Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Bergamo, February 2008

Weekend getaway series, no. 43,237


Kristin's only here for a few more days, so we need a high-yield destination that's pretty close by.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

So here we are in the Milan Centrale train station, 22 February 2008, with an armful of The Guardian, The Independent, and the trusty old Herald Tribune (and Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff for a backup), and a few moments to kill for the connection to Bergamo. The Cisalpino out of Switzerland is a joy to glide quietly along in; the regional to Bergamo is a rusty, sputtering jitney.

Here's our flat, the casa vacanze Maura in the Città Alta, or walled upper city, the historical centre (not to be confused with the Città Bassa, the lower city, mainly 19th-early 20th century, not bad in general terms, but pretty city-ish).

Maura has been brilliantly restored, one of three vacation apartments in the Città Alta operated by the extremely friendly and helpful Mario Pozzoni -- the other two are called Eulalia and Nastassia after his daughters.

The courtyard entrance in the back

Kristin, decked out in our courtyard to set off for some serious sightseeing.

The front of the Maura facing onto Vagina Street. Sorry about that, we didn't name it. It's the Via Del Vagine, 6.

Just next to the ancient disused city prison.

The far end of the Via Del Vagine and . . .

. . . the short jog up the Via Tassis to the Via Colleoni, the main street that runs the length of the Upper City, and the Upper City centre at the Piazza Vecchia.

The Piazza Vecchia, overlooked by a Po Valley wintertime sky and, at the far end, the allegedly fabulous Palazzo della Ragione. . . completely under wraps. The Contarini fountain is in the centre.

The Via Colleoni, the main east-west thoroughfare through town.

Late afternoon perambulations around the Città Alta

Near the Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe

The Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe, but with no shoe stores in sight these days, and on the far side, the top of the funicular rail line down to the Città Bassa.

An official indication that pedestrians are welcome.

Modern Italy: an ancient statue and a shiny new Fiat.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, begun in the 12th century, the spring of 1137 to narrow that figure down a bit.

Note the lions guarding the door -- very historical, and very Venetian (St. Mark, etc.). Bergamo ('mountain house' in Cenomani Celtic) became a Roman town in 49 B.C. but got trashed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century. It bounced around for some 6 or 7 centuries as a Lombard duchy, a county seat under Charlemagne circa 800, and an independent city-state in the 12th century. The Visconti of Milan got their hooks into the place in the mid-13th century, were thrown out by the famous military contractor, then called a condottiere, Bartolemeo Colleoni, and came back in force in the mid-14th. Eventually, Garibaldi threw off the Bergamasks' shackles in 1859, you'll be pleased to learn, and ever since the town has been part of Italy.

In the meantime, however, the Venetians came along in 1428 and took matters in hand briskly, and that's why there are St. Mark's lions strewn underfoot, Venetian fortifications all round the outside of it, the fortress Rocca at one end of town, and a fountain in the main square built by the Venetian podestà Alvise Contarini. Kristin loves a good stone lion.

The baroque interior of Santa Maria Maggiore (shot with a shaky hand in ambient light, so as not to disturb the religious folks), way too decorated for some of us, but it's got some excellent 14th century and also Tiepolo frescoes and some wood marquetry panels from Lorenzo Lotto.

How inspiring these ceiling narratives would be if we'd brought our opera glasses.

-- No begging.

Kristin especially loves red marble Venetian lions and trusts them with her hand.

The red lion door of the basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the little door on the left -- the big thing with the rose window is the Colleoni chapel, built by the native-son military contractor and very Renaissancy, and with a prominent funeral urn inside which may be Bartolomeo Colleoni himself. Or an imposter.

The old city fathers still keep a watchful eye on things from the ancient city hall.

A penitent pilgrim asking all the right questions, but still, so far, no answers.

To every streetcorner its own bell tower

"I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry."

"Penny for the Old Guy?"

Bette Davis played this role in her later years.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was born in the region in 1881 and made good for himself, under the stage name or nom de guerre "John XXIII". Part of his legacy, along with the Second Vatican Council, is this humongo seminary, doubtless training up countless new potential popes 'even as we speak', as the Americans would say. Knowledgeable friends tell me that this fellow is the Papa Buono, the "good pope", which I find encouraging.

Good Popes aside, this strikes me as a still more elemental symbol for religion -- high tech sculpture, ancient astrolabey sort of thing, and a tired old sun.

"Good Pope" may be oxymoronic, but Pope John XXIII's fortress seminary, training new priests or whatnot, looks able to withstand any attacks with conventional weapons.

Kristin slipping unobtrusively through one of the several robust and beautiful city gates, Porta San Alessandro.

Back home to our temporary digs with a snack of goodies from the tiny, charming alimentaria-enoteca-salumeria on the Via Tassis. Chiefly prosciutto di parma ("18 months!"), inexpensive Barbera red, and a number of cheeses that came with a manual.

And now, suitably fortified, out Vagina Street for dinner.

Venetian-era battlements at the foot of the Via San Lorenzo, as we set out on Saturday to find some Art.

Here's a quick view of the Città Bassa as the fog/smog cleared briefly. Only 120,000 souls are pursuing their dreams here, merely a village by the standards of a megalopolis like Geneva canton with 450,000.

The Città Alta: Voi siete qui - You are here (orange dot on the right), as we're heading down to the Accademia Carrara to find some Art. The pink dot that looks like it doesn't really belong on this map indicates our flat on the Via Del Vagine. The Piazza Vecchia central square is in the centre and the main funicular cable car is shown as white dots. The second funiculaire, up to San Vigilio, is on the extreme left.

