The next day we pass under the dark arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione to reach the Piazza delle Erbe. It is market day and we walk among the little stands, watching women as they carefully peruse the lush vegetables, pinching and sniffing to find the perfect ones. Most are seasonal: parsnips, cauliflower, cardoons, mushrooms, tenderly displayed in their winter monotones. I think of the supermarkets in New York, where it is impossible to tell what season it is from the selection available, leading us to easily forget the joys of seasonal cuisine. We try a few marrons glacés (chestnuts boiled in syrup and covered in a thin crackly coat of sugar) then make our way to the old Pasticceria Caravatti for an aperitif.
The flat landscape on the road to Parma is wrapped in the wet grayness of winter. Parma makes a stark contrast to the silence of Mantua. This is a university town, with streets and cafés full at all times of the day. As we arrive at our hotel Aggie receives the news of the birth of a granddaughter. Our first stop is the spectacular Duomo, where, in the cupola of the church, under Correggio's magnificent Assumption, we light a candle in honor of a new life. The large, Romanesque Baptistry to the right of the Duomo is perhaps my favorite building in Italy; its octagonal shape creates a series of pale-rose stone façades along which streams a sculptural frieze, like chapters in a book.
Today is a religious holiday and we attend mass at the grand Church of the Madonna della Steccata. The glorious edifice was built from a plan conceived by Donato Bramante, with tempera paintings and frescoes by Parmigianino and Bernardino Gatti. It is crowded with people who in their devotion seem oblivious to the masterpieces surrounding them. When mass is over, worshipers light candles at the feet of their favorite saints, and I think of my Italian relatives who seem to have a dictionary of saints to pray to for every possible need. We manage to persuade a priest to show us the sacristy, built in 1670 and bursting with remarkable oversize wood carvings.
That night we treat ourselves to dinner at La Greppia, a trattoria housed in a former stable. Here we savor a special variety of prosciutto called culatello, made from cured pork shoulder and so delicate it's almost sweet. Our next course is pasta shells stuffed with vegetables, typical of the area; we finish with slices of aged Parmesan.
It is truffle season in northern Italy, and Parma is widely known for this delicacy. During our stay we sample a range of dishes, from a simple one of baked eggs sprinkled with truffle shavings to a delicate truffle risotto.
The last stop on our drive back to Milan is a visit to a small but precious private collection in Mamiano di Traversetolo. Recently opened to the public, in a villa set among wandering peacocks on the grounds of a beautiful park, is the collection of Luigi Magnani, a wealthy merchant. He has put together an unusual selection of works. Among them is a rare group portrait by Goya, a fantastic Cézanne watercolor of bathers, a Virgin and Child by Titian, and a room with 17 paintings by Giorgio Morandi. The art is displayed in a perfect setting of carefully chosen decorative pieces, such as a table by Piranesi. For lunch at the villa's small restaurant, which is run by the caretaker's family, we eat delicious baked gnocchi with large quantities of cream and Parmesan.
Virginia Woolf once wrote: "The human soul it seems to me orients itself afresh now and then." Our week is up and no momentous decisions have been reached, no complete balance sheet has been drawn. But the trip has given me the sense of tranquillity and renewal that comes from having been with a friend, from pondering the continuing story of our lives and enjoying the simple pleasures of a well-cooked meal. We have rediscovered the healing power of Italy and art.