Bergamo: Have Your Polenta and Eat It

In the aftermath of a vote that saw the English give their capital city a bloody nose for hogging the benefits of globalisation, and for spending far more time in Paris or Amsterdam than we do in Birmingham or York, what better way to react than by swapping the 1950s for the 1450s and running off to the place I spend 50 weeks of the year dreaming about? It being the height of summer, we settled on Bergamo as the place in Italy that would give us the best chance of not boiling to death; it is around an hour north of Milan, and the last major city before the Alps. As Italy’s economic engine and the most prosperous of the twenty regions, Lombardy is a hugely important part of Italy and yet this was my first visit; ancient old cities and picturesque landscapes are comparatively thin on the ground, and Bergamo is something of a rarity in giving good value for both.

Some of the Lega Nord malcontents divide Italy into “Southern Bavaria” and “Northern Arabia”. Although I love the south and find it glorious, and the existence of proud and flourishing cities such as Matera suggests to me that the Italian tapestry is more interwoven than split into two irreconcilable halves, it was a best-of-both-worlds pleasure to visit the North for the first time in a few years and find a classic hilltop centro storico of defensive walls, stone houses and archways whose features were so painstakingly well-maintained, whose people were very posh and polite, and where transport and the likes ran with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Although it is in Lombardy, and is considered to come within the orbit of Milan, Bergamo was an outpost of the Venetian Republic for its last 350-odd years. The old city, or Città Alta, is fairly small, and perched on a narrow hilltop right before the Alps; the modern Città Bassa sprawls out across the plains below. This gives Bergamo the feeling of a frontier town, between the populous cities and the manufacturing belt of the Po Valley, and the hardier, less inhabited mountains. As you need a bus or a funicular to get from one part of town to another, it also makes Bergamo’s two sides feel as topographically divided as Buda and Pest. On the other hand, it also means that whichever side of the city you find yourself in there is usually a wonderful view of the other side.

Bergamo is made particularly accessible by Ryanair’s habit of offering flights to major cities that actually land at airports 50 miles away. Their ‘Milan’ flights land at Bergamo, which is a far larger operation that the usual Ryanair shed, and the vast majority of people on your flight then dutifully queue up for budget coaches emblazoned with images of Milan Duomo, leaving a small handful of visitors to make the short journey to Bergamo on the No. 1 bus. As soon visitors step onto the tarmac they can spot Bergamo’s Città Alta, a little jewellery box of domes and campaniles clustered together, but the first thing you notice is the beginning of the Alps, which take up the entire northward horizon and look infinite.

The airport is at the southern city limits, and a short drive from the station through an area that is markedly poorer and blacker than the city centre; Bergamo adheres to the usual European model of segregation. One ominous metal sign, prominently placed at a bus stop and translated into six languages, advertised a shelter where mothers could anonymously give away unwanted babies. The station and the Città Alta sit at opposite ends of a large wide, boulevard running through the centre of modern Bergamo, reminiscent of Verona’s Corso. It’s interesting to see how different Italian hilltop towns handle the logistics of their historic centre sitting atop an insurmountably steep hill. Some go for buses; Gubbio and Ancona have elevators; Perugia has a wonderful little thing called the MiniMetro, where a set of rails carry Jetsons pods up and down the mountain every 90 seconds. Bergamo, like Orvieto, employs a funicular for its Sisyphean task of moving folks around. Caffè della Funicolare is one of the nicest bars in the upper city and its terrace offers one of the best views.


The Città Alta is surrounded by solid, high walls, built by the Venetians after the Portuguese broke their trading monopoly and La Serenissima began to pay more attention to the mainland. Most cities have demolished their walls, their function obsolete, but the slopes of Bergamo’s walls have been repurposed as parkland. The four doors into the inner city all feature Venice’s winged lion. The very useful No. 1 bus terminated beside the north-west corner of the city walls -where all is trees, pavement cafés, and views of the hills beyond- giving us a short walk in towards our flat.

Entering the city walls always felt a little bit magical; the first courtyard, a Venetian beauty with arches, colonnades and museums, served as a car park and makes the new visitor think “if this is what the car parks look like…” The cars left behind, Bergamo’s core is tranquil, and feels relaxing even when the crowds are at their height; first comes the gorgeous Piazza Mascheroni, where our flat was located; after it Via Colleoni, narrow and shaded by its tall buildings was the favoured passeggiata street and led to the heart of the Città Alta, Piazza Vecchia and Piazza Duomo.

Piazza Vecchia is one of the great examples of the Italian piazza as stagecraft, and certainly one of the most uplifting town squares that the peninsula has to offer. Its most striking feature is that the medieval town hall, the Palazzo della Ragione, separates it from Piazza Duomo and has only an arcade of supporting columns where the ground floor would normally be, allowing you to see through from one piazza to the other; sacred life and secular life, the ceremonial and the everyday, are thus fused in a way that feels quite natural.

