Picnic at San Vigilio

San Vigilio Funicular

San Vigilio Funicular

With the idea that it’s possible to ‘do’ Bergamo in three full days I thought it would be useful to suggest that one of the lunches out of the three could consist of something a little less ‘formal’ than in a restaurant. I’ve already suggested the Autogrill in the Città Bassa and Il Circolino in the Città Alta so here I thought I’d offer some thoughts on snacking and organising a picnic at San Vigilio.

Obviously eating al fresco depends upon the weather. I don’t know if I’ve just been lucky but during all of my three visits to Bergamo I’ve hit good weather. Yes, it was cold during the winter but most days were bright and rain free. The worse I’ve had to deal with were overcast days and an almost persistent haze that seems to hang over the town and the valley, presumably caused in no small part to air pollution. But a picnic on a clear day in winter is still an option, just need to make sure you wrap up warm.

A starter in this al fresco eating experience could well be a bowl of polenta provided by the stall directly across Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe from the entrance to the funicular station. This advertises itself as the first polenta take-away in Italy – in English. I can’t verify that claim and it calls itself ‘Polenta One’ but whether there’s a ‘Polenta Two’ I’ve no idea.

Polenta Stall, Piazza Mercato della Scarpe

Polenta Stall, Piazza Mercato della Scarpe

Behind the window hatch of this tiny stall is a machine which dispenses piping hot polenta (it took the skin off the roof of my mouth when I tried it) and other containers of the sauce of your choice. The selection is up on a board in both Italian and English. The stall is open from 11.30 – 14.30 and from 18.00 – 24.00. It’s designed as a take-away but there are a few places where you can sit and eat under cover of the building – so protected from the wet elements.

I tried a bowl of the Taragna (that’s polenta with Parmesan cheese as opposed to the Gialle – which is plain, yellow polenta) with a wild boar sauce. Not too sure if I’m a big fan of polenta but it filled a hole and was tasty enough. This cost me €6. (I don’t normally photograph my food but thought to do so this time.)

Polenta and wild boar

Polenta and wild boar

If you have this snack soon after the place opens you can do some more visiting around Città Alta before heading up to castle and park for a picnic at San Vigilio.

There are plenty of places to get snack food depending upon how hungry you might be, how many people you are catering for, how adventurous you want to be and how deep are your pockets.

If you’re into pizza then the biggest selection is in the shop right opposite the entrance to the Teatro Sociale in Via Colleoni, just around the corner from the Piazza Vecchia. If you’re new to Italy remember that the price quoted is for weight (and not a piece). Also at busy times you order and get a bill, pay at the cash desk to get a receipt and then return to the counter to pick up your purchases.

Gastronomica Deli Via Colleoni 7

Gastronomica Deli Via Colleoni 7

If you want to try local meats, cheeses and other delicacies I’d recommend the delicatessen Gastronomia at Via Colleoni 7, heading in the direction of San Vigilio. There you’ll find a large selection of local cheeses and salamis as well as huge pies with meat and cheese fillings as well as vegetarian options. A slice of those pies that will make a reasonable meal will cost you in the region of €6. This is not a particularly cheap place but it was the best place I came across for such provisions.

There are a number of cake shops for those with a sweet tooth, one of the biggest being right at the end of Via Gombito, at the corner of Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe. This shop displays the local sweet speciality, the ‘Polenta e Osei’ a hand shaped cake that’s a speciality of Bergamo. There seems to be as many different recipes as there are people to make them but basically consists of a sweetened polenta mix with a jam filling of some sort, perhaps with the addition of ground almonds. There’s an icing on the top and the chocolate is supposed to represent birds (the osie), sometimes artistically made. They vary in size (and price) but if you just want a taste the smallest I came across was sold in the pizza shop by the Teatro Sociale for €1.80.

Polenta e Osei

Polenta e Osei

However, whichever place you choose to do your shopping it’s advisable to do so earlier rather than later as come lunch time some of these places are heaving.

But I’ve left out the most important ingredient for a picnic – what to drink? If wine is your drink of choice then a little bit of pre-planning is necessary. The mark-up on booze in Città Alta borders on the criminal so a visit to a supermarket in the new town prior to picnic day is recommended. I tried two or three different Chiantis during my last trip and if you paid something in the region of €5-6 you would be able to pick of a very acceptable bottle.

