Bergamo, Italy: a cultural city guide from The Sunday Telegraph
Janette Griffiths offers an essential cultural guide to Bergamo, Lombardy's finest hill town and once the home of Donizetti.
By Janette Griffiths 5:07PM BST 12 Apr 20116
So many Italian hill towns, so little time. Most of them, however, are not easy to reach – not because they’re on hilltops, but because you have to brave an autostrada or ride a train for hours. But Bergamo’s airport is only three miles from the town, making it easy to see as a short break at the end of a cheap flight from Britain.
Bergamo is on the fringe of the Alps, 45 minutes' drive from the Italian Lakes and 26 miles from Milan. It's divided in two: the Città Bassa is the lower, more modern half; busy and sternly handsome. But a glance upwards at the bell-towers, domes and spires of the ancient upper town, the Città Alta, and I know that my decision to stay in a hotel up top was the right one.
I alight the local bus at Porta Sant'Alessandro, one of several gates that were the only entrance to this walled town six centuries ago when Venice and Milan were fighting to control it. Once inside the walls, I walk to the main Piazza Vecchia, where the sight of the winged stone lion of St Mark atop a mullioned window, confirms that Venice won and then ruled Bergamo for 350 years.
I glimpse snowy mountain summits from street corners as I return along the main Via Colleoni to Piazza Vecchia. It's one of the loveliest little piazzas in Italy, with its most intriguing treasures tucked away at the far end behind the Palazzo della Ragione.
Bergamo: hotels and restaurants 12 Apr 2011
Here are three major religious edifices – the Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – a rather plain-looking sandstone structure – and the very ornate Colleoni Chapel.
Colleoni again. He was a successful 15th-century mercenary, and such an alpha male that he reputedly had three testicles. They appear on his coat of arms, which I'm encouraged to rub for luck as I leave the chapel which houses his tomb. This place is more impressive on the outside.
Next door, inside that bland sandstone basilica, the opposite applies: I enter to find myself under a ceiling writhing with hundreds of white stone limbs and some of the most exuberant, almost surreal marquetry in Italy. Donizetti, composer of 75 bel canto operas and a Bergamo native, is buried here. In a few minutes, I wander down to his house, now a museum.
Later I join the locals for their evening stroll along the city's walls. Later still, as I'm eating dinner a loud bell starts to chime. It has been rung every night for centuries to remind locals that they must rush back to the upper town before the great gates close.
I don't have to worry. No gates are closed these days. I tuck into a creamy local Branzi cheese, safe inside the walls. In Bergamo, there's no better place to be.