We had long wanted to visit Bergamo, to test for ourselves its fame as a centre of gastronomic excellence and we weren't disappointed. A huge bonus is Bergamo itself, a beautiful medieval hilltop city.
Val Camonica has one of the best collections of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world, a fascinating insight into ancient life.
We came to Bergamo from Verona, lured by the stories of its wonderful food. So the first thing we did after checking in (the San Marco very close to the funicular for the old town, with terrific views of Bergamo Alta from our room) was to head up to the old town and look for lunch! Although we did look around Bergamo Bassa a little, most of our time in Bergamo was spent in the old town on the hill. The funicular is frequent and only takes maybe ten minutes to get to Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (Shoe Market Square) just inside the town walls. From here it is a short walk to Piazza Vecchia, the heart of the old town.
We chose La Birreria on Via Gombita and weren't disappointed by our first meal in Bergamo. There's a great selection of beers, of course, and we tried two Munich beers - a Spaten and a Franziskaner Weissbier. I had a very good mixed salad and Andrew an excellent Casoncelli alla Bergamasca - a kind of stuffed ravioli-tape pasta, a speciality of the region. Not too expensive, though slowish service, which suited us at this time as we didn't want to be rushed through lunch. Suitably fortified we began looking around the town.
The piazza is surrounded with beautiful buildings and has to be one of the most attractive in Italy. At the northern end is the Renaissance Palazzo Nuovo, begun in the early seventeenth century and now housing the Biblioteca Angelo Mai - the Public Library - it took a couple of hundred years to complete. This gleaming white marble building is quite a contrast to the medieval buildings facing it.
The inevitable Lion of St Mark, symbol of Venice which ruled the city for 350 years, is at the opposite end of the piazza on the twelfth century Gothic Palazzo della Ragione. Court cases used to be heard in the open arcades which form the ground floor of the building. The lion is actually a quite recent gift from Venice to commemorate the strong ties between the two cities. The original large marble lion which once stood here was destroyed by Napoleon's forces.
At the time of our visit the Academia Carrara gallery, just outside the old city walls, was closed for renovation. For the duration there was an exhibition of selected pieces within the Palazzo Della Ragione which was quite nice for us as it meant we could see inside the palazzo at the same time as looking at the art. The down side was that, of course, not so many pieces were on display.
The fountain in the piazza was also a Venetian gift, from the governor in 1780. The sphinxes, lions and serpents are very unusual, giving it an incongruous Egyptian feel.
The tower in the corner of the piazza is known as "il Campanone" - "the big bell". It was built in the thirteenth century by the powerful Suardi family but passed to the municipality and became the Civic Tower. At 10 every evening it tolls 180 times - very loudly - as it has done for centuries. In more dangerous times this was a warning to the people that the gates were about to be closed for the night and the city secured.
Il Campanone rises from the Palazzo del Podesta, the home of the Venetian Governor, which was originally the home of the Suardi family. Today it houses the innovative Museo Storico dell'Età Veneta - Historical Museum of the Venetian Age, principally the sixteenth century. The Venetians ruled Bergamo for 350 years from the middle of the fifteenth century. There are very few actual artefacts on display, mostly the exhibits comprise videos displayed on tables and walls, many sensitive to touch or movement. It's very well done but mostly in Italian so a bit frustrating.
Inside the palazzo it is also possible to see excavations of the Roman Forum and remnants of frescoes.
We took the lift to the top of il Campanone - timing it not so well as the bells started to ring not long after we arrived. The views from the top are excellent, across the city to the surrounding countryside and down into Piazza Vecchia and Piazza Duomo.
Piazza Duomo can be reached from Piazza Vecchia through the arch which connects Palazzo del Padrone with Palazzo della Ragione. Though the Duomo itself has a nineteenth century neo-classical facade, this is just the culmination of centuries of development. In the ninth century Bergamo had two cathedrals but over time one was demolished and the other rebuilt and renovated to leave the current cathedral dedicated to St Alexander. As it's Baroque inside I'm not keen.
Hard up against the Duomo, with only a narrow street separating them, is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a Romanesque church with Gothic porches to the south and north and an extremely over-the-top Baroque interior - the Duomo is restrained in comparison - it's so extreme it's mesmerising!
The church has no western entrance as it was originally connected here to the Bishop's palace - instead there is a porch on the south west corner. Quite in contrast to the excess of the Baroque decoration there are some 15th century frescoes on one wall, refreshing in their naivety, though not of any particular artistic merit.
