I took a couple of side trips during my recent visit to Milan and one of those was to Bergamo, a city that sits at the foothills of the Bergamasque Alps and is only a 1 hour train ride away.
The charming city – which feels a lot more like a town! – made an immediate impression upon me. Just a few minutes into my walk of the Old Town, I was already fawning over the warm pastel walls, the weathered shutters, and the clay coloured roof tiles. It’s as picturesque an Italian town as you could ask for. However, what surprised me about the town is that only 4% of visitors who fly into Bergamo airport actually explore the city! Visitors race off to Milan or Lake Como, and the magic of Bergamo itself goes by unnoticed.
So today, I’m going to try to shine a little bit of light on this town because as it turns out, there are many fascinating tales and a whole lot of places to explore here. Now let’s get started!
Touring Malpaga Castle in costume
You’d think I would’ve had my fill of castles after travelling around Ireland and Northern Ireland just a few weeks prior, but when I heard about Castello di Malpaga, which is located just 10 kilometres outside of Bergamo, my ears perked up. An Italian castle in the countryside, you say? Why, yes, I’d love to visit!
Malpaga Castle has quite the reputation because at one point it was home to Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary soldier who earned great wealth and great power fighting other people’s battles. He had so many people after his life that he slept seated so that he would be ready to leap up and fight, he also slept in a room without a chimney lest an intruder try to sneak in at night, and he had a group of food tasters to sample his meals and ensure they hand’t been poisoned.
Colleoni even went to great lengths to intimidate those approaching his castle; Castello di Malpaga only has one real watch tower, but Colleoni had 3 additional fake towers built so that anyone looking for a fight would think that he was well prepared for battle.
And now here’s some trivia for you – when you visit Malpaga Castle you’ll come across the Colleoni coat of arms which appears to bear figs. Those are not figs. Because the name Colleoni sounds similar to coglioni (that’s Italian for testicles), Bartolomeo decided that his family coat of arms would showcase three testicles. Why three, you ask? Because that’s how many he supposedly had, and he was quite proud of them. Now you can impress your castle guide before they beat you to the punch line. You’re welcome.
Taking an Italian cooking class
After having a few days to familiarize ourselves with Italian cuisine, it was time to get in the kitchen and learn to make some Italian food for ourselves. For this cooking class, we joined Foodlab 3.0 who decided to run the lesson in the above mentioned castle – yes!
On the menu that day we had beef tartare as an entree, pumpkin ravioli as our main, and tiramisu for dessert. The first thing we learned was the importance of starting with the dishes that take longest to prepare, so that meant we began with dessert and worked our way backwards. From there we moved on to the ravioli, where we made everything from scratch – that included preparing the pasta and rolling it out, as well as chopping and cooking the pumpkins for the filling. And lastly it was time to prepare the tartare, which I skipped out on because I don’t like to eat raw meat.
Then came my favourite part – actually eating the meal we had prepared with our own hands, and yes, it tasted all the better for it. Plus we got to dine in one of the castle rooms where we were surrounded by centuries old frescoes.
Drinking Moscato di Scanzo
I’ve been doing more wine tours lately (my palate is finally acquiring a taste for it!) and this one took place in a really cool setting.
For this wine tasting, we visited the home of the Pagnoncelli Folcieri family, who have a family run vineyard and are well known for their production of Moscato di Scanzo. Their Moscato is a red wine with a nice sweetness to it and a wealth of aromas.
During our tour of the winery, we got to see the grapes that had been recently picked, go down into their cellar where they have a collection of wines that dates back several decades, and lastly, we got to tour their beautiful home. The Pagnoncelli Folcieri house has been in the family for generations and it almost felt like walking into a museum – a cozy museum. The ceilings were hand painted and depicted scenes with mythological characters, their furniture was of a dark and robust wood, and when their windows swung open you were treated to views of lush gardens and mountain peaks off in the distance. Not a bad place to call home!
For this tasting, we focused on one wine alone – the Moscato di Scanzo – but we paired it with different accompaniments. After swirling the wine in our glasses, looking at the colour, smelling the scents, and tasting it on its own, we tried pairing it with dark chocolate, biscuits, and cheese to see what we thought it went best with.
It was a very casual session and we had a lot of fun going around the table and sharing what flavours and aromas we thought were coming through in the wines – some insisted it was cherries and wild berries, while others thought it had stronger hints of chocolate and fruit cake.
The only thing to keep in mind if you do decide to visit this winery, is that because it’s a small family-run endeavour, bookings need to be made in advance through their website.
Exploring the town of Bergamo on foot
Bergamo is the perfect size to cover on foot, especially if you’re only focusing on the Old Town. Because of the city’s proximity to the airport and the number of day-visitors who come in, the city’s tourism office has actually done a really good job of creating half-day and full-day itineraries that travellers can use to navigate the city on their own, so you can pick one up in the town if you don’t really know where to start.
I began my tour of Bergamo at the recently re-opened Accademia Carrara, which is an art gallery displaying works by famed Italian artists like Pisanello, Botticelli, Raphael, and Canaletto, just to name a few. The museum got its start when local aristocrat Giacomo Carrara constructed a building to house his extensive collection of paintings and the project grew from there.
I then continued on to the Old Town to visit the Colleoni Chapel, which is named after the same Colleoni I mentioned earlier and bears the same unique coat of arms. (Told you this guy made quite the name for himself!) Other attractions in the area included Piazza Vecchia, and a myriad of churches like Santa Maria Maggiore, Duomo di Bergamo, and San Michele al Pozzo Bianco. However, if you ask me, the best way to enjoy Bergamo is to just wander around without much of an agenda – follow the narrow lanes, stop at the little family-run shops, and admire the architecture all around you.
Trying Bergamo’s polenta e osei
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a proper visit to Bergamo without trying some of the local specialties, and that is why after eating our fill of risotto, ravioli, and panacotta, Sam and I went in search of more dessert. But this is also where things got a little lost in translation…
It turns out that Bergamo is known for a dish called polenta e osei, which translated from the local dialect means ‘polenta with bird’. We thought we were looking for a polenta-based dessert, but no one told us that Bergamo has 2 different dishes with the same name – talk about confusing!
If you’re looking for something savoury, you can order the polenta e osei, which is a dish made with real polenta and has a small bird cooked inside, or, if you’re looking for something sweet you can order a dessert by the same name that looks like polenta but is really cake with a chocolate bird placed on top. We were thoroughly confused when we bit into our dessert and found that it had no polenta in it despite it’s name. Something to know before you go.
And that’s a wrap for my short visit to Bergamo. If you’re ever catching a flight into Bergamo, a quick detour into the city may be something you want to consider.
Have you been to Bergamo?
What did you think?