21 Mar Discover Bergamo, Beautiful Medieval Town in Lombardy
To many travelers visiting northern Italy, Bergamo is just an airport, a gateway to other Italian cities. There are even tourists flying in and out from several European cities the same day just for shopping. Of all the daily arrivals, only a few people decide to stop and discover Bergamo, some because they heard about this small city, other by chance.
I bet that they all get awe-struck once they start wandering this charming city on the foothills of the pre-alps.
In fact, there are two Bergamo: the modern “lower city” and the old “upper town”.
Bergamo Alta, as the old “upper town” is named in Italian, might be small, but there’s a lot to see: picturesque cobblestone streets lined with pretty shops, magnificent buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the imposing Venetian walls and superb views of the surrounding hills and the mountains.
The old town is small, and there’s no better way to discover Bergamo than strolling around.
Like many Italian medieval towns, Bergamo was built on a hill for defensive purposes. Encircled by the 16th Century Venetian walls, the old town is very well preserved and the pretty cobblestone alleys invite for a stroll.
Whichever direction you walk, even without a map you’ll soon find yourself in Piazza Vecchia and the adjacent tiny Piazza Duomo, the heart of Bergamo “upper town” and one of the most beautiful squares in Lombardy. All of a sudden, you’re surrounded by magnificent buildings and landmarks spanning from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance, hardly knowing where to look first.
The white classical harmony of Palazzo Nuovo (home of the Angelo Mai library and hosting an impressive collection of old books), the sober medieval Palazzo della Ragione, the bell tower, also called Campanone and, at the centre of the square, the Contarini fountain – encircled by mysterious sphinxes -, all combine in pure harmony.
Walking under the pointed arches of the Palazzo della Ragione you’ll reach the small Piazza Duomo, encompassing more astounding buildings. Unlike Milan’s Duomo, whose imposing facade overlooks a large square emphasizing the sculptures and the spires which seem to stretch toward the sky, the entrance to Bergamo’s cathedral is so squeezed in the tiny square that it’s barely noticeable.
A few steps apart, the beautiful medieval entrance of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore may seem unassuming but you’ll be blown away by the grandiosity of its interior and the beautiful frescoes decorating the walls and the dome.
Adjacent to the basilica is the Colleoni Chapel, probably one of the most famous buildings in Bergamo. Commissioned by Bartolomeo Colleoni, a condottiere from one of the most outstanding families in the area, the mausoleum was built between 1472 and 1472 to house the tombs of Colleoni and of Medea, his beloved daughter.
The polychrome facade, with its white, red and black intarsia, and the exquisite sculptures and columns, is a masterpiece of late Renaissance art. Inside the chapel, the white funerary monument dedicated to Medea strikes for its classical and serene composition, and the way the sculptures stand out from the background of black and white lozenges.
Discovering Bergamo old town from atop the bell tower.
Unless the weather is really bad, don’t miss climbing the bell tower (there’s also an elevator, if you prefer avoiding the stairs) for a 360 degrees view of Bergamo. From the top of the tower, the perspective on the Colleoni chapel and the old town is very different and stunning.
As you look top down, rather than the opposite, you might be reminded (I am, very often) that this is one of the most important aspects of life: being able to look at things from opposite angles. Walking on the tower, you’ll also discover Bergamo’s context: the “lower town” and the plain on one side, the foothills and the pre-Alps on the other. Over there, you’ll get an idea of this special geographic area, somehow marking the transition between the alps (further north) and the long and narrow Italian peninsula.
Unless art and museums give you a skin rash (I am an art, architecture and design lover, but I know several people who get made just at the idea of visiting a museum or art gallery), you’ll certainly enjoy a visit to the Accademia di Carrara, one of the most outstanding Italian museums. Compared to the Florence Uffizi, the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum this art collection is much smaller but it showcases extraordinary masterpieces from the late Middle ages and early Renaissance that are a must for any art lover.
Pretty shops, nice restaurants, and excellent food.
Aside from the landmarks, Bergamo is filled with charming alleys, lovely shops (don’t miss having a look at the ones displaying polenta e osei” – literally polenta with birds – a local specialty which is very pretty to see although, at least to my taste, way too sweet), nice restaurants and good food.
Local specialties include Casoncelli (ravioli filled with beef, bread crumbs, egg, parmesan cheese, sausage, and seasoned with melted butter and sage, although the recipes can slightly vary), Polenta alla Bergamasca (made with local corn flour and cooked very slowly, stirred in an artfully way), and the Donizetti cake (owing its name from the famous opera composer who was born in Bergamo).
Don’t miss to taste the local Moscato di Scanzo, a rare meditation wine and heaven in a glass.
Getting to Bergamo:
From Orio al Serio, a regular bus service (every 20 minutes) connects the airport with Bergamo train station and the upper town.
From Milan, regional trains leave regularly from Milano Centrale and Milano Porta Garibaldi. The journey is 50-60 minutes.
Bergamo Tourism Office:
Check Visit Bergamo website for information on the city, public transport, attractions, and offers.
Where to sleep:
I stayed at the Arli Hotel Business and Wellness in Bergamo lower town, in a very convenient position to reach the train station, the funicular and the upper town. Excellent service, modern rooms and free wifi, plus the possibility to access (with an additional charge) to the adjacent wellness center.