An off-piste feast in beautiful Bergamo
David Roy explores the Italian city of Bergamo and its surrounding region, discovering a direct flight vacation with skiing, sightseeing, good food and an abundance of natural beauty
WHEN Ryanair offered me the chance to visit Milan, I couldn't say "si grazie" quick enough. After all, who wouldn't want to spend a few days absorbing that oh-so fashionable northern Italian city, with its abundance of high-end restaurants, designer shopping and beautiful architecture?
However, then I read the email more closely: "Educational tour of Bergamo, San Pellegrino and the ski resorts of the area."
My enthusiasm wavered. I'd heard of San Pellegrino – big fan of their carbonated beverages – but 'Bergamo'? Was that Italian for 'Milan'?
Actually, it's 'Ryanair' for Milan: The budget Irish carrier's European hub is based at Orio Al Serio International Airport just outside Bergamo, a city 40km northeast of Milan and 30km from the ever popular Lake Como.
Michael O'Leary's airline cannily refer to their Euro-base as 'Milan Bergamo', now accessible via direct flights from both Belfast International and Dublin Airport.
Located in the Lombardy region, Bergamo has been traditionally sold as a budget skiing destination: 130 slopes are on offer across various resorts in the nearby Bergamask Mountains, all within easy driving distance. However, the region also has plenty to offer non-skiers who fancy a cheap food, drink and culture-packed break.
With a population of around 120,000, Bergamo itself is a 'split level' city: the Venetian walled upper town, 'Citta Alta', is situated on a hillside above the more modernised commercial and business district, 'Citta Bassa', offering panoramic views of the region beyond.
Pleasingly for the first-time tourist, the direct Airport Bus service to Bergamo (buses depart every 20 minutes, tickets priced from €2.30) terminates at the funicular train station from which you can access the 128-year-old hill-side rail link between the two levels.
Grab yourself a free city map from the Turismo Bergamo office in the airport arrivals hall before you set off and you'll be ready to go exploring.
Caffe della Funicolare at the train station has a terrace boasting terrific views of the city below, making it an ideal spot to get your bearings over a quick espresso.
Citta Alta offers an abundance of cobbled medieval streets lined with quirky independent boutiques and traders operating from premises which have retained their historic features – in some cases, you can actually view the ancient foundations on display beneath special perspex floors as you browse your way toward the 'heart' of the upper town, Piazza Vecchia.
This large plaza is lined with cafes and restaurants, making it something of a social hub. With the ornate Contarini Fountain at its centre, Piazza Vecchia is home to Bergamo's former town hall, Palazzo Nuovo, now the archive of the Angelo Mai Library, while the 52m tall Campanone bell-tower offers a bird's eye views of the city and surrounding valleys.
The nearby Piazza Duomo will reward visitors of faith with the opportunity to take in Bergamo's religious core: a grand cathedral which actually features two churches in one – Duomo Bergamo and Sant'Alessandro Cathedral – and the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica.
During our visit to Citta Alta, we lunched in the family owned Mimmo, the city's oldest pizzeria which has earned an excellent reputation while serving its trademark PDO Margherita and other tasty locally sourced traditional food over the past 60 years.
However, there's no shortage of eating options: quaint cafe/restaurant La Marianna offers a superb selection of local sweet treats, while gastronomes won't want to miss the funky bistro Mille Storie e Sapori in the lower town with its modern twists on classic Italian dishes and dangerously extensive wine list – be sure to try a glass or six of the delicious local Valcalepio red and/or white.
Accommodation-wise, the four star Hotel Excelsior San Marco (standard double rooms from €99) is conveniently situated in Citta Bassa near the funicular and features an elegant rooftop restaurant and bar with a great view.
Those wishing to strike out beyond Bergamo itself have a range of worthwhile options for day-trips or overnight stays.
The charming town of Sarnico is just over half-an-hour to the east. Situated on the Oglio River where it feeds into Lake Iseo, it's well worth a visit: there you'll find yet more winding streets lined with quaint shops, historic churches, long waterside walks and art exhibitions in the Bellini Museum, plus great food at 40-58 Pasta & Co.
We stayed in the four star Cocca Hotel (double rooms from €134) in nearby Predore, which boasts superb views of the lake and Monte Isola plus a Royal Thai Spa ideal for relaxation.
Slightly further afield (50km north of Bergamo) and nestled among the forest-covered Orobie Mountains in the Seriana Valley area lies the sleepy medieval town of Clusone, home of the world's oldest working astronomical clock – four centuries and counting, it was designed by local maths wiz Pietro Fanzago.
Visitors can also enjoy an abundance of religious fresco-adorned buildings (don't miss the Disciplini Oratory) and some stunning views from the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta in the late afternoon sun. The town even has its very own summer jazz festival.
Skiers can get some snow time on the slopes of the nearby Presolana and Monte Pora ski resorts: the latter features two massive reservoirs to ensure there is always snow for the start of the season on December 8 and is worth visiting just to have a delicious pasta lunch at the Baita Termen lodge, where you can load up on carbs, cheese and wine while taking in spectacular mountain views.
Check out Presolanaholidays.com and Presolanamontepora.it for the lowdown on a ski-break in this region and be advised that the wonderful four star alpine-style Hotel Milano (double rooms from €180) in Castione della Presolana would make a modern, luxurious base.
And, if you're heading into the lush green locale of the Brembana Valley – home to the region's biggest ski resort, Foppolo (Bremboski.it) – be sure to visit the time-warp medieval hamlet of Cornello dei Tasso.
Situated on a spur overlooking the Brembo River and accessible by foot only (there's a car park a short walk away), this unassuming location is where the modern postal service and taxi were first 'invented'.
The lovely art noveau town of San Pellegrino Terme is just 25km from Bergamo and also well worth checking out for a neck craning gawp around its grand former casino and perhaps a restorative dip in the thermal baths at the adjacent wellness centre.
These make good use of the town's world-famous spring water – you can sample this from drinking fountains in the street, while the folks at craft beer bar Birrificio Via Priula will be happy to supply a stronger local tipple.
Whatever else you do, be sure to at least make a pit-stop at Argiturismo Ferdy in Lenna (33km north of Bergamo), a dog-friendly family operated farmhouse haven offering cosy lodgings, outdoorsy activites like trekking, horse-riding and mountain biking, its own wellness centre using products made in-house and out-of-this-world organic cooking.
This rustic gem is a real jewel in Bergamo's crown, and just one of the many reasons why you probably won't give boring old Milan a second thought while enjoying a trip to this beautiful region of Italy which is now more easily accessible than ever.
- David Roy travelled to Bergamo from Belfast International with Ryanair. Flight time is two hours and thirty-five minutes, departing Wednesday and returning Saturday. Return flights from Belfast in February are priced from £29.98 via Ryanair.ie.
- Bergamo: Hotelsanmarco.com/en/
- Predore: Coccahotel.com/en/
- Castione della Presolana: Hotelmilano.com/en/
- Visitbergamo.net/en offers a comprehensive guide to the Bergamo area.