Monday, January 12, 2009

Bergamo high-life

Bergamo is about an hour outside Milan on the way to Switzerland. It was founded by the Celts, one of whom tossed a rock and decided to fit an entire town within the distance the rock traveled. Mind you, the size of the place is deceptive, as the topology resembles the cardiograph of a multiple heart attack victim.

The Celts threw up some walls and settled down. Apparently the walls weren’t very good as the Romans snatched the place away pretty quick smart. The Romans then set about building their own walls and this has pretty much been the story until recently with successive waves of invaders building defensive walls onion-skin fashion all the way down to the plain below.

The walls on the plain were demolished in the 19th century. This allowed a fairly ugly urban sprawl to spew across the plain. Mind you the urban sprawl is probably a greater deterrent to invaders than the walls ever were. But remember, nothing deters a tourist!

The train trip from Milan was uneventful but remarkably cheap – and cheaper still if you know beforehand that no one checks the tickets. Within 15 minutes you are out of the old city of Milan and into the ugly bit, but equally quickly you into an area of market gardens. Snow capped mountains appear and suddenly you are at Bergamo station. Bergamo station is nothing to write home about... so I wont.

On leaving the station you walk along what appears to be the main street for about a kilometer (I could be wrong) until you come to the funicular railway. You can also catch a bus up to either the ‘citi alta’ or the funicular railway if you can work out how to buy a ticket. However, like the railways, the buses haven’t discovered ticket inspectors (or are too civilized to consider them), so it is up to your conscience whether or not you pay. We walked.

The funicular is a tiny little thing built from left over bits of an eight gauge Hornby train set and an old sewing machine. It lethargically bobs up and down the hillside like a yoyo on Mogadon. Unfortunately, it travels through a tunnel thus cheating you of what would be a spectacular view. Once at the top you enter a square - actually it is a far more complex geometric shape. Take any quaint winding, cobbled street you like and you wind up at the Duomo. As we were there we decided to make it or first point of call. The Duomo is a lovely building. The outside is polychromatic stone and a mass of statues and carvings obviously inspired by but one tenth as amazing as the Duomo in Milan. The interior is very ornate and a tad dazzling and you are not allowed to take photographs. I discovered that if you turn off the sound effects on your camera and pretend to be praying you can get away with a bit of surreptitious photography.

Next to the Duomo is another church San Maria Maggiore. Nothing can prepare you for this wonder. The Duomo is merely a visual antipasto for the main course that is San. M. Maggiore. The interior of San the epitome of Rococo. Everything that can be is gilded, painted or carved in a twisty sort of way. When the first shock wears off, and you embarrassedly realize you just swore in a church, your brain shuts down in self-defense. It is beyond description. And you can take photographs! Where to start? Where to stop? You have to leave before your eyes melt. It’s…staggering!
Dazed and confused we escaped back into the square, which at this time was rapidly filling with a group of geriatric Italian tourists with their hair and coats fluffed up against the cold. We decided to avoid them and scampered into another church humbly called the Cathedral Bergamo (the place is awash with churches – but, hey. It IS Italy). By comparison the Cathedral is restrained. Which doesn’t really mean much as the entire global supply of gilt and gold paint is stored on its walls and ceiling. Not to mention a substantial portion of the world’s marble – cunningly disguised as popes, cherubs, saints etc.I think it was here (we visited a lot of churches) we came across a chapel displaying the skulls and various other bones of saints. The Italians are a weird people with their fixation on earthly remains (see prior – Monumental Cemetery). To make the whole experience weirder across the way the Nativity scene was being prepared for Christmas. If I were an Italian child I would have some serious questions to ask of my parents. These churches don’t make the building text. They make the text the building. All over the walls and ceiling are paintings of people doing atrocious, but probably well deserved, things to a bunch of martyrs. And if other people aren’t doing them, the saints are doing them to themselves. Seriously, if psychological profiling had existed back then most saints would have been on a police ‘watch list’ as “likely to do harm to themselves or others”. Their names would have been released to parents in the suburbs into which they moved.
Anyway, enough God-bashing. The town itself is just layer after layer of history. The Celts and Romans are strangely absent but the succeeding waves of Venetians, Austrians and French all left their marks. The narrow winding streets which once saw brawls between the Gheulfs and the Ghibertines now house well-to-do Italians whose blonde hair bespeaks Swiss ancestry. Towers that repelled the Medicis and housed Austrian prisoners of the French (or vice versa) now celebrate Italy’s liberation from the Germans. There aren’t many obvious signs of war damage but, where there are, it is hard to work out which war caused them. Yet Bergamo’s history as a siege town is displayed in the shops, all of which display enough food in their windows to feed the town for a year.

If you succumb to the blandishments of the trattoria, pasterria et cetera, fear not. A few minutes walking will burn off any calories (an Italian word by the way) you may have gained. May? What do I mean 'may'!? You will definitely gain calories. Some of the desserts have enough calories to provide the annual energy requirements of a small country. The point being that only two streets in Bergamo can be described as level the rest fall somewhere between 15 and 45 degrees of inclination. You start to despair when you realize you are on a downhill slope because of the inevitable thigh crippling upward slope that will follow. We saw a couple of lycra-clad cyclists (the only time we saw such sartorial atrocities) using the town as a training ground for the more difficult bits of the Tour de France.

Having walked a lateral distance of about seven kilometers and a vertical distance of about sixty we decided to retire for lunch. Actually we had no option. The entire town shuts down between 12.30 and 2.30 for a gustorial frenzy that makes Henry the Eighth look positively anorexic. Like Alice in Wonderland, we attempted two impossible things before lunch. One was to find a place that wasn’t a tourist trap. The other was to find a place off the main drag. We succeeded – so in your eye, Lewis Carroll. We found a nice place and settled in, like all previous invaders. Unlike them we did not build any walls.

Shiralee had some exquisite rabbit dish served with polenta cooked by angels. I had deer with Foi Gras and some excellent potato things. Not to mention the scallops with truffles and a more than passable house white. Yum! Dessert was tempting but beyond us.

After lunch it was back to checking out the local museums and art galleries. All of which were fine but not as good as lunch. All too soon the sun and the temperature plummeted so it was back down the hill, onto the train and back to Milan. A fine time was had by all and we now have thigh muscles like banded steel.

(JB forgot that amongst other things, we saw the very excellent Natural History Museum too. When I say 'excellent' it might not be what a new museologist might consider wonderful... rather it was ...fascinating. Badly stuffed woolly Mammoth mother and baby, bald grimacing stuffed monkeys, puffer-fish with teddybear eyes, dusty rocks... here's one or two egs... there's more on my Incognita website.)

No comments:

Post a Comment