Forty kilometres northeast of Milan, and infinitely better value in holiday terms, nestles the fascinating city of Bergamo. Dating back to pre-Roman times, the Romans clearly saw its value when they occupied it in 49 BC and made it one of their most significant municipalities. Bergamo was destroyed by the ferocious Attila the Hun in the fifth century but a century later, after being rebuilt, it became one of the most significant duchies of northern Italy and the continuing object of contention. Its history can be seen in the clash of architectural styles that exist side by side, from Romanesque, through Renaissance to Neoclassical.
From the early twelfth century, Bergamo was famed as a centre for musical excellence, known for its choral singing, opera and orchestral music. Today music lovers make regular pilgrimages to the city to page homage to the musical genius of Bergamo's prolific composers and artistes.
However, Bergamo is very much a thriving, living city, which is divided into two sections: the hilltop upper city whose medieval town with its cobbled streets, churches, towers, piazzas and bars is protected by the sturdy seventeenth century Venetian walls; and the lower city with its broad avenues and vibrant bustle. The two parts are connected by roads, footpaths and a funicular railway.
There is much to experience in both sections of Bergamo. In August in Borgo Sant'Alessandro, the annual festival in honour of Bergamo's patron saint (Alexander) takes place. This is heralded by almost two hours of bell ringing from seven churches to commemorate the death of the Christian martyr and followed by several days of feasting and festivities. This is a very exciting time to visit Bergamo.
After exploring the many galleries, cafes and wine bars in the lower town, you should take the funicular up to Via Gommbito in the upper town. You will feel you have stepped back in time as you ramble along the warrens of narrow cobbled streets with their dilapidated houses and little cheese shops.
After lunch in one of the many inexpensive eating places, you can stroll along the piazzas admiring the mediaeval towers and monuments, the archways and churches; in particular the rather astonishing basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. There are equally stunning views from the ramparts out across the Lombardy plains. Indeed the beauty and vibrancy of Bergamo will lift your spirits and leave you feeling like a new person.