Italian Lakes (2013)
There are two distinct parts to the city – the Città Alta (the upper city), with its formidable city walls, and the Città Bassa (the lower city), the wider area below. The beautiful Piazza Vecchia and some exquisite churches are within the gates of the Città Alta.
Accademia Carrara Collection
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Rotonda di San Tomé
The combination of cobbled streets, cypress-clad hills and mountain air make the picturesque town of Bergamo 1 [map] a refreshing diversion. Inhabited by the Ligurians around 1200 BC, fortified by the Etruscans in 600 BC and named Berg Hem (Mountain Dwelling) by the incoming Celts some 50 years later, Bergamo has a long and illustrious pedigree involving all the powers that swept through the region. There are two distinct parts to the city. At the centre, on the clifftop, is the Città Alta (upper city), the old city, reached by winding road or funicular. The Città Bassa (lower city) is the much larger area down below. With one or two notable exceptions, all the tourist sights and most of the best restaurants are in the Città Alta.
The Colleoni Chapel
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
The Città Bassa
Although it had burst through its walls before then, with the construction of the suburbs (borgos) , Bergamo began to sprawl across the plain with the coming of the railway in 1857. The road linking the station to the city split its name between two local heroes, hence Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII and Viale Vittorio Emanuele II. In the 1920s, a Roman architect, Marcello Piancentini, won the competition to design the grand buildings which process across the plain, holding offices, banks and other institutions. In Piazza Matteotti, it passes a Monumento alla Resistenza (Monument to the Resistance) by Giacomo Manzù (1977), the Teatro Donizetti and Donizetti monument , built by Francesco Jerace in 1897 to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth.
View down over the Città Bassa.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
The only star attraction in the lower city is the fabulous art gallery, the Accademia Carrara A [map] (Piazza Carrara 82; tel: 035-234 390; Tue–Sun 10am–7pm, in summer Fri until midnight; www.lacarrara.it ) in the Borgo Santa Caterina. It was founded as an art school in 1796 by Count Giacomo Carrara, whose collections formed the core of what has become one of Italy’s most important galleries. In 2015, the gallery reopened after a seven-year renovation. Its 1,800 paintings are now arranged in several themed trails. Highlights include works by Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Mantegna, Lotto and Pisanello.
Across the road, a 16th-century convent houses the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea B [map] (Via S. Tomaso 53; Tue–Sun 9am–1pm, 3–6pm; www.gamec.it ; free), covering works from the 20th century onwards, with a small permanent collection with works by Sutherland and Kandinsky and regular temporary exhibitions.
Getting to Bergamo is exceptionally easy from “Milan” Orio Al Serio Airport (tel: 035-326 323; www.orioaeroporto.it ). It is only 5km (3 miles) from the city, with excellent rail and motorway connections.
The Città Alta
There are still only five gates through the formidable, almost perfectly preserved City Walls of the upper city (plus the hole blasted through them for the funicular, which runs from near the Piazzetta San Giacomo in the lower town; tel: 035-236 026).
The first walls were probably Etruscan and there were Roman and medieval versions, but the elaborate fortress that surrounds the city was the work of the Venetians, whose lion lazes above the gates. They raised the barricades in 1561–88, destroying a few hundred homes and several churches in the process. The walls are designed so that no part of them is out of sight of the defenders and there is overlapping firepower at all points, while underground tunnels allow soldiers to run safely between the bastions. Free guided tours of the Underground Levels by le Nottole Caving Group are available in summer (groups only; tel: 333-258 8551; June–Sept).
Strolling through the Città Alta.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
The road up to the Old City loops through the Porta San Agostino along the southern line of the wall. There is parking just inside the Porta San Alessandro, in the Largo Colle Aperto (where the bus stops) and in the Piazza Cittadella.
Before plunging into the heart of the Old City, take some time to admire it from the outside. On the left, Largo Colle Aperto loops around to the Orto Botanico Lorenzo Rota C [map] (Scaletta Colle Aperto; tel: 035-286 060; Mar–Oct daily 10am–noon and Mar, Oct 2–5pm, Apr, Sept until 6pm, May, July, Aug until 7pm, June until 8pm; free), a fine botanical garden tucked into the ramparts, with great views from the battlements.
Next, it is possible to take a trip up to San Vigilio D [map] . A second funicular, just outside Porta San Alessandro, whisks you up to the top of the hill from where the Old City is laid out like a map. The best views are from the ruined Castello di San Vigilio (tel: 035-236 284; daily Apr–Oct 7am–9pm, Nov–Mar 8am–5pm), while the Baretto di San Vigilio is one of the city’s best restaurants. The energetic can take the steps down the Via dello Scorlazzone back to the Città Alta.
