“There’s really no reason to visit Bergamo,” my Italian classmates back in high school told me.
I spent my senior year in the northern Italian city of Brescia, and my friends and host family there seemed offended at my suggestion of taking a day trip to the neighboring city. I explained that I wanted to visit the hill town of the “Città Alta,” the medieval “high city” of Bergamo, since Lombardia only had a handful of hill towns.
“What’s wrong with Brescia? We have a castle and Roman ruins … ” was the inevitable response as my loyalty was called into question. It didn’t help that Brescia’s soccer club is mortal enemies with the Atalanta team from Bergamo.
I suggested visiting Lake Como near Bergamo, but my Bresciani friends snapped back, “We have Lago di Garda, the biggest and most beautiful lake in Italy. Who needs Como?”
Now, years later, a group of graduate students from St. Paul wanted me to lead them to Italy. I refused the usual itinerary of Florence, Venice and Rome. Instead, we followed my dream itinerary. Finally I had my chance to tour Bergamo — without need to tell my friends and host family in Brescia that I was being a traitor.
The students and I planned a five-night stay in a beautiful hotel near the Bergamo train station to facilitate tours around the region. The first day, we went up, up, up and under the Porta Sant’Agostino emblazoned with a plaque of the Venetian winged lion holding an open book. “This is a symbol of peace,” our guide Bruno, a native Bergamasco, told us. Never mind that Venice then fortified the city with impenetrable walls that were recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In front of La Marianna Pasticceria, Bruno declared, “This is where gelato alla stracciatella was invented!” The confused students shrugged, so Bruno elbowed me to translate so he could get the reaction he wanted. “Chocolate chip ice cream,” I said and Bruno was pleased with the requisite “oows” and “awws.” We had no time to stop, however, since the old square, the Piazza Vecchia of the Città Alta, was calling.
Unfortunately, the Civic Museum is closed on Mondays, the day we could have visited, so we couldn’t see the early Ojibwe artifacts that Bergamo’s native son Giacomo Beltrami gathered on his trip through Minnesota in 1823 in his search for the source of the Mississippi.
We passed a store that displayed a wide range of Italian playing cards. These colorful cards — a sort of 40-card tarot deck look-alike — vary from city to city across Italy. Conspicuously missing from the collection, however, were cards from neighboring Brescia. “Do they have their own cards?” Bruno wondered. “I haven’t really been there.” He looked at me uncertainly when he found out I had lived in Brescia.
The stunning center of Bergamo was quiet, pristine, fascinating. A long sundial stretches under the arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione, marking the seasons and astrological phases. Across the cobblestones stands the Colleoni Chapel with an ornate trompe l’oeil facade from the 1500s. Inside, Bruno pointed out the coat of arms of Bartolomeo Colleoni: “Notice the three testicles?” The students suddenly paid attention. “Yes, he was a man of three coglioni and so proud of his virility that he put it on his shield.” Indeed, Colleoni likely had a condition of polyorchidism and boasted more than the usual two testes. His deformity became a war cry to scare off less manly neighbors.
Next door to the chapel is Bergamo’s giant duomo, but strangely Bruno was not impressed with his town’s cathedral. Without a hint of irony, he said, “Our duomo could have been a beautiful church, but they used marble from Brescia, so it’s really not so nice.”
Aperitivo in Milano
On Day Two, we took the commuter train into Milan. The Bergamaschi refer to their big-city neighbors as “ciuccia nebbia,” or “fog suckers,” because of the dense fog during the humid winters. Most of my friends from Milan couldn’t care less what their insignificant neighbor thinks of them.
Leonardo da Vinci designed the Bergamo-Milan bridge over the river Adda, but modern engineers have closed it to prevent a collapse. Instead, we clicked smoothly along on a different route into the Lambrate station of Milan. From there, we hopped on a classic tram from the 1930s that residents have insisted their city preserve.
A transportation pass allowed us to hop on and off the confusing network of trams and subways all day. Milan is a working city and not a place to relax, but still my friends Anna and Giovanni took time to show us their city. Pushing into the subway, my friend Anna from Milan pointed out, “At least in New York, they’ll let you get out sometimes!”
The stifling heat topped 100 degrees, and the tepid Italian air conditioning couldn’t compete. For the first time, I saw Italian men in shorts. Most, however, managed to wear sleek suits without a trace of perspiration. “How do they do that?” a student asked admiringly. “We’re dripping with sweat and they stay so cool?”
My students looked in vain for water fountains or other springs to fill up their water bottles. My Italian friends are confused by Americans lugging around giant canteens, so I asked Anna how she stays hydrated in the heat. “I really don’t drink much water,” she replied. Her brother, Giovanni, added, “Why drink water when you can have a negroni?”
We couldn’t handle the heat, so we abandoned our plans to visit the Sforzesco castle and took Giovanni’s advice. We retreated early for the Milanese tradition of the aperitivo, or pre-dinner drink, that has become so overblown with appetizers that it has combined with dinner (or “cena”) for a new Italian word: “apericena.” Just buying a beverage entitles the drinker to a full buffet of Italian treats.
There were 13 of us for apericena and my Italian friends said, “Someone will have to wait outside since this is bad luck.” Instead, we just pulled up an extra chair to calm the superstitious.
We sat down next to the da Vinci-designed Navigli and these canals have small boat tours next to charming pedestrian-only streets with colorful stucco apartments. This was not the Milan I knew when I lived here in the ’90s when it was a thoroughfare of exhaust-spewing cars and kids shooting up heroin in the alleys next to the sewage-filled waterways. One of my charmed students remarked, “Who needs Venice when you have Milan?”
