Bergamo is a city with a population of around 100, 000 people in the north east of Italy.
I booked a return flight there but not because I had any interest in the place.
It was purely a matter of convenience: a useful place from which to travel to the mountains in the north east of Italy, where I planned to spend three weeks walking.
My flight from Rotterdam didn’t get into Bergamo until late afternoon.
I booked three nights in an apartment there in order to give me plenty of time to familiarize myself with the bus and train stations – at the other end of town – which I would need in order to leave as well as return Bergamo.
So in short, I made no effort to familiarise myself with Bergamo and its history before I left Rotterdam. I focused instead on the walking trails in the mountains.
From the minute the taxi I took from the airport arrived near the centre of Bergamo I was impressed by what I saw, indeed, doubly so, given how little I knew about the place.
The first sight that greeted my eyes was a walled town up on top of a hill, a series of high ramparts and walls and within them a separate historic town – which I later discovered was listed as a UNESCO listed historic site.
The taxi dropped me off at a set of traffic lights; I got out and stared for a while at the town on the hill, then head to my lodgings which took me down a wide mall; my apartment it turned out was near the intersection of two malls – both of them lined with beautiful historic buildings and churches, along with small shops and boutiques. It was hard to believe my luck and as it transpired, this was just the beginning. Bergamo was a beautiful city and it was a fine introduction to Italy underlining this country’s utterly unique historic heritage, against which most other nations in Europe (and especially the Scandinavian nations which I had visited before flying to Italy) paled in comparison. On top of that of course were the Italians themselves with their joi de vivre as well as their sing song language.
After spending a day visiting the bus and train stations and booking a bus trip to the town of Edolo in the mountains, I spent a day just wandering around Bergamo, leastways the lower, larger version of that city.
On the second day I visited the walled town, a walk of a half hour through up a narrow lane which later became a cobble stone road.
The walled town on the hill I discovered was built during the 15th century, a period of Italian history characterised by constant wars between rival city states, the most powerful – as well as some of the wealthiest and largest in Europe – including Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples and Rome. Between these city states was a constantly shifting balance of power. Rival interests were decided by force of arms. Wars were almost natural state of affairs and periods of peace merely interludes to recover and re-arm. This was the setting in which Machiavelli wrote his famous book ‘The Prince’ in which he explored the realities of power politics beneath the veneer of religious, ethical or moral claims in a way which was unique for its stark, analytical, tone. To this day, The Prince if an oft sited work in discussions about international politics.
Within the sphere of interest of these powerful city states were smaller cities; the original Bergamo, i.e. the historic Bergamo on the hill belonged to the Venetian power bloc. The walls and ramparts surrounding were built by the Venetians and systematically over the years modified and strengthened, as advances in weapons made enemy sieges a constant threat.
Then a time came when foreign forces appeared on the scene – first the French led by Napoleon and later the Austrians, occupying the North of Italy and effectively ending the era of the city states. The French introduced a civic code applicable to all and the Austrians completed the process of modernisation with a frenetic building campaign including the construction of railways, roads and infrastructure. These foreign occupations ironically laid the basis for their own demise by preparing the way for something never seen before in Italy: a national identity transcending local and regional rivalries. The old Bergamo on the hill hailed from the age of Machievelli; the ‘newer’ Bergamo with its wealth of elegant buildings, from the 18th and 19th century when the Austrians ruled the roost. In the late 19th century, the founder of the modern Italian state, Garibaldi waged a war of independence against the Austrians and they were eventually evicted. A new nation was born – but the birth of modern Italy unfolded in the north and not the south which had never been occupied by the French and the Austrians, but rather by chaos and opportunistic invasions by a motely list of pirates and adventurers. In these antecedents lay a looming divergence between the north and south of Italy which persists to this day.
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