In our last newsletter, we introduced La Città de la Cultura, Italy’s annual citation of a city that epitomizes Italian character, culture, and community. For 2023, two cities in the northern province of Lombardy shared this honor, Brescia, and Bergamo. Last week, we introduced the first of these cities, Brescia.
This week we highlight what makes Bergamo an official “capital of Italian culture”.
Known as Bergomum by the Ligurian tribe that settled it during the Iron Age, Bergamo had evolved by 49 BCE into a Roman municipality that served as a lively hub along a major military axis.
Today, the city continues to be among the busiest in the nation, bustling with commercial enterprises and tourists.
Located about 25 miles northeast of Milan, Bergamo’s physical layout is a study in dramatic contrasts, with the city (and, also the province) divided into an Upper (Città alta) and a Lower section (Città bassa).
Built upon the site of a former Roman forum, the Città alta can be reached by a funicular, which itself, is an “uplifting” experience. On arrival, see the Piazza Vecchia, the Palazzo della Ragione still bearing a signature Venetian lion, and an octagonal Baptistry dating from 1340, among the many architectural and historical sights.
Encircling the Upper City is a four-mile circuit of imposing 16th century stone walls (le mura) built by the Venetians atop ancient Roman walls, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally a robust defense system guarding the city during Venice’s occupation of Bergamo, they now provide a spectacular vantage point for exceptional views of the more modern lower city, and the countryside fanning out below it. To stroll the walls at sunset…magnifico!
Bergamo’s geography also presents a bold contrast between the soaring hillsides of Le Valli, where the Orobie Alps and Bergamo’s pre-Alps offer breathtaking vistas, and views of the rolling fields of the plain below, known for the plentiful production of polenta, among other staples of Italian cuisine.
To hear the region’s largest bell tower, Il Campanone, chime 100 times each evening at 10, evoking the nightly locking of Bergamo’s gates throughout the Venetian occupation is to feel the presence of history, vividly alive at every turn.
You’ve ridden the funicular, explored medieval edifices. You’ve discovered that Bergamo is the birthplace of revered composer Gaetano Donizetti, creator of the beloved operas Lucia di Lammamoor, Don Pasquale, L’elisir d’amore (and 67 others). Perhaps you toured the early, still-active industrial village, or “company town” of Crespi D’Adda, Bergamo’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now, it’s time to eat. Do not overlook the hearty pleasures of polenta taragna, a homey dish pairing a special polenta with local cheese made in the nearby mountains. Taste the fanciful Donizetti cake, created in the composer’s honor. But whatever else you try, don’t forget the gelato.
Yes, Bergamo is well worth a stop on any visit to Northern Italy. But for the most delicious visit possible, please bear in mind that stracciatella, one of the most popular flavors of gelato ever, was invented in Bergamo in 1962. Its satisfying pairing of vanilla ice cream with crisp shredded chocolate offers one of the most delicious contrasts of all, in this city of memorable contrasts.
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