A Day Visiting Bergamo, Italy
There is a small town in northern Italy that I had never really thought to visit. So last spring, I enjoyed the pleasant surprise of discovering the enchanting town of Bergamo. I was staying in the larger city of Milan, one of the fashion capitols of Europe. For our adventure that day my friend Anne and I took the train. It only takes about an hour one-way from Milan to Bergamo. The days we were experiencing in northern Italy’s spring weather were humid and slightly chilly, with occasional rain showers so I was sure to pack in my shoulder bag an umbrella and wore layers in case it warmed up later in the day. Off we went on the train, which is always one of my favorite parts of traveling in Europe. Now that I’ve been to several European countries and all over Italy from north to south, I can say that Italy has one of the best rail systems I think. Just be aware of holidays, which there are a lot of. There are more Catholic holidays than I ever knew about and it causes for there to be less trains running on particular days throughout the year.
Arriving at Bergamo, we made our way out of the train station and conveniently found the tourism center just across the street on one of the main roads. The street ran straight down what we later learned is the Città Bassa, lower city. It leads into the hills that rise to the back of the town and are covered by the Città Alta, the upper city. I love this aspect of Bergamo, that from almost any part of the lower city, you can view the varied architecture of quaint Italian houses, towering stone castle walls, and ancient Romanesque towers. They seem to grow up from the grassy ground of the hills themselves, much like the tall trees that grow and live clustered among the buildings. It really struck me sweetly as the picturesque images of Italy I had seen so many times before ever visiting. I could not wait to wander among this oldest part of the town.
We got information and maps from the tourism center and continued on our way. The street we were on was relatively empty and quiet. There were trees lining the sidewalks as we walked past shops and little cafes and restaurants. Then as we neared where the hills of the upper city began, we noticed that the buildings were older and grander. Many of these buildings are characterized by carved archways and ornate carvings of stone faces. Walking through one series of arches, I discovered a small grassy park that had a gorgeous fountain in the center, surrounded by tall trees. As we continued on our walk, we passed a tall clock tower that looked regal in its older architecture and colorful gilding touches. Flowers were growing everywhere, manicured and assorted into organized beds of bright colors. We then arrived at the cable cars that connect the lower city and upper city. In Italian it is called the funicular. There are also roads to drive up, but I hear the narrow old streets can be pretty stressful to navigate and there is not much parking at the top. Not to mention that there are usually loads of tourists walking about in the streets. Anne and I love to walk and hike, so we immediately found the footpaths which are distinguished by signs near the funicular station.
From here on was my favorite part of experiencing Bergamo! I loved the paths that were made of ancient cobblestones, at times steep and slanting and at others, a long series of steps carved into the stony ground. Along our right was the hillside, with a wall of stones and mortar hugging the steep sloping ground. And to our left was the lovely vast open view of the lower city and further out, the expanse of Italian countryside that we had earlier ridden through on the train. As we made our way higher and higher, I was glad that I wore layers because the clouds were breaking apart in the sky to let the sun shine through more and the air was deliciously warmer. Coming to a T in the path, we figured it was best to take the route to our right since it continued uphill and the to the left, we only saw a small old woman casually making her way downhill and what appeared to be back to the lower city. Ivy clung along the walls on either side of our path and we eventually came out to a small paved road that opened up to the entrance to the upper city. A few steps from us the road ended abruptly where the old road into the city gate began. The entire entrance was magnificent, with the ancient road made of large stone pavers and cobblestone, it arched as a bridge and curved to the left where it led through the gate that stands in the historic Venetian walls that were built in the 17th century. The views of the surrounding countryside and far off mountain ranges were even more spectacular from here. Lawns of rich green grass spread out just below the arches of the bridged road and we made our way in through the gates. We had found where everybody was as well…it was a bit more crowded up here in the old historical center.
Bergamo was like a flower blooming as we explored it more throughout the day. Each building and statue we saw, every narrow winding street we traversed, and every shop and cathedral we wandered into, was even more beautiful than the one before. The smallest details were splendid and even more so for me when I thought of how old they had been there and what hands may have fashioned their design so long ago. One of the busier areas just within the walls is where the cable cars arrive. We enjoyed piping hot fresh pizza and later chocolate pastries that were rich and decadent. One of the most popular foods that they are known for though is their polenta. I remember wandering through another arch in a stone wall that bordered one of the busier streets in this area. While the growing crowds were gathered around the polenta shops and bakeries, I stepped aside and into a world of dark green grasses growing lush under the cool shade of leafy branches spread out like a canopy over this stone-walled courtyard. The bordering buildings were wonderfully old, grey with damp mosses and ivy growing all over. It felt like I had stepped back in time and in all honesty made me think of scenes from Robin Hood movies and stories of Medieval times. Slowly meandering down the rocky path and inadvertently turning circles and looking up at the towering walls and branches, I found myself at the opposite end where it ended in another small stone road. In this furthest corner was what looked like a large feeding or watering trough. It had a metal roof covering of sorts, but I was not sure if long ago it was used for watering horses or for washing laundry. Perhaps both. I eventually left my little magical space of continued on to enter the Piazza Vecchia.
A great gelato shop is in the Piazza Vecchia. There are actually several I believe, but I think Anne and I found the best one. My apologies that I cannot remember the name now so when you visit you will have to simply try them all to determine for yourself which you like the best. Please let me know which you pick. We visited the beautiful cathedrals here and then continued on to walk higher and higher to where the highest cable car station is located at the highest point of the old city. Along the way we enjoyed browsing through outdoor craft markets and seeing more of the historic city walls and the ancient castle. I distinctly remember there being many coats of arms that were displayed above gates and pubs, as well as government buildings and homes that looked more like palaces.
The higher we went, the more residential and less touristy it became. The streets were still narrow but now even steeper and it was open again to the captivating views of the neighboring hill sides and the old city center that was now a little smaller and below us. The impressive city walls snaked away from us now, curving around the many little streets and beautiful piazzas we had spent time in earlier in the day. The light was growing softer outside and the scene all around us was hazy and soft with flowers and trellis’ of grapes growing alongside our path. Our day was coming closer to sunset, yet we found ourselves not wanting to return to Milan. But we made our way down to the lower city once again. Of course, we managed to stop into a couple more shops and decided to give up on catching the earlier night train.
Once back down in the lower city we came across a great little restaurant that was in one of the older buildings. They had a great spread of assorted appetizers that were all free, as much as you wanted, when you bought a glass of wine or beer. I think I remember it being only 5 euros! Yeah….I love Italy’s aperitivo. It’s an even better deal and happier time than the US happy hour. This made for a great dinner of pasta, fococcia breads, cheeses and olives, proscuito and deviled eggs. And the red house wines that we enjoyed were from the local area and fantastic.
Anne and I had a wonderful time visiting Bergamo and as much as we would have loved to have spent more time there, even one day was well worth our introduction to Bergamo. When I think back to our time there that day and look at the pictures, I have this great feeling that I will visit there again one day and I would not be surprised if my friend Anne returns with me. We both love Italy and highly recommend that if you are traveling through the northern part of this lovely country, you make a point to visit Bergamo. At least for a day visit, if not more.