As my flight lowered into Milan, I was besotted by the sight of the endless snow capped Alps – it was magical almost straight out of a portrait and was a mesmerizing sight that set the tone for my Italian sojourn. My destination Bergamo was an hour’s drive from Milan a city with a wealth of art and medieval renaissance and baroque architecture. The foothills of the Bergamo Alps begin immediately north of the town and the city has a unique dual identity comprising the medieval hilltop Upper Town (Città Alta) and the modern Lower Town (Città Bassa) with a funicular/cable connection in between. Bergamo is a city of contrasts with lively boroughs, old neighborhoods, important religious sites, modern shopping streets and parks.
In spite of a brightly shining sun, it was bitterly cold and I was glad to check into my hotel in the lower city said to be the modern centre of Bergamo. The Città Bassa as it is known is home to buildings like the new courthouse and various administrative offices and has the shopping district on Via 20 Settembre which houses some of the best brands. Being my first visit to Italy I wanted to make the most of my time and immediately started exploring the place. Walking along the cobbled streets the medieval village look is hard to miss. I pass by well-preserved palaces, churches and public squares and several restaurants that dot either side of the street and cannot help but admire the rich architecture of each of the buildings. I am told that all the banks have their offices in lower town and each building is quite magnificent. The Lower Town has important places of interest like the train station, St. Mary Immaculate of Grace church, Santa Lucia Church, Teatro Donizetti, Palazzo della Provincia, Sala Manzù, Museo Bernareggi and the Città Alta Funicular that connects to the upper town. Located at the lower town are the two funicular railways – an easy way to move around Bergamo as one links the Città Bassa with the Città Alta and the other links the Città Alta with San Vigilio above it. These trains run every few minutes and offer spectacular views of the town. You cannot miss the beautiful and vibrantly colourful flowers that dot the paths around the place.
If you do not use the train you could even take the road route and head to the upper city, surrounded by Venetian walls built in the 16th century. Located at the heart of the Upper Town, the cafe-clad Piazza Vecchia is a beautiful square lined by elegant architecture including the Palazzo Nuovo, Palazzo del Podestà, Palazzo della Ragione and the Torre del Campanone. This is also a place that is the core of spirituality thanks to the numerous churches. This beautifully preserved medieval square was the center of Bergamo’s political scene Palazzo della Ragione (with a lion on his facade, symbol of the Venetian domination) in the Middle Ages. In the middle of the square there is the Contarini fountain, a symbol of Bergamo. This is also the place where there is a huge bell that strikes 100 times and believed to be symbolic of a by-gone time when the bell sounded an alarm telling residents to return before the city gates were locked. Dotted with cafes, this is also the place where you can sit back and relax all while enjoying scrumptious Italian fare. While you are here check out the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore whose interior has the original Romanesque Greek cross plan but the decoration is largely from the 17th century Baroque renovation. The piazza is formed by the 15th century Colleoni chapel, the Cathedral and the Baptistry that is in front of the archbishopric gardens. Santa Maria Maggiore is at the heart of the city’s social and religious life and was built in the 12th century as a tribute to the Madonna. The interiors of this place is characterized by a large crucifix called the ‘Cristo doloroso’ and the walls are decorated with tapestries of Flemish origin. Adjacent to this chapel is The Cappella Colleoni, dedicated to the saints Bartholomew, Mark and John the Baptist. The tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni is on the wall facing the entrance and is decorated with reliefs of Episodes from the Life of Christ and has some amazingly carved heads of lions as well as an equestrian statue of the condottiere in wood.
Once you have had a fill of history, I strongly recommend that you indulge in Bergamo’s culinary delights ranging from cheeses and desserts to cured pork meats and polenta. The amazing range of desserts is sure to make even the non sweet lover drool. So you have everything from the Clusoni cookies covered in chocolate, the San Pellegrino cookies, the famed ‘Polenta e Osèi de la Bergamasca’ made with sponge cake, butter cream, chocolate and nuts, the Treviglio Cake and Donizetti Cake. And yes certainly check out what the original Tiramasu tastes like – it has no liquor and has a light fluffy texture with a lot of cream and chocolate powder that will leave you asking for more. While Italian food is high on flavour and taste, you must sample the real local dish of Bergamo – the typical “Polenta Taragna” that is a mix of local tasty cheese with the yellow corn flour. This is where you can sample a variety of different polenta side dishes, with mushrooms, raw bacon and rabbit. Most dishes are meat based and you can try the Casoncelli alla bergamasca, which has homemade pasta parcels filled with beef meat, salami, amaretto biscuits and pears tossed in butter sauce and polenta e brasato (braised beef with herbs). The local Wine is the ValCalepio (DOC) produced in the surroundings of the Iseo Lake. You can eat at the numerous restaurants and cafes and make sure you try the pizza – after all it originated here. Being an hour away from Milan, Bergamo is quite the perfect way to discover Italy – go ahead and check it out for yourself.
Jet Airways offers daily flights to Milan from various cities in India through its airline partners.
Bergamo has hotels to suit every budget and preference. Some of the best hotels in the city can be found near the Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII in lower town.
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This story appeared in the May 2017 issue of Jetwings, the inflight magazine of Jet Airways, here.