Food had been a recurring theme on this tour, and this day was no different.  We were off to Polesine Parmense to learn all about how culatello Parma ham is produced, take a cruise of the Po River, and enjoy a picnic lunch.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

During our stroll to the castle, we passed by this boat that would normally be floating in water in its current location! The severe drought had left the water level nearly non-existent.

Our visit to Antica Corte Pallavicina was the highlight of the day and a memorable experience.  Originally built in 1320, the current owner bought and restored the previously abandoned castle in 1990.  It is now a Michelin 1 Star-rated restaurant headed up by Polesine Parmense native, Massimo Spigaroli.  A visitor to the castle can dine in their restaurant, book a stay in one of their rooms, take cooking classes, and tour their ham cellars and museum.

This photo I photographed shows Chef Massimo Spigaroli with his staff. They were awarded a Michelin Star for their cuisine.

The country setting was beautiful; cows relaxed on the adjacent field, flowers bloomed in the garden along with herbs and vegetables, and a peacock was roaming about.

Stepping down into the ancient cellar, taking in the aroma, and seeing strung hams hanging everywhere I turned was surreal!  These are not some ordinary hams; they are in demand by famous chefs and dignitaries all over the world.  Some of these hams were even reserved for King Charles III!

Hams reserved for King Charles III
Parmesan cheese and squash from their garden were also stored in the cellar for their restaurant.

Each of the 5,000 hams in this cellar weigh about 9 pounds and are worth $350-$450 wholesale, depending on the age—anywhere from 15 to 45 months.

Following our tour and a stroll around the property, we made our way to the Po River (such as it was) for our cruise.  As you can see by the photo below, the water level was extremely low.  We navigated an obstacle course to keep from running aground on our way to Giarola Island for our picnic.

This ceramic piece, found in the Po River, dates back to the 1400’s.

Although it had been a bright and sunny day, the wind was cold, and we all froze on our way to the island.  Jenny had the right idea when she opted to soak in the sun to warm up while we waited for our picnic lunch to arrive.  Oscar and I joined her, and then she started singing, “You Are My Sunshine.”  We joined in, but didn’t know all of the words, so Oscar started making them up.  I thought he was hilarious, and I couldn’t stop giggling.

That evening, we enjoyed dinner together, and I particularly enjoyed my vegetarian dishes:



To begin our first full day in Parma, the group took a guided walking tour through the historic city center, visiting a few of its most spectacular churches and cathedrals.  We couldn’t have asked for a prettier day; it was gorgeous!

This is the ceiling of the first church we stopped at:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Continuing on, we arrived at the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, a Benedictine complex founded between 980 and 988.  This church was built between 1490 and 1519.  From top to bottom, this church was stunning!

Next, we toured the Parma Cathedral, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which dates back to 1059.  Between the architecture and stone sculptures of Benedetto Atelami and the gorgeous frescoes, I was amazed at the meticulous artistic detail.

We concluded our tour of the Benedictine complex at the Baptistery, which was constructed between 1196 and 1302.

The following are scenes captured as we wrapped up our tour with the local guide, and then continued on with Oscar and two others from the group to see more of Parma:

Our group dinner that night was at Sorelle Pichi, a memorable restaurant with great atmosphere, delicious cuisine, and some tasty lambrusco and malvasia wine.  It is also where Oscar, Bruce, and I discovered the crazy coincidence of having met the same jazz guitarist, Richard Smith—the story I told in the “Italy #2” post.  We had a lot of laughs that night, so this is a place I will remember fondly.

Coming up next:  ITALY #6: PARMA HAM & THE PO RIVER


Parma, located in Northern Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region, is known for many things, including its architecture, music, cheese, fantastic cuisine—and, prosciutto, which was present at every included lunch or dinner throughout our travels.  Walk by any deli throughout the region, and you will see prosciutto hanging—and, a lot of it. 

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Poking around delis (and taking deep breaths to savor the smells) is one of the things I enjoy doing when I travel, in addition to visiting markets, bakeries, and (of course!) chocolatiers.  I like to see what the locals are producing, take photos, and pick up a little something to try or bring back home.

A popular Easter treat in Italy!