Here’s one tip people might find useful. Drinking out of plastic cups is never a good experience, whatever the contents. My suggestion is to buy one of the stainless steel cups that are often used for water in Indian vegetarian restaurants. These are light, sturdy and unbreakable and cost very little. Available in Asian supermarkets throughout the country.

Once you have all your provisions head for the bottom station of the San Vigilio funicular. This is just outside the Porta di San Alessandro and the Largo Colle Aperto (where the No 1 bus down to the new town has its terminus). It’s only a short 5 minute journey in the small train and the cost is covered by the Bergamo Card or the daily travel tickets. They run about every 15-20 minutes.

From the top station go up hill to the Castello di San Vigilio and go as high as you like when you run out of road. There are a few levels where you can look back down on the old town. On a clear day you’ll also be able to see into the high mountains, perhaps with snow – depending on the time of year.

Orobie Alps and Citta Alta

Orobie Alps and Citta Alta

If you fancy an overpriced beer before heading back into town the bar next to the funicular station has a pleasant, covered, outside seating area. A beer here (less than a pint) will cost €4.50.

You can either catch the funicular or walk down the obvious road back to Città Alta. If you’re in Bergamo mid-week and miss the regular opening times of the Santa Grata Inter Vites church, in order to see the macabre paintings behind the altar, you could make a slight diversion down the steps and see if anyone is around who you can try to convince to open up and let you have a look. On the way back into town have a look at the plaques with information about the town’s original basilica at the top end of Via Borgo Canale. A fitting end to a picnic at San Vigilio.

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The Eccentric, Unusual and Bizarre in Bergamo

Capital - Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo

Capital – Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo

When people arrive in a tourist destination they often have a list of those highlights they wish to tick off – the ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ sort of idea. Whilst, in general, there’s nothing wrong with that approach it tends to mean that tourists race around (or are taken around) the major sites and in the process miss out on what makes the place ‘human’, somewhere people have lived for generations. Here I hope to give an introduction to the eccentric, unusual and bizarre in Bergamo.

There’s a widespread misconception that cities and towns in the medieval period were drab places to live and that everything was without colour. We know from paintings of the era that the rich and powerful lived a sumptuous life, in both their clothing and the way they decorated their palaces, but it’s becoming more widely accepted that the lives of the workers and peasants weren’t totally devoid of the occasional splash of colour.

Yes their homes were hovels and their clothes were rough and (hopefully) functional without a great deal of adornment. This mirrored their lives which was generally ‘nasty, brutish and short’. However, in public places they too could appreciate an escape from the drabness of their existence.

Those who visit Bergamo and enter some of the many churches can understand the colourful experience that ‘going to church’ offered even the most meek in society. This exposure to art and culture didn’t start with the Renaissance but goes back at least 1300 years as the walls of the Romanesque gem in Bergamo, the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, testifies. These frescoes date back to the year 700, more or less, and were being updated for the next 700.

But how many of those who make the effort to down the hill from the funicular station look up to the left of the entrance to make out the faded frescoes on the outside of the building. The entrance has undergone many changes and it’s certain that some of the frescoes have been lost forever. The ones that still exist are gradually fading and becoming very indistinct but they do provide a clue to how the town would have looked in its medieval heyday.

Although many are suffering the ravages of time and lack of maintenance there are still exterior frescoes in a number of locations in the Città Alta, all you have to do is look up. Leaving Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe and going along Via Gombito towards the Piazza Vecchia, high up on the right are scenes depicting the buildings and canals of Venice, demonstrating the connection between the two cities. There are also remains of such wall paintings in the Piazza Mascheroni and the Piazza Cittadella.

Also worth looking for are the tromp d’oeil (those paintings that give an illusion of reality). In Bergamo these are often false windows or pilasters, architectural devices that make the building grander than it really is, as well as being a bit of a joke. Many hundreds of thousands of people walking through the streets of Città Alta have seen them but how many knew what they were seeing? Remember it’s the illusion of reality and by concentrating you are able to break down that illusion and determine what is, and what is not, real. There’s also a fine interior example of a false window above the main door of the Cathedral.

Cathedral Trompe d'oeil

Cathedral Trompe d’oeil

As you’re walking around notice that the general façades of the buildings are much more colourful than they are in the likes of the UK. There’s no excuse to say that Italy is a Mediterranean country as Bergamo is in the foothills of the Orobie Alps. We are now starting to realise that in Britain even the Cathedrals were multi-coloured on the outside more than 500 years ago – we just seem to have lost that desire for colour in our everyday life.

