The Perfect Italian Saturday - A Castle and Lunch

Visiting the Parma Countryside in Fall 

You’ve been traveling all week admiring the spectacular attractions of Northern Italy. Visiting Verona, Ferrara, Bologna and Parma was fabulous - but wouldn't it be nice to take a break from the cities? Yet it would be a shame to loaf around when there are so many treasures to discover. Here’s a way to enhance your Italy itinerary and see some of Italy's charming small towns and landscapes: castle hopping.

Torrechiara Castle near Parma
Torrechiara Castle and grape vines near Parma on a sunny day in November.
The provinces of Parma and Piacenza have many castles, and they are well presented at this link: Castles of the Duchy of Parma & Piacenza.  We chose the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, about 10 miles south of Parma, as an interesting Saturday junket. Parma is on the plain of the Po bordered by beautiful rolling hills. Not far from the city, the countryside becomes very rural – after all they don’t get that fabulous Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano from urban areas!

The plains and low hills in the middle of Italy are often foggy –
foggy enough that there are special signs to help you judge distance on the autostrada in case of heavy fog. On a warm sunny day in early November, the fog was just a heavy haze, adding a golden glow to the fields of corn stubble, the fading vines, and the dark patches of trees on the ridges. Just getting to the castle was a scenic pleasure.

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
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Torrechiara was built by Pier Maria II Rossi, count of San Secondo, between 1448 and 1460. It sits on top of a low hill, about 250 feet high, with lovely views over fields and villages.The castle has four rectangular towers, connected by a double line of walls, and it's one of the best preserved castles in Italy. The original structure has remained intact in part because the castle was not only designed as a fortification but also as a residence for a noble court.

Ceiling of the Golden Room, Torrechiara Castle.
Ceiling of the Golden Room in Torrechiara Castle. Bianca tours the realm.
We parked below the castle and walked up to the heavy gates. There are drawbridges as you enter that would have spanned the dry moat. The admission fee is only 3€, and you can wander around to your heart’s content. The rooms are empty of furniture, but that only serves to give you a better view of the wonderful frescoes by Cesare Baglione dating back to the end of the 16th century. There are rooms devoted to times of day (dawn, midday, dusk), which feature birds of the hour; there is a room with an ivied trellis painted on a vaulted ceiling; there is a dining room called the Hall of Honor, featuring symbols of battle and peace; a particularly appealing Hall of Jugglers, with paintings of naked performers and mythical heroes; and, finally, the most famous, the Golden Room.

The Golden Room occupies the entire first floor of one of the four towers and was Pier Rossi's bedroom. It has been rightly called an anthem to love - the love of Pier Maria Rossi and his mistress, Bianca Pellegrini of Arluno. She had it frescoed by the painter Benedetto Bembo in 1452, and it's a notable example of early secular Italian art. The four lunettes are painted to represent four stages of Pier and Bianca's love affair and the walls use mythological and historical figures that Pier Maria admired: Samson and Hercules are symbols of physical strength, while Virgil and Terence are symbols of the importance of culture and intellect.

It's called the Golden Room because when it was new, gold leaf covered the terracotta tiles that line the lower section of the room. The gold was removed in the early 20th century, but the tiles remain. On the tiles are five different designs running diagonally. Some of these are the alternating symbols of Pier Maria (rampant lion) and Bianca (a castle on the water), and a panel with two overlapping hearts surmounted by a Latin motto. Another shows an M with a ribbon with the words 'nunc et semper', in celebration of Bianca and Pier. And look up, the ceiling celebrates 15th century courtly love, and the journey of Bianca through Pier's realm.

Anolini in Brodo
Anolini in brodo at Masticabrodo in Pilastro.

After a morning castle gazing and tower climbing, it’s inevitably time for lunch.  How do you choose? That can be the confusing part, since the food in Emilia-Romagna is almost always fabulous. We used the excellent Slow Food site Emilia Romagna Slowfood, since we were looking for a traditional country lunch. Slow Food only includes restaurants that serve affordable traditional foods of quality. It’s usually best to reserve, especially on a weekend, so we chose Masticabrodo Trattoria and called the day before. Details below.

Masticabrodo is on the main road in Pilastro, not hard to find, and almost all the tables were reserved. They have both a printed menu and Specials of the Day, which are written in marker on square plates (all in Italian). The service is friendly, but, as the orders rolled in, the kitchen slowed down, so adjust your expectations. We ordered two antipasti, one a selection of the local ham specialties and the other a 'fantasia' of five different tastes. The meats were unbelievable - after all Langhirano is the epicenter for Prosciutto di Parma. There was prosciutto, lightly roasted ham, pancetta piacentina, salame Felino, and culatello - all were perfect in taste and texture. The fantasia was even better: a tart of egg and diced pancetta, a torte of potato, a torte of onion, all three served on a fonduta of Parmigiano, with an exquisite little mousse of Parmigiano and a caramalized sweet and sour onion on balsamic reduction. The waitress paused when she brought the plate - knowing we were stranieri - to mention that the onion should be eaten last so that it wouldn’t conflict with the creamier other offerings.

Tagliatelli with Black Truffles
Tagliatelli with black truffles. The yellow was not enhanced - this is Emilia!
 For the next course, we had anolini in brodo and tagliatelli with black truffles, one of the specials. The tagliatelli were eye opening – even without any condiment they were delicious - yellow and rich, with the unique texture of homemade pasta. The tissue-thin slices of truffle were a perfect counterpoint. Anolini (little rings) are a very traditional dish, round ravioli-sized pasta stuffed with a rich meat filling and served in flavorful broth. I found them a little too heavy for my personal taste, and the broth a little too salty. But I watched everyone else scarfing them down happily! We would have liked to try a meat course, but – sweet sorrow - that will have to wait for another lunch on another day.

More Info

Parma Tourism Website on Torrechiara with hours: Parma Tourism

Masticabrodo Trattoria-Osteria, Strada Provinciale per Torrechiara 45A, Pilastro PR
Phone 0521 639110, Masticabrodo Website.

There are numerous stores to buy the famous salumi of the area. Just below the Torrechiara Castle is Salumi Gardoni which is also a hotel and has been in business for over 100 years. Salumi Gardoni Website. In Langhirano proper, there's La Perla Salumificio which has tastings and factory tours by arrangement and an English website, La Perla Website.

Also in central Langhirano is the Museum of Prosciutto which explains prosciutto production and related subjects so that you will never again be an ignorant pork product consumer. Museum of Prosciutto Website.

Getting There

From Pontremoli on the A15(E33) Parma-La Spezia Autostrada, Torrechiara Castle is about 1 hour 15 minutes. From Parma on local roads, it's about 25 minutes. The bus 12 from Parma train station reaches Torrechiara in 38 minutes, Trasporti Pubblici Parma Website.

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Written by Martha