Two Capitals of Culture – Veszprém and Timișoara

I’ve posted before about two UK cities of culture, Hull and Coventry, and now I’ve just been to two of the European Capitals of Culture for 2023, Veszprém and Timișoara (the third is Elefsina, once known as Eleusis, in Greece, which I don’t know much about). Timișoara, in the southwestern corner of Romania, is a city I’ve known since 1991, but I’m pretty sure I’d never been to Veszprém, southwest of Budapest.

 This is one of Hungary’s oldest and most historic cities, having played a key rôle in the establishment of Christianity in the country and thus the consolidation of the state and the royal dynasty. A diocese was established here under Prince Géza, who has been converted to Christianity in 975, and in 997 his son King István (aka St Stephen) defeated a pagan uprising here, with the help of knights sent by Henry II, Duke of Bavaria, father of István’s wife Gisela. She made Veszprém her home, and it has always been known as ‘the Town of Queens’. It was largely destroyed in the sixteenth century and rebuilt after 1711, with many ugly buildings added around the old town during the communist period.

 I took a very slow train (hauled by an oversized diesel shunter) from Györ (on the Vienna-Budapest main line), through the Bakony hills and forests, with hikers getting on and off, and eventually arrived at the station a couple of kilometres north of the centre of Veszprém. Having found my bed I headed for the castle area – and found it closed off, with all the buildings along Vár utca (Castle Street), leading up to it, hidden by scaffolding and plastic sheeting. This is a rocky plateau reached from the lower town through the Heroes’ Gate, fairly tastefully built in 1936 to commemorate the dead of the First World War (just before the second one broke out), next to the minaret-like Fire Tower (originally built in the thirteenth century but now largely Baroque). Vár utca winds up the hill between large Baroque buildings, some of which house art galleries, and into the square dominated by the Bishop’s Palace (Érseki Palota), a ponderous edifice (1765-76) built on the site of Gisela’s palace by Jakab Fellner, Hungary’s leading Baroque architect. At the end, beyond the Trinity Column (1750), is the cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the current incarnation dating from 1907-11 – it’s in a pretty authentic Romanesque style, as far as I could see, although the interior murals are a bit bright. Gisela was beatified in 1911, and one of her forearm bones is preserved as a relic in a shrine by the altar.

 The cathedral, and the Trinity Column, seem, externally at least, to be in fine condition. The city’s Capital Culture brochure and website feature lovely pictures of this area, so it seems a bit odd that this is all happening now, with no prospect of being ready by Easter and maybe not even by the summer. Maybe the government was persuaded to hand over a large sum of money and they just went crazy?

 Veszprém’s biggest event doesn’t actually require much in the way of infrastructure, refurbished or not – the Street Music Festival takes over the streets every summer, and will be bigger and more international than ever this year. Oddly, Veszprém is already a UNESCO City of Music, although it’s hard to see why – it wasn’t home to the Beatles, or reggae, or flamenco, like other Cities of Music, just the Street Music Festival and a certain Auer Lipót (aka Leopold von Auer, 1845-1930), a violinist, conductor and composer that I had never heard of.

 Some exhibits are very very niche – the Tegularium, in the basement of the Dubniczay Palace, is a display of bricks (and of information on brickmaking, to be fair), and the Vass Shoe Gallery commemorates the world-famous shoe brand of László Vass, which, again, I had never heard of, as well as housing Lászlo’s collection of modern art, above all Hungarian abstractionists. The former jail, on the west side of the castle, is now a museum, and probably quite a decent one – there will ‘soon’ be lift access from the Ruttner House (Ruttner ház) down on Jókai Mór utca. The ActiCity cultural centre and events space will open ‘in the spring’ in the old children’s hospital on Hovirag utca, south of the centre.

 Otherwise, my sense of Veszprém was that it’s really a bit small for the job of Capital of Culture (yes, it covers the Lake Balaton area too, but Veszprém is its heart) – for instance, the old town restaurants were overwhelmed already (by 6pm on the first Saturday in March). And most of the signage that I saw was only in Hungarian, when English and German will be more important for international visitors.

It’s all Hungarian to me
Even the railway station is still being rebuilt

 Anyway, the Veszprém Street Music Festival will take place from 7 to 16 July, overlapping with VeszprémFest (12 to 16 July), with international pop and jazz artists such as Norah Jones. From 13 to 22 August there’s Rose, Riesling and Jazz Days, with food, wine and music in the main square, and from 28 September to 1 October the Balaton Wine & Gourmet Festival, launched last year, brings free wine tastings, dinners with Michelin-starred chefs, demonstrations and workshops.

