There is something so charming about medieval walled towns. If you are a history buff, you can immediately imagine a well-to-do town which would have required protection from marauders. In the posh region of Lombardy, a throwaway distance from Milan, is the medieval walled city of Bergamo. It is a place oft overlooked in by most in their zeal to discover some of northern Italy’s other destinations.
At the edge of the Alps, Bergamo with its enviable perched-up position, is the perfect place to while away time in a deliciously idyllic manner.
I had landed at the airport near Bergamo and taken the bus to Milan. It wound through the beautifully lit up city at night and piqued my curiosity.
On another spring morning, a swift train ride from Milan and I found myself in the two-tiered city that is Bergamo.
Its name was derived from the word ‘berg-heim’ meaning hill-town. Julius Caesar is said to have granted it the status of Municipium (Latin for town or city) in 49 BC and Bergamo was home to Roman military forces for some time.
But the Roman town plan of Bergamo was overridden by the Venetians when they made it a part of the Venetian State in 1428. For over three centuries, Bergamo was a part of the Serenissima (Most Serene) Republic of Venice. The Venetians left behind a legacy that till today gives Bergamo an ancient atmosphere. They constructed the Cinta Muraria di Bergamo, megalithic walls, in the 16th century to defend the city – yet ironically enough the walls were never used for military purposes, just for romantic strolls.
A funicular links the lower and upper parts of Bergamo during summer. But it was the fag end of winter and I had to make my way to Città Alta (meaning Upper City where ‘città’ is pronounced as cheetah with an emphasis on the ‘t’) on foot along the winding axial road of Viale Vittorio Emanuele II. The moustachioed presence of Victor Emmanuel II is all over northern Italy. He was the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century.
While still in Città Bassa (Lower City), I passed the Porta Nuova (‘New Gate’). If it were the old days and I was carrying goods, there would have been a tax to pay before the erstwhile iron gates would have opened up for me. The gate was erected within the defensive walls that ran through lower town as well and was built in 1837 to mark the occasion of the grand entrance of Ferdinand I, emperor of Austria, to the city. It was subsequently torn down when it stopped serving its purpose as customs border.
Ahead of me lay a charming tableau from a postcard – a hill crowned by domes, campaniles, palaces and towers. In the early 20th century, an architect had purposefully kept the height of the buildings in Città Bassa low. The Città Alta had to stand tall proudly above.
Walking along the Venetian walls, I entered Città Alta through one of its four Venetian gates, the Porta di Sant’Agostino. From atop it, a winged lion known as the Lion of St. Mark and carved in sandstone, proclaimed that the Venetians were here. The ascending road unfolded a town below that was nestled into a valley networked with sloping velvet greens, orchards and a gaggle of villas. In the backdrop were the Bergamasque Alps or the Orobian Alps which are part of the Central Eastern Alps.
In the heart of medieval Bergamo, I got conned by my rumbling stomach into an expensive lunch of soup in a café. Thereafter, all kinds of delectable, baked goodies and polenta sweets mocked at me from bakery windows. In a rueful state of mind, I found myself in Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (Shoe Market Square), an old square that was supposed to be the city’s market during Roman times. Through it ran Via Gombito, the main road in the centre of the upper city.
A tall tower, that you can climb in a matter of 180 steps – the 12th-13th century Torre del Gombito/ Gombito Tower – stood by Via Gombito declaring its exalted status. During the medieval ages such towers implied power. The bird’s eye view of the city that Torre del Gombito offers is not exclusive to it – the Torre Civica/Civic Tower and a castle too promise spectacular views over the city. Not feeling particularly well (if I were in my elements, I would have climbed all three), I dragged myself up a steep ascent to the castle. The Funicolare San Vigilio takes you to straight to the Castello di San Vigilio, but it was not in operation. Yet when I stood atop the ruins of the castle – the views of the vineyards, villas clinging to the hills, a golden statue on a grey dome down in Città Alta glinting in the evening rays of the sun – it drove away all cares from my mind.
Now, the nerve centre of Bergamo is Piazza Vecchia. In pre-Venetian days, the piazza used to host a grain and fodder market but the Venetians brought down the medieval structures and supplanted them with their own architectural vision.
Piazzas always overwhelm me, in terms of the fact that I never can decide which building should receive the first sigh of appreciation. The Piazza Vecchia is, however, dominated by Torre Civica (Civic Tower) which snags the onlooker’s attention by the virtue of its campanile (bell tower). At the centre of the square stood a fountain that was donated to the city by a podesta (high officials in Italian cities from the late Middle Ages onwards) in 1780. Next to the campanile was the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s seat of administration in times past. On the palazzo’s façade, I met our old winged friend, the lion of St. Mark, all over again, but this was only a 20th century replica of the original 15th century carving which was destroyed when Napoleon invaded the city.
Directly opposite stood the white porticos of the Palazzo Nuovo/Biblioteca Angelo Mai, which was a town hall in earlier times and a library since the 1870s while northwest of the square was an impressive frescoed building, the Palazzo del Podestà, home traditionally to the Venetian Podesta.
This was definitely a piazza to confound the senses with the amount of buildings it offered up for the senses.
My vote went to a chapel, the façade of which seemed to be almost woven richly in white and red Italian marble. The Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel) is a masterwork of Renaissance architecture. It houses the tombs of the condottiere (military leader) Bartolomeo Colleoni, captain-general of the Republic of Venice during the 1400s, and his daughter Medea. I could quite forgive Colleoni for bringing down the sacristy that had stood at the spot where he built his mausoleum.
The highlight of my trip was walking the narrow alleys of Bergamo, flanked by houses with slatted windows, at the end of which almost always stood out the dome of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, a campanile or the spire of a church. From the beautiful boutiques and shops in Bergamo, it is easy to figure out that it is a town with taste. And taste can sometimes come at a hefty price. Bergamo does require deep pockets.
Post my wanderings in Città Alta, I climbed higher above Bergamo and entered a village, clustered with beautiful old villas and a church at the end of the road. It was quiet village with a few people wandering out from a trattoria after clearly a good meal. Food can do wonders at any given time.
A day of exploring the ancient walled town demanded a rich chocolate pastry and tea, after which I made my way back to lower Bergamo, past the old Roman aqueduct. The area around the aqueduct is said to be scattered with caves, secret passages and underground cisterns. A bit of mystery and romance was added to it all when I heard locals speak of the possibility of stashes of the Venetians’ treasure buried somewhere in the caves. Point to ponder. Should I have stayed behind to lay my hands on those hoards?