Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo

Young Donizetti

Young Donizetti

Fans of opera, and especially that form known as bel canto (of which both Rossini and Bellini were also well-known exponents), will be able to follow a route following the life, literally from the cradle to the grave and a few stages in between, of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo.

Donizetti was born in a house outside the city walls in Via Borgo Canale. To get there go through the Porta di San Alessandro, pass below the San Vigilio funicular station and the street is the third on your right – going downhill.

There’s not really a great deal from Donizetti’s time (although the house has been declared part of the National Heritage) but there is information about Donizetti’s life and the theatre in the newer part of town. However, it is an opportunity to get an idea of the type of housing of the relatively well off at the end of the 18th century.

From here head down hill to the Church of Santa Grata Inter Vites. This was where Donizetti was baptised on 3rd December 1797. The plaque is inside the small door to the left of the main double door entrance on Borgo Canale. If you can get this far don’t miss the opportunity to see the macabre paintings by Vincenzo Bonomini (who was also born in the street and baptised in the same church – but 40 years before) which are behind the main altar.

Head back into the walled city to Via Arenal – which is south-west of the principal religious and administrative buildings in the vicinity of Piazzas Vecchia and Duomo. (In fact Via Arenal and Via Borgo Canale were an extension of each other before the building of the large Seminario Vescovile.) At number 19 is the Donizetti Museum. This is a smallish museum on the first floor, up a wide staircase, and houses a number of paintings of Donizetti, examples of his manuscripts, the pianos he used, a small room with musical instruments from the period he was writing and – his death-bed. Looking at it you could imagine that Donizetti was quite happy to die in order not to have to lie on it anymore.

Donizetti's Death Bed

Donizetti’s Death Bed

Continue down Via Arenal and go into the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore by way of the southern entrance. A few steps into the building and then to the left, against the rear wall, is Donizetti’s tomb. However, this was not the first resting place for his bones.

In 1845 he was diagnosed as suffering from cerebro-spinal syphilis which appeared to be eating away at him physically and mentally. This meant that different groups of doctors, depending upon who was paying them, came to different conclusions about what sort of treatment he should undergo and where. Having doctors fight over your fate is just about as bad as having lawyers do so and Donizetti seemed to be the only real loser.

He returned to Bergamo in October 1847 but although greeted by the city’s dignitaries and wealthy (in one of whose houses he was offered a home) he eventually died on 8th April 1848. He was originally buried in the local cemetery of Valtesse (to the north of the Città Alta) but a few years later, in 1855, he was transferred to the Basilica where a large monument awaited his remains.

This is the work of Vincenzo Vela – whose other work includes the monument to the 199 workers killed in the construction of the Gotthard Rail Tunnel between Switzerland and Italy.

This is quite a charming monument. At the top Harmony sits in mourning, a lyre in her right hand as she looks down on a picture of Donizetti – presumably she wasn’t aware of his syphilis (or does it even matter?). On the front of the plinth on which she sits there are distraught putti, the seven musical notes, breaking their lyres in their distress.

You have to head down to Città Bassa for the other two references to Donizetti. And they are both next to each other.

The Teatro Donizetti is not far away from the Porta Nova, the principal crossroads in the new part of Bergamo, along the primarily pedestrianised Via Sentierone. This provides a full programme of performances, especially between October and June. As well as a varied programme of opera there is also the Gaetano Donizetti Bergamo Music festival each year between September and December, where many of Donzetti’s works are featured as well as others from the bel canto tradition.

The theatre dates from the end of the 19th century but has undergone many changes, extensions and renovations in subsequent years without, as far as I can see, fundamentally changing the character of opera houses of the period.

Teatro Donizetti Interior

Teatro Donizetti Interior

Apart from buying a ticket for a performance there are no organised ways to visit the theatre just to have a look around. If you travel with a group it’s worth phoning to see if you can organise a group visit. Otherwise I suggest you just try what I did on my last visit. I went to the ticket office to ask a general question about visits to the theatre. The young woman got on the phone and said that someone would be down in a few minutes.

This was a pleasant surprise but soon realised that someone was taking their time off from their normal work to just let me into the place to have a look at the auditorium. But that was much more than I was expecting. Whilst only there for a matter of minutes and not getting a lot of information about the building it did satisfy my curiosity and I was able to get one or two pictures of the interior, without crowds of people who are the problem on performance days. Just try your luck – you’ve nothing to lose.

In the square opposite the entrance to the ticket office is the final bit of the Donizetti trail in Bergamo.

This is the Donizetti Monument in Piazza Cavour, the work of the Calabrian sculptor Francesco Jerace, erected on this spot in 1897 – at the same time as the opening of the theatre in the year of the 100th anniversary of Donizetti’s birth.

A strange story surrounds this monument. The sculptor, Jarace, had previously offered this design to the town of Catania in Sicily as a monument to their home-grown bel canto composer, Vincenzo Bellini, a more or less contemporary of Donizetti. Catania said no but Bergamo said yes (after a three-horse competition which Jarace won). This seems like a return to the days of the Roman Empire when the torso of the person remained the same but the head was different and could be removed to save on the expense of creating a completely new statue. Does that, do you think, mean that Donizetti’s head is removable?

Practical Information:

Casa Natale Donizetti (Birthplace)

Via Borgo Canale 14

Città Alta

Tel: 39 035 52 96 711 (Saturday and Sunday) 39 035 24 44 83 (Monday to Friday)

casanatale@donizetti.org

fondazione@donizetti.org

www.donizetti.org

Opening Times: Saturday and Sunday, 10.00-13.00 and 15.00-18.00

Admission: Free

Church of Santa Grata Inter Vites:

Via Borgo Canale (opposite the steps of San Gottardo)

Città Alta

Opening times: Sundays from 08.30-12.00

Admission: Free

Donizetti Museum

Via Arena 19

Città Alta

Tel: 39 035 24 71 16

info@bergamoestoria.it

www.bergamoestoria.it

Opening times:

October to May

Tuesday to Friday 09.30-13.00

Saturday and Public Holidays 09.30-13.00 and 14.30-18.00

June to September

Tuesday to Sunday 09.30-13.00 and 14.30-18.00

Admission: €3 – free with the Bergamo Card

Teatro Donozetti

Piazza Cavour/Via Sentierone

Città Bassa

Tel: 39 035 41 60 614/622

Opening Times:

No set times for visits to the theatre. However, if you are in a group it might be worth phoning in advance to see what is available. There will probably be a charge.

Donizetti Tomb

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Piazza Duomo

Opening times:

November to March, weekdays 09.00-12.30 and 14.30-17.00, Sundays and public holidays 09.00-12.45 and 15.00-18.00

April to October 09.00-12.30 and 14.30-18.00

Admission: Free

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.

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