The perfect ending to an apericena is a stroll through the streets with gelato. Milan has no shortage of “artisanal” ice cream parlors trying to outdo each other with the most natural and artistic cones. Giovanni is obsessed with his quest for the best gelato in Milano, but can’t stand the pretentious lengths these gelaterie go to with their “philosophy” to maximize the “culinary experience.”
We sampled cones from a new store, Gelateria Gusto 17, near the castle and noticed the “crema” flavor contained “signed eggs from Paolo Parisi.” The thrilled ice cream scooper showed us a half-dozen eggs costing one euro each that are all personally signed by the chicken owner. She explained that “If designers can put their signature on clothes, why can’t farmers?” I’ll never understand Milan.
Into the ‘pre-Alps’
To escape the scorching heat and commercialism of the big city, we planned a mountain hike led by Chiara, a teacher from Vilminore di Scalve who has taught in Minnesota. She gave the bus driver the route as we wove up valleys by steep cliffs. I was impressed by these enormous mountains, but Chiara corrected me: “Those aren’t mountains, they’re just ‘pre-Alps.’ ” As the bus slowed to a crawl around treacherous switchbacks with the ends of the bus stretching out perilously over thousand-foot cliffs, Chiara finally conceded that “Now these are montagnette [baby mountains].” For Minnesotans used to Buck Hill, the “pre-Alps” around Vilminore delle Scalve are astounding.
Chiara’s friend, our mountaineering guide Maurilio, led us out of the little Alpine town through narrow stone alleyways, past chicken coops and by steep pastures into the forest. Maurilio was older than everyone in the group, but clearly in the best shape. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said one of the students who was used to the “baby mountains” of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Once above the tree line, Maurilio pointed to the peaks in the east: “Bergamo and Brescia have fought over that range for 600 years. Bergamo took it, so the people in Brescia burned down a town, kidnapped people and tortured them.” We looked at the serene slopes and couldn’t imagine why. “Now the line is right down the middle and no one really knows exactly where.”
Our goal was a three-hour tour up to the Gleno Dam, the site of another loss of life when the dam burst in 1923, sending a wall of water through the valley that killed 356 people. Now it’s just a ruin with giant arches that resemble an abandoned Roman aqueduct.
Despite the strenuous trek far up into the mountains — a distance that is a blip on the map — we found a remote little food booth at the top along a mountain stream serving fresh fontina panini with local salami, sausages and cold beer. Maurilio talked to the owner in Bergamasco dialect, and I couldn’t understand a word. Chiara translated into Italian that a helicopter regularly drops off fresh supplies and solar panels provide power to this Alpine outpost. Only in Italy can you hike in remote mountains and then indulge in the best sandwich ever.
San Pellegrino Terme
The day after our mountain hike, the students were ready to relax, so we drove to the famous springs at San Pellegrino. Everyone was familiar with the beverages, but the town’s fame spread originally because of the “terme,” or spa, where visitors from around the world relax in the waters. I mostly wanted to see the fantastic Liberty-style, art nouveau buildings.
Once in my bathrobe and flip-flops, I expected just hot tubs and pools. Instead, I pulled out my notebook to jot down all the overblown descriptions for “your quest” to “meet your wellness.” It began with the “Olfactory Path” of little squirt bottles of essential oils in which “Each scent awakens memories, suggestions and unexpected emotions.”
The fragrances continued in the “Thermal Course” with the “Zen Bath,” the Chinotto steam room, and the Linden Sauna that boasted, “peppermint, lemons of Sicily, grapefruit of the Mediterranean, and elderflower” in this “champagne of mineral baths!” I was intrigued by the “Hortus Salt Room” that smelled like bergamot and cedar with orange salt bricks and stacks of sticks with dripping water forming moist salt icicles. More confusing was the “Hay Sauna” with a bushel of hay in a rack, perhaps to cure — or exacerbate — hay fever.
To cool down, I stopped in the “Ice Room … inspired by cryotherapy principles” with old wooden skis and snowshoes hung on the wall. This struck me as a Minnesotan garage, or essentially a large cooler and not even as cold as the average American grocery store.
After all these hot-cold baths and saunas, some of the students peeked into the “Relaxing Wool Lounge” where “Fiber after fiber intertwine your wellness” because of the great textile tradition of Bergamo. New Age music and French piano sonatas were piped in as visitors dozed and cuddled on wool cots and chairs. “What’s with the spooning?” one of the students asked. “Did you see those couples half naked and those others under the blanket?”
“When in Rome … ” another student shrugged.
The spa had no clocks, so we lost track of time. As I was finally wrangling the overly relaxed students out the door and onto the bus, the receptionist asked, “Wait! Aren’t you staying for the aperitivo?” She explained that the entrance fee to the spa included an “aperitivo in bathrobe.” I thought the terme was supposed to cure from alcohol and overindulgence, but she replied, “Is that really so decadent? Why not?”
We piled onto the bus anyway. Back in Bergamo when the cool evening arrived, we took the funicular up the steep train tracks back to the Città Alta for an outdoor festival along the castle walls overlooking the entire valley. The smell of jasmine flowers filled the air and mixed in with the two-stroke exhaust of Vespas. After orange Aperol spritz drinks to beat the heat, we perused the food vendors selling local gelato alla stracciatella and casoncelli, a stuffed fresh pasta topped with butter, sage and speck.
I asked my students where they’ll visit if they come back to Italy. “Definitely Bergamo,” John replied. “I feel like we just scratched the surface.”
Eric Dregni is a professor at Concordia University, St. Paul, dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, and author of “Never Trust a Thin Cook” and “You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches From Summer Camp.”