A covered staircase in front of the campanile (whose lengthy bout of 10pm bell-clanging, which warned straggling travellers that the city gates were closing, still happens today) serves as the entrance to the Town Hall, with some interesting carved bits and bobs. As well as its beguiling views, the floor under the Palazzo contains a marble meridian line with zodiac symbols.

Of the other buildings on Piazza Vecchia, most are cafés, restaurants and ice cream parlours, whilst the fountain (with a spouting Sphinx and dutiful marble lions holding chains in their jaws) is well loved and well used. Bar Flora is the most popular aperitivo spot; the nibbles come in a brown paper bag, in an attempt to deter scavenging pigeons. If you prefer to sit indoors, Caffè del Tasso is the pretty/historic/upmarket option.

The pristine white building along the northern end with some anatomically dodgy sculptures is a library. The foyer had a nice exhibition containing manuscripts of early sheet music, and the reading room itself looked like British libraries used to decades ago, before we got rid of all the books and turned half the building into an Internet café and half into a children’s adventure playground.


Piazza Duomo itself packs a bewildering level of architectural clout into a rather small space. Pass through the Palazzo and you will find the Duomo to your left, the Baptistery to your right, and straight ahead, the Basilica and the Colleoni Chapel. None of the quartet lets the side down, there is no Ringo present.

I know it is not uncommon for a city to have a couple of cathedrals, but for the Duomo and Basilica to be a dozen steps apart rather than a few blocks apart has me envisioning Renaissance Bergamo having at some point experienced a Linfield/Glentoran schism into the Catholic and the ultra-Catholic. I’ll tackle them from left to right. With a white marble facade that is all tasteful Palladian niche statues and round arches, and its position off in the wings, at first glance the Duomo is less arresting than its counterparts. Its elevated dome cupola, however, is very prominent on the Bergamo skyline, topped with a martial-looking statue (the city’s patron saint, Alessandro, a Roman soldier killed under Diocletian).

No doubt the church has had more than one makeover in its time; at present it is designer-label baroque, all white and gold, heavy on the Roman pomp and bling in a way that exudes classiness. The side chapels have paintings, including a Moroni, but the paintings seem to recede into the background when competing with gilded apses, Corinthian pilasters, statues and marble altars. Note the priest in the booth reading a magazine.

Other features are a thumping pulpit and Tiepolesque ceiling frescoes on the interior of the dome.

Side chapels contain more frescoes and gold, plus a bronze statue of (and a few relics belonging to) Pope John XXIII, the local boy made good who introduced the substantial reforms of Vatican II.

The crypt is the one feature that really gave me a jolt- it is clearly post-war and felt like a stage set for a science fiction movie. The spareness verges on the abstract and seven of the twelve marble tombs are occupied by bodies which I presume to belong to the last seven Bishops of Bergamo, with five as-yet-unlabelled sarcophagi for their successors. One thing for sure is that you wouldn’t catch me spending much time down here, were I the Bishop of Bergamo.

The front of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, despite its interesting polychrome porch housing lions, horses and saints, is outsung by the noisy Colleoni Chapel, but this may be because you enter at one of the side transepts. From the outside, it looks best when you can pick out the octagonal rotunda, studded with Romanesque windows and wearing a dunce’s cap spire, or wandering the streets around Via Arena and coming across that magnificent apse.

The interior is less formal, less uniform than the Duomo, more as if they have thrown in the kitchen sink. The earlier features have not entirely been washed away by makeovers, leaving traces of various eras (one example is the very early and grisly looking carved crucifixion placed in front of a deafeningly busy altar). I think, to my surprise, of the more overheated churches found in the south. It’s a baroque where not one square inch of space has escaped decoration in the form of statues, patterns, frescoes, mouldings or gilding.

The walls are hung with C16th tapestries from Flanders and Florence, and there are some excellent early frescoes on the far transept walls. The confession booth is as over-the-top a piece of work as I can recall seeing anywhere.

Two prominent tombs are those of a C14th cardinal, and the opera composer Donizetti, where a mourning lady is upstaged by the frieze below here, where a troupe of grief-stricken cherubs are smashing, stamping on and ripping apart their instruments.

The Colleoni Chapel is perhaps the most interesting of the quartet. Bartolomeo Colleoni was a famous condottiere; I did a fair bit of reading up on these when I visited Urbino in March.  The city states of Renaissance Italy were not blessed with vast armies, and condottieri were military leaders from the nobility who generally fought for the highest bidder and, like footballers, commanded eye-watering wages and would regularly change employers in the transfer window.  Colleoni twice fought for Milan, recording one famous victory over the French, but served Venice for most of his life and is today best known for his equestrian statue outside San Zanipolo. By all accounts, he was one of the more humane warlords and did a lot for charity. His chapel, like the Malatesta Temple in Rimini or some of the Venetian churches like S. Maria del Giglio, blurs the boundaries between a Christian church and a church in which the patron encourages worship of himself.

