Two months ago, I ended up in Italy for a conference. (You know, my glamorous librarian lifestyle.) In a misguided effort to save money, I flew a discount airline to Bergamo, rather than straight to Milan where the conference was. And you know what? That ended up being one of my best travel decisions ever.
The trip was off to an excellent start with the continuation of my favorite Madrid airport tradition. (Favorite tradition, not favorite airport. Madrid-Barajas is a soulless warehouse of an airport, with vast, fluorescent-lit hallways and overpriced amenities, cunningly designed to rob travelers of all hope and vigor.)1 Anyway, my tradition is this: cheese salad. While I adore living in Morocco, and there are great things to be said about Moroccan cuisine, one of the realities of life here is that it is nearly impossible to get a decent western-style salad. You know, a salad that is made of lettuce. Salads here tend to be an odd platter of diced potato, beets, rice, tomatoes, and onions. Don’t get me wrong- potato,
beets, rice, tomatoes, and onions are all things that I love. But sometimes I miss a nice, normal lettuce/tomato/carrot/cucumber/onion/vinaigrette salad. So the first thing I do after passing through security in Madrid is sit down with a beautiful, cheese and pear-topped green salad. This salad even includes cheddar, a rarity in Morocco, and on the way through the checkout line you can pick up these teeny little single-serve containers of olive oil and vinegar. Mmmm.
I digress. After landing in the tiny Bergamo airport, I made my way to the two euro bus into town, and received my first lesson about Italy. Although officially the bus is supposed to arrive every fifteen minutes, unofficially it arrives just after you’ve given up hope of ever being warm again. I live in Morocco, however, so I didn’t sweat it.2 The guy standing next to me forlornly at the bus stop struck up a conversation and–after I found out that he was in Bergamo for an interview with a power company–we talked about solar/wind/water energy all the way into town. After parting ways at the train station, I had a frigid nighttime adventure finding my friend, Ilaria’s, apartment. Soon, though, I was snuggled into bed and ready for my very first day in Italy.
After a leisurely breakfast with Ilaria, who was a delightful hostess,3 I ventured out into the city. Bergamo is divided into two parts, the lower city (Città bassa) and the upper city (Città alta). Left over from bygone centuries when high ground was strategically crucial, Bergamo’s high city sits atop a hill (backed by the gorgeous foothills of the Alps) and is encircled by a high wall. I walked through what I guess could be classified as the high street of the lower city, with fashion outlets, pharmacies, bars, and shopping centers, then turned onto a side street and climbed up, up, up to the enormous, ostentatious gate of the Città alta. Caught between Milan and Venice, Bergamo was historically controlled by Venice. And if there’s anything Venetians like, it’s showing off. So in the 17th century, those Venetians marched into Bergamo, knocked down a bunch of homes along the edge of the city, and built a big wall and fancy gate in their place. Kind of a homewrecking, extravagant “suck it!” to the Milanese.
Anyway, after a stroll on the magnificent wall built on the crumbled remains of Bergamaschi4 citizens’ homes, I began a tour of
the bakeries of Bergamo’s upper city. But seriously, guys, there were a lot of bakeries. The kind of bakeries that make you stand outside the window, mouth hanging open, pondering exactly how many of those sumptuous sweets you could cram into your mouth at one time without drawing a crowd of incredulous onlookers.
I spent the next thirty minutes inside the famous Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, marveling at its intricate carving and beautiful tapestries. Even the iron railings surrounding the outside of the church were beautifully ornate; no two were alike and were oxidized just enough to lend a pretty teal tinge to the edges of the ironwork.
I made it a personal mission to traverse every single street in the Città alta and didn’t stop until my path was blocked by a throng of extremely loud and elated schoolchildren. I looked up and immediately saw the reason for their frivolity: an old-fashioned candy shop.
Hoping to escape the children, I ducked into the Museo Civico di Scienze Naturali. Turns out that they let kids inside natural history museums, too, but I wasn’t especially bothered because there were some excellent stuffed puffer fish and upset-looking crocodiles on display. I had just completed a thorough inspection of the museums preserved fauna and moved on to the African art room5 when the museum closed for lunch. For hours. Look, the Italians are clearly doing things right.
Given that every single museum employee and raucous schoolchild had departed for lunch and the city had become deathly silent, I decided that I should do the same. I browsed windows and menus, trying to find exactly the right location for my first Italian meal. (I briefly considered an Irish pub, then remembered myself.) Settled on a pretty little outdoor café, with purple tablecloths and handwritten menus. When the waitress asked me if I’d like anything to drink, I had a “Well, why the hell not– I’m in Italy!” moment and ordered a glass of local red wine. (Having practiced my Italian the whole airplane ride from Madrid, I immediately resorted to French.) And my inner five-year-old squealed delightedly when I settled on good, old-fashioned spaghetti.6 So I sat at this sunny café, wine in one hand and spaghetti-filled fork in the other, and spent some time thinking about exactly how awesome my life was.
I gave into temptation and purchased a scrumptious fruit tart from one of the nearby bakeries for dessert. Carrying it to the city wall, I gingerly set it down and singlemindedly began snapping photos of it, trying to make sure I adequately captured the glowing red berries, sparkling kiwi, and tantalizing crumbly crust. After several minutes of this, I sat down on the wall and, lifting the tart to my lips, looked up. An elderly gentleman was standing right there, grinning at me. He laughed, slapped me on the back, and said something in Italian that I’m pretty sure meant “My, you are so silly taking photos of that tart when you should be eating it! Kids these days! Ho ho. Thanks for giving me the best laugh of the day.” And then walked away. Let the record show that this tart was totally worth it.
