Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo

Young Donizetti

Young Donizetti

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Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo

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)

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

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

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Autogrill Self-Service Restaurant, Bergamo


Autogrill - Piazza Vittorio Veneto

Autogrill – Piazza Vittorio Veneto

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Autogrill Self-Service Restaurant, Bergamo

For lunch on my first full day in Bergamo (out of three) I decided to travel down into the new town and see what was on offer there. It gave me a chance to have another look at the Monument to the Partisan and, perhaps, take some pictures of the Città Alta from below – that didn’t work out well as the day was, and remained, overcast with even a dramatic thunder and lightning show accompanying torrential rain in the evening. Just as the bus approached the Porta Nuova junction, my planned alighting place, I noticed a sign for the Autogrill Self-service restaurant on the left hand side.

(To get from Città Alta to the new town there are two alternatives. If you find yourself at the north-west of the town then you can go for the No 1 bus which has its terminus at Largo Colle Aperto. All the versions of the No 1 go at least to the railway station. If at the southern end of the old town you can take the funicular down to the main road – it’s only a few minutes ride. On getting off wait for the next No 1 to come down the hill. These are all free with the Bergamo Card.)

It’s not that it’s hidden, there are big signs everywhere, including around the open air terrace on the first floor (not used the day I was there as it was a bit cool) but when you go through the door you have to go up a relatively narrow staircase and it appears you’re going into an office building rather than a restaurant. However, at the top of the stairs there’s an extensive menu, as well as the first part of the self-service – the trays.

There’s a beauty of self-service restaurants in a foreign country in that you can get by without understanding the language, that’s if you choose with your eyes and are prepared to experiment. The down side is that they can often offer down market but I don’t think that was the case here.

I arrived before 13.00 when most restaurants would start to get busy as the normal lunch time for workers tends to be between 13.00 and 14.00. Arriving early meant it was possible to take in all that was on offer, going back and forth, without creating too much havoc.

I was in Italy so the first section, and the only one that was offering hot food being prepared as you wait, was the pasta and risotto section. The risotto was being prepared in a pan and was advertised with pesto so thought that would be a good choice. When I requested the risotto I was asked a question – that’s always the problem when you are weak in a language, however much you prepare there will always be a question you had not taken into account. The questions was ‘Bis?’. I didn’t have a clue what it meant until I’d answered a couple of more questions with a ‘Si’.

‘Bis’ basically means half and half – i.e., half risotto and half pasta (of a choice of two). And that turned out to be quite a substantial plate in itself, especially when this was supposed to be a starter. So on a reasonably large oval dish I had a portion of risotto with pesto and king prawns together with spaghetti with a meat and black olive sauce topped with a generous scattering of grated Parmesan cheese. (I thought it was a no-no to have Parmesan cheese with seafood but obviously no one had told the woman serving the food nor the young man who was in the queue in front of me.) The cost? €5.70.

There was a salad bar but I’m not really into salads but what was on offer looked fresh and it was up to you to choose the number of the combination and the size of the portion, the price of all clearly marked up.

There was a small dessert counter and they looked good so I went for a tart I hadn’t seen before, Torta della Nonna (Grandma’s tart) which was a custard in a pastry base topped with chopped almonds. (There are a lot of almonds in Italian cookery but now, more than likely, they come from California. This has led to the destruction of many thousands of almond trees in Europe as a consequence of cheap imports but with the present drought in California that supply might be under threat and with no alternative close to home the price of almonds might be set to rocket.) Also on offer was cheesecake and fruit. The cost of my tart? €2.70.

To drink I chose a half bottle of of Chinati. One of the big downsides of eating in the Città Alta is the huge mark up on booze and didn’t think that the €4.20 for what was a quite pleasant and full-bodied wine was too excessive and, after all, May 7th was the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Vietnamese over the French at Dien Bien Phu so anything less would have been an insult on such an auspicious day.

I was just about to pay when I saw that the person in front had gone for the salmon, so I went out of the queue to do the same, in the process almost doubling my bill. Salmon with potatoes cost €8.90 but it, again, was a substantial dish. Both the fish and the potatoes (dauphinoise) were cold and that might be a problem for some Brits as, over the years, I’ve met many who consider that food should always be piping hot. If you’re one of them then this place might not be for you – if you want to go for the main meals.

That came to a grand total of €21.50, more than I was thinking of paying, but truthfully that would have been at the bottom end of the prices for any meal in the Città Alta and I don’t think I would have had half the quantity, whatever the quality might have been.