The north porch is the most beautiful of the porches, its pink marble columns supported by lions in turn support a canopy edged with delicate stone tracery and a hunting scene around the arch. Above are two loggias, the lower with an equestrian statue of St Alexander flanked by two saints, the upper a Virgin and Child flanked by two more saints.
The door itself is surrounded by beautifully carved barley sugar columns and figures including, again, hunting scenes.
Attached to the church is the Renaissance Cappella Colleoni. Bartolomeo Colleoni was a celebrate condottiero for the Venetian Republic, a sort of mercenary soldier. Born near Bergamo he rose to lead the Venetian armies and commissioned this extravagant but beautiful pink and white marble chapel as his mausoleum in the 1470s.
Completing the square is the 14th century octagonal Baptistery which was removed from Santa Maria Maggiore in the seventeenth century then reconstructed in the piazza in the nineteenth century.
Set in the pavement of the passageway between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Vecchia there is a surprising solar chart comprising a meridian and an analemma. A meridian is a line of longitude - an imaginary line connecting the north and south poles. This one is inscribed with the days of the year and overlaid by an elongated figure 8 which describes the path of the sun, an analemma, as plotted from a spot of sunlight illuminating the pavement through a hole in a metal disc hung high up from one of the stone arches on the south side of the arcade. The far northern end of the line marks the winter solstice, the day of the year (December 21st or 22nd) on which the sun is lowest in the sky at noon, the southern end marks the summer solstice (June 20th or 21st) when the sun is highest in the sky at noon.
The centre of the figure 8 is the point marking the spring and summer equinoxes. It's a fascinating illustration of the position of the sun relative to the earth. As the earth moves around the sun its position in the sky appears to change - the apparent path of the sun over the course of the year is called the ecliptic. If the earth's rotation axis were not tilted with respect to its orbit around the sun then the position of the sun in the sky at noon (or any other time) would be the same on any day of the year.
Our first evening we ate at a restaurant in Piazza Vecchia: Sant'Ambroseus. Andrew had excellent tagliata - sliced rare fillet beef - and I had very good rabbit, though it was slightly undercooked and there wasn't much of it. Excellent triple chocolate dessert and a Zuppe di Melone. Great wine too. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of returning later in the holiday when we both had the tagliata which this time was of very poor quality with gristle through every piece. It had been perhaps a little too rare the first time (it's a dish traditionally served rare) so we had asked for it to be cooked a little more but this request was ignored.
The next day we spent exploring Bergamo more fully. We started by taking the funicular and then turning left out of Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe to reach the city walls. A long but pleasant walk around the sixteenth century walls takes in the beautiful Porta San Giacomo before turning north west along Viale delle Mura and north to Porta Sant'Alessandro from where another funicular leads up to San Vigilio.
From here there are fantastic views of Bergamo Alta.
The castle here was central to the defense of the city. There were lookouts not only at high points of the city such as the fortress, but also throughout the region such as the tower on Monte Canto to the north west. If invaders were spotted signals could be sent from point to point using fire or mirrors. There has been a lookout of some description here for over 1500 years but it was under Venetian rule that the castle was strengthened and the current impressive remnants date from this time.
After our wanderings we took a break at Baretto di San Vigilio just outside the entrance to the funicular and were so impressed we reserved a table for dinner that evening. We just asked for a beer but it came with a great selection of nibbles including great black and green olives. Views from the tables on the terrace are stunning.
Arriving back at Porta Sant'Alessandro we decided to complete our circumnavigation of the city, heading down Via della Boccola to the northern stretch of the city walls. The unassuming Porta San Lorenzo is here, a very modest affair used mainly by northern traders - at the moment it doesn't even have a Venetian Lion! It does illustrate, though, the well-thought out defenses - the approach to the gate is narrow, elevated and overlooked from the walls above.
At the north eastern corner the monastery of Sant'Agostino now houses a department of the university - a fitting use of buildings which once were the domain of learned Augustinian monks. It's worth popping in to see the two colonnaded courtyards.
Just down the road is the easternmost of the four gates into the city, the Porta Sant'Agostino. Again, the approach curves up to the gate so that for a good stretch it is running parallel to the wall making it easy to bombard any attacking force.
From just outside the gate there is a view of a very impressive part of the city wall. The wall in this area is quite a complex shape (best seen in an aerial view such as on Google maps). Obviously arrow shaped ramparts have advantages for a wide lookout area, but there are complexities beyond this relatively simple shape in the Bergamo wall at this point.
Turning into the city up Via Porta Dipinta we came upon the church of St Michele al Pozzo Bianco. A couple of faded frescoes at the entrance led us to investigate and we discovered a church which once must have been completely covered with paintings.
