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 strollable lanes and a lively, easygoing pace of life.
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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.