As you walk around look out for the clocks – both mechanical and non-mechanical. In the small square of Piazza Angelini you have a fine example of a sun-dial on the side of a building stretching to four or five stories high, this is known as the Greek Clock. Another sun-dial can be found in the Piazzetta Duomo. The ‘mechanism’ is on the ground under the Palazzo della Ragione, white stone amongst the grey. But it’s all dependent on the light coming through a hole in a metal plate with a ‘sun face’ which is attached to the top of the arch above. You get a good view of this plate from the steps of the Cathedral/Duomo.

Clocks which are easier to read are also to be found in a number of places. The most obvious is that which on the tower of the Campanella, the gateway between the Piazzas Mascheroni and Cittadella. Another, this quite ‘hidden’ is one that’s in the inner courtyard in front of the entrance to the Museo Donezettiano in Via Arena.

Going on to faces of a different kind there’s an interesting carving on a keystone over an arch of Casa Lunga, which is just up hill from the Gombito Tower (where you find the Tourist Information Office) and close to one of the public wash-houses. This carving is from the 11th century and represents San Vincenzo (Saint Vincent).

Another charming, and I’m sure often missed, ancient carving of a face can be found on the outside of the central apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (that’s the other side of the main altar). This is said to be the image of designer (why not architect, I don’t know) and Master Builder Fredo, who began the building in 1132.

Master Builder Fredo

Master Builder Fredo

A couple of other faces, this time of animals, are also found close by on the walls of the Santa Maria Maggiore and these are of the Lion (the symbol of Saint Mark – and again another reference to Venice where he is the Patron Saint) and the Bull (the symbol of Saint Luke). I looked for, but didn’t find, the symbols of the other two evangelists, Matthew (an angel) and John (an eagle) but couldn’t find them. It’s possible that they were on that part of the wall that was destroyed when the local gangster caused the Colleoni Chapel to be built in place of the Sacristy in the 15th century.

What I did find, in this same part of the building, was the plaque that tells you that Bergamo’s Città Alta is 369.38 metres above sea level at high tide on the Adriatic. This is a little faded and why it was of any great interest when it was placed there I don’t know how many years ago is a little bit of a mystery to me. From my time travelling around Spain I know that such plaques exist in at least one location in virtually any place of any size but haven’t come across quite the same situation in Italy.

I’ve been in hundreds of churches of all shapes and sizes in the past and after a very short while the Crucifixion and the Nativity start to become much of a muchness. To keep the interest going I always search for something different. In Bergamo the gem of the unusual (and the bizarre) are the macabre paintings behind the altar of the Santa Grata Inter Vites. However, other churches offer up items of interest.

In the Santa Maria Maggiore you can find (to the right as you enter the building from the South Portal) a painting of the Last Supper. What I like about this one is the young serving boy who is looking over Judas’s shoulder at the bag containing the 30 pieces of silver. Also in this basilica is the modern statue of a very gaunt, kneeling Christ.

In the church of Santa Agata del Carmine it’s worth looking for the skull relics, in a chapel on the left hand side as you walk towards the altar, as well as a painting on the ceiling of a young Christ carrying a large piece of wood into his father’s carpentry workshop, presaging his walk to Golgotha. The Crucifix is literally hanging from the pillars and to the right of the altar is a painting of Santa Apollonia having her tongue pulled out as part of her martyrdom.

I always look out for Last Supper paintings to find out what was on the table, this was after seeing an impossibly huge guinea pig presented for the meal in the Cathedral in Cuzco. If what’s up for grabs isn’t different the depiction often is and I like the pig that’s on the table in a fresco in the Aula Picta (attached to the western side of the Santa Maria Maggiore) which has its four legs just sticking up in the air – painted at a time when perspective had yet to be re-learnt. Also on the walls here is a somewhat aggressive looking Christ with a sword in his teeth – a little unusual.

I could go on in much more detail but I’ll just list a few other things to look for: the carvings at the top of the old capitals throughout the town; the face corbels holding up the roof over the steps leading up to the entrance of the Palazzo della Ragione; the modern painting on the side of a house in Via Tassis: a studded door in the same street; the pump to get water for the fish market from the ancient cistern of the 14th century Fontanone Fretto; plaques of the original basilica (San Alessandro) that was outside the city walls, at the top of what is now Via Borgo Canale; as well as ornate door knockers and pillars on the doors of the houses of the rich and niches with Madonnas and street corner shrines. That doesn’t cover it all and I’m sure there’s much I’ve missed or yet to find.

