Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Stefano Puccio. He’s here to tell us all about Bergamo – a picturesque city with a Venetian walled old town just below the foothills of the Alps.
First, tell us about you.
Originally I was born in the beautiful city of Lecco, the place where Leonardo da Vinci came for his holidays to paint. It’s situated in the Alps on Lake Como, the deepest and most beautiful lake in Europe (which is now famous because of George Clooney or Versace, but has always been the place where artists from all over the world chose to spend their time—a place of legend and mystery). Now I live in Bergamo and have for three years.
My passions include writing poems, painting, and writing songs. I love history and art and, most of all, nature, especially the mountains and the sea. I also hike, travel, read classic Italian literature (by classic, I mean more than 2,000 years old, before Jesus), listen to classic music, go to the opera, create new recipes, and discover new traditional foods (in Italia, there are more than 35,000 different typical foods—every small town had completely different food than the others, so it’s beautiful to discover them).
If someone is visiting Bergamo for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Bergamo is divided in two: Bergamo Alta and Bergamo Bassa. I recommend ignoring Bergamo Bassa (the modern part of Bergamo) and not even missing one corner of Bergamo Alta, one of the most untouched cities in the world.
The spirit of the people here is very independent and you can feel it throughout the old city, from the strange style of the churches and palaces to the original, too-big walls (too big for a small city), which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Forget maps or places to see and just walk around in the old city, discovering hundreds of interesting corners.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Start with Como; it’s beautiful (though one day is enough for Como if you don’t have many days). Take the boat on the lake and go to Bellagio and Varenna, small towns with thousands of years of history and then to Lecco, where the lake becomes the deepest lake in Europe and where the Alps meet the water. If you like to hike, this is paradise. (Interesting side note: many of the most intense mountains around the world, including the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas, were reached for the first time in history by men born in this area.)
Also, don’t miss Mantova (the birthplace of Virgilio, the most famous writer of old Roma), a city that it is almost 3,000 years old, with more than 20 beautiful churches (my particular favorite is the Rotonda, built in the 11th century). While you’re there, make sure to visit the palaces: Ducale, Palazzo Te, and Palazzo delle Erbe, in particular, which are over 900 years old and showcase dozens of ancient bridges, towers, etc.
On the way from Bergamo to Mantova, stop in Brescia, another city with almost three millenniums of history, where you can find from the Roman theater and temples of the period before Jesus up to Renaissance buildings arriving to the period of Baroque (not to mention castles and palaces).
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
As you probably know, every Italian city, town, and village has very different typical foods. The traditional foods of Bergamo are many, and I suggest casoncelli (similar to ravioli with a mix of salami, raisins, amaretto, pears, cheese, and many spices), polenta cunciada (traditional polenta made with five different cheeses), brasato d’asino (donkey pot roast), and frogs.
You’ll also need to try some of the traditional local cheeses. I recommend formai de Mut and the taleggio.
Finally, make sure to try our dessert: delicious polenta e usei (it looks like polenta, but that’s just a joke. Inside it’s sweet!) made with traditional ingredients plus chocolate and nuts.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
Cantiere Cucina (located at Via Borgo Santa Caterina n. 5) and Enoteca Zanini (located at Via Borgo Santa Caterina 90/a) are the best in Bergamo and Nicolin (at Via Amilcare Ponchielli 54) in Lecco is the best of the entire region.
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
It always seems so strange when you hear strangers talking in wrong way about being Latin. They talk about it as though it’s the people-music-food of South America or some European countries that had Roman influence in their language (Spain, Portugal, France), but Latin it means “from Latium” and Latium is the central part of Italia.
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
Going to a concert or to one of the many events around in Bergamo during the year.
Why should people make sure to visit Bergamo?
It is one of the few untouched cities on this planet. You can walk in the ancient times while walking in the streets of Bergamo Alta.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
Walk from the train station up to Bergamo Alta, passing through the walls, and, when you arrive at the top, the balcony in front of you shows the whole city and the land until Milano. I suggest taking photos there at sunset.
The main square of the old city is also really beautiful.
Anything else you want us to know?
I want to finish with something curious: every day thousands of tourists arrive in Bergamo. But most of them take the first bus from the airport to Milano, ignoring that just 10 minutes from them there’s such a treasure. Don’t let that happen to you.