Bergamo, located in the Lombardy region (North of Italy, near Milan), is an ancient medieval town. It is one of those magical cities that when you visit them, leaves you with a lasting impression, that you have traveled back in time.
Actually, Bergamo is composed of 2 centres: a Lower Town, called “Città Bassa”, modern and commercial city, and an Upper Town, perched on a hill, the medieval “Città Alta”. If the Lower Town contains some interesting buildings and a few colorful houses, it is the Upper Town that attracts all the attentions. Indeed, to visit Bergamo, is an opportunity to discover a medieval architecture and admire exceptional works of art. It also means diving into the Middle Ages, and enjoying the vibes of this historic town by strolling through the narrow streets and on the castle walls.
From the road, we can identify the skyline of the historic district, surrounded by its defensive walls …
1. Map of Bergamo, its Upper Town and places of interest
2. Città Alta, at the times of Venice’s glory
We set off to discover the medieval city of Bergamo on foot. The Via Alessandro, beautiful narrow and shady street with a Roman pavement rises gradually to reach the splendid gate of San Giacomo.
The Venetian Gate of San Giacomo
What a beautiful building! We are impressed by its bright white marble facade. It forms an impressive contrast with the gray stones of the old viaduct and of the defensive walls.
Built in 1592, it is the most beautiful of the Città Alta’s 4 gates. On its pediment, the emblem of the Republic of Venice, the winged lion of St. Mark was carved. Indeed, Bergamo was annexed to the Venetian territory for 350 years, from 1428 until 1797, date of its capture by Napoleon. Before this period, the city was ruled by the Viscontis, Lords of Milan.
Before entering Upper Town, we enjoy the beautiful view of the Venetian fortifications (on which we intend to stroll later in the day) and of the Lower Town.
Then we enter the famous medieval city and take Via San Giacomo that reveals an ancient architecture (stone walls with carved gargoyles, colorful houses, bas-reliefs). No doubt, crossing this gate takes us to another time far back.
The street leads to Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe, a small lively square with terraces under arcades. (also the arrival point of the funicular).
The Gombito Tower
Then Via Gombito, a busy shopping street is dominated by a beautiful square tower rising in the sky. Built in the 13th century, the Gombito tower is one of the turrets that was part of the defensive power of Bergamo and in particular of Piazza Vecchia. Getting at the top of the tower is an opportunity to admire from above the medieval districts and observe its ancient buildings.
We continue to Piazza Vecchia.
3. Piazza Vecchia, heart of the political power of Bergamo
As we go into the heart of Città Alta, we travel back in time, to the 12th century, in the Middle Ages.
At first glance, Piazza Vecchia has a certain charm. The Contarini fountain occupies the central space and is surrounded by prestigious buildings: the Palazzo della Ragione, the Palazzo Nuovo, the Palazzo de Podesta and finally the Civic Tower (or Campanone, which signifies “Great Bell”). The buildings around the piazza were built at different times, nonetheless the whole picture is harmonious.
But the building that is the center of attraction is Palazzo della Ragione.
Palazzo della Ragione
This palace, built on large porticoes, at the bottom of Piazza Vecchia, dates from the 12th century, long before the domination of Bergamo by the Serenissima Venice. It is also the oldest building in the city. Nevertheless, over time, transformations have been made. For example, on its facade, the bas-relief of the lion of Saint Mark has been added. It reminds the period of Venetian rule. The white balcony and the openwork windows give a feeling of elegance and lightness.
Palazzo della Ragione held the role of Town Hall and housed the public assemblies of the city. Today, it is a cultural and history center.
Under its arcades, we observe on the ground the big sundial dating from 1857.
To the right of Piazza Vecchia, Palazzo Nuovo in white marble facade has a Renaissance architecture (built in 1611). It contrasts sharply with the gray stones of Palazzo delle Regione.
Today the palace houses the Angelo Mai Library, which possesses invaluable archives.
To the right of Palazzo della Ragione, a great staircase leads to the Campanone (Civic Tower), also built in the 12th century and typical of the medieval architecture of Bergamo. For centuries, its bell has rung 100 times every evening at 22h. Under the reign of Venice, the sound of the bell marked the closing of the gates of the Upper Town.
At the top of its 52 meters high, this massive tower offers a spectacular view of Piazza Vecchia, the roofs of Bergamo, the religious buildings, the palaces, the town’s surrounding plains and finally on the horizon, the Alps.
4. Piazza Duomo, heart of the religious power
Behind the Palazzo della Ragione, the small Piazza Duomo, concentrates on a few square meters all the religious history of Città Alta. Indeed, it is surrounded by admirable religious buildings, built at different times: the Capella Colleoni, the Cathedral of Bergamo, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Baptistery.
Capella Colleoni nested to the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is quite majestic. This Renaissance-style building is not the oldest in the square, but it is breathtakingly delicate, with its pink and white marble, its sculptures and bas-reliefs carved on the facade. A visit inside is worth it. It houses the marble tomb of Condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni, one of the most famous warlords of Lombardy during the XVth century.
To the right of the chapel stands a small octagonal baptistery built in 1340.
Cathedral of Bergamo
Also called “il Duomo”, the Cathedral faced with white marble, seems to be stuck between the Basilica S.M.Maggiore and the back of the Palazzo della Ragione. Inside, you can see works by the famous painter Tiepolo.
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Finally, the imposing Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, built in 1137 is the religious heart of Bergamo.
But this Basilica, with its stern appearance reserves a all lot of surprises when you get inside. The interior is breathtakingly beautiful. The light diffused by the windows reveals a number of ornamental treasures made by great masters (sculptures, frescoes, stone work, marquetry, …). Unlike the usual baroque buildings “crumbling” under the golden ornaments, the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is elegance and refinement. We admire the volumes, the perspective effect being rendered by the magnificent white marble pillars. The somptuous decorations are the object of our wonder.
The basilica is in itself worth a visit to Bergamo.
5. Città Alta: an impregnable fortress
Because of its strategic position on top of the hill, at the foot of the Lombardy Prealps, and dominating the plain, Bergamo played a role of defensive outpost during the Venetian wars. From this period, it has preserved all the characteristics of a military architecture, with the construction of the Rocca (defensive walls) and San Vigilio Castle. In addition, the Upper Town of Bergamo is surrounded by 5 kilometers of fortifications dating from the XVIth century and remarkably preserved. They are part of UNESCO World Heritage.
After strolling through the alleys and narrow passages around Piazza Vecchia, we decide to observe the medieval district from the heights, to better appreciate its charms.
Thus, from the Rocca’s terrace, we enjoy an stunning view of the city, admiring the elegant profile of the towers, steeples and domes emerging from the medieval heart of Bergamo.
After a deserved “photos break” we walk on the Mura (defensive walls). It offers a 360 ° panorama of the valley and the villages.
Finally, we stroll up to the hill of San Vigilio on which stands the castle of the same name. From there, we have a spectacular view of Bergamo, the surrounding villages and in the background, the jagged Alps.
6. Bergamo: a city with culinary traditions
Strolling along the winding streets of the historic district, we did not miss to taste the traditional specialties, accompanied by a good local wine. Indeed, the top notch specialty of the Bergamasque cuisine is the “polenta”, boiled corn flour. And we tasted for you the dessert of the city, the polenta e osèi. 😉
In conclusion, the visit of Bergamo Upper Town plunges the visitor into a medieval atmosphere: a history, a culture, exceptional palaces that overlook the famous Piazza Vechia, religious buildings of remarkable beauty. From its Venetian walls, the visitor also enjoys magnificent landscapes. There are all the witnesses of glory and power of ancient times.