Lady Mary’s writing put Lovere on the map

An 18th century portrait of
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is considered to be the first female English travel writer, was born 323 years ago today (15 May, 1689).

Lady Mary travelled extensively at the beginning of the 18th century with her husband, who was appointed British ambassador to Turkey and during this time she wrote the poetry and letters that established her literary reputation.

She also became an advocate of inoculation against smallpox, having witnessed the practice on her travels.

But in 1739 she left her husband and went to live in Italy alone. After spending time in Brescia in Lombardia she moved to live in Lovere on Lago d’Iseo (pictured above) on the advice of her doctor who thought the climate of the lakeside resort would be good for her health.

Lady Mary was to spend nearly ten years in Lovere, preferring it to the resorts of nearby Lago di Garda which were more well known and popular with English tourists.

She constantly praised Lovere as a holiday resort and is reputed to have once declined an invitation to the Venice carnival saying: “There are plenty of things to do in this village, which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful that exists.”

The lakeside town of Lovere
Lady Wortley Montagu was captivated by the lakeside
town of Lovere, where she bought an old palace
She bought an old palace where she spent happy years designing the garden and reading the books her daughter sent out to her from England .

She enjoyed entertaining local nobility and making the occasional trip to Genova and Padova, inspired to write poetry by the beauty of Lago d’Iseo and the “impassable mountains” surrounding it.

While living in Lovere she wrote in a letter to her daughter: “I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life.”

She returned to live in England in 1761 and died the following year. Her last words were reputed to be: “It has all been most interesting.”



Stop the world, I want to get off … and land on Monte Isola

Peschiera Maraglio at the foot of Monte Isola
If you ever feel like getting away from it all for a while, I can recommend a small lake island in northern Italy.

Monte Isola, in the middle of Lago d’Iseo in Lombardia, provides a real escape from the modern world, although it takes only a few minutes to reach by boat. It is the largest lake island both in Italy and in central and southern Europe, rising to a peak of about 600 metres above the surface of the lake. It is a spectacular sight from the shores of Lago d’Iseo and is a lovely excursion to make in either the spring or the summer.

You can walk all the way round Monte Isola in a day along peaceful footpaths at the side of the lake, enjoying unspoilt natural scenery and beautiful views of the smaller islands of San Paolo and Loreto.

There are some good restaurants where you can eat fresh fish caught from the lake and comfortable hotels if you want to stay the night.

Footpaths provide an easy walk around the island, which is no more than 3km long and 2km wide
Footpaths provide an easy walk around the island, which is no
more than 3km long and 2km wide
With fewer than 2,000 residents, Monte Isola is a green oasis with hardly any cars, as only the doctor and the mayor are allowed to have them.  There is a minibus service around the island, too.

There are several points around Lago d’Iseo from where you can take a ferry to Monte Isola, but the shortest crossing is from Sulzano on the Brescia side of the lake. You can take a train to Sulzano from the city of Brescia and it is just a short walk from the railway station in Sulzano to the imbarcadero, where you can buy boat tickets and get tourism information leaflets. After a few minutes on the ferry you disembark at Peschiera Maraglio, an old fishing village with shops and restaurants.

From Peschiera Maraglio it is a comfortable walk to the other side of the island and Monte Isola’s main village, Siviano. From there it is a short walk down to the port below Siviano to the imbarcadero where the boats leave for Tavernola Bergamasca on the Bergamo side of the lake. From there you can take a coach to Bergamo .

Or, you can ride back to Peschiera Maraglio on the island’s tiny bus, which leaves from Piazza Municipio in Siviano and from there take the ferry back to Sulzano on the Brescia side of the lake.

If you would like more information about Bergamo and other beautiful places in Lombardia visit www.bestofbergamo.com.



Easter celebrations in Italy

Easter is a lovely time of the year to visit Italy as the weather is beginning to warm up and the spring flowers are in bloom.

Many towns have processions on Venerdi Santo (Good Friday) when statues or crosses are paraded through the streets or displayed in the main square.

Italian Easter eggs typically come with  artistically elaborate packaging
Italian Easter eggs typically come with 
artistically elaborate packaging
And while the world tunes in to watch the celebrations in Rome on television, special services will be held at churches all over Italy to celebrate la Pasqua (Easter Sunday).

In the run up to the Easter weekend, many shops will have elaborate displays of chocolate eggs in their windows. Italian Easter eggs are usually wrapped artistically in coloured cellophane and tied with pretty ribbons. They often contain a toy, or in the case of Easter eggs for adults, a gift, which can sometimes be as substantial as a mobile phone!

Since Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent, food plays an important part in the Italian celebrations. Restaurants are usually busy at lunch time and many will serve a special menu for families who are out for a meal together, so it is advisable to book in advance if you are hoping to have a good lunch.

A traditional Easter meal for Italians, whether they are eating at home or in a restaurant, is likely to centre on agnello (lamb) as the main course, either roasted or braised.

For dessert there will usually be la Colomba, the dove-shaped cake that is traditional at Easter, in the same way that il Panettone is eaten at Christmas.

Italy's traditional Easter cake - la Colomba
Italy's traditional Easter cake is called la Colomba.
It is similar in texture to Panettone
La Colomba is known as the bird of peace and there is a legend that says a cake in the shape of a dove was offered to try to end a siege at Pavia centuries ago.