The ever-helpful Wikitravel had recommended seeing San Vigilio, a small village on the hill above Bergamo’s Città alta. That’s right, a Città alta alta. What Wikitravel said: “Visit San Vigilio – a small hilltop village that can be reached on foot or by a second funicolare from Città Alta.” What I read: “Visit San Vigilio – a small hilltop village that can be reached on foot or by a second funicolare from Città Alta. If you cop out and take the funicolare, however, you are possibly the laziest person on Earth and people will stare and point in the streets, knowing that you are an American tourist.” So I walked. And walked. And then do you know what I did? I walked some more.
After many minutes and several passing funicolares7 filled with townsfolk, I reached San Vigilio and discovered that the village was composed of exactly three things: 1) the funicolare station, 2) the overpriced café outside the funicolare station, and 3) an old, ruined castle. So castle it was! The castle park8 appeared completely deserted, and I felt just slightly creeped out as I climbed up winding stone staircases with little shafts of light peeking in from medieval window slits. There weren’t even any signs, so I just continued up and hoped that I wouldn’t end up in some sort of medieval torture chamber populated by cloaked members of a fanatical religious cult. But there was light at the end of the staircase, and I was greeted with a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside and mountains from the castle’s battlements.
Spent the rest of the afternoon completing my mental map of the city and befriending one very large dog. Home again in the evening for a cooking adventure with Ilaria: homemade lasagne with béchamel sauce, fresh pesto, and parmesan. To be honest, I mostly watched while Ilaria worked her northern Italian kitchen magic, though I made some significant contributions by a) holding plates, b) stirring sauce, and c) cracking really dumb jokes every few minutes. Her husband came home just in time to eat lasagne (well played, sir) and we chatted over dinner about everyone’s grand travel plans, past and future.
It rained on day two, so there was only one thing to do: visit the public library. After taking one look at the decor, I was keenly aware of the fact that this was a shushing library. You know what I mean- full of bespectacled librarians that go shushhh when you try to take a photo of the stacks or shussshhh when you ask a student what she is studying or shuuuussssshhhh when you step on a floorboard the wrong way and it creaks. I felt like I should get a free noise pass, being a librarian myself, but I wasn’t sure how to explain this concept in Italian so I kept quiet instead. Still, I wish that there were some sort of international camaraderie between librarians that guaranteed entrance to secret ancient book rooms and invitations for cakes and tea.
I was about to leave the library when I stumbled across the card catalog room. A whole wall of card catalogs, most of them hand-written decades ago… how could I resist? Knowing that I lacked the language skills to pull the librarian card,9 I pulled the photographer card and managed to communicate my desire to take a few photos of the card catalog. The librarian sighed, but reluctantly agreed.10 Like the literature nerd that I am, I pulled all of my favorite authors and snapped photos of the ones with the most elegant handwriting. The librarian looked on suspiciously.
The rain was bumming me out, so I slipped into a café/bar where I’d seen some university students go the day before. The bartender seemed really excited about serving me coffee or liquor, so I ordered a hot chocolate. And oh, what a hot chocolate it was! Listen, friends. This was not your Swiss Miss, Land o’ Lakes, Starbucks, or even [insert famed local coffee house here] hot chocolate. This was, literally, hot chocolate. Chocolate that was hot. It was like someone had simply melted a chocolate bar into a cup and handed it to me. It was heavenly. I may have made some inappropriate hot chocolate-enjoying noises, because the bartender came over to have a half-hour long chat in broken French about Italy, Bergamo, history, and architecture. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I only loved him for his hot chocolate.
I met Ilaria for a delicious afternoon snack that was like a cross between foccacia and pizza, topped with fresh sliced tomato, oregano, and heaps of garlic. One euro.
We nibbled our magic portable pizza and strolled through the just-opened botanical gardens (Orto Botanico di Bergamo “Lorenzo Rota”). I spotted several choice succulents that had just been brought out of the greenhouse by a slightly grumpy gardener. He eyed me suspiciously when I got too close to the sempervivum. As the sun set, we began our walk back down to the Città bassa, rewarding ourselves at the end of the journey with gelato in ice cream cones. I caught the train to Milan, had a late-night public transit nightmare, and attended the two-day conference. I caught a fleeting glimpse of Milan from a bus window on my way back to the airport, and a lingering glimpse of the Alps from my airplane window. I spent the rest of my journey to Tangier (including my second airport salad) thinking about visiting Italy again.11
- If you do find yourself there, however, try one of the apples. It is the only apple I have encountered in my life that actually tastes like a place: airport. Skeptical? See for yourself. [↩]
- It was cold. [↩]
- And not just because she fed me. [↩]
- Yes, Wikipedia confirms that this is the correct demonym. [↩]
- The irony of flying from Africa to Italy to look at African art was not lost on me. [↩]
- Oh, the stories my parents could tell you about me and spaghetti. [↩]
- Funicular, a quaint urban rail car that carries lazy people up hills: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funicular [↩]
- You know, where visiting lords and kings park their castles. Ha ha. [↩]
- Please note the appropriateness of this expression, given the circumstances. [↩]
- She did indicate, however, that video was forbidden. Who takes video of card catalogs, anyway? It’s not like they’re going to leap up, do some parlor tricks, or emit flashing lights. [↩]
- That and the two kilos of parmesan nestled safely in my hand luggage. [↩]