Bergamo prides itself on its gastronomy, and there are several good restaurants, delicatessens and bakeries showcasing the delicacies. The local passion for game-birds is also reflected in the sweet speciality of polenta e osei , where confectionery baby birds peep out of polenta pies.
Alternatively, go on down the Largo di Porta San Alessandro to the fairly humble Casa Natale di Donizetti E [map] (Via Borgo Canale 14; tel: 035-244 483; Sat–Sun 10am–1pm, 3–6pm or phone for an appointment; free), where the great operatic composer was born in 1797, its rooms arranged as they would have been when he lived there. Round the corner, on via degli Orti, local artist, Paolo Vincenzo Bonomini (1756–1839) decorated the church of Santa Grata inter Vites (1591) with a graphic collection of Dance of Death frescoes.
Bergamo tourist offices
Urban Center, Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII 57, Città Bassa;tel. 035-210 204. Mon–Fri 9am–12.30pm, 2–5.30pm, Sat–Sun 9am–5.30pm
Via Gombito 13, Città Alta; tel: 035-242 226. Daily 9am–5.30pm
Airport, arrivals terminal; tel: 035-320 402. Daily 8am–9pm
The heart of the city
Back in Piazza Cittadella, the rather dour complex of the Cittadella F [map] , once a Visconti fortress, houses local government offices as well as two museums – the Museo Civico Archeologico e Museo di Scienze Naturali (both museums, Piazza Cittadella; tel: 035-286 070; Apr–Sept Tue–Fri 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–1pm, 2.30–6.30pm, Oct–Mar Tue–Fri 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–5.30pm, Sat–Sun 10am–12.30pm, 2.30–5.30pm; combined ticket). The archaeology museum has prehistoric, Roman and Longobard collections from the local region. The natural history museum adds to the rocks and plants with a mammoth skeleton and a Eudimorphon Ranzii Zambelli(flying reptile dinosaur).
Via Colleoni is the busy centre of the Old City.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
Through the arch in Piazza Mascheroni , used as a linen market by the Venetians and later as a place for funfairs and festivals, it is appealing to turn back to look at the Torri di Campanella above the arch, begun in 1355 and completed in the 19th century. Both piazzas also have fragments of 16th-century frescoes.
Across the piazza is the start of Via Colleoni G [map] , the narrow cobbled main street of the Old City, lined by enticing restaurants, delicatessens and patisseries. A short distance along on the left is the 15th-century church of Sant’Agata del Carmine , while further down on the right is the Teatro Sociale , designed in 1803 by Pollack. Closed as a theatre in 1929, its glamorous neoclassical interior is used for exhibitions.
Just beyond, the road comes out into the central square, the fabulous Piazza Vecchia H [map] , purpose-built as a show-stopping, power-wielding centrepiece to the city by the Venetians in the 15th century.
On the left, with a white marble colonnade only finished in the 20th century, the Palazzo Nuovo was built in the early 17th century by Vincenzo Scamozzi, a pupil of Palladio. Once the town hall, it now houses the Biblioteca Angelo Mai (Piazza Vecchia 15; tel: 035-399 430/399 431; Mon–Fri 8.45am–5.30pm, Sat 8.45am–1pm, closed first two weeks in Aug; free), one of Italy’s finest libraries, founded in 1768.
Opposite, stairs lead up beside the open arches to the Palazzo della Ragione (tel: 035-270 413; Mar daily 10am–noon, 2–6pm, Apr–Sept daily 9am–noon, 2–8pm, Sat closes 11pm, Oct Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 2–6pm, Nov–Feb Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 2–4pm). This is known to have been here in some form in 1199, but faced the other way. It was turned round by the Venetians, who added the loggia and Lion of St Mark (now a modern one, replacing a far more resplendent original).
Next to the palazzo, the 54-metre (177ft) high Torre Civica I [map] (Piazza Vecchia; tel: 035-247 119; Apr–Oct Tue–Fri 9.30am–6pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–8pm, Nov–Mar Tue–Fri 9.30am–1pm, 2.30–6pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–6pm) took its present form in 1197 under the Suardi-Colleoni family, who used it as a prison. The bells were added later, and the clock arrived in 1407. The main bell, the Campanone , was hung in the mid-17th century and narrowly escaped being melted down by the Germans in 1943. It strikes 180 times to mark the curfew and the locking of the city gates and strikes 12 times at noon. There is a lift, and the views are, of course, superb.
