Immediately I could sense what was in store from my airplane window as I looked down on vast, well-tilled fields and long straight roads efficiently utilising their original Roman hectares. For below is called the ‘Food Valley’ a perfect cradle of nourishment extending between the Apennine mountains and Italy’s largest river, the Po.

At its heart is the city of Parma, afforded UNESCO status for her gastronomy and this year set to perform its role as Italy’s Capital of Culture in which it will host a multitude of concerts and exhibitions from July to December.

Deriving from the Latin for ‘shield’, Parma has an old city centre that’s a rounded conglomeration of safe, silent, cobbled streets devoid of fuming cars with locals ambling or bicycling around at a gentle pace. Here I spotted students at one of the world’s oldest universities either intent with their heads down in books or on celebrating their graduations with garlands of laurels resting upon their heads.

One draw for this year doubtless will be the Palazzo della Pilotta, a complex that houses an art gallery of local artists (such as Correggio) beside Italian greats such as Leonardo da Vinci whose sublimely beautiful drawing, La Fortuna de la Scapiliata was for me the prize exhibit. Elsewhere, shelves of ancient tomes with marvellous dust protectors line the extended rooms that comprise the library. The gorgeous baroque Teatro Farnese is also a ‘must see’, a veritable prototype of the modern playhouse with lovely wooden seats beneath arched columns.

The ‘Food Valley’ has forty-five different types of produce from meats and cured meat products, cheeses, bread and pasta, vegetables, fruits and cereals, oil, wool, bees and honey, milk and eggs, wines, ciders and fish.

These elongated Roman roads are lined with golden yellow fields that are punctuated with circular hay bails and light green crops bursting with vitality and sunflowers with their tilting heads. All set among poplar and linden trees, old barns with terracotta tiles, village dwellings and churches with spiral campaniles typical of the region.

Parma is only an hour from either Bologna or Milan airport and has enjoyed a 14 per cent increase in tourism in the last year, coming mainly from Switzerland and Germany. And it’s still a hidden joy for most Brits. Yes it gets very hot in August and very cool in January but the other ten months are divine and it’s never crowded so there are none of the queues you can encounter elsewhere in Italy and mercifully no sign of any selfie-sticks.

I sat in silence in the large open Piazza of the Romanesque Cathedral admiring the lack of tourists and the gentle pace of the locals cycling and ambling, before I entered this nave church with its apse and with its raised steps within, going high up to the altar beneath its frescoed vault and ceiling. All very uplifting for my spirit and my craning neck. As for the Baptistery, begun in 1196, with its wondrous and impressive height, it has rectangular windows and is decked in pink Verona marble cladding and though octagonal on the outside it’s sixteen-sided within.

While in Parma I stayed at the Hotel Palazzo dalla Rosa Prati ( I awoke to the sounds of church bells chiming and met Victor, the hotel owner, who led us along a shaded leafy courtyard with celadon shutters and down a private route before taking us upstairs to where his parents live and still uphold the traditions of their family heritage with rooms of a bygone era including the ‘sala grande’ ballroom.

I awoke early to catch the ‘Lowlander Tour,’ with Food Valley Travel ( and I got to see the whole food process from ‘farmyard to table’. After all, as a city dweller, it’s only too easy to forget the connection. And what care is given and attention paid. It’s a veritable labour of love handed down from family to family, from generation to generation.

What a luxury to experience the freshness of the homemade ice cream which they even like to treat to a dash of vintage balsamic vinegar. Wonderful on the taste buds. Lovely mouth-watering explosive flavours.

I had come to see how they make Parmigiano Reggiano, the official name for the hard, granular cheese we call Parmesan and whose trademark can only be branded onto the cheese if it’s produced in the place of origin and accords to the strict rules that require precise production methods and the controlled feeding of the cows.

It’s quite a story. The milk, taken twice a day, goes within two hours to the cheese house. Before I had arrived, the takings from the evening milking was poured into the holding basins where the separation of the curd from the whey was already underway. I then watched this partly skimmed milk being poured into copper cauldrons before the natural enzyme rennet was added and then salt was introduced to shrink the cheese and create its rind. Interestingly, it’s the only cheese that can be enjoyed by those who are lactose intolerant.

It’s quite a story. The milk, taken twice a day, goes within two hours to the cheese house. Before I had arrived, the takings from the evening milking was poured into the holding basins where the separation of the curd from the whey was already underway. I then watched this partly skimmed milk being poured into copper cauldrons before the natural enzyme rennet was added and then salt was introduced to shrink the cheese and create its rind. Interestingly, it’s the only cheese that can be enjoyed by those who are lactose intolerant.

