Tuesday, October 17, 2017
   
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PERFECT CORNER OF EUROPE

Keen to try out one of the new Ryanair routes from Belfast, MICHAEL BEATTIE headed to the beautiful Province of Bergamo, Northern Italy via the new Belfast International-Milan route…

I think I may just have found the perfect corner of Europe. Imagine a beautiful blue lake surrounded by steep mountains and along its narrow coastal road, picturesque towns and villages every few kilometres.

The roads into the hills twist and turn through more pretty and sometimes ancient little towns.

Those hills are perfect for rigorous walks and stunning vistas. When the snow comes they're ideal for skiing.

The local food is prepared with great attention and pride, the local cheeses a particular delight whether savoured on the farm where they were made or in the fine-dining restaurants in the city.

And all of this is just a two and half hour flight from Belfast International Airport.

Welcome to the Province of Bergamo, in northern Italy.

It sits between Lake Como and Lake Garda, mountainous in the north as it reaches towards Switzerland with flatter land to the south. The province is bisected by the A4 motorway running west to east across the country from Turin to Venice.

At its centre is the ancient city of Bergamo, and Ryanair's cheap-as-chips flights from Belfast have opened up the region to Northern Ireland travellers. On my trip I chatted with a group of farmers heading over for an agricultural show in Bologna. “It's working out cheaper than the Balmoral Show!' one of them quipped.

I also bumped into an old acquaintance from school days. He was leading a group of 17 motorcyclists from the Ulster section of the BMW Club to a major trade show in Milan. He said that without the new route, they wouldn't have been able to make it.

But travellers passing onwards from Bergamo to the major cities east and west, are missing a treat. The area is a treasure chest of riches – cultural, historical, culinary and natural.

Bergamo has two city centres. The spectacularly located hilltop old town (citta alta) overlooking the modern city (citta bassa.) The funicular (cable car) is the fun way to get between the two, but there are also roads and pedestrian paths.

The Celts, the Romans and the Venetians have all left their influence, layers of history literally built on top of each other. In some places the old Roman streets are exposed, protected under glass. The 16th century city walls remain intact and it's a delight to wander around inside them exploring the piazzas, churches, museums and shops. Piazza Vecchia is rated one of the most beautiful in Italy.

Autumn's a good time to visit rather than summer when it's packed with tourists. In November the city celebrates its famous son, the composer Donizetti, with a week-long music festival.

Twenty miles east of Bergamo I stayed in the beautiful town of Sarnico on the shore of Lake Iseo. It not only has a 12th century civic tower, a 15th century clock tower and a 17th century church, but also several Art Deco villas, the finest examples in the entire region.

There's also the Bellini Gallery. No, not THAT Bellini. But a local art collector who donated 150 paintings from the period 1500-1700, some of them outstanding.

On a sunrise walk along the coastal path, I was surprised to find the factory of boat builder Riva, started more than 150 years ago. You may not know the name, but you'll probably have seen Daniel Craig as James Bond at the wheel of a Riva boat. They're the classic Italian craft beloved of sports and movie stars over many years – even Michael Rennie, my childhood favourite as Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Lake Iseo boasts the largest lake-island in Italy and indeed southern Europe, Monte Isola. Time didn't permit a visit, but as a cyclist I'm attracted by the fact that only mopeds and bicycles are allowed on its five square miles with a grid of cycling and hiking trails linking the hillside hamlets and quiet fishing villages.

Heading north along the coast road (narrower and twistier than the Antrim coast road) I was captivated by the series of beautiful towns like Predore, Portirone and Castro, each with its own marina looking across the lake to the mountains of Brescia in the east.

At Castro I turned west into the foothills of the Bermago Alps and the mountain commune of Castione della Presolana. I was in ski country. The local population is 3,000. In ski season from November to March that swells to 30,000! Many Milan residents keep a second home here for skiing in winter and walking when the snow recedes.

The Bergamo Ski Area takes in five ski resorts with 140 kilometres of downhill runs, 70 individual pistes and 50 ski lifts. I've never tried skiing but I can certainly see the attraction of this area for skiers from Northern Ireland. You can be at the slopes little more than an hour after landing at Bergamo. And most of the hotels will arrange a coach service at no extra charge.

Lunch at Pian del Termen Mountain Refuge was a real treat. Chef Lara Bendotti produces the kind of hearty mountain food hungry skiers need. She let me sample every main course including a variety of pastas, vegetables, lamb kebabs and pork rissoles, finishing with a deep fried cheese rarely found outside Lombardy, Formai de Mut.

As a real cheese lover, I was in formaggio heaven! And I discovered that area has no fewer than nine varieties protected with 'Designation of Origin' status.

The locally produced Valcalcepio wines are important to this region and were served with all my meals. Lara also produced two different grappas I had to sample. One has juniper, the other delights in the name Grappa Morbido.

Foppolo in the Brembana Valley was the highest point I reached on my trip, 1600 metres. That's twice as high as Slieve Donard but it looks and feels a lot more.

Lower in the valley I enjoyed another very special lunch in Agriturismo Ferdy. Ferdy is something of a character. Raised in the mountains by his grandfather and learning the traditions of goat-herding and foraging, he's an organic farmer running a B&B, restaurant, wellness centre and riding school. His cheeses from traditional cows and goats are superb.

San Pellegrino Terme is famous for its sparkling mineral water and for over a century, its casino.

From Russian tzars to movie stars, they came to Pellegrino

With kings and queens and pretty things to play at the Casino.’

It's a beautiful building and well worth visiting.

On a rocky spur that drops straight down to the Brembo river, sits the tiny medieval town of Cornello. Amazingly preserved, it's now home to just 46 people. Its cobbled streets and ancient archways are moody and atmospheric. Here lived the Tasso family who started Europe's first postal service, commemorated in a small but very interesting museum.

Four days was definitely not long enough to explore this area. But now that's it's so easy to reach from Belfast, it'll be at the top of my list for a return trip as soon as possible.

(You can see more of Michael’s photos and some vide clips on his YouTube channel)

FACT FILE

The writer travelled with Ryanair ryanair.com

Flights from Belfast to Bergamo start at £9.99

He stayed at:

Cocca 4-star Spa Hotel in Sarnico, from £85

Hotel Milano Alpen Spa, Castione della Presolana, from £95

Hotel Excelsior San Marco, Bergamo, from £90

Recommended:

Bergamo, ristorantemimmo.com

Brembana Valley, agritourismoferdy.com

Bergamo, millestoriesapori.it

visitbergamo.net

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