Mostly fifteenth century, some earlier, some later, they include a cycle of the life of Mary by Lorenzo Lotto in one of the side chapels. Lotto spent some time here in the early sixteenth century and completed a number of commissions in the region, portraits as well as religious subjects.
We made our way back to the centre of Bergamo Alta and a late lunch at Ristorante "Il Sole". I had a very good tagliolini funghi porcini, Andrew a rather oily pasta Casoncelli in the outdoor shaded eating area - shade was essential as it was very hot while we were in Bergamo.
Then afterwards a stroll back down Via Gombito to La Rocca, a fortress on a hill within the walls. On the way we passed the Torre del Gombito, a twelfth century tower which stands at what was once the major Roman crossroad in the city.
Also on Via Gombito, in a small square, is the 16th century marble San Pancrazio fountain near the church of the same name. Fountains and water cisterns were very important sources of water for the people.
The fountain stands in front of the Agnello d'Oro restaurant which we'd wanted to try but was closed for holidays. There are hundreds of places to eat here, though, so it's usually not a problem to find something, though we one evening tricky we did have some difficulty finding something open that appealed and ended up eating at the same restaurant in Piazza Vecchia that we'd visited previously.
There's not a huge amount to see at La Rocca but the cylindrical tower is impressive and the views over the rooftops back towards Piazza Vecchia are good.
Later we returned to Baretto di San Vigilio for dinner, which was fabulous.
It was a lovely warm evening with a clear sky and a bright moon and the views across Bergamo were stunning.
We were served a small cup of iced tomato soup with fresh basil and mozzarella followed by our main courses (with a bottle of very good prosecco) of, for Andrew, casoncelli followed by sea bass with peaches then frozen amaretto with chocolate sauce; for me, rocket and melon salad with fresh prawns, pork with porcini and then profiteroles with strawberry sauce and wild strawberries. Coffees were served with gorgeous fresh cherries, water melon and small glasses of pistacchio cream.
I really shouldn't have had dessert but I couldn't resist, and it was all excellent.
On our last day in Bergamo we decided to look into a couple of museums, making the most of our Bergamo cards.
On Piazza Mascheroni, a nice space spoiled by all the parked cars, is the tower leading into the 14th Citadella.
Originally the Cittadella was an important part of the city's defences. Now it is home to a museum of archaeology.
There are traces of painted walls outside, and some vestiges of frescoed walls inside, but not a great deal of interest.
Of course while in Bergamo we had ice cream from a number of gelaterie. They were all good but I think our favourite was Cherubino on Piazza Mascheroni.
At dinner one evening in Piazza Vecchia the bell of il Campanone began to ring out - the 10 o' clock curfew! It was certainly very loud!
We wanted to see prehistoric rock engravings and so we got up early one morning and drove out from Bergamo to Val Camonica, about 80 km north east, where there is a wealth of petroglyphs. There are carvings throughout the 80km long valley but Naquane is said to have a very concentrated number and some very famous ones so we decided that this was the area we'd head for. The valley itself is quite beautiful, away from the industry at its southern end.
At first we had difficulty making out some of the carvings indicated by the map we'd been given at the entrance, but then we came on the Great Rock which is covered with them and we had a great time clambering around the park to discover as many as possible. The number of engravings in the area runs to the tens of thousands running from 8000BC to around the first century BC when the Romans conquered the region.
All the images here have been manipulated to try to show the carvings as best as possible and a lot of the information comes from the boards at the site.
The petroglyphs span an amazing 8000 years, from the Camuni tribe (after whom the valley is named) who inhabited this area from 5000BC before the Romans arrived, and from those who dwelt here before that, whose carvings may have inspired the Camuni.
There is a display of a few particularly good stelae in a small museum.
Most of the figures we saw, especially the earlier stick figures, have their arms raised, it doesn't matter whether they are holding weapons or nothing at all. Information at the site says this is a "praying stance" but I don't think I agree with that - it's too emotive to call it "praying".
Many carvings include cup marks - round indentations hacked into a rock surface. there are many figures, some riding horses, animals, men fighting and hunting, structures, mysterious shovel and "game board" shapes, a labyrinth and at least one cart. One rock is supposed to have a depiction of ploughing but we couldn't make it out! Horses first appeared in Italy around 800BC.
It doesn't matter how many times I see this kind of thing, it always fills me with wonder.
It's strange to think that in the thousand years before the birth of Christ these people barely refined their scratched drawings in the rocks, while in many other parts of the world sophisticated civilisations were building complex cities with finely decorated temples and palaces.