 Meanwhile, Timișoara is a bigger, better organised city and seems to be more prepared for its latest year in the spotlight – of course, the revolution against the Ceaușescu regime started here, and Timișoara has enjoyed its fame since then, while also developing as a business and education centre, benefitting from its position near Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and even Italy. It’s full of students and has a lively grungey bar scene.

 The Timișoara Art Museum is large and excellent even in normal times, but it’s pulling out the stops this year. For me the undoubted highlight is the biggest exhibition of the sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși for the last fifty years, but this won’t open until 30 September (running until 28 January 2024). To keep us going for the time being there’s a show of the surrealist painter Victor Brauner, from 17 February to 28 May.

 There’s also an active theatre scene here, with the German and Hungarian State Theatres both working with simultaneous translation (with surtitles or earphones, into Romanian and sometimes English), to show that language can be not an impediment but a unifying force. On the musical side, too, there’s plenty going on, notably the Timişoara Muzicală Festival (classical concerts and opera), JazzTM (jazz) and the Plai (world music).

 By chance I looked at the Romanian edition of the Riveter literary magazine, published in September 2020, and found that it focussed specifically on Timișoara, and that a remarkable number of the leading Romanian writers are associated with the city, such as Ana Blandiana, Herta Müller and Mircea Cartarescu.

 Also noticed in Romania

In Britain this winter everyone (well, almost) has been wearing bessiments (hats, gloves, scarves etc) in exactly the right tone of mustard yellow, whereas in Romania people are wearing down jackets and so on in slightly off versions of the same yellow – prototypes that didn’t make it in the crucible of the marketplace, or just poor copies?

A slice of Parma

Parma is a temple to Italy’s three great loves, food, music and art, and they like to cycle too (even the recent African immigrants, unlike elsewhere in Italy), so what’s not to like? And any town that has a bookshop that’s been open since 1829 (Libreria Fiaccadori, Via al Duomo 8 – open seven days a week, and to midnight from June to August!) is my kind of town.

Starting with food, the Slow Food movement (now prominent worldwide) may have started in Bra, in Piedmont (and been triggered by the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in 1986), but nowadays Parma has a fair claim to be the epicentre of the movement towards sustainable production of traditional local food and drink, thanks above all to the global fame of its ham and cheese, and the measures put in place to protect them from competition, above all from the rapacious and unscrupulous global agroindustry. I speak, of course, of prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). I won’t go into details, but in order to gain the EU’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Designation of Protected Origin), producers have to follow a very specific process for sourcing and processing these foodstuffs, and can then command a premium price for them. Parma has also been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

A similar concept to Slow Food is Cucina Povera or Poor Cooking – not just peasant cooking (which is usually great, worldwide, except perhaps in North Korea) but a specific adaptation to the poverty of peasants in Italy in the late nineteenth century (the time of the great migration to the USA. of course) and after the two world wars – people learnt to cook with the cheapest ingredients, such as potatoes, beans and lentils, with any meat used coming from offcuts. This has now become fashionable as a way to cut excess, to get back to a simple traditional lifestyle, and simply as a healthier option.

Anyway, the best Parma ham comes from the hills to the south of the city, especially the Langhirano valley, where there are around 500 authorised producers (and a ham museum in Langhirano village), and also to the north along the River Po, where the ultra-lean culatello ham is produced. Parmesan cheese is produced on the plains north of the city, and there’s also been a large tomato-processing industry in the area since the nineteenth century. Some local dishes include tortelli d’erbetta (ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese, nutmeg and spinach), tortellini filled with pumpkin and savoury cheese and served with a butter sauce, and torta fritta, fried dough pillows served with thin slices of Parma ham. Some dishes come with an appropriate amount of shaved Parmesan on top – do not wantonly smother your food with grated Parrmesan, that’s as dumb as drowning it in ketchup. And putting Parmesan on pizza is a crime against gastronomy. Speaking of pizza, it’s acceptable to have a beer (just one) with pizza, but otherwise you should drink wine with Italian food. Quite right too. Lambrusco is one of the local wines, and nothing like what you imagine – it’s still spritzy (but many Italian table wines actually have a bit of fizz to them, surprisingly) but the dry and semi-dry (secco and semisecco) styles go really well with local food.

