Bergamo is a beautiful city, a medieval hilltop old town. It is easily reached by Ryanair flights from Glasgow, London, Paris, Girona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Stockholm, making it an ideal short break destination. The airport is near the city and can be reached by regular buses, costing around one euro. The walled old town, reached by funicular, is well preserved.
The Academia Carrera is said to have one of the best collections of art in Italy. The surrounding countryside is lovely. There are churches in many small villages with medieval frescoes and paintings. Nearby is Lake Iseo, which has the largest lake island in Europe. The famous Valpolcia and Franciacorta wines are produced locally. North of the city are the Pre Alps and the Valle Bremabana.
Bergamo is a real life tale of two cities: Bergamo Alta, the walled hilltop medieval city, and Bergamo Bassa, the lower city, built mainly at the beginning of the 20th century. Bergamo has long been acknowledged as a gorgeous city. The 14th century Italian scholar, poet and humanist, Francesco Petrarca, remarked, “I shall always remember the image of Bergamo, Italy’s alpine town.” This is praise indeed as Petrarch is regarded as one of Italy’s great scholars and a leading contributor in the development of the Renaissance.
Formerly known as Barra, Bergamo is said to have been founded by Cydno, the son of the originator of the Liguri family. The Etruscans turned the city into a fortress in the 6th century BC – ideal as they could see right over the plains below and spot any advancing enemy. Later that century the city was taken over by the Cenomani Gauls, who renamed it Berghem, city on the mountain.
The spread of the Roman Empire brought about a slight change in name to Bergomum, and it was during this period that the first walls were built around the city. The city was dominated by the Longobaords and Franks before becoming a free town in the 12th century. For several centuries, from 1428, the Venetians dominated Bergamo bringing a long period of social, political and cultural wealth. The walls were rebuilt in the 16th century by the Republic of Venice. During the French Revolution, Bergamo was part of the French Cisapine Republic. After the Congress of Vienna, the Austrians ruled until the unification of Italy in 1859.
The heart of the old town is the 15th century Piazza Vecchia. The main entrance is the Sant’Agostoa gate. The walls extend for more than five kilometres and there are four gates. The portico of the Palazzo della Ragione, which sits in Piazza Vecchia, dates from the 12th century. The potico leads into the Piazza del Duomo. Here is the church of Santa Maria, also dating from the 12th century with an octagonal dome. There are still traces of the original frescoes depicting the “tree of life.” The wooden confessional was made in 1705 by Andrea Fontani. Donizetti’s tomb is at the back of the church.
Gaetnao Donizetti was born in 1797 just outside the city walls, at the start of Borge Canale. He produced more then seventy compositions, “Elisir d’Amore” (1832) “Lucia di Lammermoor” (1835). It is said that he was always emotionally attached to Bergamo. The Donizetti Theatre, named in his honour, hosts an international piano festival.
Colleoni Chapel is another fine example of Rennaisance architecture. Bartolomeo Colleoni, born in Bergamo, commissioned this as his tomb. The building was completed in 1476. Colleoni is portrayed on a golden horse. He is usually referred to as a “soldier of fortune,” a less harsh description than mercenary. This may be because he was regarded as fairly respectable, even though he changed sides, he never committed any treacherous acts or rape and executions in the defeated territories. His father was attacked and murdered when Bartolomeo was young, by the Duke of Milan. He spent several years as a young man serving in various armies. At the age of 32, he joined the army of the Venetian Republic. He was also known for his work on agricultural improvements made to the land on the estates given to him as reward by the Venetians.
The Venetian, Lorenzo Lotto, worked here in 1525. He encompassed the work of Bramante, Raffaello and Leonardi, and spent 12 years working in Bergamo. Although originally from Venice, he considered Bergamo his spiritual home, appreciating its down-to-earth approach to religion and faith. In 1525 he worked on the Episode from the life of Mary in the Church San Michele al Pozzo Bianca. Several churches in Bergamo are adorned with his altarpieces. Itineraries on a Lotto theme can be found here.
Accademia Carrara is one of the most important galleries in Italy. It was founded in 1796 by Count Carrara and today houses more than 18,000 pieces of art, including some by Botticelli, Raffaello, Bellini and Donatella. There are also works by foreign artists such as Rubens and Clouet.
The Accademia is also the Bergamo Museum. There are paintings depicting the town from the 15th to the 19thcenturies. The Gallery of Modern Art is nearby. The Gruppo Guide Citta di Bergamo offers half day and full day tours, with English, German, Spanish or French guides.
Every Sunday from 25th April 2004, you can take a guided tour of historic homes in Bergamo, the Tour Dimore Storiche. A ticket for all five residences cost 16 euros, for three residences, 12 euros.
Hotel Capello d’Oro
This four-star hotel is in the centre of the lower town, a few minutes walk from the funicular railway up to the old town and the railway station. The rooms are very comfortable with tea and coffee making facilities. Prices start from 150 euros per night for a double room and buffet breakfast.