Overseas Adventure Travel designs their tours with a lot of built-in free time during the afternoons and/or evenings.  Bruce and I take advantage of this time by exploring each place on foot, seeing as much as we can.  We did just that upon our arrival in Parma, walking throughout downtown following an orientation walk with the group.

Here are some scenes from around Parma:

Coming up next: PRETTY PARMA


What do storks have to do with the making of parmesan cheese?  Read on to find out!

On our way from Bologna to Parma, our group made a couple of stops along the way to learn about the making of parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar.  We began our day at Madonne Caseificio Dell’ Emilia for a tour of their parmesan making factory.  Our guide was excellent; a wealth of interesting information.  As we watched from behind large windows, she explained the process in detail.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

First, it is important to note they make Parmigiano (Parmesan) Reggiano, which can only be produced in the Emilia-Romagna region with cows from those region, although the cows can be different breeds.  The cheese is named after two of the provinces in that region, Parma and Reggiano.

“Parmigiano Reggiano” and “Parmesan” are protected designations of origin for the cheeses under Italian and European law.  Outside the EU, all bets are off, so we aren’t talking here about that powdery stuff you buy at Walmart in the green can, folks.

Parmesan Reggiano must be aged a minimum of twelve months, although it is typically sold after 24 to 100 months of aging.  Every cheese wheel is inspected by hand under strict regulations, and if it passes inspection, it receives a certification and serial number, which is stamped on the side of the wheel, along with the date of production.  This firebrand is proof the wheel is the real deal—and, excellent quality.

During the inspection process, a special hammer is used to tap on the wheel.  The sound made is indicative of the quality, and we were taught what the perfect parmesan wheel should sound like when it is tapped. 

A wheel of cheese typically weighs about 92 pounds; however, the older the wheel, the drier and smaller it will be.  It will also make a higher-pitched sound when tapped with the hammer.

These cheese wheels are valuable! Depending on the age, a wheel of Parmesan Reggiano can cost anywhere from $550 to $2,000. The inventory of cheese in Madonne’s huge store room is worth more than $17 million, if you price them each at $550!  (5% of the 33,000 wheels fail the monthly inspection.) 

Back to the cheese-making process, that guy in the black hat is the Cheese Master.  It takes fifteen years of experience to get to that level, so he is an expert at overseeing his team and the cheese.

Those big vats you see contain about 290 gallons of part skim mixture of cow’s milk.  It is heated, and then whey is added and the temperature raised.  Calf rennet (enzymes) is then added, and the mixture curdles for 10-12 minutes.  The curd is then broken up mechanically into small pieces, and the temperature is raised again.  It is left to settle for 45-60 minutes.  Next, those workers in the next row of vats are taking the compacted curd, dividing it into two parts, and wrapping each one in muslin, which will be placed in molds.  Eventually, they will become two wheels of cheese.

But, wait!  What about the stork?  Our knowledgeable—but serious—tour guide, explained in a very straight-faced way that the “stork” carries the “twins” off into the next room where they are placed in molds.  She said this without cracking a smile.  We thought it was hilarious!  The jokes started flying, Bruce and Oscar were cracking me up.

After seeing the room where the “twins” were placed in molds with a weight put on top, we were led to the next room where our guide explained the wheels were placed in massive tanks of brine to absorb salt for 20-25 days.  I couldn’t resist.  “Is this where the twins take their naps?”  We joked about the stork and twins for the remainder of the trip.

Next, the cheese wheels are transferred to aging rooms for 12 months for another nap.  (When they were in their molds, the “twins” were named by being imprinted with “Parmigiano Reggiano,” the plant’s number, and the month and year of production.)

The final nap takes place in that huge “nursery,” where they are placed on wooden shelves.  At 12 months, they will be inspected by the Consorzio Parmigaino Reggiano.  The wheels that pass inspection get heat-branded with the Consorzio’s (consortium) logo.  And, that my friends, is how babies—uh, Parmesan Reggiano cheese wheels—are made.

This is a picture of a photo they had on display. Two earthquakes in May of 2012 seriously damaged two of their three plants, and many cheese wheels were destroyed.

After sampling various ages of Madonne’s delicious cheese, we were off to learn how the Malpighi family has been making balsamic vinegar in Modena, Italy since 1850.

