Nature, history and culture, and the tastiest cusine, all combine in this tour of the Po valley around Piacenza and Parma, following along the side of the Roman, Via Emilia, trunk road. The tour begins in the province of Parma.

The majestic Rocca Sanvitale at Fontanellato makes a dramatic start to your journey. Begun in the thirteenth century, the castle is today still encircled by a water-filled moat and reached by a drawbridge. This remarkable fortress residence, with its crenulated walls and asymmetric towers is surrounded by an arcaded town. Now a museum, the Rocca houses a camera obscura and many works of art, the most famous of which is "Diane and Acteon" by Parmigiano. As you leave the town, pause to visit the Beata Virgine del Roasario Sanctuary. The Neo Baroque façade here has been recently restored.

Travelling into the great plain of the Po River, north east of Fontanellato, you come to San Secondo Parmense, again dominated by a castle, once the residence of the Rossi family. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1983 destroyed much of the castle. The town provides a backdrop for historical re-enactments and an annual Medieval Palio.

Nearer to the Po, east of San Secondo Parmese, is Colorno. The Reggia di Colorno, originally a residence of the Farnese, was built by the French architect, Petitot, in the 18th century, on the remains of a former castle. When the French annexed the Duchy of Parma in 1807 this palace, known as the "Little Versailles", became a favourite residence of the Empress Marie Louise, Napoleon's wife. On the defeat of Napoleon, Marie Louise became the Duchess of Parma and created an English style garden here. In 1870 the Reggia became the home of the famous culinary school, ALMA.

As you approach Zibello, along the Po, to the west, you enter the heart of the famous sausage production area of this region. Zibello is one of the eight towns which produce "Culatello" - a cured pork which is famous for its silky satin texture and translucent ruby colour. Zibello has other delicious meat products, such as "Fiochetto" and "Mariola". The ancient medieval village itself was ruled by the Pallavicino family. Among things you can see here are the Pallavicino palace, the 15th century Dominican convent, the church of the Beata Vergine della Grazie and an interesting museum of the Region's country life.

The dense fog which rises from the Po River, particularly in winter, impregnates everything, especially in November, when the pigs are slaughtered here. It is this humidity which produces the "miracle" of "Culatello". A "Culatello" Festival is held in July every Year in another town famous for its meat - Polesine Parmese. This town is built on an island in the Po which has become attached to the river bank.

Just as the temperature, winds and humidity effect the making of meat products, the "salumi", they are equally important in the creation of Parmigiano Reggiano. Soragna is an important producer of this, the "King of Cheeses". Known as the "Mistress" of this lowland area, "La Bassa", Soragna was the home of the Meli Lupi. The beautifully preserved Meli Lupi Castle, with its sumptuous interiors, houses a museum celebrating Parmegiano Reggiano.

Southeast of Sovagna, on the other side of the A1 road, lies Fidenza, once the Roman town of Fidentia. The most famous building here is the Lombard-Romanesque cathedral, one of the finest and best preserved 11th to 13th century cathedrals in Italy. Although the upper part of the façade is not complete, the portals are a fine example of the Romanesque. In the simple and well-proportioned interior are many 13th century sculptures. Outside, another sculpture, of St. Simon Peter, points the way to Rome - a reminder that Fidenza was an important halt upon the old pilgrimage path, the Via Francigena, from Canterbury to Rome.

Another aspect of the region, and a very different architecture, are to be found to the south in the spa town of Salsomaggiore Terme. The main focus of this town are the baths, notably the Berzieri Spa in the centre. This opulent edifice, built in the Italian version of Art Nouveau, the Liberty Style, reflects Eastern influences and is famed for its use of white marble. The therapeutic qualities of the intensely saline waters draw people here from far and wide and have led to the development of a "wellness" complex here and in neighbouring towns (such as Tabiano Bagni). Salsomaggiore hosts events connected with health - such as an annual women's health festival and is also the venue for the Miss Italia Competition.

Leaving the province of Parma behind, travelling into that of Piacenza, this itinerary now takes you, through the Appennine foothills, to the Val d'Arda, and to Vigoleno and Castell'Arquato. The medieval town of Vigoleno stands high on a ridge, surrounded by woods, overlooking the Stirone river, surrounded by battlements and swallow tailed walls. The fortified complex became famous between the World Wars when Maria di Grammont, restored the 10th century castle and entertained the rich and famous, the "bel mondo", such as Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau and Mary Pickford.

At the next stop, Castell'Arquato, you can taste more gastronomic delights - Coppa Piacentina is a speciality. Although a tiny town, Castell d'Aquato has no fewer than four museums. The Rocca Viscontea here is a masterpiece with fantastic views of the surrounding countryside from the tower. The 12th century church has 15th century frescos, 12th century capitals and sculptures. This fascinating medieval town remains so perfectly intact that it was used as a set in Ladyhawke, directed by Richard Donner and starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer.

You enter another of the Piacentino valleys now - the Trebbia, to visit Rivalta. With its castle, villa, church and gardens, all surrounded by walls, Rivalta is sited on the banks of the Trebbia River. In the second half of the 15th century the Landi transformed the fortress into a luxurious residence, expanding the building into an elegant palace with lavishly decorated rooms (open Saturdays and Sundays, March to November).

Your journey concludes in the next valley, the Tidone, with a visit to Pianello Val Tidone and the Rocca d'Olgisio. Pianello is sited in a strategic position, at the confluence of the Tidone and Chiarone Rivers, which has been settled since Neolithic times. The numerous archaeological finds discovered here are housed in a museum in the historic centre.

A few kilometres from the village, on a 564 high hill, overlooking the surrounding valleys, is the most significant defensive structure in Northern Italy, the mighty castle of Rocca d'Olgisio. Owned by the Val Derme warlords from the14thcentury, the Rocca was the scene of many bloody conflicts over hundreds of years, right up to the last World War when it sheltered the Partisans.