The church of San Agostino. Not really, that was a joke, it's "decommissioned" (like Kristin's flat in Boston). Now it's part of the university, with some Asian students heading in for the science lessons. Another excellent use for religion.

The back of San Agostino, a really well-defended university. If there had been walls like that around American universities in 1970, US history might have turned out less unpleasantly than it has.

Here we are at the Pinacoteca dell'Accademia Carrara (Accademia Carrara for short), to view ART, but not at LUNCHTIME (until 14:30). Come back later. So we're off down the smoggy streets in the Città Bassa to find some newspapers, but it's more smog than English newspapers there, so we'll while away the idle hours with some contemporary art instead, or a burrito if we can find a Mexican sidewalk stand.

Just across the street, the Galleria d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, with a special exhibit on Il Futuro del futurismo, or the future of futurism -- "200 works by 120 artists reflect and express the influences exerted by Futurism on the developments of visual art from the 19th century up to the present day". It was alas a fat lot of bollocks to me, even the so-called "Damien Hirst", but then I'm a thorough philistine on these post-17th century matters. And I got in free anyway, a special category for seniors and students; evidently they took me for a student.

I would have recommended that you have a go at it anyway, but we were there on the last day of the exhibit. God knows what's next. Skinned cadavers, maybe.

Enough of that! It's 14:30, time for the Accademia Carrara staff to toss back the last of their lunchtime chianti and get back to the security stations. This is a wonderful, manageably small collection, 13th century to 19th, of excellent locals and a few major hitters, like Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, and some Dürers that we walked right past without noticing and had to go back for. Down the middle of the gallery was a strange, unrelated exhibition of the history of famous Italian brand names, with shoes, motor-scooters, Bianchi bicycle frames, hats and corsets, diningroom furniture, I lost track after a while and was just trying to step over them to see the Mantegna without knocking over mannequins in bright neckties and glittery sunglasses.

The Porsche run from the Città Alta to the Città Bassa, a speed record on cobblestones

We asked local residents what this one is all about, but they looked away quickly and refused to speculate. It probably commemorates some local event many years ago.

Why plod all the way back up the hill when there's an 1880s cable-car up it, nearly free! In fact, entirely free for me -- almost better than getting the student pass into the Accademia again.

Kid and Pigeon, classic tableau. Kristin's in the pharmacy in the background, stocking up.

Near the Mercato delle Scarpe -- Kristin, who loves shoes more than is wise or healthy, was disappointed to find that the name is a medieval artefact.

More churches looming

Kristin's latest encounter with the police. It went off without a hitch.

Layers and levels

More layers and levels, just a lot of verticality.

The Upper city, in Po Valley winter air, from the Upperer Upper City, the top of the funiculaire rail car to San Vigilio, topped by an old fortress with a sign, at the top of a 200-metre staircase, that said "closed". The signboard at the bottom of the staircase had nothing on it.

Kristin featured here, passing out of the Citadella, the Visconti era fortress at the western end of the town (not far from Via Del Vagine)

The Via Colleoni again, near nightfall: we were looking for soy milk, if you can believe that, and each of the shopkeepers directed us to another likely possibility, and sure enough we found some.

Our favored restaurant throughout, Il Sole, right on the central square Piazza Vecchia -- beautiful within, good prices, good stuff for your mouth I'd say, a functionally friendly if not genuinely warm staff, and owned by the wife of our charming host Mario, so Why go elsewhere?

A kodak moment

Time for an apéritif with some prosciutto di Parma, fancy cheese, and speculations about tonight's dinner. An hour or so with the current Scientific American before we need to wrestle on the old tux.

Next day: The Campanone, or Civic Tower (Torre Civica), a 12th century edifice that has been mocking us from high above since we arrived -- and now an hour before departure, we're going up it or die in the attempt!!!!

Luckily, it was open on Sunday morning, AND free for me, AND it's got an elevator nearly to the top. So we're all set.

From the civic tower back down into the Piazza Vecchia, with its Contarini fountain, its rather awkward 17th century Biblioteca Angelo Mai dominating the fourth wall ponderously, and a construction crane borrowed from Dubai, where nearly all the world's construction cranes have gone to seek their fortunes.

The pope's seminary high on the left, the Cittadella on the right . . .

and the cable-car and fortress of San Vigilio in the background.

The fortress of Rocca in the other direction

The Duomo or cathedral

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

The Colleoni Chapel and, in the lower right, the 14th century baptistry (with the excellent floor) that was allegedly moved out here from the inside

Looking past the Duomo out over the lower city. See it there? In the background!

Santa Maria Maggiore

Time to redescend

The Contarini fountain with the Venetian lions and the guy throwing up

The Civic Tower again. The bell rings out, supposely over 100 times, at 10 p.m. every evening, formerly to announce the city curfew, now just to be historical and infuriate people.

Now we're dashing back to the flat for some hasty packing. Our host is going to ferry us back down to the rail station, bless him.

And tidying up the flat before we leave.
(The TV, though we didn't use it, is neat -- the gyroscopic antenna on the top of it rotates around when you change channels to find the appropriate signal. Watching the antenna was more fun than watching the TV.)

Kristin and our host, Mario, headed for his car, with which he and his daughters are going to drive us down to the train station.

The gate of the citadel at the end of Via Colleoni -- a valedictory look at it, and the occasion for a poem about it.
The poem, however, got left in the train at an advanced stage of refinement. It began "O! Yon Tower!" but the rest is lost.

The appallingly big Milan train station, where at noon on Sundays the nearby residents come out to enjoy the fresh air and drink beer.

And now it's back to "Ginevra" and, tomorrow, back to work -- and for Kristin, back to the height of the opera season in Boston.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 6 March 2008, revised 23 December 2013.


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