Wednesday, 10 May 2017

La Dolce Vita...and Italy’s Best Kept Secret

Italy has some incredible cities to explore from Florence and Pisa, to Rome and Venice. However it seems that most would choose these sexier, more popular metropolises and simply bypass the hidden gems that are absolutely worth exploring. The northern city of Bergamo is just that. With the need of some vitamin D and time to explore my inner ‘culture vulture’ I found some time over a long weekend to take a 3-day city break. So what did this picturesque, walled Italian town perched on the Lombardy plains have to offer?
50km north-east of Milan, Bergamo is a mountain town at heart, standing on the dividing line between the densely populated plain of the great River Po to the south and the grand scenery of the Alps to the north.  This charming city made an immediate impression upon me - it’s the pinnacle of picturesque Italian town. From the 6th century Bergamo was the seat of one of the most important Lombard duchies of northern Italy, and through medieval times and the Renaissance era it was tweaked and refined under Venetian rule to become a seriously beautiful city.  And it doesn’t disappoint. But what really packs the punch is that the place remains undiscovered; busy at weekends with locals but still relatively untouched by tourism with most tourists using the Bergamo-Milan airport as a cheap flight option to connect straight to Milan, completely missing the wonder of this beguiling city.
 The distinguishing feature is that Bergamo is really two cities in one: the older, medieval upper town Città Alta at the top of the hill, and the much more modern Città Bassa below. Incidentally, I use the term “modern city” quite loosely… most notable development is still several hundred years old. I learned on an impromptu city tour that the city fell into disrepair and almost ruin in the early 21st century, until it’s recent revival and newfound interest from the locals that live in the new town down the hill.  Just a few minutes into my first walk of the Old Town, I was already fawning over the warm pastel walls, the weathered shutters, and the clay coloured roof tiles. This part of the city clings to rocky slopes a hundred metres above the centre, and forms what I think is one of Italy's loveliest urban backdrops - a photogenic ensemble of cobbled alleys, medieval palaces and Gothic churches still enclosed by 16th-century Venetian walls. Throw in art galleries, expansive views and a tradition of culinary excellence and it's a mystery why Bergamo isn't better known.
With the city’s proximity to the airport and the number of day-visitors who come in, the city’s tourism office has actually done a really good job of creating half-day and full-day itineraries that travellers can use to navigate the city on their own, so you can pick one up in the town if you don’t really know where to start. I began my tour of Bergamo at the Accademia Carrara, an art gallery displaying works by famed Italian artists like Pisanello, Botticelli, Raphael, and Canaletto to name a few. The museum got its start when local aristocrat Giacomo Carrara constructed a building to house his extensive collection of paintings and the project grew from there. I then continued on to the Old Town to visit the Colleoni Chapel, the Piazza Vecchia, a myriad of churches like Santa Maria Maggiore, Duomo di Bergamo, and San Michele al Pozzo Bianco. The city is the perfect size to cover on foot, and the best way to enjoy Bergamo is to just wander around without much of an agenda. Meander aimlessly through the cobblestone streets, soak up the magical views of the high city and if you’re a super foodie, you’ll have a blast exploring the warm and sunny walled streets sampling gelato and some of the best pizza you will ever taste. Not to mention the Michelin starred gastronomy and local cuisine by night.
And while food is on the mind, it wouldn’t be a visit to Bergamo without trying some of the local specialties, hence why after eating my fill of risotto, ravioli, and panacotta, I went in search of more dessert. However this is where things got a little lost in translation. It turns out that Bergamo is known for a dish called polenta e osei, which translated from the local dialect means ‘polenta with bird’. I thought I was looking for a polenta-based dessert, but Bergamo has two different dishes with the same name – talk about confusione! In simple terms, if you’re looking for something savoury, order the polenta e osei, which is a dish made with real polenta and has a small bird cooked inside. If your cravings come by the sweeter sort, order a dessert by the same name that looks like polenta, but is really just a yellow cake with a chocolate bird placed on top...both equally delicious!
And that’s a wrap on my vacanze Italiane. If you’re ever catching a flight into Bergamo, a quick detour into the city may be something you want to consider, and with Lakes Endine and Iseo, Verona and Milan on your doorstep, Bergamo should be your next stop. Ciao!
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