In the centre of the piazza is a monumental fountain donated by Alvise Contarini, the Venetian Podestà, in 1780.
Between April and October, there are two-hour guided walking tours of the Città Alta, in English and Italian, on Wed and Sun at 3pm and on Sat at 10.30am, meeting at the Funicular Upper Station, Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe. For tours at other times, contact the Gruppo Guide Turistiche Città di Bergamo, tel: 035-344 205, www.bergamoguide.it .
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
A glory of churches
As you walk through the arches beneath the Palazzo della Ragione, look for the sundial on the paving. The Piazza del Duomo was the Roman Forum and the city centre until the Venetians shifted it sideways. On the left as you enter, clad in white marble is the Duomo (Piazza Duomo; tel: 035-210 223; Mon–Fri 7.30am–noon, 3–6.30pm, Sat–Sun 7am–7pm; free). The grandiose facade dates from 1886, but the church, once dedicated to San Vincenzo, goes back to 1100, and has been modified again and again through the ages.
Directly opposite, the delicate little octagonal building like an oriental birdcage is the Battistero (Baptistery). This was placed here in 1856, using fragments of a baptistery that stood inside Santa Maria Maggiore, and was designed by Giovanni da Campione in 1340.
At the far side of the piazza, Bergamo’s two real crowning glories stand side by side. Standing on the left, the plainer Romanesque church with a Gothic portal (and lions) is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore J [map] (Piazza Duomo; tel: 035-223 327; Apr–Oct Mon–Sat 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–6pm, Sun 9am–1pm, 3–6pm, Nov–Mar Mon–Sat 9am–12.30pm, 2.30–5pm, Sun 9am–1pm, 3–6pm; free). The flamboyant Renaissance building immediately to its right is the Cappella Colleoni (Piazza Duomo; tel: 035-210 061; Mar–Oct daily 9.30am–12.30pm, 2–6pm, Nov–Feb Tue–Sun 9.30am–12.30pm, 2–4.30pm; free).
The first church on this site dates back to 774 and the end of a bout of plague. Work on the expanded version began in 1137, under the watchful eye of Maestro Fredo. The Gothic portal facing the Piazza Duomo was added by Giovanni da Campioni in 1351–3, who later added the southern portal. Inside, little sense of its Romanesque simplicity remains beneath the gilding and other overpowering magnificence, although there are some 13th-century frescoes amid the Baroque tapestries (1580–86), an elaborately carved confessional (Andrea Fantoni, 1705) and the marquetry choirstalls (by Lorenzo Lotto, with woodwork as delicate as an oil painting). At the back of the church, there is a monument by Vincenzo Vela to the composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), whose body was moved here in 1875.
The Colleoni Chapel , built by sculptor and architect Giovanni Antonio Amadeo in 1476 for the tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni and his daughter Medea, and dedicated to St John the Baptist, is even more decorative than the main church. The work is mainly the vision of one man and it has a harmony and delicacy of touch that is truly charming. The ceiling frescoes are by Tiepolo.
Inside, the basilica flowers into a full-blown Baroque extravaganza.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
From the back door of Santa Maria and to the left is the small round 11th-century Tempietto di Santo Croce (tel: 035-278 111; by appointment only) modelled, like so many of the period, on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To the right, the Museo Donizettiano K [map] (Via Arena 9; tel: 035-247 116; June–Sept Tue–Sun 9.30am–1pm, 2.30–6pm, Oct–May Tue–Fri 9.30am–1pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–1pm, 2.30–6pm) takes up two rooms in the 15th-century Misericordia Maggiore, lavishly frescoed in the 19th century by local artist Bonomini. The museum focuses on the highlights of Donizetti’s career with manuscripts, first editions, letters and personal possessions, including his piano and other musical instruments. Domenico Donizetti (1797–1848) was born in Bergamo. His operatic debut was in Venice in 1818 with Enrico di Borgogna and he went on to enormous success as one of the giants of opera, working in Milan and Naples, where he premiered his finest work, Lucia di Lammermoor , in 1837. Named “Maestro di Cappella and Composer of the Imperial Court” by the Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in 1842, he became ill in 1845, returning to Bergamo to die on 8 April 1848.
