24 September 2006
alta and bassa
Following our tradition of treating weekends as an opportunity to explore... yesterday we took the train to Bergamo, a bi-level city about one hour from Milano. We were treated to a gray hazy day, with clouds that hovered low but never quite got around to raining. It was chilly though and both of us, at times, lamented the fact that we had dressed for summer rather than fall. (May I also add, hallelujah for fall! Summer in Italy is no laughing matter.)
Bergamo has a lower section and an upper section. The lower section, Bergamo Bassa, is the modern part of the city where the office buildings and cars congregate. Bergamo Alta is the medieval walled section, about 1200 feet up, which is reached by funicular or steep path. Despite starting our Bergamo visit off with frothy cups of cappuccino and a fair amount of energy, I have to admit to taking the funicular. A good deal at 1 euro, it's also worth pondering exactly how such a thing works as it smoothly climbs the hillside in its own tunnel. (There's a cable running along the ground, and it appears to be pulling the funicular car up along the track but I digress...) No matter how it works, it is apparently "bellissima" which is what the kids who scrambled over us and into the prime viewing spots kept saying. We played the role of mature adults and refrained from informing the children that we had gotten there first and therefore deserved an unencumbered view.
Sitting on high, Bergamo Alta is quaint and charming and has all of the little touches that people like about quaint Italian towns. There are balconies with detailed iron work, flowering plants pouring out of windows, cobblestone streets, breadshops churning out piles of pastries and bread loaves as large as end tables.
There is also a cake for which Bergamo is specifically known. We tried it for the first time when friends who were staying with us took a day trip to Bergamo and returned with one; we liked it then and we like it now. The cake is called "Polenta e osei" and is made to look like a freshly molded polenta being sampled by a few bold "osei," aka birds. On the inside there are layers of apricot preserves and almond paste and light airy cake and a little chocolate cream. It's very sweet and in its petite way is a bit of a charmer. We bought one for us and one for the man who watches the entry gate to our building. It's hard to leave Bergamo with only one.
The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the famous sites in Bergamo Alta and for good reason. On the interior it's fairly striking with the entire ceiling covered in the excess artifice for which Baroque style is known. Cherubs and angels and every kind of gilt ornamentation is spread thickly along the vaulted ceilings. It may be garishly gaudy in the eyes of some, and glorious to others - I fall somewhere in the middle, wondering exactly how the builders of this large church managed to not only construct the ceiling but also cover it with an absurd amount of accessories in the process.
When you're in Bergamo Alta, there's another funicular you can take to reach a still higher part of town featuring an old castle. It's more of a park with the feel of a castle than an honest to goodness castle but on a clear day it's supposed to boast the best view in town. We had a good view of the clouds. There was also a very cool piece of art that at first glance looked like a sundial. Its real purpose is to indicate in which direction various towns and monuments lie. There are guiding lines that lead in the direction of a little mountain range you might have heard of called the Alps and a city that we have a passing familiarity with by the name of Milano. Again, had it been a clear day this tool might have worked a little better but it's the thought that counts.
We took the funicular back down to Bergamo Alta - first level - and found a great place to eat. When we first walked in it looked a little empty. But after we made our way to the outdoor seating area we found quite a crowd settled in under the grapevines, next to the bocce ball courts. The pasta we ordered was good, (I had pear and cheese ravioli) and the grilled polenta was great. But I have to admit that the game of bocce ball that started up late into our meal was the highlight of the dining experience. But more on that in another entry. After all, I'd hate to shortchange a game I know nothing about, played by old men drinking beer and wielding large sticks with chalk on the end.
So for now we'll just celebrate the joys of little cakes that look like polenta. And slabs of grilled polenta eaten under a ceiling of grapevines. And cobblestone streets and garish church ceilings. And funiculars. Lots and lots of funiculars.