The other main pride and joy of the region is the salumi and, in particular, their Culatello di Zibello. Made from pigs’ buttocks, it’s only officially recognised as coming from the eight villages located in the lowlands of the Po Valley where the humidity and the fog rising from the river give it its unique taste of world renown. I went several steps back in the process to a farm with roaming white pigs (from which the meat takes 1-3 years to mature) and black pigs (a minimum of 3 years). Skipping the grim abattoir, I learnt how a strict consortium assesses the ham’s quality and maturity by inspecting its shapes and smells. Many restaurants in the area have cellars with thousands of the ageing cured meat hanging down on hooks to mature.

I stayed next, at the Antica Corte Pallavicina ( The hotel is proud of her resident peacocks who are equally proud of their expansive flashing frames. It also plays home to the Museum of Culatello for the devotees, to a characterful chapel available for weddings, and to its Hosteria del Maiale, a shop of local produce doubling up as a breakfast spot with country-style gingham tablecloths.

From here, rather than join a boat tour up the river, I walked along the wild tracks of splurging greenery beside the breadth of the river Po with the breeze giving respite to the intense sun as did the shaded poplar avenue with oleander shrubs. Crickets buzzed and thrummed everywhere and the meadows were abundant with wild flowers that I watched being lapped up by large, white, pristine, healthy cows.

I also borrowed one of the hotel’s Brooks bicycles to ride around the neighbouring village of Polesine Parmense. Some continental rustic traditions never seem to change with the older men’s groups sitting in the square by the bar putting the world to rights while pairs of old ladies sat outside their houses doubtless catching up on more local matters. I was captivated by the countryside and my bike ride became a virtual marathon among the swaying trees and river reeds.

With a mere six bedrooms, the Antica Corte Pallavicina is the perfect romantic getaway or hideaway, to be more precise. It’s the ultimate boutique hotel with an authentic rustic style as I opened the blinds to an orchestra at dawn consisting of crickets, cuckoos and peacocks.

On I went that morning to Colorno, to its Ducal Palace called the Reggia and up I climbed its ‘Staircase of Honour’ into the Duke’s Apartment. Here, offset from its spinal cord of a hundred yard corridor, are unfurnished but intimate rooms with marble fireplaces, tall double doors with engraved gilt bronze locks and floral rococo ceilings. My favourite rooms were the elegant décor of the Chinese boudoir and the splendidly grand ‘sala grande,’ the ‘great’ or ‘throne’ room.

In the Duchess’s rooms, the feminine whirls of the inlaid floors are echoed in the garden. As I opened the shutters it was easy to see why the Reggia is dubbed a ‘mini Versailles’. The formal garden, the parterre, is exquisite and, these days, is used regularly by locals and holds concerts using the palace as a backdrop. As I went outside to explore the gardens, I walked down a shady avenue of ash trees and alongside the only surviving tree, the zelkova carpinifolia, around which it takes six rugby players to link arms.

Elsewhere in the palace, rooms are now given over to the ALMA school (, the most authoritative training centre of Italian Cuisine. Sadly it was shut but I would have loved to have had a peep to discover some of the secrets behind how the Italians make such delicious meals out of sometimes the most basic ingredients.

From north of Parma to south of Parma and on to The Rocca at Sala Baganza I went. It’s a fortress that lords itself impressively over the town. Inside there’s a magnificent pictorial cycle of frescoes and on its exterior walls cascading vines flow like waves down upon the gardens below.

Within the Rocca’s keep is where I was last to stay at the Cortaccia San Vitale Hotel ( It’s a fresh and well-kept hotel and ideal for young families. It has the entrance to the Rocca yards away one way and a Wine Museum and a handy delicatessen-cum-café the other while the peaceful village of Sala Baganza is still in walking distance.

For my final day, although I’m not a golfer it made no difference to my enjoyment at the Parma Golf Experience ( that comprises three golf courses in the area. I visited the one in Vigatto only fifteen minutes drive from Parma where you can pay for a day’s golf or simply swim in the super-sized pool (remember to bring your own towels). Here was my chance to sunbathe on glamorous furnishings in luxurious surroundings before enjoying a fabulous lunch at their ‘Green – Food and Friends Restaurant’ where I scrutinised the menu with my now practised eye to order an excellent spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico.

I was both heartened and touched by the very attentive and hospitable vice president and staff with whom I met up. My wonderful host told me all the local gossip. “Parma,” he explained, “is a small city where everybody knows each other. It’s like a big family without the problems a family can bring.” His generosity and warmth across our lunch table conjured up for me visions of the long family tables of food planned for the streets of Parma for the 2020 celebrations.

Adam had support from the Parma Tourist Board

Adam had further support from and (who offer airport lounges at all major UK airports and many international destinations).