When you ride up to Bergamo’s Città Alta (upper town) on the funicular railway and step out into Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe you feel as though you have travelled back in time.
Walk along the narrow Via Gombito, which is thought to have existed during the Roman era. It is lined with shops and bars occupying the ground floors of medieval houses, including the Tourist Information Office located in the 12th century Torre di Gombito on the left hand side.
Via Gombito leads to Piazza Vecchia, the beautiful square at the heart of the Città Alta, which is dominated by the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione (Palace of Reason), an imposing presence at the southern end of the piazza.
An interesting architectural feature is the covered staircase at the side, built to enable visitors to access the salone superiore (main top floor room) of the palazzo from ground floor level.
Next to it, the big bell tower, il Campanone, dates back to at least the 12th century. It is also known as the Torre Civica (Civic Tower).
An interesting building on the west side is the 14th century palace that used to be the residence of the Venetian rulers of Bergamo. The Palazzo del Podesta Veneto (the Palace of the Mayor of Venice) now houses the University of Bergamo’s Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature.
A beautiful building at the northern end that should not to be overlooked is the white marble Biblioteca Civica (Angelo Mai Civic Library), also referred to as the Palazzo Nuovo.
An elegant feature in the centre of the piazza is the fountain decorated with white marble lions, which was donated to the city by Alvise Contarini in 1780 at the end of his time as Podesta for Bergamo.
|Il Campanone and the covered staircase|
If you walk through the archways of the Palazzo della Ragione you will find yourself in the Piazzetta del Duomo, where in addition to il Duomo you will see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the Cappella Colleoni, and il Battistero.
Next to the south portal of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is in Via Arena, is il Tempietto di Santa Croce, a tiny church that dates back to the year 1000.
Further along Via Arena is the Palazzo della Misericordia Maggiore, which houses a museum dedicated to the life of composer Gaetano Donizetti, who was born and died in Bergamo.
Near the top of nearby Via Donizetti is Palazzo Scotti, where Donizetti died on 8 April, 1848 .
Just off Via Rosate, a left turn at the end of Via Donizetti, is Palazzo Terzi, which is tucked away in a small square that was described by a German writer as ‘the most beautiful corner of Italy’.
Another fascinating street leading off Piazza Vecchia is Via Colleoni, which is lined with shops, wine bars and restaurants housed in medieval buildings.
From the top of Via Colleoni you can go through the historic Piazza Mascheroni and the strongly fortified Piazza Cittadella to reach Colle Aperto (open hill) and Porta Sant’Alessandro, one of the Città Alta’s 16th century gates.
Another interesting street in the Città Alta, leading off Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe, is Via Rocca, where some of the medieval houses still have what have become known as the ‘doors of the dead’.
At the top of the street, you will come to La Rocca, a 14th century circular tower housing the Museo del Risorgimento.
Leading down from Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe in the direction of the Città Bassa (lower town), the Via Porta Dipinta is lined with the palaces of important Bergamo families, some with traces of renaissance frescoes still visible on their facades.
Further down you will come to the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, which contains one of the most important works by artist Lorenzo Lotto, Vita di Maria (history of the life of the virgin Mary). At the end of the street you will come to Porta Sant’Agostino, which leads into the Città Bassa.
Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe
Tourist Information Office
Palazzo della Ragione
Palazzo della Podesta Veneto
Torquato Tasso statue
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Il Tempietto di Santa Croce
Via Porta Dipinta
San Michele al Pozzo Bianco
WHAT TO SEE IN THE CITTÀ BASSA
When you come out of Bergamo’s railway station in Piazza Marconi, or get off the bus from the airport outside the station, you can look down the long, straight Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII and enjoy a marvellous view of the Città Alta (upper town).
But don’t be in such a hurry to reach the Città Alta that you miss the best features of the Città Bassa (lower town), which has many magnificent buildings erected in the last half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.
|View of the Città Alta framed by Porta Nuova|
If you walk further along Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, you will reach Via Sentierone. Turn to your right to see the 18th century Teatro Donizetti and next to it the monument to the composer Gaetano Donizetti, erected in 1897 in the centenary year of his birth. Opposite is Balzer, a bar founded in 1850 under the portici that has now become a Bergamo institution.
Further along Via Sentierone is the church of San Bartolomeo, which houses a large altarpiece by Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto depicting the Virgin Mary and child on a throne surrounded by saints.
Walk down Via Torquato Tasso to Piazzetta Santo Spirito, where the church of Santo Spirito also has a work by Lorenzo Lotto. Turn left into Via Pignolo and walk along until you reach the church of San Bernardino in Pignolo, also home to a Lotto masterpiece.
Further along Via Pignolo you can turn right into Via San Tomaso, at the end of which you will find the Pinacoteca di Accademia Carrara, one of Italy’s finest art galleries.
If you continue to walk along Via Pignolo, you will arrive at Porta Sant’Agostino, one of the gateways into the Città Alta.
Via Sentierone joins Via XX Settembre, an interesting shopping street that leads to Piazza Pontida. This marks the point in the city that for centuries was known as Cinque Vie (five roads) where routes from Milan, Lecco, Treviglio and Crema converged and goods were unloaded. Some of the portici date back to the 15th century, when merchants and farmers would shelter under them while negotiating over the goods.
Walk along Via Sant’Alessandro until you reach the church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna, which is believed to have been built on the exact spot where Bergamo’s patron saint was martyred by the Romans.
Via Sant’Alessandro leads to Porta San Giacomo, another gateway into the Città Alta.
San Bartolomeo church
Santo Spirito church
San Bernadino in Pignolo
Caffè del Colleoni
A USEFUL BERGAMO GUIDE BOOK
Although Bergamo is one of Lombardy’s main cities, very few guide books about the region tend to cover it in depth.
Travel writers usually focus on Milan and the lakes that are the most popular with tourists, such as Garda and Como.
However, Lombardy and the Italian Lakes by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls proves to be a welcome exception.
The seventh edition of this classic from Cadogan Guides devotes 25 pages to Bergamo and places of interest just outside the city.
There is no attempt to write off the Città Bassa (lower town) as of little interest, in the way some other guide books have done in the past. Instead the writers describe it as ‘wide and stately’ and there is a useful run down of the churches, interesting buildings and art treasures that can be seen.
They say: ‘The view of the Città Alta, its domes and towers rising boldly on the hill against a backdrop of mountains, is one of the most arresting urban views in Italy’ and then go on to take a detailed look at what there is to see after you have made the ascent on either the funicular or bus.
Outside Bergamo they recommend visiting San Pellegrino Terme, once a fashionable spa town, Oneta, supposedly the birthplace of Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Cornello del Tasso, a medieval stopping-off point for merchants on their way to Bergamo.
The guide book shows due respect for Lago d’Iseo, pointing out that though it is only the fifth largest of the Italian lakes, it is one of the first for charm. There are ten pages covering the resorts around the lake, Valle Camonica to the north and the Franciacorta wine growing area.
With plenty of hotel and restaurant recommendations, Lombardy and the Italian Lakes makes useful reading if you are planning to explore Bergamo and its surroundings or Lago d’Iseo.
You can buy Lombardy and the Italian Lakes direct from Amazon.
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