The Bergamo Card is a 24- or 48-hour tourist pass valid for one adult and one child under 11 (€10 and €15, respectively). It allows free entrance to many major museums and sites in Bergamo as well as free public transport plus discounts at many shops and restaurants. It is available online ( www.bergamocard.it ) and in several locations throughout town.
Back in Piazza Vecchia, the main road continues down the hill to the right as Via Gombito, through Piazzetta Angelini to Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe and the top station of the funicular .
From here, Via alla Rocca leads up to La Rocca L [map] (park: daily June–Sept 9am–8pm, Oct–May 10am–5.30pm, tower: June–Sept Tue–Fri 9.30am–1pm, 2.30–6pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–7pm, Oct–May Tue–Sun 9.30am–1pm, 2.30–6pm; charge for museum, park free). Perched on one of the highest points in the walled city, this castle was founded by John of Luxemburg, while its 23-metre (75ft) high tower was built in the 1330s by the Visconti. It houses a museum of 19th- and 20th-century history, covering Bergamo’s role in the Risorgimento and two world wars. Outside is a war memorial garden with shrines to aviators, astronauts and the resistance.
Donizetti’s piano has pride of place in his museum.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
Stretching northwest from the city, roughly parallel with the motorway, the Valle Seriana ( www.valleseriana.bg.it ), along the line of the Serio River, is a mix of rundown industry, development and mountain scenery. Stop in Alzano Lombardo 2 [map] to visit the little Sacred Art Museum in the sacristy of the Basilica di San Martino (Piazza Italia 8; tel: 035-516 579; Sun 3–6pm, tours at 4pm, or by appointment).
A little further on, the Cene Parco Paleontologico 3 [map] (Via Bellora, 17km/10.5 miles from Bergamo; tel: 035-729 318; www.triassico.it/parcocene ; usually open Sat–Sun 2–6pm, check website for details; guided visits for groups on demand in the week) stands on 220-million-year-old Triassic fossil beds.
The real star of the valley is the little town of Clusone 4 [map] , 34km (21 miles) from Bergamo, known as the città dipinta – the painted town. The main attraction here is the masterly 15th-century fresco depicting the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) in the Oratorio dei Disciplini by the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. The Museo Arte Tempo (Via Clara Maffei 3; tel: 0346-25915; Fri 3.30–6.30pm, Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 3.30–6.30pm) also displays paintings and sculptures by local artists from the 15th century on, as well as a collection of rare clocks. Look out too for the fine Orologio Planetario di Fanzago (Astronomical Clock) on the south side of the town hall (Piazza dell’Orologio), designed and built by Pietro Fanzago in 1583. The town also hosts a major jazz festival in June and July.
The thermal springs of San Pellegrino come from the Dolomites. Rainwater penetrates 700 metres (2,300ft) deep into the porous coral rock, getting thoroughly purified and collecting invaluable sulphate-bicarbonate-alkaline trace elements, reaching the surface at a constant 25°C (77°F). The water is said to help in treating liver and kidney disease, the digestive tract and the lungs.
Northwest of the city, the Valle Imagna is a traditional centre of fine woodworking, with a sideline in puppetry – this is where to buy your own Pinocchio. In the village of Almenno San Bartolomeo 5 [map] , the Museo del Falegname Tino Sana (Via Papa Giovanni XXIII 3; tel: 035-554 411; Mon–Fri 9am–noon, Sat 3–6pm, Sun 9.30am–noon, 3–6pm; closed Aug) is a museum of carpentry, with a section on puppets and a World War I Ansaldo A1 biplane belonging to local war hero Antonio Locatelli. Nearby, the R otonda di San Tomé (tel: 034-528 1132; May–Oct Tue–Fri 10am–noon, 2.30-5.30pm, Sat–Sun 10am–noon, 2.30–6pm, Nov–Apr Tue–Sat 10am–noon, 2.30–4.30pm, Sun 10am–noon, 2.30–5pm) is an enchanting late 11th–early 12th century chapel in the woods, with beginnings that stretch back to the early 8th century. Its tiers of Romanesque arches provide a rare upper women’s gallery and an array of fantastic capitals. Only small fragments of the frescoes remain. The church of San Giorgio in nearby Almenno San Salvatore was first built in the 10th century, rebuilt in 1120, and has fine 14th-century frescoes.
Back on the main road and heading north along the Valle Brembana, a huge bottling plant across the river marks the entry to a town with a familiar name – San Pellegrino Terme 6 [map] , 24km (15 miles) north of Bergamo.
