Ancient history, opulent churches and the grand-daddy of gelatos are highlights of Lombardy’s exciting urban centres
You might recognise the names Bergamo and Brescia from the first wave of European lockdowns in 2020. Struck hard by the pandemic, they belong to the Italian region of Lombardy, labelled a ‘red zone’ during that difficult period.
Three years on, the cities have transformed their hardship into hope. Recognising their shared struggle, the neighbours – they’re less than an hour’s drive apart – joined forces to earn the title of Italian Capital of Culture 2023.
The joint honour is a first in the country where, since 2015, the annual prize has boosted social and economic growth from Palermo to Perugia.
Bergamo and Brescia’s bid focused on four key themes, but it was the idea of ‘culture as a cure’ that really impressed the judges.
Conveniently connected, the two cities are ideal for a twin-centre break. Here’s how the arts, food and architecture are unlocking a brighter future for locals and tourists alike…
Brescia was known as Brixia by the Romans, and its archaeological sites could easily rival some of the Italian capital’s most popular ancient landmarks.
Entering the restored Capitolium of Brixia, there’s a five-minute delay designed to regulate moisture in the air and stop the atmosphere outside contaminating two-thousand-year-old mosaics and statues inside.
After examining a series of inscriptions, I’m confronted with the main event – the Winged Victory, a statue dating back to the 1st century AD. The figure was found fractured into thousands of pieces and painstakingly pieced together for guests to admire today.
The winged female’s empty arms would have held a bronze shield displaying the name of a proud victor, and the discovery of the bronze figure prompted the city to open its first museum in 1830.
Next to the Capitolium, you’ll find the Roman Theatre – but the real showstopper is at the other end of a corridor.
New for 2023, the path connects the Capitolium and Roman Theatre to Santa Giulia Museum, which is home to the remains of large Roman villas. A raised walkway allows me to peer into a pokey 2000-year-old kitchen, and I’m surprised to discover there wasn’t more room for preparing the lavish banquets associated with the Romans.
Entry to the Capitolium and Santa Giulia Museum (bresciamusei.com) costs €15 for adults and €8 for over 65 and under 26.
I make my way to La Citta Alta, or Bergamo’s Upper City, as a passenger on a tuk tuk. The driver’s narrow handlebars almost graze the maze of medieval walls around us, while my local city guide narrates on our surroundings.
“And if you look to your right, you’ll see where chocolate-chip ice cream was invented,” he says.
That’s all the persuasion I need to head in and try the grandad of gelatos for myself. The Pasticceria, or pastry shop, stands on a winding road with a shaded outdoor area, benches, and an unlit firepit with views of the Atalanta football stadium in the distance.
Travelling between the modern lower town and historic upper town is an event in itself. For locals, the most practical way to get between the two is using the funicolare (funicular). In operation since 1887, the public transport system carries passengers in carriages on a steep incline with views over converted farmhouses and imported palm trees.
Single tickets cost €1.50, while a daily ticket costing €4 covers local buses too.
The fully pedestrianised upper town oozes old-world charm. Wrought-iron balconies draped in plants are dotted across buildings overlooking piazzas filled with pizzerias and cafes. More than half of locals own a dog too, so you’re never far from petting a pooch while you sink your teeth into a slice of fresh pizza.
I’m told to come back in June to see the city at its best. Donizetti by Night is a series of more than 100 shows celebrating the life of one of Bergamo’s most loved exports, the highly revered classical composer Gaetano Donizetti.
The party is set to spill out onto the streets between June 3-4, and will be followed by the city’s Opera Festival, June 9-10, another chance to join in the musical fun across more than 70 public and private venues.
The Church of Santa Maria in the province of Bergamo may look unassuming from the outside, but no trip to the village of Lovere is complete without stepping inside. The towering columns and curved vault are revealed in dramatic fashion as I enter the basilica in darkness. It’s only after my guide switches on the lights that I am able to appreciate its beauty.
The Church of the Good Shepherd in Brescia has a similar effect on onlookers. As I make my way to lunch on the final day of my trip, my guide casually advises me to look inside. The Baroque altar inside is one of the most magnificent pieces of craftmanship I’ve ever seen, a collection of columns, statues and colours that will live long in my memory. It’s not a large church but the details that adorn its dome and walls have to be seen to be believed.
Not all of Lombardy’s holy buildings are quite so modest from the outside. In Bergamo, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the neighbouring Colleoni Chapel grab your attention from the moment you step onto Piazza Vecchia or the Old Square. My view from Campanone, the city’s tallest tower, might be the best of them all. You can enjoy the same vista of the Old Town for €5.
There’s something about Lombardy’s location at the foot of the Alps that makes the region a gastro goldmine. In the valleys surrounding Bergamo, nine of Italy’s 50 DOPs, or ‘Protected Designations of Origin’, can be found.
The title is given to areas where foods are produced using traditional methods and to the highest standards. Here, the local herdsmen produce cheeses that, by definition, cannot be me made anywhere else. It’s no surprise that the city is considered the European Capital of Cheese.
Bù Cheese BAR (Via Monte S. Michele, 1) is just moments from an 18th century opera house and the perfect spot to sample Bergamo’s finest produce. The cheeses on my plate are arranged like a clockface, where every hour is formaggio o’clock. I sample two DOP varieties, the Formai de Mut, or ‘mountain cheese’, and the Strachitunt, which my host introduces as the ‘Father of Gorgonzola’.
If it’s a ‘sit-down meal’ you’re after, Il Colmetto (ilcolmetto.it), a few minutes outside Brescia in Rodengo-Saiano, serves a refined menu made from the freshest ingredients, provided by its residents. The 200-plus goats at the back of the sun-drenched restaurant provide everything from ice cream to cheeses and the lightest butter I’ve ever tasted.
The risotto is the real talking point, a light concoction topped with burnt goat’s milk and black lemon, a combination of flavours unlike anything I’ve tried before. A tasting menu of 10 dishes will set you back €70.
For more information visit bergamobrescia2023.it/en