Sitting at the base of the foothills of the Alps, Bergamo is really two cities in one. The beautiful old Città Alta, with its defensive walls, towers above the modern Citta Bassa below
Strolling through Bergamo’s wonderfully historic Città Alta (Upper City) you can’t help but feel uplifted by the sights, sounds and smells of this Italian atmospheric gem of a city.
You simply cannot fail to notice the sweet smell of the flowers that fill the window boxes along the narrow cobbled streets, nor the heady aroma of vanilla, freshly baked bread and coffee floating from the cafés, restaurants and pastry shops.
Nuns hurry along, their habits billowing in the breeze, grandmothers sit on stools talking at shop doorways while the sounds of excited chatter and the laughter of carefree children echoes through the streets and alleyways.
I watched as a young woman climbed from her motor scooter and pulled her crash helmet from her head revealing beautifully manicured auburn hair that gleamed in the afternoon sun. She greeted a man, his burgundy sweater thrown over his shoulders with the arms loosely tied across his chest, with a gentle kiss on either cheek.
How is it that Italians, no matter what the time of day or situation, consistently manage to look so stylishly elegant and so, well, just Italian?
Nestling at the base of the foothills of the Alps this ancient Lombardy city, offers the very best of old world charm, top quality, but affordable, restaurants and chic modern shops.
The city is actually split in two. The Città Alta, surrounded by its 17th-century defensive walls, sits on a hilltop overlooking the modern Città Bassa (lower city) with its office blocks, financial centre and stylish shopping malls crammed full of designer clothes stores.
The best, and easiest way, to reach the Città Alta is by the funicular railway that transports visitors from the traffic choked roads of the modern city up to the charm and elegance of the mostly pedestrianised streets high above.
From the funicular station visitors can stroll through narrow streets lined with restaurants, cafés, incredible cake and pastry shops and historic churches.
The Piazza Vecchia (old square) in the centre of the Città Alta is a great meeting place and is lined with wonderful restaurants, bars and cafés. The square has to be one of the most visibly appealing in Europe and has a lovely relaxed atmosphere whether by day or night.
The 14th-century Cittadella (Citadel) houses a fabulous natural history museum which should help keep children amused. There is also a beautifully maintained, if small, botanical garden which boasts almost 1,000 species of Alpine, Lombardy and exotic plants pleasantly laid out among ponds and water features. However, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has to be the architectural highlight of any visit to the Città Alta, even for the non-religious.
The church was founded as far back as 1137 and stands on the site of a Roman temple. The interior walls are draped in tapestries and paintings dating back to the 1600s while the bell tower dominates the skyline.
Where to eat
High up in the Città Alta at Via Castello, you will find Baretto di San Vigilio Caffè Restaurant (www.baretto.it). It might be a bit of a hike but believe me the walk will set you up nicely for the fantastic food on offer. Naturally, pasta dishes dominate the extensive menu but lamb, chicken and beef, all cooked to perfection in wonderfully aromatic sauces fill the extensive menu.
The dessert menu is also extensive and when my wife found it just too difficult to choose the waitress somehow managed to put a small portion of three different sweets on one plate for her to try. Added together it made for one very big portion which meant we had the, not unpleasant, task of hiking even further around the Città Alta’s delightful streets in an effort to burn off the calories. And with a fabulous wine cellar offering the very best Italian wines Baretto di San Vigilio is a real gem of a restaurant.
However, it’s the incredible views across the rooftops of the Città Alta and the foothills of the Alps beyond as you tuck into your lunch or dinner that really adds that extra special ingredient to a wonderful meal that should cost no more than 50 euros or perhaps as little as 20 euros.
For more formal dining try Taverna Del Colleoni Del’ Angelo (www.colleonidellangelo.com) in the gorgeous Piazza Vecchia. This glamorous restaurant is owned by internationally-renowned chef, Pierangelo Cornaro, and offers an incredible menu specialising in fish dishes such as grilled turbot salad served with hazelnut oil and candied Sicilian lemon peel or risotto with black cuttlefish, sheep ricotta cheese and chilli pepper coulis. However, it is quite expensive and dinner for two, with wine, with leave little to no change from 200 euros.
Where to stay
Excelsior San Marco Hotel, at Piazza della Repubblica is ideally located. It's close to a lovely park and just a few minutes' walk from the funicular railway link to the Città Alta while also being convenient for the Citta Bassa’s shopping malls and business centre.
The hotel boasts 155 en suite rooms. Breakfast is buffet style with plenty on offer. We didn’t have dinner in the hotel so I can’t comment but the menu looked to have plenty of choice. There is also a beauty spa and fully equipped gym which, after a long day walking around the Città Alta might not be as appealing as the hotel’s pleasant sauna or Jacuzzi. A double room costs around 90 euros a night.
Bergamo, particularly the Città Alta, is a fabulously relaxing historic city for a weekend break or as a picturesque base from which to explore the Lombardy region including nearby Milan to the west and Lake Garda to the east.
However, visitors should be aware that the Città Alta is built on a hill and some of the streets incline steeply. To appreciate Bergamo properly a reasonable level of fitness and a willingness to walk is required.