We left at 7:30am sharp for Bergamo on our way to Milan. Of all the towns we stopped in, Bergamo was my favorite. I think it’s absolutely under-rated and I kind of want to keep it that way- god help me if I come back and it’s as crowded as St. Mark’s Square in Venice.
To get into old-town Bergamo required some bus gymnastics. All forty or so of us leaned forward in our seats as Giuseppe hooked sharp turns up the hill with absolute ease. The real show (and it was a show- he loved every nail-biting second of it and totally show-boated) was getting through the massive Porta Sant’Alessandro. The Citta Alta of Bergamo lies strategically at the top of a hill in the Bergamo Alps in Lombardy. A historically very wealthy region, Bergamo’s old town was protected by tall stone walls and archways. And one particular archway – Porta Sant’Alessandro- we had to creep our way through. As everyone on the bus made a singular “Eeeeeehhhhh” sound of discomfort and awe, Giuseppe, with a calm panache and a mischievous grin, rolled us through the gate with two inches to spare on either side of our bus.
Once within the city walls, we disembarked and formed our usual duckling line, following our Dear Leader across cobblestones and through archway after archway. In Piazza Vecchia we stopped near the refurbished Middle Ages fountain. Stone gargoyles stood in a circle spewing water from their faintly animal-esque mouths. In between, serpents twisted up to hold large chains between their fangs. “It creeps me out,” my mom stated.
“Really? I kind of like it.”
“You always like creepy things.”
Touché. We were let loose with a few gestures in each direction. Shops this way. Bathroom that way. Best bakery over there. Churches and so on. A light mist began to fall deepening the color of the red and yellow marble and grey sandstone. As everyone charged for the churches, we headed in the opposite direction.
The cobblestone streets were narrowed and lined with elegantly painted entryways for smart little shops. Glossy hunter greens, navies, and eggplants coated their carved door frames with scrolling ironwork protecting glass transoms overhead.
In a knitting shop, we bought watercolors of the city. A few doors down, we picked up tiny leather shoes in cherry red. We passed pizza shops selling slabs of dough crisped to order and topped with salmon, sliced potatoes, peppers, slivers of lemon and chevre- a Willy Wonka of pizza every few feet.
Further down was a small pottery shop. “Everything is made in house,” the owner announced. “I throw the porcelain and glaze it. And then I hand paint all the patterns.” She smiled and disappeared into the back to continue her work. We were surrounded by cafe au lait bowls, creamers, lamps, and large teapots. I considered a tea set in delicate blue flowers before realizing the dilemma of carting everything home. My mother inspected a set of coasters and tumblers with a modern interpretation of Bergamo’s cityscape in burnt umber, deep muddy earth tones, cheery yellows, and pops of red. I settled on a small creamer in blue flowers. While traditional, it somehow felt like something I’d grow into. Something I’d see years later and put tiny buttercups in and have sitting on my kitchen windowsill. Something that would make me smile in the morning. Sometimes I find things like this take a while to appreciate- a little like getting a very old fashioned glass sugar bowl from a relative. At first it seems a bit stodgy and then comforting and then cheering.
Creamer in tow, we wandered through semi-private courtyards spilling over with greenery, stopping to pay homage to the world’s crankiest bathroom attendant (I don’t blame him…), before making it to Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
Normally, I don’t care about churches. On the one hand, I appreciate the time and effort poured into creating these buildings but on the other, the cynic in me sees it all as a bit of a waste. I think of all the other things we could have done, the money given by people who didn’t have it, the reasons for giving it, the arm twisting, the abuses…and then I try to just enjoy it. Because they’re beautiful. And nobody likes a Debby Downer.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore has a gorgeous checkered exterior in golden and red stone, capped with sandstone accents. The interior is coated in oil paintings and plaster frescos. Tapestries flow across the room, hanging with their funny animal faces and floppy human feet. Beneath them, at the altar, were inlaid burl wood panels featuring Biblical stories. Across the room were porticos and exterior doors crafted from solid panels of burl wood. I’ve been drug through a lot of churches and cathedrals- so far, only this one and a few in Spain (which kinda sorta don’t count since they used to be mosques…) caught me dumbfounded.
All churched-out and slack-jawed, we made our way back to the square. It was breakfast time. Gelateria Pasticceria Dei Mille had come highly recommended and for good reason. We loaded up on pistachio cannolis with soft ricotta and orange liqueur, Crostata di Fruta Secca- a custard tart with nuts and dried fruits, and, best of all: their polenta cakes.
Look, I can see your face. Or imagine it anyway. You’re thinking, “Polenta cake? Really?” REALLY. Rounds of soft polenta cake soaked in sweetened rum, covered with layers of marzipan and chocolate hazelnut frosting, formed into a dome and coated with sugared marzipan with a little bird on top. If ever there was an excuse for cake for breakfast (and let’s face it- there is always an excuse) Polenta e Osei is it.
Up next: Milan!