This renovated traditional apartment block is located around 500 metres from the centre of Bergamo and around one kilometre from the medieval part of the city. Bergamo is an ideal base from which to visit the Lakes, Verona and Milan. There are frequent trains to most destinations or if you prefer to tour by car, parking is available close to the residence. The apartments are elegantly furnished. An apartment for two costs 100 euros per night or 500 euros per week.
Castello di Grumello
The rooms inside the castle cost 82 euros per person per night, including breakfast. If you stay in a room in the grounds, in a 19th century building 50 metres from the castle with view of the vineyards, the cost is 60 euros per person per night.
Where To Eat
Viale Giovanni XX111 21
Telephone: 035 218060
This is a long established restaurant in the old town. A few of their specialties are oxtail tureen, pumpkin flowers in sauce, as well as outstanding seafood. It is an unpretentious family run concern.
Via San Tommaso 47
Telephone: 035 247813
This restaurant is situated in a 16th century sacristy, close to Accademia Carrara in the lower town. It has a lovely garden for summer dining. They serve numerous types of pasta and some really tempting desserts.
This factory and village was built in the late 19th century by the Crespi family as an industrial utopia. The life of the workers, their families and the community were planned in order and harmony. In theory, it was to ensure that the workers would be productive and content for the factory owners to make a healthy profit with a clear conscience.
The experiment ended in the 1920s but the village, now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is still inhabited, predominantly by the descendants of the original village. The factory operates today, producing cotton textiles. The village is around a half hour drive from Bergamo. It can be reached by public transport. Take the Autostrade bus, direction Milan, get off at the Capriate bus stop, and then it’s a twenty minute walk to the village. You can read more about the village on their website.
Castello di Grumello
This castle overlooks the village of Grumello del Monte and the surrounding vineyards. The parish church in the village dates form the 7th century. It is in the heart of the Valcalepio region and has a long and bloody history. However, in the 18th century, the castle was transformed into a noble residence. The tower, the back gate, the Knights Hall and the cellar still remain from the original medieval fortress. If you call ahead, (telephone 035 442 0817), you can arrange a visit to the wine cellar and the castle. They explain how the wine is made and then there’s tasting of the various wines. The cost is eight euros per person. There is also a pleasant walk through the vineyards to the crest of the Colle Calvario.
The lesser known, smaller Lake Iseo is ideal for a day trip from Bergamo. You can read more about the lake in my guide. If you hire a car, you can drive around the Lake in a day. The town of Iseo can also be reached by bus from Bergamo.
The valley consists of several smaller valleys. The Val San Pellegrino Terme: San Pellegrino is best known for its sparkling water. At the end of the 19th century San Pellegrino was the most visited spa town in northern Italy. There were art nouveau hotels and a casino designed by Romolo Squadrelli. The casino is now a conference and exhibition centre. The Val Serina has an unusual landscape for the Orobic Prealps with jagged white peaks. Bracca mineral water springs from the Bracca ravine. At the top of this gorge, the valley widens and there are some rare wild flowers. The Gromo castle overlooks the River Serio and has an intact 13th century tower. To visit you must telephone the Posta Castle Restaurant, telephone 0346 41002.
Cornello dei Tasso
It is a well preserved medieval village. It was an inn station along the main trading route. In the lower part of the village is the market square with its arches and merchant lodgings, some still bearing the coat of arms of the Tasso family. The village was home to the Tasso’s, said to be the inventors of the postal service. Mail was first carried by foot, later horses were used with despatch riders and then mail coaches.
A private company was formed, the Campagnia dei Corrieri, which won contracts to carry mail in the Republic of Venice. In the 15th century, it contracted with the Papal States and the Hapsburg Empire. Val Taleggio e Brembilla is nicknamed the Cheese Valley, as traditional cheeses are produced here.
Formai de Mut is a rich, half cooked paste cheese with a delicate scented flavour. During the summer it is made in alpine huts, near the high grazing pastures. Taleggio cheese is a rich soft paste cheese made with whole cow’s milk. One of the characteristic dishes of the region is Polenta Taranga – cheese is melted with butter in the maize porridge.
It is on the eastern side of high part of the Bremba Valley, traditionally the Bergamo, Italy of ancient mines and forges. The ski resort of San Simone and Foppolo are in this valley.
The Museum of Christmas Cribs
Museo del Presepio, in Brembo di Dalmine, is unique with over 800 cribs on display. There is even an electronic crib covering 80 square metres, with a seventeen minute spectacle. In December and January, it is open on Sundays and public holidays from 9.00 – 12.00 and 14.00 – 19.00. The rest of the year it is only open on a Sunday, 14.00 – 18.00. The museum is around ten kilometres from Bergamo.
Bergamo Tourist Office
Viale Vittorio Emanuele, (the main road from the station up to the old town)
Telephone: 035 230 184
Check out the author’s website at www.europealacarte.co.uk