We thought we were flying cheap to Milan until the small print revealed that Milan ‘Bergamo’ airport is a good twenty miles north. So, we weren’t really going to Milan at all. It felt like travelling to Preston for a night out in Manchester. They aren’t very near each other, and it was only a three-night break anyway, so, rather than waste time on more journeys, we decided to see what pleasures Bergamo had to share.
It’s a big place with a lower city, modern Bergamo, and an upper city, tourist Bergamo. The two parts are quite separate, though connected by steep roads and a funicular railway. The old town, the Città Alta, has the things to see and do so we stayed within walking distance of there. We were in a nice spot with pleasing views over hillside farms and vineyards to the snow-capped Alps in the north. It’s an ancient walled town with narrow, cobbled, winding streets, great architecture, superb bars and cracking restaurants; Ristorante da Franco, Pasticceria Donizetti, with Trattoria Pariatti just out of the town was very popular with the locals. The town has a mellow, medieval charm that entices you to wander at leisure; topping up on beer and pizza as you go.
Maybe Bergamo’s charm has a hypnotic quality too. Somehow our three-night stay felt more a like a week as each indolent, tranquil day merged into the next. Though it was a relaxing weekend for us, it was a punishing routine of exercise for the locals. My leisurely, constitutional stroll was interrupted every few minutes as sweating, panting, Lycra clad Italians sprinted or cycled past. They ‘power walked’ in gangs on the Sunday. To their credit, many of them did seem to be in excellent shape; Lycra is unforgiving, people tend to point and laugh when I cycle by.
Bergamo functioned as an outdoor gym for the locals, and they shamed us into activity. On Sunday, an hour’s pleasant stroll through the forest on the northern side of Città Alta brought us out at the top near the old castle. It set me up for lunch and views on the walk down were splendid. We avoided taking the funicular down, however, after an unseemly incident on the previous day. Once again, the tendency amongst young Italians for fervent displays of passion was a cause for dismay. Two teenagers were snogging voraciously in the carriage. They made sucking noises like a plumber unblocking a drain with a rubber plunger. Everyone stared out of the windows, pretending nothing grotesque or shameful was occurring. The young teenagers seemed very much in love; she with him, he with himself.
Perhaps it is this passion which inspired Gaetano Donizetti’s operas. Bergamo’s famous composer has a theatre dedicated to him and his works. We fancied taking in a show, but either it was not the opera season, or the labyrinth complexity of the website defeated me. I suspect the latter. I’ve searched for opera concerts in Italy before. The websites for Milan’s La Scala and the Arena di Verona seem designed to break the spirit of anyone wanting to buy a ticket. As I wrote this blog, the headline on the home page of the Teatro Donizetti invites you to;
“Discover all appointment (only Italian version)”.
What does that mean? Maybe they don’t want visitors to attend; he wasn’t as good as Puccini, anyway.
Crap websites aside, the city is also famous for the flavour of ice cream named ‘Stracciatella’. Our hotel manager shared this salient snippet as we cruised by ‘La Marianna’ where it was (supposedly) first created. Naturally, I assumed he was lying to boost the trade at his cousin’s café, but I Googled this and it turned out he was telling the truth. Stracciatella is yummy, it’s like chocolate chip but better. It was invented there in 1961, possibly by the elderly lady who served it to me every day. A constant queue of customers kept her very busy and if her task was a labour of love, she hid it very well. In fact, she looked so pissed off I felt guilty buying it off her. One day she will expire and be discovered slumped face down in a tub of Stracciatella, ice-cream scoop in hand; ‘free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last’.
Well. If lounging in atmospheric bars disgusts you, if people watching in sunny, medieval piazzas irritates, and if eating freshly cooked Italian food isn’t your nosebag, you might want to give Bergamo a miss. You should also seek psychiatric help.
Should you go?
It’s definitely worth a short break. Three days may be about right. It’s a fine city, but it doesn’t have a wealth of attractions. That said, you are in striking distance of Lakes Maggiore, Como, and Garda (to name only three). You are also near enough for a day trip to Milan, Desenzano, Sirmione, and Verona (and, no doubt, other places I’ve never heard of) if you don’t mind an hour or so on a train. Bergamo exists in the shadow of Milan, but it’s less expensive to visit and there are lots of cheap flights to its little airport.
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