The basilica sacristy was demolished to make room for the chapel, and the two sit snugly adjoining one another. The chapel is slightly lower than the larger churches but makes itself heard, with a spiked kaiser helmet-shaped dome and a stunning facade of loggias, marble patterns of grey, pink and white, busts of Caesar and Trajan and reliefs showing the tasks of Hercules. The chapel is dedicated to three saints, who are represented inside; but for inspiration it casts its nets far beyond the source material of the Bible. Inside there is a woman with a postcard stall to enforce the no-photography rule, but it is more ceiling frescoes, a marble altar and the tombs of Colleoni and his daughter Medea (just in case anyone thought he wasn’t taking the ‘warlord’ business seriously). The wooden statue of Colleoni, sneakily taken from the front steps, was made in Nuremberg.

The Baptistery, facing the Duomo from across the small square, can only be visited by appointment but the door was open behind the locked gates, allowing a glimpse of the lovely blue-and-pink marble patterns within. We’re a long way from the canals of the Venetian lagoon here, but all this coloured marble does give a distant echo of Bergamo’s erstwhile capital city and the pretty, octagonal baptistery looks like a building from one of those Ideal City paintings.

To get a different perspective on these postcard views, you can keep climbing and look down on the Città Alta itself. Bergamo has two funicular services and the second, around the corner from the No. 1 bus terminus, runs up to San Vigilio; where you will find a castle, a church, a few cats, a couple of appealing terrace bars, and above all some glorious views. It’s quite a privilege to see the hilltop from above, but just as fascinating is the view of the less-developed side to the north. Climbing a castle turret leads to a picnic spot where you can contemplate small foothill villages before the majesty of the great Alps. These huge peaks seem to be layer after layer; the third row of mountains is faint and beyond that all is mist. It looks like the kind of place where a young man would set off on a Quest and never come back. One can only imagine the relief of Grand Tourists (not to mention Hannibal’s elephants), at finally coming to the end of weeks of mountain passes and being greeted by the sunny green plains of Italy.

Some of the provincial museums in Italy can be a disappointment (bad art, bad presentation, or shockingly bad customer service), so I am very happy to report that Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara is quite state-of-the-art. Its remit is simple -presenting the collection of a rich connoisseur, plus the extras they have acquired over the decades- all it has to do is show them off. It’s almost all paintings, and almost all wonderful.

The older I get, the older my tastes get; as a student I would head straight to Tate Modern if I was visiting London, but these days I head straight to the National Gallery’s new wing with the oldest Italian altarpieces. The Carrara does not disappoint, having some great Madonnas with Child by the likes of Crivelli, before we leap forwards with a St Sebastian by a teenage Raphael and a curious Botticelli punch-up.

There are some gory sights as we make our way through the martyrs; St Lucy with her eyes on a platter, another martyr being disembowelled by some winding device that reels in his guts like a garden hose. I liked a painting of St Ursula appearing before a thousand virgins, where the upturned faces in question have such unformed, gormless and gullible looks that you can really believe they are virgins.

Good as the sacred stuff is, the best room is the one with Moroni’s portraits. Like the Dutch masters, Moroni was chiefly employed by an emerging middle class; he has some religious work, like the one in Bergamo Duomo, but his work catches fire in the portraits of well-to-do families; rakish young men, weary aldermen, and stern matrons. I caught a show at the Royal Academy a few years back where all the Renaissance bourgeoisie are wearing garish pink silks and the likes; there are a few in the National Gallery, including his portrait of a shear-wielding tailor. I felt slightly guilty to walk past a guide, proudly telling a group of Americans that they had managed to borrow the Tailor from London the year before. Anyway, Moroni’s portraits are ripe with psychology. You can see them thinking, and you get a very real feeling that they are looking at you, and that what they think of you is probably better unsaid.

There’s an interesting Caravaggio of David before a few rooms of wood carving and sculpture, and a token amount of later Romantic stuff, but having been put in a good mood I even enjoy these; a melodramatic Hayez where the Venetian ambassador shows the Queen of Crete that she is finished by opening the window onto St Mark’s flag flying from her castle, and someone has even paid tribute Bergamo’s wonderful piazza with a veduta in the style of Canaletto.

The museum is downhill from the walled city, in the Città Bassa. The steep hill divides the two cities and I didn’t get to see much of the lower one, which I regret. A tourist who likes the historic and the picturesque, and is seeking pleasure and relaxation is better off up the hill, but modern Bergamo is clearly where the vast majority of locals work, play, and live out their lives, and my Internet research suggested that the most interesting bars and restaurants were all based down there too. What knows he of Bergamo who knows nothing of the Città Bassa?