Everywhere you look in this pretty little town filled with Art Nouveau architectural treasures you will see the bottled water logo. This once fashionable resort has been neglected for many years, with its glamorous casino closed and the glorious old Art Nouveau Hotel Grande crumbling. However, hope is in sight: a multi-million-euro redevelopment plan is in the works which aims to turn the town into a resort of swish spa hotels – and restore some of its lost sparkle in the process.
A little further up the valley, a turning to the left leads to San Giovanni Bianco 7 [map] and the medieval village of Oneta , where the 14th-century Casa di Arlecchino (tel: 0345-43262; daily 10am–noon, 3–6pm), belonging to the aristocratic Grataroli family, is considered to be the home of Harlequin, the patchwork fool of the commedia dell’arte . Beyond is the spectacular scenery of Val Taleggio , which produces one of Italy’s finest cheeses.
Rotonda di San Tomé.
San Pellegrino Terme.
West of Bergamo
Pope John XXIII came from the village of Sotto Il Monte, 16km (9.5 miles) west of Bergamo. Born in 1881, the fourth of 13 children of a poor farming family, Angelo Giuseppe Mazzola studied and worked in Bergamo before going to Rome in 1921, moving as a bishop to Bulgaria, Turkey, Paris and Venice. He was elected Pope John XXIII in 1958. An ardent worker towards peace between nations and religions, he presided over the seminal Vatican II Conference in 1962. He died in 1963 and was beatified in 2000.
A statue of the Pope stands at the entrance to the village, now known as Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII 8 [map] . Opposite is a tourist information office (tel: 035-790 902). A monumental way processes up the hill to the church, near a gigantic picture of il Papa . Visit the Casa Museo di Papa Giovanni XXIII (Via Camaitino 12; tel: 035-792 956; daily 8–5.30pm, summer until 6.30pm; free) and Pope John’s home (Missionari del pime, Via Colombera 5; tel: 035-791 101).
Further west, the Adda River broadens and slows, winding through a mix of picture-book countryside and derelict industrial development, including the 1906 hydro-electric plant at Trezzo sull’Adda. It is a popular place for boating, walking and cycling holidays; passing ancient and modern bridges, churches, castles, and the marshy reed-beds south of Trezzo sull’Adda , which are a bird sanctuary.
Houses in the industrial village of Crespi d’Adda.
Crespi d’Adda 9 [map] (tel: 02-9098 7191; www.villaggiocrespi.it ) is an excellent example of a 19th-century ‘company town’. It was founded in 1878 by the philanthropic Crespi family of industrialists to meet the needs of the workers at their cotton factory. They provided facilities that included schools, churches, shops and places of entertainment. The architecture of the village is extraordinary, with the trim grid of English-style houses, each with a garden big enough to grow some vegetables, surrounding the tiny proportions of the elaborate riverbank factory; there is also the battlemented castle that was the Crespi family home, and the vastly elaborate stepped pyramid in the cemetery. It was the first village in Italy to have electric lighting, and the village has a Milan area code thanks to the direct line between the family’s homes in Milan and Crespi in the late 19th century.
The village became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995 and is still lived in, mainly by descendants of the original workers, but the efforts to keep it perfect while the industry at its core has crumbled (the factory closed in 2004), makes it strangely unworldly. The family home is now a hotel and the village survives largely as a tourist sight.
Both Milan and Caravaggio claim to be the birthplace of Michelangelo Meresi (in September 1571), but what is certain is that by the age of six he was living in Caravaggio. Apprenticed to Titian at the age of 13, he moved to Venice, from where he escaped to Rome after murdering a shop assistant. By 1599, he was receiving important commissions, but again ran into trouble, jailed for rowdy behaviour, tried and convicted for defamation of character and eventually, in 1606, killing a man and fleeing to Naples, then Malta and Sicily. On 18 July 1610, friends at court had supposedly arranged a pardon and he was on his way back to Rome when word came of his death. No body was ever found.
Santuario della Madonna di Caravaggio.
South of Bergamo
Caravaggio ) [map] , 25km (15.5 miles) south of Bergamo, was the childhood home of one of the greatest artists of the Baroque era, Michelangelo Meresi, known as “Il Caravaggio”.
At the Santuario della Madonna di Caravaggio , a miraculous statue of the Virgin is now housed in an imposing 18th-century shrine just outside the city, built on the spot where the Virgin is reported to have appeared to a local woman, Giannetta De’Vacchi, on 26 May 1432 and where a spring miraculously gushed from the earth. There is now an elaborate Holy Font at the site of the spring, with an even grander High Altar behind. Pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred pool.