Visitors have not always been kind to Bergamo.
Most of us still place it as Milan-Bergamo after its airport (actually it’s Il Caravaggio Orio al Serio International Airport), and this year we saw it as the Covid-19 gateway to Europe.
The pandemic hit Lombardy hard and early; the world watching in horror as its grip fastened last February and March – a preview of things to come.
It was a surreal light to shine on Bergamo, a medieval city in the Alpine foothills.
Suddenly portrayed not as a bustling cultural and historical hub, but through rolling television coverage.
Of empty cobbled streets, eerie churches and boarded shutters.
Bergamo boasts rich galleries with works by Titian, Botticelli and Canaletto.
We know its Champions League football team, Atalanta.
It celebrates composer Gaetano Donizetti in its annual international opera festival.
And it has architectural dedications to revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Bergamo is known as the Citta dei Mille after 1,000 of its citizens marched on Rome and helped unify Italy in the 19th century.
This year, tourists vanished and a different type of visitor descended.
International news teams flocking to the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, named for another famous son.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as many of those who travelled to report on distress, only to find success, have discovered.
As Christophe Sanchez, CEO of Visit Bergamo, said: “Because of the situation we have been through, Bergamo is now the safest town in Europe.”
Visitors it is true, have not always been kind to Bergamo.
But Bergamo is kind to its visitors, particularly those who stay a while.
Owed to Autumn
Visiting this autumn, I found the streets, which were desolate in March when everyone was locked away behind their shutters, alive again six months later.
Citizens mingled, talking at breakneck speed behind their masks and, of course, con le mani (with their hands).
They spoke, of course, of the second wave that has now come to pass, and the closure of restaurants, cafes, shops and museums. But also calcio e cibo… football and food.
And whatever it is that a gathering of young Bergamaschi always chat about in loud decibels outside your hotel bedroom window at midnight.
My visit gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of the Bergamaschi – not as victims, although there have been far too many of them, but survivors.
A picture of our times
An exhibition of photographs in the piazza captured the past year.
A masked priest administered Mass; doctors and nurses cared for the sick and dying, and a father cradled his new-born son.
But the Bergamaschi, queuing at the open-air testing centre, knew that the worst had passed and what they were now having to endure is temporary.
They had been here before and prevailed – with a little help from God.
Bergamo is split into old and new towns, Citta Alta (high town) and Citta Bassa (low town).
The best way to reach the walled and cobbled Citta Alta is by funicular.
It takes you into the centre of things, Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (market of the shoes), and to that staple of any old Italian town, an Irish pub, Tucans.
Take me to Church
For the real beating heart of Bergamo, though, I went to Piazza del Duomo – which houses Bergamo Cathedral and the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore.
Here, the Bergamaschi congregation of old could follow redemptive tales of the parting of the Red Sea, David and Goliath and Noah and the Deluge on wooden engravings.
Deliverance was as much a part of Medieval life as it had been in Biblical times.
And when Our Lady finally spared the Bergamaschi any more suffering from the Plague in the 12th century they built this basilica to her.
Of course, all of this speaks to us in 2020 louder than ever.
Matteo, my Visit Bergamo guide, recalled the only sounds back in March when the city was in quarantine – the sirens of ambulances and the whirring of helicopters.
He told me of a citizen stuck in his house with his Covid-hit ageing father, unable to get help.
When he saw a report of a man who had died in the nearby town of Brescia, leaving behind a half-tank of unused oxygen.
He made his way to Brescia, found the house, asked and was given the tank, although, alas, he could not save his father.
Every Bergamasque has a story of loss and suffering but for Matteo, the best response is a return to the life they know and love.
For Italians that means their famous five-course meals.
Food for thought
The centrepiece of which at the Trattoria Sant’Ambroeus in Citta Alta is their special ravioli, casoncelli dei sant ambroeus.
Stuffed pasta with sausage, breadcrumbs, parsley, eggs and garlic and cheese…
All washed down with the best Valcalepio rosso Riserva doc Tenuta Castello di Grumello del Monte.
I sauntered to the city walls and La Marianna for their signature milky scoop of ice cream heaven, stracciatella.
And, of course, for Lombardy that was only lunch. Dinner in the roof garden of the plush Excelsior San Marco Hotel in Citta Bassa brought five more courses.
In future, those bustling crowds will return.
But that night, the restaurant was an encouraging two-thirds occupancy with social distancing in place.
And even a puppy at the next table enjoyed himself and heeded the rules.
He was a Bergamasque, after all.
I was a guest of Visit Bergamo, booking platform Omio and Ryanair. He stayed at the Hotel Excelsior San Marco
Need to know
Bergamo currently sits in the yellow zone, the lowest of the three tiers Italy has been applying since early November.
This means restaurants and bars open till 6pm, shops are open, ski resorts / pools / gym / museums closed, people can move freely. The other zones are red (strictest) and orange (medium).
Travel into Bergamo
involves providing the results of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival.
Or you can get an airport test on arrival and quarantine for 48 hours while waiting for the results.
Any travellers will currently need to self-isolate on return..