On the way to the station and airport we did make use of the bus that zips up and down the long boulevard between old town and station, and the small amount of Bergamo we saw was intriguing; it may be C19th and C20th in large part but it is still handsome, with lots of ornate neo-classical buildings that housed or used to house banks, insurance companies and the like. The Banca d’Italia building has studded bricks and a series of ceramic figures.

At first glance the Torre dei Caduti could pass for a Renaissance belltower; however, the clue is in the title (and the absence of any ‘PONT. MAX.’ plaques). The throned bronze statue sat on a shelf above a niche may recall umpteen ancient structures, but this is a war memorial from the fateful year of 1922, or should it be Anno I…

Porta Nuova, the C19th entrance to the Città Bassa (which has kept on spreading) is marked by a twin set of Greek revival temples, with the Tower between them and the Città Alta further behind. They frame the view nicely and emphasise how neo-classical was used as the lingo in the building of Città Bassa, to give the new district its own identity. When we were desperately trying to find a supermarket on the first day, an old man at a kiosk sent us back out to the boulevard with instructions to pass the second ‘semaforo’, and we found it by assuming he was talking about the two temples (in my dimwitted confusion, I had forgotten that ‘semaforo’ means traffic lights).

In the piazzas off the main road, there were a few intriguing fascist-era buildings with attractive lettering. Just before we travelled, the new Jonathan Meades film looked at the buildings of fascist Italy and with its focus on Milan, Turin and Genoa I found myself seeing a modernist Italy that felt quite foreign to me. As in Rome’s EUR, their no-messing-about monolithic blankness is quite a strong look, even if you disagree that “war is to man as childbirth is to woman”. The Auditorium seemed particularly notable, with its vast inscription to the journalist/fighter pilot Antonio Locatelli. In Naples, they belittle their great fascist buildings by using the piazza as a car park and allowing the youths to cover them in graffiti tags. In Bergamo, they do the same by posing giant inflatable neon green flumps in front of them.

As for food, it was hearty but good; the local pasta is casoncelli, large and thick handmade ravioli-style pockets with mince, parmesan, eggy breadcrumbs and various herbs/spices. Travelling around Lombardy allowed me to fill in some more blanks; at breakfast time, cappuccino always seems to be abbreviated to ‘cappucco’ and a cornetto is a ‘brioche’. Somehow I didn’t end up having that much polenta, but the one steadfast of Bergamo’s cafés and pasticcerie is a cake called polenta e osei, osei being dialect for ‘little birds’. A sponge with chocolatey cream and a hint of liqueur is covered in a yellow marzipan icing, with brown and white icing on top. This is a cute allusion to an old Lombardian staple; lacking in vitamin B3, an exclusive diet of polenta would lead to pellagra (horrible skin lesions and madness), so people would eat their polenta with roasted bony birds as a protein boost. The little birds are still very much in evidence today; our flat looked onto a university garden and when all the students had gone home after 6pm, it would be just us and the ubiquitous host of sparrows. Some were so forthcoming that we wondered if the Città Alta cafés kept them as pets.

With budget flights and the sharing economy, we’ve had a good innings in the past few years, enjoying the kind of holidays that would until very recently have been available only to the wealthy, despite having no more spending power than my ancestors who were restricted to Blackpool or Bangor; it may be possible, though, to have too much of a good thing. When Airbnb first arrived it seemed like there was no downside; a more enjoyable experience than a hotel for half the price, the ability to cook at home, thus having more money to stay for longer. It was in New York, famous for its extortionately priced hotels, that the first murmurings of dissent came, when residents found half their apartment block would be short-stay tourists. Barcelona, Berlin, and now even Reykjavik have gone to war with Airbnb for its vampiric effect on the rental market, and even Bergamo is not immune, as was brought home to be both by the absence of supermarkets in Città Alta and by a poster comparing the old town to Venice. As Bergamo’s population has soared over the decades, the resident population of Città Alta has plummeted in line with the population of poor old Venice (yes, it’s that bad), and the open letter laments Bergamo’s “sacrificing its history and beauty on the altar of a short-sighted tourist market, devoid of culture”. You can find lovely places to eat and drink in Città Alta, but none are cheap and a few looked like classic tourist traps. You know there is simply too tourism when residents become an endangered species. It begins with art-loving pioneers and ends with a Burger King in the Uffizi; cities are auto-cannibalised by success, their desirable qualities killed off by the mass tourism attracted by these very qualities. This can only be a result of too many visitors, and our stay will only have added fuel to the fire. Each man kills the thing he loves.




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