It’s easy to visit producers, especially with the TastyBus Foodseeing tour or similar. I’ll say more about Italian food (and beer) below.

As for music, Parma’s main claim to fame is that Guiseppe Verdi was born nearby, and there’s an annual festival of his music in the city – but the lyric soprano Renata Tebaldi was also born nearby and studied at Parma’s conservatoire. There was a Tebaldi exhibition in the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, but this was replaced in 2014 by a new museum dedicated to her at the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, just down the road.

And finally (and rather lengthily) art – the Galleria Nazionale has a great collection, including a simply perfect representation of ideal beauty by Leonardo da Vinci – there’s much less Flemish and Dutch art here then in Genova and Torino, and more Gothic and Renaissance Italian art. It’s housed in the huge red-brick Palazzo della Pilota, which was remodelled internally between the 1970s and 1990s by the local architect Guido Canali – you enter through the remarkably large Teatro Farnese, built in 1619 and rebuilt in 1956 after damage in World War II, then a funky metal walkway leads backstage and across to the gallery. The earlier old masters include Daddi and Gaddi, Veneziano, Spinello Aretino and Fra Angelico (his lovely Madonna of Humility) and Giovanni di Paolo, Bici di Lorenzo and Neri de Bici; there’s an Annunciation by someone close to Botticelli, and nice pieces by Jacopo Loschi, the leading Parmesan painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, straddling the Late Gothic and the early Renaissance. After La Scapiliata, Leonardo’s lovely head of a young girl, I found that the rooms beyond in the north wing were closed except for a group visit at 5pm – I don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement. Until then, I went out past some portraits of the later Bourbon rulers of Parma to a fine Neoclassical hall (1825, with Canova’s statue of Maria Luigia of Austria (Duchess of Parma 1816-47) and a massive muscular second-century Hercules found in 1724 on the Palatine Hill in Rome) and then the galleries created by Maria Luigia to display the works of Correggio (c.1489-1534), the leading painter of the Parma School, though these are too sentimental for my taste. There’s also work by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-40), the leading early Mannerist painter (and one of the first etchers), who was as his nickname implies born in Parma. You’ll also see Agostino Carracci (brother of the better-known Anibale), who died in Parma in 1602.

Returning at 5pm, the lower part of the northwest wing houses less important fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists from Parma and the Po area, such as Alessandro Araldi, Cristoforo Caselli, Filippo Mazzola (father of Parmigianino), Dosso Dossi and the rather twee Il Garofalo from Ferrara. Upstairs, there are works by Michelangelo Anselmi (1491-1554), who was born in Lucca only because his father was exiled from Parma, and was living here by 1520. Slightly surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Erasmus by the studio of Holbein. Another metal walkway leads up to a former hayloft, now a great space for displaying larger paintings – there are portraits of the ruling Farnese family by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (c.1500-69), a Mannerist who was born and lived in Parma, marrying Parmigianino’s cousin, as well as works by Annibale Carracci (the better-known one – a small self-portrait and a big Dead Christ), Frans Pourbus the Older, Tintoretto, Palma Il Giovane, Agostino Carracci and Lambert Sustris – there must be a law that every gallery in northern Italy has exactly one work by this Venice-based Dutch painter. Don’t miss the small but very striking El Greco of Christ Healing the Blind (1573-6). Other local artists include Giovanni Battista Tinti (1558-1604) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), who moved to Rome and adopted the new Baroque style.

Going down and back, there’s work by Guercino, various seventeenth-century portraits including some from the studio of van Dyck, then the usual slew of dull eighteenth-century paintings before reaching Tiepolo, Bellotto (four definitely by him plus two attributed) and Canaletto, with various views of Parma (from the 1860s) and prints from 1557 on as you head for the exit.

Parma’s second-best gallery is the Pinacoteca Stuard, in a wing of the tenth-century Benedictine nunnery of San Paolo, which has a less locally-focussed collection including works by Niccolo di Tommaso, Bicci di Lorenzo, Giovanni di Francesco (formerly attributed to Uccello), Van Eyck, a follower of Lippi, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and upstairs Lanfranco, Valerio Castello (from Genova) and a follower of Guercino. On the other side of the nunnery, you can visit the abbess’s rooms, decorated by Correggio et al in 1519 then shut up and forgotten from 1524 to 1774 – there’s a copy of the Last Supper by Alessandro Araldi, then after the chapterhouse (with good carved stalls), a room with the vault painted by Araldi and then the highlight, the Camera di San Paolo, where Correggio decorated the vault of the abbess’s private dining room to simulate a pergola with vivacious mythological frescoes that are considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art. The pagan subject matter seems out of place in a nunnery, but San Paolo’s convent was known for good living and lax rules. While there, it’s also worth popping into the Castello dei Burratini, a free museum of puppetry with a good video of a puppet playing the piano and puppeteers working and singing too.

