The Province of Bergamo is located in the region of Lombardy. Its northern portion spans the Orobian Alps, reaching a height of just over 10,000 feet at Mount Coca. The low-lying areas are rich in pastures for sheep herding and farming of corn, grain, rice and flax. The hills are used to cultivate grapes for the many vineyards in the area. Heavy industry arrived at the end of the 19th century and now includes mineral processing, concrete production, marble quarrying and silk manufacture. World-famous Brembo makes its headquarters in Curno and companies from the area have long been applauded for their high-quality products and precision engineering.
Just below the foothills of the Alps sits the picturesque city of Bergamo. It is situated 25 miles northeast of Milan and 20 miles from Lake Como and Lake Iseo. Bergamo is the seat of the Province and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s original location was on a defensive hilltop; today this historic part of town is known as the Città Alta (upper town) and it is where visitors will find most of the historic buildings and tourist sights. There is little traffic and the narrow lanes are fascinating to wander through.
Originally the site of the ancient town of Bergomum, in 49 BC, it became a Roman municipality reaching a population of about 10,000. For centuries, it served as an important hub on the military road between Friuli and Raetia. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the area became vulnerable and during the fifth century, it was raided and destroyed by Attila the Hun.
The city was rebuilt and it became the seat of one of the most important Lombard Duchies of northern Italy. One of the more interesting footnotes in the history of the city was the creation of the world’s first modern postal service founded by Omodeo Tasso in the late 13th century. In 1428, Bergamo fell under the control of the Venetian Republic and remained so for more than 350 years. Giuseppe Garibaldi secured the city from Austrian dominion in 1859 and Bergamo became part of the Kingdom of Italy. For its contribution to Il Risorgimento, the city also became known as Città dei Mille – City of the Thousand.
Most of modern Bergamo spreads out over the plain to the old town below. The Città Bassa (lower town) was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century and became one of Italy’s most industrialized cities. Bergamo was fortunate to be one of the few Italian cities that did not suffer major destruction during World War II. The two parts of the city are linked by a funicular railway and as a study in contrast, each contains many sites of interest and a wealth of architectural beauty. Above the Città Alta and reachable by a second funicular, is San Vigilio, a small hilltop settlement which offers scenic and panoramic strolls. While there, visit the Castello, a grassy fortress that previously dominated the site and offers superb views of the mountains.
Arriving at Città Alta, you feel as though you have travelled back in time. Of the four gates that lead into the upper city, the most architecturally impressive is Porta San Giacomo. Constructed in 1592 from white-pink Zandobbio marble, the gate took its name from an adjacent ancient church. The church was demolished in the 17th century to make way for the new city walls, but the name remains.
The beautiful walled city has plenty of shops, bars and restaurants to make it both comfortable and welcoming for visitors. At the heart of the old town is the lovely Piazza Vecchia, a wide open space surrounded by a mixture of Medieval and Renaissance architecture, including a 12th century bell tower that still strikes 100 times at 10 o’clock each night to mark an ancient curfew.
Quaint streets lead off the piazza to other squares containing fountains, beautiful buildings, old churches and museums. Walk along the narrow Via Gombito, a street that dates back to the Roman times, lined with shops and bars occupying the ground floors of medieval houses. You can walk through the archways under Palazzo della Ragione to Piazza Duomo, where you will see the Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the Colleoni Chapel and the Battistero, all of which are architectural gems.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is a breathtaking sight. Construction began in 1137 and continued until the 15th century. On the walls are tapestries, most of which were made in Florence, based on Alessandro Allori’s designs during the 1580s. One of the church’s most spectacular ornaments is a 1705 wooden confessional carved by Andrea Fantoni. The dome has frescoes by Giovanibattista Tiepolo. Of particular note are the great Crucifix and the Tomb of Gaetano Donizetti, the operatic composer who hailed from the city.
Next to Santa Maria Maggiore is the colorful Cappella Colleoni. Wealthy Bartolomeo Colleoni commissioned the chapel for his tomb. The ornate building was completed in 1476 and is a masterpiece of Lombardian art. Colleoni is commemorated with a statue astride a gold charger, atop an elaborate two-tiered tomb.
The Palazzo della Ragione was the seat of the city’s administration for hundreds of years. It now houses a selection of paintings from the Accademia Carrara. The façade has the lion of St. Mark over a mullioned window, testifying to the long period of Venetian dominance and its atrium has a well-preserved 18th century sun dial. Nearby is the Museo Donizettiano, where visitors can see musical instruments and artifacts from the professional and private life of the composer.
When visiting the Città Bassa (lower town), walk down Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII to Porta Nuova. This neoclassical gateway was built into Bergamo’s medieval walls in the middle of the 19th century. It is flanked by i Propilei, two buildings that look like temples. It provides perhaps the best view from below to the upper town. The district is easy to navigate with many interconnected squares, promenades and interesting architecture. Bergamo’s main theater, Teatro Donizetti, is also located here. Every year an opera festival celebrating Donizetti and his contemporaries is held at the opera house. Also within the district is the Palazzo delle Poste, a striking art-deco building. While there, leave time to visit Via 20 Settembre – the shopping district featuring the latest fashions from Milan. Regardless of your interests and with so much to offer, there is no doubt that you will find Bergamo to be one of Lombardy’s jewels of the north.