Memory and Travel – Reflections on Bergamo and kindness to strangers


It’s funny how memory works in regards to travel. I was in Bergamo, Italy back in 2009 (and about 10 days ago but only to sleep in the airport but that’s another story) and my memory of it seemed to be perfectly clear. A very small sleepy place where I could walk from the train station to the Nuovo ostello di Bergamo in about 20 minutes. I even remembered a general map of how to get from the lower city to the upper city, where the funicular was, and how to get from the centro to the ostello.

So, last night, arriving at about 8 pm at the train station in Citta Basa – I started walking. I walked up the main boulevard past the grand square building in the area of the Sentierone and the Palace of Justice).I went by the 4 towers that housed The Health Tribunal, the Fair Curators, The Magistrate of Provisions and the Tribunal of Justice
and the famed 540 shops of the Sentierone. I strolled past the modern shops and began thinking to myself that I didn’t remember it being so…modern, so developed, so filled with luxury branded stores.

And as I kept walking for 30 minutes or so, I became less sure of where I was. At the point I remembered finding the stairs to the hostel, I found a hillside leading downward into a neighborhood instead of the ten flights of stairs leading upward that I remembered. Soon, I was in an area of closed shops and fairly modern apartment buildings. This didn’t fit with my memory at all.

I asked a few Italians if they knew where to find the Ostello di Bergamo but they didn’t speak enough English or didn’t know and then, I found a Moroccan kebob shop. They didn’t speak English either and my Italian is zero, but much to their surprise, this lost looking white guy wandered up and greeted them in Darija. My Moroccan Arabic is functional though far from fluent. Once they got over the shock of my speaking Arabic, they were very kind and interested.

They knew where the hostel was and I was far from it. One of them, Hisham, asked his boss if he could leave for a few minutes to get me started in the right direction. We chatted in Darija about family and life in Italy. He’s originally from Agadir and has actually been to Sefrou for some reason. I admit that I’m not always keen on meeting Moroccans in Morocco, but when I meet those who have left or travelled abroad, it is always an extreme pleasure. It’s something about the broadened world view and the shattering of the illusions the media puts in people’s heads. An expansive worldview makes a world of difference. The Prophet Mohammad said something like “Don’t tell me what you’ve read, tell me where you’ve travelled.”

In any event, Hisham and I were lucky to run into his Italian friend, Enzo who was waiting to pick up his girlfriend from work. Enzo speaks English and offered to drive me to the hostel. During this exchange, I was translating Arabic to English and English to Arabic – a good exercise that seemed to work.

So then, Enzo and his girlfriend drove me to the hostel which was miles from where I had ended up. Once at the hostel, I thought I remembered where the pizza place nearby was – but once again – memory failed me, so I ended up eating a frozen microwave dinner. And while I can say that my memories of the hostel being clean, bright and comfortable were right I was disappointed to recall that they require you (or at least me 2x now) to check out each day at 10am, leave your bags in the luggage room, and then check back in in the afternoon. Not ideal by any means- it makes me glad I took a day in Greece to just lounge in my hotel room.

Anyway, I’m excited to get back to Morocco but I have a full day and another night here in Bergamo. I had thought to take the train and get lunch in Switzerland, but the weather may not be cooperating – in any event there is a giant world food festival here as well as a world renowned organ music festival – so it may be best to stay here – besides the trip to Switzerland wouldn’t allow enough time to see the Alps.

 

Photo Essay: The Beauty of Doors

There’s something about doors that just make my brain fill with wonder. Like travel, doors always lead to something new and often to something unexpected. Like the story of the Lady or the Tiger or Let’s Make a Deal.
BCN Door
This door in Barcelona seems to lead to a classical place where graffiti monsters rule. Aren’t you curious what lies on the other side?
Bergamo Italy Door
Does this door in Bergamo, Italy actually lead to anywhere? Why is it locked. What’s it hiding? Does it lead to Narnia?
Door to Bordeaux
Is there a French family drinking Bordeaux behind this French door? Can you almost hear the laughter? Oui.
Door in Belgium
This Brussels, Belgium door is altogether more serious. Are there great works of art on the other side or serious EU business going on?
Door in Fez
Couscous perhaps? Maybe a carpet shop? What does your imagination say is behind this door in the Fez Medina?
Cave Door in GrenadaWhat about this door from a cave in San Bernardino above Grenada in Spain. How do the troglodyte gypsies pass their days. Beer, fortune telling, black magic? Or just a card game and some cooking.

