90 minutes in Parma + what train travel is like in Italy right now

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Part 3 of my five-day train journey from southern Switzerland to northern Italy. (See part 1 and part 2 here.)

My train left Lugano at 7am, but broke down in the border town of Chiasso, just before we entered Italy. All of the explanations were given in Italian only, so I was left in the dark as to what happened: all I know is that we were shepherded out of our compartment and to the front of the train, and ten minutes later ordered to move back to the same compartment. We were stuck there for nearly half an hour, which meant that by the time we arrived in Milan, I had missed my two subsequent connections in both Genova and Sestri Levante.

Luckily, same-day tickets were surprisingly inexpensive. I used one of the Trenitalia ticket machines at Milano Centrale to purchase tickets from Milan to Manarola, which only came out to be about 25 euros. (I’ve written to SBB, the Swiss national train service, to request a refund, but no answer yet. They always take forever to respond.)

Side note: One other thing to know about train travel in Italy is that if you buy a ticket at the station, you usually have to validate it before you get on the train. Validation just means that you have to go to one of those little machines in front of each platform, stick your ticket in, and get it time-stamped. (Here’s what the one I used looked like.) Without a time stamp showing approximately when you boarded the train, you could get fined by the ticket inspector.

This detour worked out well because it gave me a 90-minute transfer in a city I had never visited before: Parma, Italy — home of the world-famous Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Parmesan, cheese.

What train travel in Italy looks like now

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Masks are mandatory on trains in Italy, as they are in Switzerland, and most people were wearing their masks inside Milano Centrale station. Foot traffic at the station had been completely overhauled, with lots of barriers and arrows directing where one could or could not go. To my surprise, the vast majority of people followed these arrows.

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On trains, traffic flow was also one-directional. These red footprint stickers were taped throughout each compartment, showing passengers which way to go if they wanted to exit the train. And on the outside, each compartment door was marked as either an entrance or an exit.

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Later, on the train leaving Parma, two out of every four seats were blocked out with these tags. You could not sit across from or next to anyone else.
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What happens when you try to connect to the free train Wi-Fi lmao

Walking around Parma

I only had a limited amount of time, but luckily Parma train station was close to the historic center. There was a self-service luggage locker outside the station. The automated voice on the machine was so unapologetically Italian, I cracked up hard.

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The walk from the train station to downtown. I feel like there might have been a river here once, but it must have dried out.
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Piazza della Pace, a local park to hang out and ride your bike.
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And this is Palazzo della Pilotta, a former 16th-century palace turned museum. Too bad I was on a tight connection and didn’t have time to go in.
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Even though Parma wasn’t terribly crowded, I noticed that the mask wearing rate was very high; around 8 or 9 out of 10 people were wearing masks. I do know that Italy has a nationwide mandate to wear masks between 6pm and 6am, but I’m not sure if there was stricter local legislation in Parma. Being in northern Italy, the city must have been extra vigilant.

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Cattedrale di Parma, one of the city’s biggest attractions.
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Next to it was the Baptistery of Parma, which was unfortunately closed during my visit.
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The art inside the cathedral was incredible. The cupola (dome roof) was particularly impressive; it was painted with a 3D effect similar to what one might see in St. Peter’s cathedral.
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I also stopped in the nearby Basilica di Santa Maria della Steccata, which was more quiet and peaceful.
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I was really struck by these socially distant chairs in the basilica. They brought to mind so many things: sadness, loneliness, warmth, community, and most of all resilience.
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The main square, Palazzo del Governatore.

I had a cup of coffee at a local cafe before I went back to the train station. It turned out one of the employees working there was a native French speaker, which made ordering so much easier! I picked up a salad to go, since there wasn’t time to eat, but I’m pretty sure asking for a coffee to go is considered a crime in Italy. 😉 I sat at a table outside and finished my coffee while watching people and buses pass by.

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And then it was time to get back to the train station.

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Next stop: Cinque Terre!

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