It is commonplace to think of Parma as the Food Capital of Central Italy, but we say, "What about Reggio Emilia?" Why, as any gourmand knows, the very best parmesan cheese on earth is called parmigiano reggiano (guess what that second word means?)…
…and as for balsamic vinegar, it actually originated in Reggio, which is where you'll still find a miniature distillery in almost every family's attic or basement. The reggiani disdainfully say that Modena industrialized their ancient specialty, thus perpetuating just one more of Italy's myriad food wars that you will need to resolve for yourself by visiting the area and tasting the many local delicacies. These of course also include prosciutto, aka Parma ham…..
Oops! Here we go again -- the reggiani say the best prosciutto comes from hogs who breakfast each morning on the leftover serum from the parmigiano factories, which gives Reggio Emilia a claim to the third member of Emilia Romagna's culinary Holy Trinity as well!
No matter who wins the culinary battle, we're always thrilled when we can spend a day or two in Reggio Emilia. That's easy to do, because it is on the road to everywhere, exactly halfway between Florence and Milan, just off the A1 autostrada. And there's no way you can miss the exit either, ever since the city commissioned world-renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design no less than three graceful white bridges marking the spot.
They are even more dramatic if you arrive by night.
To some, these ultra-modern icons may seem unsuitable milestones pointing to one of Italy's oldest cities, founded in the 2nd century BC by Marco Emilio Lepido, whose name was eventually given to the city, and to the consular road that linked it to Rome, and to the entire region of Emilia itself.
Reggio is the epitome of an Italian provincial capital. Its streets are pristine and almost devoid of traffic…
…its shops, which display a wonderful conglomeration of yummy foods and classic Italian fashion, are all neatly tucked beneath porticos that protect shoppers from rain, snow and sun…
...its squares offer all manner of outdoor markets including this one, watched over by a pair of well-coifed lions.
Nearby, another square hosts the Saturday organic food market.
Reggio is also home to half a dozen truly lovely churches. Our favorite is dedicated to the city's patron saint, Prospero, a 5th-century bishop whose cult goes back to the beginning of the Middle Ages.
One of the very few things we know about this obscure saint is that he is buried under the altar, watched over by a pensive Madonna and playful Child.
Outside, the faithful lions have guarded the basilica since 1748.
Off we go down the narrow, winding streets towards the church of San Giorgio…
…past the tiny jewelbox Church of Christ….
…beneath more porticos…
…pausing to look at the Parmeggiani Museum, a delightful building that would be more at home in Bavaria.
Beneath its gilded belltower is a wonderful collection of jewels, European attire, sculptures, paintings, weaponry and more.
And then we come to the town's most elaborate shrine, the Temple of the Blessed Holy Virgin of the Ghiara. The exterior is anything but noteworthy, leaving the visitor totally unprepared for the explosion of décor that covers every square inch inside.
As you wander beneath one exquisite cupola….
….try to pick out the Old Testament stories that inspired the donors and artists who created them. And don't forget to look at the walls too! Here you will see copious yards of faux drapery….
….and entire shiploads of precious gold, framing simple pastoral scenes.
Of course we cannot omit the Cathedral, which has to have one of the strangest façades in Italy.
Next door, the lovely Baptistery of St. John is pure 13th-century Romanesque.
One of the simplest and yet most touching churches in Reggio is not Catholic at all. The austere synagogue….
…is so plain that you'd never notice if not for the plaque commemorating local Jewish citizens deported and killed by the Nazis.
Just the opposite is the imposing Sala del Tricolore.
Reggio Emilia is very proud to be the birthplace of the Italian flag. In 2011, visitors participated in festivities to celebrate the country's 150th birthday. Our favorite place to stay is the beautiful Hotel Posta, whose owners are happy to make arrangements for our guests to visit to a parmesan factory or enjoy a tasting at their very own balsamic vinegar farm.