Italy on the road
Bergamo and Brescia, Italian Capital of Culture 2023: a challenge of excellence
Exploring the two provinces that challenge and collaborate for beauty, goodness, and culture
Bergamo and Brescia, two cities at the head of neighbouring provinces, have been jointly elected the Italian Capital of Culture 2023 and, this time, are shaking hands in a common project. Will they have overcome their historical rivalries by the end of this year, celebrating together with a hearty plate of casonsei?
In Italy, campanilismo (i.e., parochialism, the strong attachment to one’s own town), has always been extremely important, to the point that, in the 1960s, one of the most watched programmes was Campanile Sera, where townspeople challenged each other in all kinds of trials and carried on the pride of their town. And Brescia and Bergamo, strong industrial and cultural hubs in northern Italy, definitely challenged one another on all fronts.
However, in addition to the historical events and anecdotes linked to Bergamo and Brescia, the Italian Capital of Culture 2023, our interest in these two charming cities is naturally also tourism and gastronomy. The motivations (gastronomic and non-gastronomic) for choosing to treat yourself to a long weekend in this area are truly many, and this is why we recommend choosing them… both!
Theirs is a challenge of excellence, which makes this area of Lombardy a piece of Italy worth getting to know.
Unesco World Heritage Sites
Lombardy is the region with the highest number of Unesco World Heritage Sites, including archaeological, prehistoric, religious, industrial, and architectural sites, and, of course, the two provinces are well represented: in the heart of the city, Brescia has the San Salvatore – Santa Giulia Monastic Complex and the Roman Brescia Archaeological Park, while Bergamo has the Fortified City Walls. And these are just the city ones, not to mention the many natural and historical beauties scattered throughout the two provinces.
The city centre
Since we have mentioned them, we cannot fail to compare the two monumental pedestrian city centres: this is indeed a tough challenge.
The Città Alta of Bergamo, the heart of Bèrghem de sura (higher Bergamo), is a succession of monumental palazzi, including those surrounding the majestic Piazza Vecchia. They can be reached either on foot, via a beautiful panoramic walk, or by the Funicular, which is faster and more comfortable. As well as the ‘profane’, the sacred part here is also amazing, with the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a Baroque masterpiece.
And if the latter is a riot of arabesques and decorations, Brescia’s simple and austere Duomo Vecchio is just as interesting, as it is a rare example in Italy of a Romanesque church with a circular plan.
Strolling through the city centre in Brescia, one walks through history, from that of the ancient Romans with the well-preserved Capitoline Temple, to the early 20th century modern style of Piazza della Loggia. A compact, beautiful, and interesting centre.
But if we turn to the gastronomic side, the challenge gets even more difficult.
Bergamo was awarded the title of “City of Cheese 2021” in 2021: the Lombard capital was elected by the Onaf (the National Organisation of Cheese Tasters), thanks to its 9 DOP cheeses in the province: starting with Formai de Mut – which means mountain cheese – via the famous Taleggio, Bitto or Strachitunt, a natural, blue-veined cheese and ancestor of Gorgonzola.
Brescia obviously does not miss out on the excellent ones either, like Bagòss, produced only in the malghe (shepherd’s huts) of Bagolino (a small village in Valsabbia), or Silter, another alpine pasture cheese with a distinctive fragrance of mountain herbs due to the cows grazing at altitude.
Of course, there are dozens of less famous ones: if you really would like to enjoy a complete cheese tasting, you would need at least three meals.
A tip: visit our “Travel and Cheese” section to find out more about Italian cheeses.
When talking about cheeses, it is inevitable to enjoy the gourmet panorama of both Brescia and Bergamo, not least because on both sides, polenta taragna goes very well with the fifty shades of cheese melted in traditional maize flour. On the other hand, the whole of Lombardy is a land that exalts polenta in infinite variations: for more on this, see our article dedicated to polenta.
But if we look at first courses, we need to start with casoncelli, which are equally distributed on the tables of both provinces. These are fresh pasta ravioli with a filling that is traditionally made from leftover pork and beef, to which amaretti, sultanas, breadcrumbs, garlic, and lemon zest are added. The casoncelli are then served with grated cheese and seasoned with melted butter, pancetta, and sage.
Bergamo, modern even when it comes to tradition, offers a vegetarian alternative to casoncelli: the Scarpinocc, whose filling is made of cheese, eggs, butter, and breadcrumbs.
The meat-free alternatives in the Brescia area, on the other hand, draw from the poorest cuisine and every dish – like the rice with Virzulì, field herbs, or the Barghe soup, a tasty soup with mushrooms – is an ode to creativity and love for the ingredients of the land.
Among the typical dishes of the area that should absolutely be tried to really experience being part of the context are bigoli: made with an instrument called “torchio”, they are like large, very porous spaghetti. Typical of a vast area that includes the eastern Lombardy and western Veneto, they are exquisite when served with duck. To make them at home, just follow our step-by-step recipe for Bigoli with duck and pea ragout.
However, this area is not only made up of tradition, but also of true innovation and culinary excellence: it is no coincidence that there are ten Michelin-starred restaurants in the Bergamo area, three in the province of Brescia. The love of food around here ranges from the simplest osteria to restaurants of the highest level.
A small digression should be opened regarding wine: Bergamo is home to a number of DOC and DOCG wines, such as Valcalepio Doc, red and white, or Moscato di Scanzo Docg, a classic meditation wine. But there is one of Italy’s most famous wine-growing areas in the province overlooking Lake Iseo, Brescia, which creates sublime wines that rival the most famous Champagnes year after year. Franciacorta is a small masterpiece, and its well-defined and small production area is a pearl of beauty.
So, looking at the overall picture, the two provinces make up a splendid mosaic of art, culture, history, gastronomy, and nature making them a must-see in all seasons and placing them in a perfect tie in our personal ranking of Italian excellence.