In 1530-4 Correggio also painted the cupola of the duomo (cathedral), which was consecrated in about 1106, with a Gothic campanile added in 1284-94 and side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The apse was painted by Bedoli, as well as the vaults of the choir and the nave (c.1557). The interior is totally covered with frescoes, some very Mannerist in style; there are some older ones in side chapels such as the Capella del Comune. Alongside the duomo is the amazing Baptistery, a highlight of the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture. It was built in 1196-1216 and decorated then with sculptures by Benedetto Antelanni and his workshop – the seemingly random sculptures in niches all around the base of the Baptistery is known as the Zooforo (or zoophorus), a series of 75 panels of symbolic and fantastical subjects. The highlight is its umbrella vault, frescoed in the 1220s with sixteen segments radiating from the keystone and six concentric horizontal bands, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham; the life of John the Baptist; Christ in Glory with the Virgin and the Baptist, prophets and kings; the Apostles and Evangelists; the celestial Jerusalem; and heaven with a red bullseye at the top representing the Empyrean.

Your ticket includes the Diocesan Museum, which is small but decent enough (with information in Italian only) – you’ll go down to the foundations of some third-century Roman walls and then see Roman coins and ceramics from the cathedral area, then carvings from the first churches, fairly simple mosaics – and thankfully no vestments, which are what I always expect to see in diocesan museums!

There’s more Correggio in the church of St John the Evangelist behind the duomo, where the cupola frescoes were painted by the man himself in 1520-24 and the nave frieze by his studio, while the Bono chapel (the fifth on the right) houses two Correggio canvases; the nave vault was painted by Anselmi (1521-3). The chancel is very Baroque, and the façade was added in 1607 and the 75m-high campanile in 1613. Finally, Pamigianino was commissioned to paint the frescoes of the cupola of Santa Maria della Steccata, built in 1521-39 – he only finished the Three Wise and Three Foolish Virgins (1526-7), high in front of the altar, which show remarkable skill in modelling.

A few thoughts about (salty and bitter) Italian food

When I travel in France or Switzerland I’m used to waking up a couple of times in the night to drink water, due to what is for me (who basically doesn’t use salt) over-salted cooking. In Italy I wake up five or six times a night, the food really is that salty. I do always claim that Italian food, especially in the south, is the world’s best food for vegetarians, but in the dark of the night it can seem like hard work. Of course, Italians also like bitter coffee (cappuccino is famously served only in the mornings, after that you have to take it strong and bitter) – happily there is an alternative, as Italy serves up the world’s best hot chocolates, some so thick you could almost stand a spoon up in the cup. (Forget about tea, they don’t have a clue.) They also have a thing about after-dinner digestivos, also known as amaro (‘bitter’), just to make the point clear.

Thankfully, there are some pleasantly light and sparkling pre-dinner drinks – the cocktail of the year seems to be the Hugo, a blend of gin, prosecco and elderflower cordial with tonic or soda water. You can also order a Black Hugo (reddish, really), with forest fruits. There are also some excessively sweet after-dinner drinks, such as moscato.

It is worth stressing that gelato is both unsalted and lower in fat than ice cream – definitely tasty and healthy, as far as pure indulgence goes. As it happens I’m writing this in Georgia, where the food is also wonderful for vegetarians (there’ll be a dish of meat, but it’s just set down on the table surrounded by wonderful salads and other vegetable dishes, and you just pick and choose what you want) – and most of the food is not particularly salty, apart from the cheese, which is … hard work.

Italian friends want me to mention that there’s been a craft beer revolution since the 1990s, but… no, I don’t think so. There are a few interesting breweries, some working closely with artisan food producers in the spirit of the Slow Food movement (see the Unionbirrai website), but basically beer remains something to be drunk with pizza, and Italian custom doesn’t really allow it to break out of that straightjacket. Having said that, it’s not just industrial yellow beer – acceptable red beers such as Moretti Rosso are widely available.