One of the reasons low-cost airline companies allow you to reach European capitals for just a handful of euros (or pounds) is that their airports are usually located quite far from your final destination, in areas generally uninteresting for tourists. This is not the case for Orio al Serio, the main stopover for low-cost companies flying to Milan, Italy, situated just a couple of kilometres away from the fascinating town of Bergamo. With its medieval Upper Old Town, the romantic cobblestone alleys, the charming tower houses and the old walls that mark its perimeter, Bergamo makes for a perfect stop on the way to or back from Milan. Pequod’s editorial team have drafted a few recommendations on what to see in Bergamo if you have only a few hours to spend in the town, along with some practical advice to help you plan your visit.
Our tour starts from the square in front of the funicular station in Bergamo’s Upper Town, Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe. In the 15th century a shoe market used to be held here, and the place was aptly named after it (the square’s name literally translates as Shoe Market Square). From here, take the small alley underlying a building and leading to Piazzetta Angelini, where you will be able to admire a beautiful sundial adorning the wall of a 16th century tower house. A little further on, you will find the 19th century Lavatoio, an elegant public washhouse built by Bergamo’s municipality in 1881, in an effort to improve the hygienic conditions of the town and combat the spread of typhus and cholera epidemics. Turn right after the Washhouse and make your way up to Piazza Mercato del Fieno, where you will find the impressive 13th century tower houses, built by some of the city’s most powerful families to display their power over rivals and as a means of protection during the frequent battles against them.
You can now go back to the main alley, via Gombito, which leads straight to the heart of the Old Town – Piazza Vecchia. Built exactly where the ancient Roman forum once was, this is a lovely and unexpected opening amidst the surrounding alleys and streets, and it’s definitely Città Alta’s most representative spot. When the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier visited Bergamo, he is known to have said about the square: “you can’t move a single stone, it would be a crime”. The main building here is the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, which was the centre of the political life of the city at the time. Towering above the square is the Campanone, or Civic Tower, the highest and most famous tower in Bergamo. The Campanone used to be the seat of the Podestà, the most important office in the city between the 12th and the 13th century, and it hosts the biggest bell in the entire Lombardia region. Every night at 10pm, the bell still chimes a hundred times, a warning that once signalled the closure of the four entrance gates of the town. The bell is so loud that the Teatro Sociale (the Social Theatre of Bergamo) nearby has to plan a break during its shows at that exact time, as otherwise it would be impossible for the audience to hear the actors’ voices! From the top of the tower – which you can access paying 5 euros either via the elevator or by climbing a narrow staircase – you can enjoy a wonderful view of Città Alta and its beautiful surroundings.
Behind Palazzo della Ragione, you can admire the two most precious gems of the Old Town: the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Colleoni Chapel. Santa Maria Maggiore was erected by Bergamo’s citizens after the plague of the 12th century, and is renokwn for its beautiful frescoes, stuccos, tapestries and, most importantly, for the incredible wooden marquetry designed by the famous Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto. The adjacent Colleoni Chapel, with its red and white marble façade and its rich interiors, is a real Italian Renaissance masterpiece built by Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary captain from Bergamo that fought for the Republic of Venice. The building of the chapel was strongly opposed by the city’s clergy, but Colleoni solved the problem by sending its soldiers to destroy the old sacristy of the Church, thus making room for its chapel and silencing the protest at the same time. Before leaving the Chapel, don’t forget to touch Colleoni’s three-testicles-shaped coat of arms on the gate, which is said to bring good luck.
After visiting Piazza Vecchia, you can now make your way back to the main alley and keep going uphill until you leave the centre of the Old City and find yourself at the border of the town, in Colle Aperto. Make sure you enjoy a creamy gelato or a delicious pastry at “La Marianna”, the most famous cakery of Città Alta. With a full belly, you can now start thinking about how to get back to the airport or the station. Depending on how much time (and strength!) you have left, you can either take the bus back (see the instructions below) or walk. Whenever possible, I strongly recommend the second option, which will reward you with a beautiful view of the Lower Town and the surrounding mountains from the Venetian Walls. To get there from Colle Aperto, stand with your back turned towards the Old Town and make a left turn: you will reach the beautiful park on the walls in a couple of minutes. Thanks to the beautiful panorama, the city’s walls are one of the most romantic spots in Bergamo, so if you have time and a special person with you, you may want to take a seat on one of the many benches and enjoy the view and the company. To return to the Lower City simply follow the street downhill until you reach the magnificent San Giacomo Gate. The beauty of this gate lies in the romantic stone bridge that departs from it. Lean on the balustrade and enjoy, on one side, a stunning view of the Venetian fortification, and a fantastic panorama of the Lower Town on the other one. At the end of the bridge take the stairs on your left and turn left again at the first fork going back to the funicular station in the Lower Town. From here you can take the bus back to the airport or to the train station.
From Orio al Serio airport to Bergamo Old Town
The best option to reach Città Alta from the airport is to take bus number 1A, which takes you to the Old City in 20-30 minutes. I personally recommend getting off at the funicular station, where, with the same ticket, you can board the funicular running up the side of the hill: it is a unique experience – nothing to do with the bus, although it tends to be very crowded during weekends. Alternatively, if you enjoy walking and are not afraid of steep climbs, you can take the stairs that start from the funicular station and lead you to the magnificent San Giacomo Gate.
You can’t buy tickets on the bus, so remember to purchase them from the automatic vending machine at the bus stop of the airport before boarding, and to validate them at one of the machines on the bus, situated near the driver or at the back of the vehicle. If you don’t want to carry your luggage with you, you can leave it in the Lower City at the 24/7 left luggage service of the Urban Centre building just in front of the train station (one of the stops of the 1A bus).
From Milan to Bergamo
You can easily reach Bergamo from Milan by train, it takes roughly one hour each way. Trains leave relatively frequently from Milan’s main stations: Milano Centrale, Lambrate and Porta Garibaldi. The train running between the two cities is regional, so no reservations are required, but remember to buy your ticket and to validate it before boarding or you may incur in a fine. From Bergamo train station you can take bus number 1A and follow the same instructions as above.
Cover Photo: Piazza Vecchia by Andrea Bertinotti / CC BY-SA 3.0 / via Wikimedia Commons
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