Many years ago I embarked on a journey to Italy with a group of opera buffs; one of my first ever forays abroad as a grown up. Being obsessed with singing at the time, part of the reason to visit Bergamo was to see a museum dedicated to Donizetti.
Actually, it was a school that had a few exhibits dedicated to the great composer but it was still interesting. I remember gazing into orderly shop windows and taking a ride on the funicular from the Cittá Bassa to the Cittá Alta.
But my most powerful memory was the pealing of church bells.
Now, on returning to Bergamo, I understand why I remembered the bells. As our tour guide, Marco, regales us with stories of yesteryear, he tells us that the church bells were sounded every night one hundred times to announce the closing of the city gate. This tradition began many hundreds of years ago and continues to this day. No wonder I remember the incessant ringing.
And Marco told us a personal story about the alarm bells. He had taken out a girl for the first time and he was nervous. They were sitting overlooking the valley when the sonorous and loud clamour of the bells began. The girl was startled and embraced him out of fear. He was quite happy about that and it meant the date went very well from that point on.
The stunning hill top fortification, which had built up over millennia, was virtually abandoned once town folk decided it was safe to build homes on the valley floor below. Bergamo’s Cittá Alta, so the story goes, became a ghost town overnight. This came after the unification of Milan and Bergamo in the early 19th century under the rule of the Austrians; Bergamo was jointed together with much of the surrounding area including the alpine lakes.
Austrians had a strong influence on the Bergamese dialect which is full of distinctly Germanic umlauts. An example is the word for a polenta dish: Chisöl.
About a century ago, many Bergamese realised that they had a treasure on their hands and began to move back to the old city and to renovate it. The popular and populated Cittá Alta is now one of the most expensive places to live in Italy, if not Europe.
As we drove through the city gate to began our tour, the first place mentioned was the famous gelateria and café “La Marianna” www.lamarianna.it. La Marianna is famous for creating the chocolate ice cream flavour Stracciatella renowned the world over.
We walked through the Piazza Vecchia which was revealed to be built upon Roman ruins, something only recently discovered. We were amazed at the beauty of the Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni chapel), which is annexed to the equally impressive Santa Maria Maggiore, a masterwork of Renaissance architecture and decorative art. It contains the tomb of the soldier Bartolomeo Colleoni. On leaving the Santa Maria Maggiore, we noticed a strange coat of arms on the steel gate. It was bronze and depicted three sets of male genetalia!!
We also popped into the stylish 5* Relais Lorenzo Hotel to see the ruins of the city wall which are nestled in the basement room of the hotel. An extraordinary hotel in which to stay and spend a few days in this unique and ancient town.
On this occasion, another highlight was a wonderful lunch at DaMimmo Restaurant on Via B Colleoni. Our meal featured local specialities including a Piccolo antipasta (made from polenta), a dish of traditional ravioli followed by a charred, roast lamb shank on a base of polenta. The pièce de résistance was a simple dessert of cheese accompanied by miele del Parco dei Colli (local honey). Bellisimo!
All images © Lynn Houghton