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.

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

Il Circolino Ristorante – Cooperativa di Città Alta

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

I was glad I persisted in my search for a reasonably priced ristorante in Bergamo’s Città Alta, and not restricted my search to the new town, otherwise I would have missed out on Il Circolino. This is the restaurant within the building run by the Cooperativa di Città Alta, to be found in the dead-end alley off Via Colleoni (opposite No 22) with the Cooperative’s sign on the corner.

It wasn’t till I was back home and did a bit more research that I realised I’d missed a few things during my lunch time visit – that’s the problem when you put together a programme, some things might just be missed out due to ignorance or time constraints.

The Cooperative was started back in 1981 to counter a trend which local people could see developing with increased tourism. Some might profit from the hoards of people with money to burn, and the general price inflation that normally accompanies such, but what about the local people who had lived there before tourism was so important and weren’t on the receiving end of this new income?

Although invited to sit outside (it was quite a pleasant day on my visit) I chose to eat inside, not least because you get a better idea of how the place is run when able to see the staff dealing with the customers.

I decided on this place based upon the menu posted in the information case situated to the left of the main entrance. This had the options for the day including a ‘il menu prezzo fisso’ of €14. For this you were able to choose one starter and one main from the 3 options that were highlighted in each category. On top of that you had bread and water, a drink (wine or beer) and a coffee to finish.

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

For the pasta course I chose the Casoncelli della Bergamasca (meat filled ravioli, garnished with bits of bacon and drizzled with butter). These were both tasty and filling and it was good to be able to try one of the local specialties.

I don’t drink water but asked for a glass of red wine. This was a very good wine which came in a large glass but (unfortunately) not filled to the brim, in fact the brim was a long way from the surface of the wine. This is one of the problems of the Città Alta, all the booze suffers from a massive mark up, even in a place that was established to counter this hyper inflation. Fortunately it was a good local wine, rich and with plenty of taste, so perhaps what I lost in quantity I made up for in quality – perhaps too much of a pleb to be a wine connoisseur.

For the main course I chose the salmon – I know I had that a couple of days before in the Autogrill but didn’t want more meat and had limited choice. But I was glad that I did go for the fish. There were two reasonably sized salmon steaks, which had been grilled and then served with a sauce of capers, cherry tomatoes and black olives then the whole lot sprinkled with ground cinnamon. This was a combination of flavours I hadn’t come across before and the contrast between the sweet and the sour really worked. This time there was no vegetable accompaniment. Both the dishes arrived hot so not a put off for some British travellers.

And that was adequate for what I wanted. Not too much but at the same time I wasn’t left wanting for more. At the price I think I would have been in that situation if I’d gone into the other places off the Vias Gombito or Colleoni. Some places offer a ‘reduced’ menu but that seemed to mean pared down to the bone and they didn’t appeal to me at all.

The coffee was the spoonful of caffeine in a tiny cup that’s the standard in Italian cafés. I’m not really a coffee drinker so didn’t bother to see if the coffee came in another format.

I had arrived just after 12.30 thinking that things might get a bit busy after 13.00 but that wasn’t the case. From what I could make out I was the only non-Italian eating in the large dinning room. A couple of tables had small groups of building workers and one table had a group of 8 or so, apart from that there were only a handful of singletons. As the arms of the clock approached 14.00 the waiters started to clear the tables of the glasses and the packets which contained the cutlery and serviette so I got the impression that the lunch time was really only from about 12.00 to 14.00.

Considering the location (just off the main street of the Città Alta) I thought this ristorante good value for money and I can’t say anything but good about the quality of what I was served. This is place I would return to on any future visit and have no qualms in recommending it to others.

I learnt more of the history of the location after having been there so at the time I didn’t realise at what I was looking. The building had started life as a monastery, then was converted into a prison from the time of the French Napoleonic invasion and maintained that role until relatively recently. If I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have rushed away and would have explored the garden and looked for the frescoes from the time it was a religious building. If you think of going to Il Circolino Ristorante it would be well worth checking out the website of the Cooperativa di Città Alta. In that way you might get a bit more out of the visit than I did.

Location:

Il Circolino Ristorante

Cooperativa di Città Alta

SocietàCooperativaSociale a r.l.

Vicolo Sant’Agata, 19

24129 Bergamo

Tel. 035 218568 or 035 210545