"Town of two parts......" Top 5 Page for this destination Bergamo by leics
Bergamo Travel Guide: 1,162 reviews and 4,523 photos
I first went to Bergamo purely for research purposes...for the 2012 Eurmeet (see the travelogues below for photos of a that very successful meet). I already knew it was an attractive place with supremely easy access from all over Europe. I knew it had history, and interest, and views and I knew it had easy access by train or bus to many other interesting places: Brescia, Varenna,Milan, Verona, the 'painted city' of Clusone, Lakes Iseo, Garda and Como.....
But I had not realised just what a pleasant place Bergamo really is: stuffed with history, magnificent views, easy to wander around, non-tourist-focused, safe-feeling, remarkably green (trees and plants everywhere) and the birds...the birdsong was wonderful.....
I knew I'd enjoy that first visit but had not realised quite how much!
The 2012 VT Eurmeet was very successful indeed and, because I'd enjoyed my two Bergamo visits so much it seemed an ideal place to take my friend the farmer's wife for our 2016 annual trip. So that's what we did and I followed the same pattern as on my first visit in 2011: a full day spent in Bergamo itself, a full day spent in Varenna (such an easy trip by train) and another day spent in Clusone (easy by tram + bus). The farmer's wife isn't much interested in history but she does enjoy seeing how people live and she very much enjoyed the trip. The forecast was pretty awful but the promised rain, thunderstorms and chilly temperatures never actually happened. :-)
So.....the basics. The city of Bergamo is in two parts: the original, walled, ancient Citta Alta (with Roman origins) set high up on the hill with its narrow cobbled streets almost entirely free of traffic. There are early Medieval tower houses (their top storeys mostly lopped-off centuries ago) all over the place, a beautiful Duomo, the Medieval Citadella, museums, cafes, restaurants...and two excellent funiculars to help you up and down the first hill (from Citta Bassa to Citta Alta) and the second (from Citta Alta to San Vigilio castle and many lanes which lead into the countryside). There was, of course, a Roman settlement here long before the existing Medieval structures..and an Iron Age one before that. Hills in the middle of plains make good, safe places to live!
The second part of the city is the Citta Bassa. Citta Alta began to expand in early Medieval times and you can still get a feel for that expansion if you wander the neighbourhoods of Borgo Pignolo and Borgo Canale. You can walk the steep, stepped and cobbled alleyways which lead up to and down from the original Citta Alta. As you wander between drystone walls under the shade of overhanging trees, peering into the gardens of beautiful villas, let your mind wander back to the daily trek to the fields below which were made by the Medieval peasants.
Citta Bassa continued to expand, eating up the farmland which originally covered the plain. You'll find 1600s-onwards mansions in Citta Bassa, and sgraffito, and archways through which you can spy on the secret courtyards within. And you'll find shops and restaurants, superb gelato, friendly people, bars and cafes and a zillion university students (many of whom arrive on early morning trains...I enjoyed watching that arrival pre-breakfast, as my first hotel was directly opposite the railway station).
On my first visit the first full day was mainly spent in Bergamo Citta Alta (of course, given my interests). First, a hop onto bus 1A from opposite my hotel and straight on to its terminus in Colle Aperto. From there straight onto the funicular for Sam Virgilio, because I wanted to beat the crowds. Actually, the only crowds I came across were those on June 2nd, a public holiday...but I didn't know that then. I just assumed Bergamo would be thronged with visitors and tour groups.
The funicular ride has superb views but walking up to the highest point of the castle (of which little remains) was wonderful. No-one around, fantastic views of the surrounding countryside and distant mountains and barely a sound to be heard except the birdsong.
Down again into Citta Alta (on my second visit I wandered the lanes around San Virgilio) and an exploration of its architecture (see tips and travelogues). Little remains visible of the Roman city, but so much Medieval architecture still stands. Major attractions are the lovely Piazza Vecchia ('then most beautiful square in the world' according to Le Corbusier), the ancient Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore and the adjoining uber-twiddly pink-and-white Colleoni Chapel (make sure you rub one of the three testicles for luck!).
But, for me, it is always the side-streets and the ancient parts which peep out from the newer which appeal the most. Down in the basement of an uber-swish gallery I saw an ancient (Roman? Just-post-Roman?) mosaic pavement. The Piazza Mercato del Fieno (hay market) has three obvious and superb tower houses from the 1200s, and (in my opinion) several more; there's a map on one of the ancient houses which suggest 20+ tower houses still remain in Citta Alta. The remains of frescoes and sgraffito are commonplace sights as you wander, reminders of what a colourful place Citta Alta must once have been.
A final wander led me to the Rocca (almost certainly where the Roman Capitol was sited), the walls here improved in the early 1300s and with the most wonderful views to the east. It's also the green and shady site of Bergamo's Park of Remembrance, filled with memorials to the city's war dead and with some examples of guns and weaponry dotted about.
So that first day was mainly spent mooching around alleyways and narrow backstreets, poking into tiny courtyards, stopping for a gelato or a tranci or a beer, just enjoying the ambience and being pleased that Bergamo offered more than I had expected.
I had not intended to explore Citta Bassa very much. I originally thought that a quick wander each evening, seeking out somewhere to eat, would be enough because, as far as I knew, its history was not of the era which truly interested me. It's a bustling, busy area, full of shops and restaurants, bars and cafes, ordinary people living ordinary lives. But my extra 2011 day allowed me not only to explore more of Citta Alta but also to spend some time discovering the various Borgi (neighbourhoods) of Citta Bassa, And I was surprised.
Citta Alta was too small by mid-Medieval times, and began to spread outside its walls. First I explored Borgo Pignolo, where narrow and winding Medieval streets still give clues to their age. Then I explored Borgo Canale, not only for its superb views and old buildings but also for some of the 'scaletti', the ancient stepped-and-cobbled pathways (vicoli) which lead up to the Citta Alta. As I made my way down these largely-deserted pathways, occasionally stopping for a rest in the warm sunshine amidst trees, flowers and birds, it was so very easy to imagine the peasants who farmed in the area now covered by Citta Bassa making their way up to Citta Alta for the markets...
And finally, on a research project for Eurmeet, I explored Borgo S Caterina and Borgo Palazzzo. Neither are as ancient as either Pignolo or Canale, because they are further from Citta Alta, but they still have much historical interest.
The excellent bus, tram and train services from Bergamo make it a super base for exploring elsewhere. On my 2011 trip I visited Lecco, pretty Varenna and historically fascinating Brescia. On my second, Eurmeet 2012, trip I explored the 'painted city' of Clusone, Sarnico, on the shores of Lago Iseo and Albino, the terminus of Bergamo's whizzy new tramline.
Bergamo is not just a town of two parts but a town of two parts both of which are fascinating places to wander, with so many lovely and easy-to-access places to visit nearby. Do try to spend at least a day in Bergamo. It really is worth a visit!
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