With a charming old town, distinctive local cuisine and lots of cultural attractions, Bergamo makes the perfect destination for a whirlwind weekend break in Italy
“Buon giorno and welcome to Scotland,” wasn’t exactly the welcome I’d hoped for when checking into my hotel in Bergamo. The weather forecast was spot on and the 48-hour whirlwind trip to the city seemed to be heading for a wash-out.
I’d discovered Bergamo quite by accident. Originally planning a quick weekend break to the Italian fashion capital of Milan, I realised the Milan Orio al Serio airport is actually nowhere near the city, but 50 minutes away by bus. However, just four kilometres and a bus-hop away from the arrivals terminal lies Bergamo, which offers a more pleasant alternative to a big city break.
Although it had started to rain, the stunning Cittá Alta, or upper town, was clearly visible as the aeroplane came in to land. Rising high from the Lombardy planes, Cittá Alta is Bergamo’s big draw – a refined old hill town, enveloped by ancient city walls.
But Bergamo is a tale of two cities, and the Cittá Bassa, or lower town, should be neither ignored nor bypassed. As well as a multitude of shops, there is plenty to see here including the Teatro Donizetti theatre and the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo’s fine art gallery. It is also where most reasonably priced hotels are based.
I was eager to explore the Cittá Alta, so armed with my guidebook and umbrella, I jumped on the number one bus which propelled me in minutes up to the old town’s Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe. It’s possible to walk the route, and there is also the option to take the 19th-century funicular tram, but this was out of order when I visited.
Cittá Alta has managed to maintain its stunning old town charm and grandeur imposed on the city ever since the Venetians ruled. The pace of life here is blissful. Just stroll through the winding streets, lined with quaint shops, delectable bakeries and cute cafés, up to the magnificent medieval squares, Piazza Vecchia and Piazza del Duomo.
From here, step inside the magnificent Santa Maria Maggiore church. Originally constructed in the 11th century, the church underwent a restoration programme in the 17th century. Architects and artists went to town sculpting angels and cherubs, which at first glance seem to be carved from marble and into the ceiling. In fact, coated plaster was used, but the effect is equally jaw-dropping.
To get a bird’s eye view of the city, take the recently installed elevator or climb the steps up the thousand-year-old bell tower, or campanone. I didn’t see much more than cloud and rain, but on a clear day, Milan can be spotted in the distance as well as the lower Alps. Just remember the bell tolls every half an hour. To forget can be heart-stopping.
Back on the bus to the Cittá Bassa, and a two-minute walk from the hotel is the fabulous La Bruschetta restaurant (Via Guglielmo d'Alzano 1). Join the locals who queue here in their masses to get a seat. It’s worth the wait. There is plenty of pasta and pizza on the menu, but for around €15, sample a selection of Bergamo’s distinctive countryside cuisine including polenta (or maize) with lard and mushrooms - as unhealthy as it sounds but surprisingly nice. The main dish is a risotto and separate veal dish, all washed down with water or wine.
Staying on a Sunday means being able join the Tour Dimore Storiche de Bergamo, taking in five of the city’s most glorious historical houses and palaces. Step inside Palazzo Moroni (once the home to one of the city’s most prominent silk traders of the same name) to view some of the finest frescos in Bergamo. Frescos are paintings made directly onto plaster across the walls and ceilings, and it is here that works by famous fresco painter Gian Giacomo Barbelli can be seen. And the story has it that the more elaborate the fresco, the higher the family's standing in society.
Just as grand and a five-minute walk up the hill was the Palazzo Terzi, where they enlisted the same famous fresco painter as the Moroni family. Here, he blended Greek mythology with a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion, to create the appearance of light, or 3D designs to make ceilings appear higher and grander than they actually are. Current owner Marchese Carlo Terzi was in residence and available to show visitors around. He was a lovely man, with unfortunately no eligible grandsons - I was reluctant to leave and had to ask.
Bergamo is so accessible from the airport, it offers an instant city break. So let the tourist hordes gather in Milan, Rome and Venice, and enjoy the beauty of Bergamo, saving a few euros in the process. It’s infinitely cheaper - but just don’t forget your umbrella.
Ryanair flies to Bergamo from Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, London Luton and London Stansted.
Where to stay
The four-star Mercure Bergamo Palazzo Dolci hotel has double rooms from £85 per night, on a bed and breakfast basis (Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII 100).