Beguiling Bergamo

photo by Fabio Toschi

By Nora Fahmi

When planning an Italian holiday, it is common practice (especially on a first trip!) to get carried away with the usual suspects: Rome, Venice, Florence and Amalfi to name a few. Of course, it can be a little difficult for lesser-known destinations to compete with places that harbour some of the most praised monuments in the world. Though it’s hard to look away from cities that seem to have a spotlight constantly shining on them, it’s a good idea to plan an itinerary that includes places off the beaten path.
If your chosen route runs along the Lombardy region, then an unspoiled gem called Bergamo should be on your must-see list. Located roughly 50 km northeast of Milan, and 30 km from Lake Como, Bergamo is – simply said – a breath of fresh air. It offers the perfect mix of small town charm with a wealth of fascinating architecture, while maintaining the northern Italian sophistication Lombardia is known for.
Città Bassa
“Perhaps the city’s most interesting feature is its contrasting personality: the Lower Town (Città Bassa) is modern and bustling, while the Upper Town (Città Alta) is packed with art, history and ancient beauty,” says Ksenia Makeeva, resident of Milan and frequent business-trip visitor to Bergamo. “Although many will head to the Upper Town as soon as they arrive to Bergamo, there is plenty to see in the Lower Town as well, namely the Academia Carrara and the Galleria D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea,” she continues. Situated across the street from one another, these art meccas offer something for every taste.
The Academia Carrara is both an academy of fine arts as well as a gallery named after a wealthy art collector, Count Giacomo Carrara, who left an important legacy to the city at the end of the 18th century. The rich collection includes medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, along with impressive pieces by some of the greatest Italian names: Botticelli, Raffaello and Bellini.
The Galleria D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAMeC) was inaugurated in 1991 in what was once a monastery. Its wonderful collection of modern and contemporary art is distributed across 10 themed exhibition rooms, one of the most popular being the Manzù Collection, which displays the works of famous Bargamask artist Giacomo Manzù.
After a leisurely stroll along the ever so elegant Via XX Settembre and a tall drink at one of the many charming coffee shops along the way, Città Alta awaits you.
Città Alta
Because of the steep winding streets, walking up to the Upper Town can turn into a tiring hike; it is advised to take the funicular connecting the two. Aside from being more relaxing, the views on the way up are magnificent. The old town is surrounded by over four km of imposing Venetian walls dating back to the 16th century, built during the Republic of Venice’s rule of the territory. Walking along these walls feels a little like being in a fairy tale.
Piazza Vecchia is the beating heart of Città Alta, a square praised for its architectural splendour. Here you’ll find the perfect marriage of buildings dating back to medieval times and the Renaissance overlooking a gorgeous white marble fountain, Fontana Contarini, at the centre of the piazza. At the end of the square, the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason) stands proudly with its majestic archway that leads to Piazza Duomo, Colleoni Chapel and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In a corner of the square, there is il Campanone (the Civic Tower) which, to this day, strikes 100 times at 10p.m. – a reminder of an ancient curfew signalling the closing of the old town’s four entry gates.
“If you want to peek into the life of the famous Bergamask opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, head to the Palazzo della Misericordia Maggiore which houses the Donizetti Museum. Pieces of furniture, books, paintings, original scores and important mementos are all part of a permanent exhibition which honours his life,” suggests piano teacher and Bergamo resident, Chiara Valentini. Donizetti’s piano can also be seen in one of the rooms of the museum.
The Bergamo Historic Gran Prix
Timing a holiday around the Bergamo Historic Gran Prix can be a great idea for vintage car lovers. The first automobile race along the Circuito delle Mura (the Venetian walls) was held in 1935 and won by Tazio Nuvolari with his Alfa Romeo. In 2004, 69 years later, the race made a grand return to the delight of locals and tourists alike; all were excited to marvel at the spectacle and hear the sound of those vintage beauties.

San Pellegrino

After a culture-packed visit of enchanting Bergamo, San Pellegrino is where some well-earned relaxation can take place. Situated 25 km from Bergamo, the “gem of the Brembana Valley” is not only known internationally for its mineral water and beverages, but also for its healing thermal baths. In fact, the water from San Pellegrino’s springs is the star of a stunning holiday resort fully equipped for the ultimate pampering. Other iconic structures that deserve a visit are the Grand Hotel and the casino – fine examples of the Art Nouveau style for which the city is known.