Thursday, 7 September 2017

Bergamo e Como:Montagne, laghi, e duomo.

My nephew Daniel generously bought me a ticket to attend this year's Italian GP in Monza. Touched by this gesture I decided we'd spin a week's holiday out of it and visit a couple of places in and around Monza first. I'd been in Lombardy in the summer of 2014 and hadn't got round to seeing either Bergamo or Lake Como and as the Ryanair flight I booked landed in Bergamo I thought that'd be a wonderful place to start our adventure. It looked beautiful on Google Images.

Except the adventure started much sooner. I met Daniel on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon, coincidentally my birthday (I'd barely had a chance to recover from the Cambridge weekend), in a Paddington station full of Reading Festival and Carnival attendees (two events I've greatly enjoyed in the past) and we took the tube to Liverpool Street before boarding a train to Bishop's Stortford.

On buying some socks in the Bishop's Stortford's branch of M&S I remarked that it'd take some pretty amazing holiday to top that. Luckily I think we managed it. We had a couple of drinks in Bishop's Stortford and Daniel treated me to a birthday Indian in Shadhona (in which I found out he doesn't like poppadoms, what's wrong with him!?) before we took a cab from a very grotty taxi office to the Travelodge. The driver asked where we going and when I told him Italy he asked if we were 'going the whole hog'. I said I didn't understand the question and he grumbled that I didn't know what the whole hog meant. I did. It just had no context. He was an odd man.

The Travelodge was perfectly pleasant, perched on the Essex/Hertfordshire border with rabbits scampering around in the grass. We printed out our Ryanair boarding cards (with some difficulty, I am something of a technophobe), got our early morning alarm call and got another cab to Stansted. The plane, ever so slightly delayed, flew in to Bergamo over the Alps. They were immense and stunning and the sight of Bergamo as we descended was none too shabby either. From Bergamo airport we took an autobus to the station and a cab to the airbnb where Rafaelle met us to explain how it all worked. It, and he, both seemed nice enough. The room was clean, well decorated etc; and it had one bed and a sofa. Daniel got the bed and this old man slept on the sofa.

Freshened up we headed out immediately. We ascended some steep cobbled streets to the Citta Alta (Bergamo is kind of split in two with the higher city being the chief tourist attraction). I dropped my phone against one of the city walls and slightly smashed the screen but that was soon forgotten as we sat in the splendid Piazza Vecchia (according to Le Corbusier 'the most beautiful square in Europe' and, noticeably, nothing like anything he ever came up with) looking in awe at the Palazzo della Ragione and the Torre Civica (which narrowly escaped being melted down by the Germans during World War II) and snacking on pizza slices.

In the nearby Piazza del Duomo we had our first taste of Italian ice cream. Daniel was not, at any point, being budged from his choice of flavour. Double chocolate every time. The noises he was making while eating this particular one were nothing short of orgasmic. I was glad I could see him or I'd be wondering what he was up to.
They were, as all our gelati was, delicious though. Of course, they were. We were in Italy. Piazza del Duomo has three religious buildings lined up next to each other. Each one more spectacular than the last. The Duomo itself is less impressive than Santa Maria Maggiore but Cappella Colleoni tops them both. Described in The Rough Guide to Italy as 'an extravagant confection of pastel-coloured marble carved into an abundance of miniature arcades, balustrades, and twisted columns, capped with a mosque-like dome'. As you enter the building you can rub the supposedly biologically accurate third brass 'testicle' of Colleoni (a Bergamo mercenary in the pay of Venice) on his coat of arms for luck. Daniel did just this. Luckily he'd finished oohing and aahing over his ice cream by this point.
We took the funicular railway down to Bergamo Bassa (the lower town), bought a phone charger, and headed back 'home' for a rest before heading out again for the evening. Taking the funicular back up to Bergamo Alta again we took aperitifs in Piazza Vecchia (the local tradition is to bring out a lot of free snacks when someone orders a drink, you could probably skip dinner altogether if you wished) and watched the sun go down as people and dogs milled around the square.

My Rough Guide recommended Cooperativa Citta Alta for dinner so we gave it a go. A side alley led to an unpromising doorway where we were ushered in a beautiful and busy (but not hectic) garden. After a tasty starter of goats cheese with fruit jams Dan had a pizza but I felt emboldened to try the local 'buckwhat polenta with melted local cheese and porcini mushrooms'. It tasted a lot better than it looked.
I certainly wasn't keen on trying any of their craft beers. Not least because the selection included the 9% lager Tennent's Super which has quite a different reputation in the UK. I stuck to the wine. I think I did the right thing.


A couple more drinks and some sport on TV back in our digs and we were dead to the world. Only to be woken by some noisy builders in the morning. To be fair it was 8am and we had stuff to do. We packed up, took a long hot walk to Bergamo station, had breakfast in a cafe near the station (Dan didn't like the zucchini), and hopped on a train to Como via Monza (a place we'd be seeing a lot more of).


Como was, of course, equally hot. We walked to Piazza Cavour, had another, equally delightful, ice cream, and took a cab to our Airbnb up in the hills. Sabrina, our hostess, was charm personified. She greeted us with water bottles, offers of biscuits, and city maps. The room was compact yet bijou and we both had beds
After a brief lane we descended a lane teeming with lizards towards the lake, passing a fairly decent quality (well, you had to pay to get in and watch it) tennis match, and stopping near the Monumento ai Caduti (a memorial to the dead of World War I) and the Tempo Voltiano (dedicated to Alessandro Volta, a Como man and pioneer in electricity who gave his name to the volt) for drinks.

The views of the lake were spectacular and we walked round it until we found a nice spot for our evening meal. I had gnocchi tricolore (made in the colours of the Italian flag) and Dan gorged on steak as we chatted to Ian and Maureen who were also over for the GP (and had been to see opera in Verona on their way).

The next day we were up bright and early with the plan to either go on a boat trip or take the terrifyingly steep looking funicular railway up the hillside or, hopefully, both. We managed both.
The funicular takes seven minutes to crawl up the hillside to the resort of Brunate where we took brunch. Pizza and beer isn't normally brunch but we were on holiday (and, to be fair, Dan didn't drink any beer, either there or at any point of the holiday).
It was a charming and relaxing spot and the beer gave me confidence for an equally vertiginous descent back to Como where we managed, almost instantly, to jump on a boat in the lake. A non-narrated tour, the boat spent an hour visiting different lakeside villages, picking people up, dropping people off, and splashing us (we sat in the front) rather a lot. The villages were beautiful, the views better still (Dan even looked up from his phone at some points!), but we were soaked by the time we got back on terra firma.

The short walk back to Como station dried us off and we had about ten minutes before the train to Milan (where the second part of the holiday would commence) came in so we got tickets, hopped on it, and felt rather smug with ourselves for managing to do so much in one morning. We probably shouldn't have been so self-satisfied as we were soon to find truth in the old adage that pride comes before a fall. That story is to come in the next, and final, instalment, of this trip to Italy. Ciao for now.

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