Just 50km northeast of Milan, yet much closer to the mountains in look and feel, BERGAMO comprises two distinct parts – Bergamo Bassa, the city centre on the plain, and medieval Bergamo Alta, 100m above. Bergamo Bassa is a harmonious mixture of medieval cobbled quarters blending into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century town planning, while Bergamo Alta is one of northern Italy’s loveliest urban centres, with wanderable lanes and a lively, easygoing pace of life.
Bergamo owes much of its magic to the Venetians, who ruled the town for over 350 years, adorning facades and open spaces with the Venetian lion, symbol of the Republic, and leaving a ring of gated walls. Now worn, mellow and overgrown with creepers, these kept armies out until the French invaded in 1796.
Bergamo Alta: the upper town
With its steep, narrow streets, flanked by high facades and encircled by sixteenth-century walls, Bergamo Alta – the upper town – remains in appearance largely as it was in the Middle Ages. The main public spaces – Piazza Vecchia and adjacent Piazza del Duomo – combine medieval austerity with the grace of later, Renaissance design. The funicular railway from the lower town arrives at the tiny station on Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe from where the main street, beginning as Via Gombito and continuing as Via Colleoni after Piazza Vecchia, follows the line of the Roman decumanus maximus, topped and tailed by evidence of Bergamo’s military past – the Rocca to the east, the Cittadella to the west. Just beyond the Cittadella, through Porta Sant Alessandro, another funicular ride whisks you up to the highest point of town, San Vigilio.
Bergamo Bassa: the lower town
Bergamo Bassa spreads north from the train station in a comfortable blend of Neoclassical ostentation, Fascist severity and tree-lined elegance. At the heart of the busy streets, midway along the main Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, the mock-Doric temples of the Porta Nuova mark the Sentierone, a favourite spot for Bergamo’s citizens to meet and stroll. Frowning down on the square is the Palazzo di Giustizia, built in the bombastic rectangular style of the Mussolini era. Via XX Settembre to the west is the main focus for Bergamo’s shoppers, with a selection of quality mainstream stores.
From the Sentierone, Via Tasso leads east into the oldest part of the Città Bassa, formed in the Middle Ages as overspill from the upper town; shady Via Pignolo has a largely unchanged appearance, with many architectural features – balconies, mullioned windows – surviving. Follow it up to the attractive Piazzetta del Delfino, occupied by a dolphin fountain built here in 1526. From here, Via Pignolo continues to the Porta Sant’Agostino, at the bottom of Bergamo Alta, while Via San Tomaso, lined with galleries, antiques shops and cafés, heads right towards the Accademia Carrara – Bergamo’s finest art gallery, currently closed for renovation–and its neighbour, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM), with world-class temporary exhibitions and a small permanent collection including works by Kandinsky and a moody Still Life With Fruit by Giorgio de Chirico.