Bergamo - Bells, Balls, and Walls

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.

Ravello - one of the loveliest places on earth

As the bells in several churches chime 11, Boris the mongrel slinks out to the piazza, high above the Amalfi coast. He is an ugly and wretched old mutt and in the midst of Ravello's astonishing beauty, he seems to be trying to pass unnoticed. The local taxi driver who occasionally feeds him shrugs: "The same thing will happen to you and me one day, signora." In the meantime, he suggests that if I am truly worried, I could invest in a can of dog food. I had planned to attempt some "proper" tourism and visit the Duomo, one of Ravello's three or four historic sights, but I turn my back on its plain white facade and on the two honey-scented lime trees that guard its entrance, and spend the morning trying to buy dog food from the grocer without him knowing just who it is for.

"Ravello is situated in the most beautiful of all Mediterranean settings - a fact that is not at first apparent." So says its long- time resident Gore Vidal. In fact, he says it again and again on each menu of the cafe San Domingo, where I am writing this. And he is right. The sublime beauty of the place is not immediately obvious. The piazza is quite plain on three sides, then, with typical Ravello drama, it drops off on the fourth to reveal terraced green mountains, clustered clifftop villages, umbrella pines and the blue haze of the sea.

I have come to Ravello for the Wagner week of its music festival. Wagner came here while he was writing Parsifal and each year the town pays him tribute by presenting one of his works. The performances take place in the open air in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo, on a platform suspended high above the Mediterranean. While Boris devours his dog food, Brunnhilde and Wotan wander across the square. In the heat and silence of the Italian afternoon, they are off for a costume fitting. Before he goes off in search of his eye patch and spear, Wotan pauses to recommend the penne alla contadina - pasta with aubergines, roasted peppers, and courgettes - at La Colonna trattoria. This is not a festival for the Wagnerian perfectionist. It is to be enjoyed for the combination of potentially glorious music, magnificent setting and excellent Mediterranean cuisine. Over the centuries, Bocaccio, Verdi, Andre Gide, DH Lawrence and Graham Greene have all crossed this small square. Greta Garbo came up here in the throes of an affair with Leopold Stokowski. Jackie Kennedy came alone. Ravello paid them little attention - the town has its own concerns.

On 27 July the town celebrates the feast of its patron saint, San Pantaleone. Brunnhilde is soon followed across the square by two gorgeous young Italian men carrying a large portrait of the Madonna off down an alleyway. Anywhere else and they'd be picking up girls on their Vespas, but for the rest of the afternoon the beautiful young men string fairy lights across every rooftop in town. For her feast day, Ravello will sit at the top of her mountain, sparkling like a cruise liner in the sky. It is the only time the town ever works at its looks. But the beauty is never twee. If the view of the silent blue sea from the terrace of my hotel seems too sublime, the tiles on the balcony are worn and a little cracked; the waiter is a little shabby but benign. If the geraniums in the pots seem too uniform, then a morning glory will weave its wild way around their base. A couple of fine lawns in the garden are reserved for guests but they must share the paths with wheelbarrows full of courgettes and aubergines and knee-high basil destined for the kitchens. This is the busiest week of the year but the high season in Ravello looks like out of season elsewhere. I set out on the circuit recommended by Gore Vidal, along a pathway of bougainvillaea and honeysuckle. There is not a soul in sight. Only a mynah bird cries "Ciao!" out on the terrace of the Villa Amore, and a cook in the kitchen sings in a fine baritone. But, on the evening of the festival, the piazza fills up with people from as far away as Naples and Rome. The evenings get chilly on the hillside and some of them do not stay the course for Tony Palmer's fine production of Die Walkure. It doesn't matter. Their seats are taken by the taxi driver and Netta, the padrona of the excellent Cumpa Cosimo trattoria, and her team of waitresses. As they sit and listen attentively to Wotan's great farewell, I feel a heat around my cold legs: warm, mongrel breath. Poor old, ugly Boris has found his way into Wagner's enchanted world and snuggles down for a snooze as the orchestra plays its last notes.