While my family’s current home base is Rome, my husband was transferred to northern Italy for work. I was super excited to be able to explore another part of Italy that I, frankly, didn’t know much about. My cousin and her husband recently came to our home, near Milan, for a visit while they were taking a six-month sabbatical in Italy. While they were visiting, I decided to take them to Bergamo since I had never been and have heard that it is one of the hidden gems in northern Italy. It certainly did not disappoint. Located at the base of the Bergamo (Orobie) Alps, citta alta (the high city or the old part of the city located atop a hill) is a window into Italy’s medieval past as Bergamo was one of the few Italian cities that did not suffer major destruction during the Second World War. You feel as if you have been transported in a time machine to the bumpy cobblestoned streets of a bustling medieval town. If you want a complete cultural immersion that includes strolling though medieval era cobblestone streets, art history, good food and wine, then you must put Bergamo on your itinerary when visiting northern Italy. I also love the fact, that even during the height the tourist season, you will not find an onslaught of people visiting.
The easiest way to get to Citta Alta is to take a 3-minute funicular ride from citta basa (the lower, modern city of Bergamo). As I exited the funicular onto piazza mercato delle scarpe (shoe market square) with my cousin and her husband, we were immediately transported back in time.
This street, via Gomberto, eventually opened up onto piazza Vecchia. As we stepped into the piazza, I immediately knew we were in for a treat. Citta alta sits on the site of an ancient Roman town dating back to 49 bc. During the early renaissance period (1428), Bergamo fell under the control of the Venetian Republic until 1797. The most notable mark left by the Venetians is the fortification of the walls around the upper city.
Citta Alta is quite compact and if you only have a half a day (although I recommend at least a day) you can certainly see the major highlights. The town’s local tourism office has done a good job of creating half (as well as full) day itineraries for Bergamo. Personally, I think the best way to enjoy Bergamo is to wander around the winding cobblestoned streets, take in the beautiful architecture and sites and pop in and out of the small family run shops that dot the streets.
We started our day of exploring citta alta off to a good start by having a coffee. We grabbed a table at one of the coffee bars lining piazza vecchia. My cousin wanted to order a cappuccino, but I suggested she try a marrochino; which is northern Italy’s own version of a capppucino. It is essentially a smaller upside down version of a regular cappuccino with the added touch of cocoa powder in the bottom of the glass.
12th Century Bell Tower: Climbing up the bell tower (or taking the elevator if the stairs are too much for you) will give you a spectacular perspective and view of the town of Bergamo and its environs. You can also see in the distance the city of Milan and the mountains surrounding the city. It is quite a spectacular view. If you have the opportunity to spend the evening in citta alta, you can here the bell toll 100 times that once signified the town’s 10 pm curfew.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore: This church was founded in 12th century on the site of another church from the 8th century that had been dedicated to St. Mary which in turn had been erected over a Roman temple. Interestingly, during the construction of the current church, a devastating plague was spreading across Europe causing immense death. The people of Bergamo prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect them and vowed to dedicate a church to her. True to their word, the people of Bergamo began construction of the church in 1137.
La Rocca: This impressive castle which was begun in 1331 on the hill of Sant’Eufemia. This impressive fortress is dominated by a round tower that dates from Bergamo’s days as a Venetian outpost. It is surrounded by a park with lovely views over lower Bergamo. Today the castle houses a historical museum of Bergamo’s interesting past. An interesting note; the castle was once captured by Napoleon in the 19th century before being liberated by Garibaldi.
Palazzo della Ragione: This is supposed to be the oldest existing town hall in Northern Italy. While it stopped operating as one in the 17th century, it currently houses an amazing collection of art work including pieces of Botticelli, Raphael, and Bellini.
I would be completely remiss if I did not talk about the exceptional food of Bergamo.
Bergamo is known for its polenta and meat dishes that are highlighted with the unctuous flavor of lard and butter. Sampling Bergamo’s delicacies is definitely not for someone watching their calories. However, it is definitely worth it and, in any case, you will walk off all those extra calories strolling the cobblestoned streets. At least that is what I told myself! You could also opt for trekking 30 minutes up the hill from citta basa instead of taking the funicular if you are that concerned…I definitely was not!
Some of the dishes I recommend trying include:
Polenta Taragna: This polenta dish is unique and oh so yummy! It is a mixture of yellow cornmeal and buckwheat flour with butter and a semi soft cheese like a fontina that is mixed in at the end. It is to die for. It is usually served with a roasted meat like rabbit, or sausages and sometimes wild boar ragu.
Casoncelli: This truly is a dish associated with Bergamese cuisine. You will find this on the menu in every restaurant in Bergamo. It is a ravioli style pasta stuffed with a sausage meat filling that is mixed with amaretti biscotti, pears, sage and other spices enveloped in a sage brown butter sauce. It melts in your mouth and I could eat this for every meal!
Scarpinocc: This unique filled pasta gets its shape and name from the pointed artisan shoes that were worn by the villagers living near Bergamo. Even though filling is a simple mixture of bread crumbs and cheese enveloped in a sage infused butter sauce, it is soooo good. Pasta and cheese; need I say more.
Polenta e osei: If you are looking to satisfy your sweet tooth while in Bergamo, I would suggest trying a local delicacy called polenta e osei which literally means polenta with songbirds. Don’t be fooled by its name, though, as it has nothing to do with polenta or songbirds and it is sweet not savory. The name is an homage to an old traditional polenta dish garnished with small little roasted birds. This sweet version is sugared yellow sponge cake made to like polenta with hazelnut cream filled center. The top is decorated with a little chocolate bird and piece of marzipan. These little sweet treats will certainly send you into a spin of sugar high happiness.
So, if you ever are visiting northern Italy, I highly recommend a visit to the enchanting city of Bergamo.
The Nuts and Bolts of Planning a Trip to Bergamo:
Getting there: Arriving to Bergamo is easy as it is well connected via public transport. Both train companies in Italy (Italo – http://www.italotreno.it/en and trenitalia – http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en) stop in Bergamo. If you are in Milan, Bergamo is only a 50 minute train ride away so it is perfect for a day trip.
There is also an international airport (Orio al Serio International Airport) that is connected to downtown Bergamo via bus or taxi.
If you decide to rent a car, there is ample public parking in citta bassa (the lower, modern city). From there, it is a short walk to the funicular station that takes you up the cita alta (upper historic center).
Where to Eat: Since I have only visited Bergamo once I would be remiss if I said I knew of every good place to eat In Bergamo. If you go to: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/the-10-best-restaurants-in-bergamo/ they have a good list of restaurants that are worth checking out.