Picnic at San Vigilio
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.