Check out the balsamic vinegar in your kitchen.  If cooked grape juice isn’t the first ingredient, it is not a good-quality vinegar.  It shouldn’t have caramel or other additives. 

The best Italian balsamic vinegar is from the Modena region, and the grapes must be from that region.  It is aged for a minimum of twelve years.  Different woods are used for the barrels, and after one year of aging, a percentage of the large barrel’s contents is transferred to a smaller barrel made of different wood.  This process continues through a series of smaller and smaller barrels.

This particular oak barrel dates back to 1500, and is one of the oldest documented balsamic vinegar barrels.  It is worth about $60,000!  The tradition in Modena is for parents to buy a barrel for their newborn, fill it with their homemade balsamic vinegar, and let it age until their wedding day when it is shared with all the wedding guests.

When the vinegar is ready for bottling, it is sent to the consortium for evaluation by a panel of experts who do a blind tasting.  If it passes, it is bottled and sealed at the consortium in clear spherical glass bottles with a rectangular base.  Only this type of bottle is allowed and producers are identifiable by a small label on the bottle.

The color of the bottle cap distinguishes the age.  A 25-year-old balsamic vinegar gets a gold-colored cap.  Malpighi’s most-aged balsamic was on sale in their shop for Euro 450—more than $450!

We tasted several different varieties of Malpighi balsamic vinegars and enjoyed a wonderful lunch of various salads, meats, and cheeses paired with their vinegars.  The most memorable was the balsamic-filled dark chocolates for dessert, following the fresh strawberries topped with balsamic vinegar!  I purchased a box of those chocolates to bring home.

During our ride to Parma, it was very quiet on the bus as most of the group napped while I watched the beautiful scenery pass by.



We were scheduled to go to Costa Rica this past January; however, a dysautonomia diagnosis last year was the convincing wake-up call that my body’s aversion to heat was going to override my heart’s love for tropical environments.  Thirty years of trying to fit that square peg in a round hole was only getting worse.

Back to the drawing board with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), we decided to switch over to a cool-weather trip to Italy, during a not-too-hot-not-too-cold time period.  We had visited the Calabria region in 2019, and we wanted to see more of Italy.  Past cruise ship stops to the country while “working” as a guest lecturer aboard Princess Cruises with my mom had given me just enough of a taste of the Tuscany region that I knew I wanted to return.  Thankfully, Bruce wanted to see more of Italy, too.  While we were at it, we thought we would add on the pre-extension trip to Bologna and Parma.

Although we had done excellent small group tours with Vantage Travel and Odysseys Unlimited, this particular itinerary with Overseas Adventure Travel sounded great, and the company was highly recommended by several neighbors and friends.  Besides, of the three companies, OAT’s tours have the smallest group size at 16 maximum.

As it turned out, there were six of us on the pre-extension and fifteen on the base trip.  Fortunately, it was a fantastic group!  We all got along, and everybody was on time, all the time.  Our tour leaders even congratulated us on being such a great group to lead!

In the following days (more like weeks…), I will share our experiences and my photography of what turned out to be a perfect 21-day trip through the Emilia-Romagna, Toscana, and Umbria regions.  We saw and learned so much! In addition to the history, we learned how mosaics are made and restored; and, how Carrara marble is extracted and worked.  We also learned how pasta, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, wine, goat cheese, prosciutto, Parma ham, and chocolate are all made; and, we went on a truffle hunt in the mountains. We sampled it all—and, a lot of it!  The food was delizioso!

Please join me on our Italian adventure.  Add your e-mail to “Sign me up!” and you will be notified each time I post.  (You can always unsubscribe later.) Grazie!

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

On our way to Italy!

Meanwhile, I will leave you today with a few scenes around Piazza Santo Stefano, the main square in Bologna and Basilica Santo Stefano:

Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of religious edifices
The Church of Holy Sepulchre dates back to the 5th century and was rebuilt in the 11th century by Benedictine monks following a Hungarian invasion.

Finally, we couldn’t complete our first day in Italy without a gelato. Oscar, our tour leader, sent us to his favorite place in town, a popular place!

That’s Bruce!
And, this is Oscar giving us a briefing on tomorrow’s events. (More on Oscar to come!)