs that help you to know where to stand for which coach...a wonder aid in getting to your assigned seats (most regional trains have open seating). 

High speed trains which travel far more rapidly than the locals stop only at major centers, and their tickets are much more costly than the slower local trains. On our trips to Italy we have traveled on five different types of trains…high speed, express, standard local with assigned seats, local with unassigned seating which has an open ended tickets, and commuter trains. On this trip we didn't travel on any of the lightening fast trains. The slower and commuter trains tend to have open ended ticket trains with no assigned seating. Once you purchase an open ended ticket you can take that level of train anytime in the subsequent 90 days (but be mindful to validate your ticket at the end of the platform, or bottom of the stairs, before boarding the training. Once validated you must start your trip within hours. With assigned seats you don’t need to validate your ticket as it is a ticket for specified seats on a specific train). On this trip we used to open ended tickets, one from Parma to  Bologna, and one from Milan to the airport. 

For our journey to Parma Evie and I took a Swiss commuter train to Milan Central (Milan has two major train stations) where we transferred to a local Trenitalia train with assigned seats to Parma (a step up from the local milk run with unassigned seating). We found Milan Central not only easy to navigate with clear easy to read signs are clear, one can also quickly move from one platform to another when making a connection...15 minutes is the most you could need for a connection in that station. We kept our luggage with us as most trains types have luggage racks above the seats that accommodate standard carry-on roller boards.

Situated on a primary rail line running between Milan and Bologna, Parma is a small city with a population of 185,000 that is surrounded by lush farmland. Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto ham are two of the town’s more renown creations. Historically Parma’s most significance was as the seat of the middle age anti-popes (a period when there were two different men claiming to be the Pope). Parma was also the home of Verdi. Though Parma is not a major tourist center today, in the 18th and 19th century for the wealthy young men from Great Britain and northern Europe, it was one of the stops on the grand tour.  A river runs through the center of town, a river that is little more than a weedy small creek in the summer.  
Rather than stay a hotel room we booked an apartment with a little kitchenette that was situated between the train station and the heart of the old city. The apartment building fronted on what was the edge of the old city. 

After settling into our apartment in the late afternoon, we decided to explore the narrow old streets between our apartment and Parma’s Duomo (Basilica). Construction on the Duomo commenced in 1059 and was completed in 1106.

While the Duomo’s exterior is not elaborately adorned with sculptures or stunning architecture, the interior with its various chapels is anything but simple. With Correggio’s cupola fresco “Assumption” as the primary feature, the marble flooring, the overall décor, the artwork on the ceiling and in the various chapels, there is much to catch one’s attention. 

The ceiling is filled with artwork telling biblical and religious stories. As we were taking in the church’s artwork we heard singing. A worship service was taking place below the presbytery. We decided to join the service being held in the church’s crypt. While I could not follow much of what the priests and the people were saying, I could understand enough words and understood the liturgy enough to understand what was occurring and follow along the written text that was available to the worshipers.

As we joined with 100-120 local worshipers in the crypt, I was struck by the acoustics as well as by the simplicity and the age of the surroundings. My mind drifted over a the past thousand years of history. The thought that I was participating in a worship service in a place where generation after generation of people from Parma and the surrounding area had worshiped each week made the moment special. Thinking of all the worshipers of all those generations from the Middle Ages to the present who had been singing, praying, seeking comfort, strength and spiritual sustenance brought a sense of awe, and brings today into a much wider perspective.

After the service, I availed myself of the opportunity to take a few pictures of the crypt that is not normally open to the public. Following the service we left the crypt to continue our wondering around the church and its chapels. Since the front part of the presbytery was not closed off and lights of the copula were turned on, I quietly walked up into the presbytery where I spend time gazing up at Correggio’s fresco “Assumption” that adorns the inside the copula. It is a wonderful piece of artwork by one of the greatest painters of that age.

As we exited the church in the dying daylight our plan was to find a restaurant. Hearing the beating of drums and the sounding of trumpets kept us by the church's main doors that had just been opened. The cry of the trumpets and the beating of the drums grew louder. Then across the piazza the trumpeters and drummers emerged attired in medieval attire. Following them was a parade of people who were likewise attired in various forms of medieval attire. Unplanned, we had encountered an annual cultural celebration that included in it the people coming into the Duomo to worship and receive a blessing from the bishop.

While we remain unclear as to the nature of the celebration, we understand that its roots go back to the Middle Ages and involved competitions between the various neighborhoods including a horse race and sword fights. The next day we enjoyed the street festival that culminates with the seven ancient neighborhoods parading down the street in the medieval garb for donkey race (kids race) and a horse race in the heart of a city street.

As the service was concluding we left to find a place to eat. We noticed that the retail shops had closed around 7:00, but it was not until after 7:30 that the restaurants started to fill. We looked at one restaurant with less than the quarter of the tables taken but we informed that all the tables were reserved. 

From earlier trips we learned that Italians will typically have the table for most of the night, taking as much as two and half hours visiting with each other as they enjoy their meal, wine and then espresso. So we ate at a restaurant a few doors down that was in a building which showed several signs of being build over 300 years ago, one of which was the restroom’s toilet being of ancient design...all part of the fun and experience of traveling in other cultures.     

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