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Destination: Italy

In hill town of Bergamo, chimes and time to savor two millenniums

June 15, 1997|DAVID ALDRICH | Aldrich is a freelance writer who lives in Lexington, Mass

BERGAMO, Italy — The fortified hilltop town of Bergamo floated in the blue-gray distance like a painted backdrop from a faded movie. We wondered how anyone could live in such a magical place, or if it really was a cinematic fantasy fashioned of plywood, canvas and 2-by-4s.

"It looks like the set from an old Errol Flynn movie," my wife, Nancy, observed.

But people have occupied this northern Italian town on the edge of the Alps for more than 2,000 years, and Bergamo is a thriving community of 120,000, divided into the medieval walled Upper City (Citta Alta), and the more modern 19th century Lower City (Citta Bassa).

Foreign visitors rush to Rome, Florence and Venice but usually bypass Bergamo. We had done so before ourselves. But charming Bergamo is an easy day trip from Milan (only 30 miles northeast and linked with it by train and the A4 autostrada). Anyone staying in the Lake District or driving the Milan-Verona-Padua-Venice route also could drop by Bergamo for a day or two, since it sits just off the A4.

For our three-week stay last summer, we rented a one-bedroom apartment near the town of Alzano Lombardo. It was listed in a book called "Karen Brown's Italy: Charming Bed & Breakfasts" by Nicole Franchini. We reserved a comfortable (although noisy because the farm dogs barked all night) lodging in what had once been the fortified stone tower of a 500-year-old farming estate, just three miles from Bergamo. From there we were able to wander to Bergamo nearly every other day.


Bergamo was only a name on a map until Nancy's Italian tutor, who had grown up in Sicily, told us about this beautiful, easily accessed hill town that is popular with Italian tourists. It was she who, over the kitchen table, scolded Nancy for accenting the second syllable. ("BER-gamo, madam, BER-gamo!" she said.)

Rising 200 feet above the Citta Bassa, the roughly oval-shaped Citta Alta extends a mile in one direction and half a mile in the other. Since only Upper-City residents have permission--and the nerve--to drive in the tangle of narrow streets, visitors either walk up or take the $1 funicular from Viale Vittorio Emanuele II. The walk is strenuous; the ride is fun. Behind lie the agricultural plains of the upper Po River Valley: flat, rich farming country much coveted by invaders throughout the centuries. Above and ahead, standing shoulder to shoulder, are ocher buildings with red-tile roofs. To the left and right stretch the gray city walls.

If any place needed fortified walls it was Bergamo, which was conquered and reconquered throughout its history. The Romans took it from the Gauls in 196 BC. In AD 49, the people of Bergamo were made Roman citizens. The Romans built a forum and an arena (both destroyed) and laid out the main streets. During the 350-plus years of Venetian rule (1428 to 1797), Bergamo was the most westerly fortified town in the Venetian republic.

During the 5th century, the city was attacked by Goths, Huns and Vandals, in turn. During the two decades from 1509 to 1529, Bergamo was conquered by the French twice and by the Spanish seven times, with the Venetians intervening militarily from time to time.

When the Venetians erected Bergamo's fourth set of city walls in the 16th century, they tore down hundreds of homes but didn't bother to compensate the owners. The people of Bergamo despised the Venetians throughout their rule, and locals still sound a little miffed.

We found the old city more inviting and seldom stopped long in Citta Bassa. It was pleasant but did not hold our interest.

Upon arriving at the top, we often stopped at the Cafe Carissimi inside the funicular terminus building. We would take our cappuccino and torta Donizetti (a pound cake) to a balcony table overlooking the Citta Bassa and the Po Valley beyond--at about $4 per person, well within our budget.

We then would follow the narrow streets for a few blocks to Bergamo's star attraction, the Piazza Vecchia, noted for its medieval and Renaissance buildings, central fountain and open-air cafes. The square was our meeting place whenever we split up to explore on our own.

Whenever we heard bells, we could imagine the impact of that sound centuries ago when it announced that the city gates were closing. For a moment we could imagine the comfort that sound must have brought to medieval town-dwellers, as well as the fear it would have summoned in those still outside. Bergamo's gates no longer close, but the curfew bells still peal at 10 each evening.

They chime from atop the Torre Civica, a 160-foot, 12th century tower that offers a glorious view of the city and the Piazza Vecchia below. The elevator was out of service each time we visited (this is not uncommon, we were told), but the climb was worth it for the sky-high views and photos of spires, towers and tiled roofs. Be prepared to cover your ears on the hour, when the bells brightly set the air in vibration.

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