Marrakesh Door
Rabbit Hole in Marrakech

Finally this one in the magical city of Marrakesh. Don’t you feel like you are falling in?
Lao Tzu famously said that without opening your door you can see the world and I think that might explain the fascination with travel. We all wonder just what is on the other side of the door and sometimes it’s even more wonderful than we imagine.

Caravaggio – Bergamo Revisited – Airport Refugees

One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.

Bergamo airportSmall airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.

Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!

A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.

And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –

There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.

Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:

Airport renaissance

Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

caravaggio

And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.

 

Bergamo – Italian City of Festivals

Bergamo, Italy is a rich tapestry of trade roads, history, art, and incredible festivals. The city, home to the artist Caravaggio (who not surprisingly is honored in a festival each Autumn) and the furthest outpost of Venice’s once mighty domain sits at the base of the Alps and historically served as a way point for goods from the Adriatic on their way to central Europe, Milan, and thence to Western Europe.

Festivals of BergamoWith it’s mighty symbol of trade, the Sentierone, it’s natural that this city should still function as a trading crossroads for not only Europe but for the world. And, as a bonus – some wonderful festivals come with that.

The locals will tell you that the city’s flag colors were chosen because of the dish for which the city is well known. Polenta. Made from stone ground Maize and cooked in copper pots you can find it everywhere. The flag – the golden yellow and the red (to represent wine, of course) – the flag flies above every festival the city hosts.

The festivals are remarkable in their diversity. From the late October Cortopotere Short Film Festival which has been running for 12 years now and brings film makers from all around the world to the nearly decade old Bergamoscienza Festival which has talks, workshops, shows, and round table discussions with Nobel Prize winners.

Bergamo flower festivalThe City of Bergamo International Organ Festival is concerned with the instrument housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and brings some of the greatest organ talent in the world to showcase this amazing instrument. Another festival centered around instruments is the Alfredo Piatti International Cello Festival which offers concerts from well known Cellists for the public.

The International Early Music Festival is another festival dedicated to the Organ – this time with the works of Bach. And of course there is the Bergamo International Jazz Festival.

The Gaetano Donizetti Music Festival of Bergamo takes place at the Donizetti Theatre and is a world renowned Opera festival. The Gianni and Fausto Rdici Trophy is an event that combines music and another great love of Bergamo – skiing!

Festival of Bergamo MusicThe Bergamo International marathon takes place each September and brings runners from around the globe to compete on the incredibly scenic course. The Valgoglio Vertical is a high altitude race through the Alps!

Alta Quota which means high altitude is a trade fair which is all about the mountains – literally. The Fiera Campionaria is a traditional trade fair which goes back more than three decades and brings ever growing numbers of visitors to the city. It’s not to be confused with the Mercantanti in Fiera international food market/trade fair which has been going strong for ten years and allows Bergamask to enjoy food from all over the world. Every continent (except Antarctica) was represented.

Villages, Castles, and Palaces in Celebration is a festival which highlights the many beautiful places in the Bergamo province and offers gastonomic, musical, and visual delights for attendees. Another festival honors the beatification of Pope John XXIII with fireworks, religious icons, music, worship, and more.

On a different note is the Presente Prossimo Festival Dei Narratori Italiani which is an Italian Presenters Festival in the Serio Valley that included writers workshops, a writing conference, and of course, lots of presenting.

Bergamo food and wine festivalThose who love wine will find plenty of wine festivals in Bergamo from the “International Competition Emotions from the World: Merlot and Cabernet Together” to the Polenta Tragna Feast which always has plenty of wine and the traditional Bergamask meal.

And a furniture and furnishing accessories trade fair is held each November as well.

One thing is certain – if you go to Bergamo – you are almost certain to find at least one festival going on and don’t be surprised if you find many!

 

Lake Como, Italy – A Beautiful Daytrip from Bergamo or Milan

There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.

Lake ComoWhile Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.

Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.

Lake Como SwansTo come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.

 

Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.

Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.

Lake Como gardens and villasComo was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como VillasLake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.

Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.

A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.

If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!

Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have:

Mark Twain who writes about Lake Como extensively in The Innocents Abroad. Ernest Hemingway used the Lake as a setting in A Farewell to Arms when his character Lieutenant Henry talks about taking a vacation to Lake Como. Victor Frankenstein married Elizabeth in the vicinity of Lake Como in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley anLake Como Parkd Fyodor Dostoevsky mentions Lake Como in his novel Notes from Underground.

In addition there is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which has Maria Ruskin escape from New York to Lake Como and The Poems and Fragments of Catallus, In Praise of Como, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed , The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, August Strindberg’s magnum opus play Miss Julie, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, and Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon’s novel Madame Solario. There are certainly many more – and did I mention it’s also Naboo?

One thing for certain. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place and I look forward to returning.

 

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