Once you’ve done the main attractions just take some time to walk slowly around the town, eyes directed a little upwards and you’ll be rewarded with a better understanding of the history of the place through noticing the eccentric, unusual and bizarre in Bergamo.

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Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

The Colleoni Chapel is the Renaissance structure built beside (in fact having taken some of the space of) the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazzetta del Duomo in Città Alta in Bergamo. It seemed that the condottiere (mercenary, feudal gangster) Bartolomeo Colleoni made the local confraternity, the Consiglio della Misericordia, an offer they couldn’t refuse when he was looking for a place to build his own mausoleum. With his military power came – not unsurprisingly – an arrogance that he could do what he wanted with impunity but it’s not reported whether the members of the Consiglio found horses heads in their beds. The sacristy for the Santa Maria Maggiore had to go and Colleoni gave them a sop by agreeing to build a new one at some time in the future. He conveniently died before he could carry out this promise. As is normally the case in these situations it was the State – in this case Venice – that ended up footing the bill. His megalomania knew little bounds as it is reported that he even wanted the demolition of the Palazzo della Ragione as it partly obscured the chapel from the Piazaa Vecchia. So I’m not really a fan of the condottiere as he just used fear to get what he wanted. Neither do I agree that the chapel named after him really fits into its location next to the Basilica. Only about 125 years separates the chapel from the north entrance to Santa Maria but that was a period of change in architecture styles which moved from the Romanesque to the Renaissance. The chapel contains his tomb and that of one of his daughters who died at the very young age of 15. I’m sure I read somewhere, but can’t find it now, that one of the glories of the chapel was that it was constructed in such a grand manner to demonstrate his love for the girl. The fact that she died before the chapel was even started and her tomb remained in the family home of Malpaga until it was moved to Bergamo in 1842 is conveniently forgotten. There’s also a little stall selling books and postcards which also means you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the building. The interior decoration is over the top – as you would expect for a building catering to the desires of someone who had almost unlimited power, getting close to death and wanting to buy his way into Heaven and with little taste, the motto being ‘more is best’ – but it’s the outside of the building that I find more interesting. That’s mainly due to the myth that Colleoni created around himself. All around the façade of the chapel, and on the iron fence and gates that are locked when the chapel itself is closed, are images of the gangster’s crest/shield. This is a relatively simple affair. On the top third are three partial rows of fleur-de-lis and below, taking up the rest of the space are three kidney shapes – these are, in fact, supposed to be testicles. A sword for hire, which he sold to the highest bidder and changing sides multiple times, he is said never to have been treacherous. This I consider a bit strange, presumably he told one paymaster he was going to leave and fight for the other side before actually doing so – so a truly honourable man! But being a fighter he wanted to be able to say that he literally had more ‘balls’ than his opponents, hence the three testicles. ( For those with an interest in such matters this condition – when it actually exists – is called polyorchidism.) Doing a little bit of research it seems that three actual and real testicles in one scrotum is extremely rare and it’s doubtful if Colleoni had anything other than a wayward wad of fat which allowed him to boast that he was different, i.e., stronger, from mere mortal men. For the tourist this vanity gives, literally, a hands on opportunity when visiting the Colleoni Chapel.

Colleoni Crest

Colleoni Crest

On the middle, towards the top, of the left hand gate there’s an image of the Colleoni crest. What you are ‘supposed’ to do is rub this for luck. You can’t miss it, so many people over the years have done so that they have effectively polished that small part of the gate. (Others seem to have done the same to the crest held by an angel that sits on top of the fence.) I leave it to you to decide whether this tradition is really for luck or just an excuse for people to caress some testicles. Although from my experience most people just pass through the gates and go into the chapel. Yes, there’s lots to see but it’s also worthwhile having a look at the bas-reliefs on both sides of the entrance, at shoulder level. These depict episodes from the life of Heracles from whom, surprise, surprise, Colleoni considered himself (metaphorically) descended. Also there are ten episodes from the Bible, including The Creation of Eve, The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise.

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

These are all the work of the sculptor Giovanni Antonio Amadeo (who also designed the Colleoni Chapel). Unfortunately they have been damaged over the years (I don’t know when or why) and a number of limbs are missing (as is the blade of Archangel Michael’s sword) but you can still work out what they depict – if you have a reasonable amount of knowledge of the Bible or Greek mythology. Location: Piazzetta del Duomo, Città Alta, Bergamo Opening Hours: 09.30 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 18.30 every day Entrance: Free

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