I had a bit of a struggle, I wasn’t going to waste it, but I had to take my time. There was no pressure as it’s a large place and I wasn’t taking up a potentially valuable table. On the other hand no museums or the like would be open again until 15.00 and I’d been walking around for more than three hours in the morning. It also gave me an opportunity to people watch, as the overwhelming majority of the other customers were local people on their lunch break from work or college.

The decoration was exactly what you’d expect of such a ‘workers canteen’ but clean and things that people didn’t take to the tray stands were collected as soon as they built up. Not as plush as some of the places in Città Alta but then there you’re often paying for the linen tablecloths and napkins, as well as the supercilious waiting staff, more than for the food.

I had learnt years ago that Italians go into a bar, drink, pay and leave much quicker than is the norm in other countries and as I sat taking my time over my meal it was confirmed that they have that same attitude to food, at least in a public place at lunchtime, tables close to me filling up and emptying a number of times during my stay.

Watching what other people were eating I was also able to learn, something I hadn’t picked up when selecting my food, that the restaurant takes orders for full 10/12 inch pizzas, which get cooked to order and then brought to the table – so that’s another option at the Autogrill.

This was a good find and I wouldn’t have a qualms going to this place if I were to find myself hungry in Bergamo in the future.


Autogrill, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, 15

This is the big square close to the Porta Nuova and the restaurant is across the road from the Torre dei Caduti, on the edge of the town’s banking district.

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

The Bergamo Skyline

The Bergamo Skyline

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy. What to do? Where to go? What do you need to know? How much will it cost? From the links below you will be able to find the information, practical hints, tips, suggestions of visits and food, etc., to make a full three day visit to the northern Italian city, in the foothills of the Orobie Alps and about 45 kilometres to east of Milan, an enjoyable experience.

Most of the principal tourist historical, cultural and artistic attractions are to be found in the Città Alta (the High City, also known as the Old Town – although there is evidence of ancient settlements where contemporary development is taking place)) the walled mediaeval city built on the top of one hills that commanded the trade routes in times past. The old city got its Venetian Walls during the 16th century and they dominate any aspect from afar. As the politics of the country changed (especially after Italian Unification – Risorgimento – of the 1860s) more expansion took place below the hill and this is where you’ll find locations dominated by 19th century architecture, including some of the most important art galleries such as the Accademia Carrara, the Museo Diosesano Adriano Bernareggi and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo (GAMeC). Also in this area you’ll be able to see the Monument to the Partisan, by Giacomo Manzù, and the Teatro Donizetti, the local opera house.

In Città Alta you’ll find: the Duomo (Cathedral); the Colleoni Chapel – the mausoleum of the mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni; the Campanone (The Big Bell) and The Gombito, two towers dating back to mediaeval times; the Contarini Fountain; the Baptistery, dating back to the 14th century – but not in the same place; the library; locations connected to the life of Gaetano Donizetti (the bel canto opera composer); the Palazzo della Regione; a number of interesting churches, including the Romanesque San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, with its frescoes, the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, with its macabre paintings behind the main altar, the tiny church of Santa Croce and the huge Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore – which challenges the Cathedral in its decoration and splendour; as well as a number of comic, interesting, sometimes bizarre and unusual examples of ‘street art’ – long before Banksie people were painting the outsides of buildings just for the sake of it and as a relief to the mundanity of their lives.

The old city is tiny and the only way to see it, and that’s because there’s no alternative transport to take you through the narrow streets and alleyways, is on foot. However, it’s not a logistical problem to get around the more dispersed attractions of the new town and guidance will be provided about how to do that in the most convenient and cheapest way possible. This will include the quaint funicular railway which takes some of the pain out of climbing the steep hills and allows you to get to the highest point in the old city at the Castello di San Vigillio.

Eateries exist in the Città Alta but they are almost exclusively directed towards the tourist trade and may not, for that reason, most may not be particularly good value for money. However, I went to one restaurant in the new town and one in the old town. One day I choose snack food and a picnic at San Vigilio.

Accommodation reports will be limited to one. I am staying at the Nuovo Ostello della Gioventu di Bergamo, part of Hostelling International to which the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) of the UK is affiliated. Although on the outskirts of the new town there’s a couple of very convenient bus routes (the 6 and the 3) that can get you to both the old and the new town without a lot of pain, the No 3 to the Citta Alta having its terminus at the bus stop immediately outside the hostel. If you don’t mind sharing dormitory accommodation for a few nights it provides all you really need, a clean, comfortable and convenient place to lay your head.

Bergamo easily has enough to keep someone with wide and catholic tastes busy for a full three days. More than that you might find yourself retracing your steps a bit too often. However, generally it’s a pleasant location and it’s not too bad a choice as a base to explore some of the surrounding historic towns such as Brescia or Carravaggio or even for a swift day trip to Milan.

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