There is also the theory that the cake was created in the 1930s by a firm in Milan who wanted to provide a cake for Easter that was the equivalent of Panettone.

La Colomba is now sold all over Italy but can also be made in the home. The traditional version has an almond and sugar topping, but these days the shops sell them with all kinds of fillings, icings and toppings.

For details of what there is to see and do in the northern city of Bergamo in Lombardia, visit www.bestofbergamo.com. To find out about the main sights and attractions of Sorrento, a seaside resort south of Naples in Campania, visit www.bestofsorrento.com.



The inspirational power of Bergamo

The skyline of the Città Alta captivates the
imagination whether on a crisp Christmas night (above)
or a warm summer's day (below)
I have become a frequent visitor to Bergamo in northern Italy over the last few years and started travel writing as a result of my interest in the city.

There are many ways in which Bergamo has inspired me as a writer, but probably its most fascinating feature is the way the Città Alta appears in the skyline enticing you to go up there.

The view of Bergamo’s upper town in the skyline is one of the first things you notice when you arrive. Even as you get off the plane at Bergamo Caravaggio airport it is difficult to ignore the city.

You can see the domes and towers of the upper town silhouetted against the sky from the airport runway.

To move straight on to Milan, or one of the lakes, as many people do, without exploring the medieval Città Alta and the lower town, the Città Bassa, would be a great pity.

If you arrive in Bergamo by train, or take the bus into the city from the airport, you will see a magnificent view of the Città Alta from outside the railway station.

If you stand and look down the long, straight Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII you will see the towers and roofs of the Città Alta silhouetted against the blue sky, suspended as if by mysterious means.

It’s a magical view and makes you want to go straight up there and explore the upper town at close quarters.

The view is different according to the season. I have visited Bergamo in the spring, summer and autumn. The Città Alta looks magnificent on a bright day silhouetted against a blue sky. But it also looks beautiful shrouded in mist in the autumn.

The monumental walls protecting the Citta Alta
were built by the Venetians in the 16th century
One of the most striking features that you notice straight away is the huge wall around the Città Alta.

Le Mura is the name for the 16th century fortified walls that have divided Bergamo into two cities, the Città Alta (the upper town) and the Città Bassa (the lower town). They are truly monumental stone walls, completely surrounding the Città Alta, built by the Venetian occupiers and rulers of Bergamo in 1561 to keep invaders out.

You will sometimes see articles written about Bergamo in magazines and newspapers, and information about the city in travel guides about northern Italy, where the Città Bassa is dismissed as not being worth a visit.

But having stayed in Bergamo many times I have found that there are a lot of buildings of historical importance on both sides of the walls.

Bergamo is an artistic and cultural treasure chest, but also has its own natural beauty, set among hills, mountains, lakes and rolling countryside.

The Città Alta is an impressive fortified town, which has retained many of its 12th century buildings and has had some stunning Renaissance and Baroque architecture added over the centuries.

The Roman column next to the church of
Sant'Alessandro is thought to mark the
spot where the saint was murdered
It is where the Venetian east meets the Lombardian west. Because they governed for so long, the Venetians have left behind traces of their culture and style, such as the ornate fountains.

One of the most historically important places in Bergamo is the spot where the patron saint, Sant’Alessandro, was decapitated by the Romans in 298 for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. Yet it is outside the walls in the Città Bassa.

A Roman column in front of the church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna is believed to mark the exact spot where he was martyred.

Every year on 26 August Bergamo remembers Sant’Alessandro’s decapitation in 298. For the first time, in 2010, there was a re-enactment of the event in full costume at the scene as part of the annual Festa di Sant’Alessandro.

The church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of a much earlier church in Via Sant’Alessandro. Its ornate campanile was completed at the beginning of the 20th century.

The church houses a work depicting the martyrdom of Sant’Alessandro by Enea Salmeggia and one showing the transporting of Sant’Alessandro’s corpse by Gian Paolo Cavagna. It also contains paintings by Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto, a Venetian who lived in Bergamo for 12 years.

Via Sant’Alessandro is an ancient winding street that leads down from Porta San Giacomo into the modern centre of Bergamo.

Yet the features and guide book entries that tell you there is nothing of interest in the Città Bassa completely overlook this area.

(An extract from ‘Why Bergamo inspires me as a writer’, a talk given to the Nottingham Dante Alighieri Society in March 2012).

For more information about Bergamo, visit my website www.bestofbergamo.com



Bright fragrant mimosa signals respect for women

Yellow mimosa flowers (pic: Pixabay)
Yellow mimosa flowers (pic: Pixabay)
All over Italy, men will be seen carrying bunches of prettily wrapped mimosa to give to the woman in their lives today.

The flowers might be for their wives, girlfriends, mothers, friends or even employees and are meant as a sign of respect for womanhood.

The custom of men giving mimosa to their ladies began in the 1940s after the date 8 March was chosen as the Festa della Donna (Festival of the Woman) in Italy. The date coincides with International Women's Day.

Yellow mimosa was chosen as the flower to give because it is in bloom at the beginning of March, is relatively inexpensive and the scent of it in the atmosphere is a sign that primavera (spring) is just round the corner.

Continuing with the theme of mimosa, you might see on restaurant menus at this time of the year variations of dishes such as risotto mimosa or pasta mimosa (made with finely scrambled eggs).

And some cake shops will have Torta Mimosa in their windows, a concoction made with sugar, orange juice, whipped cream and orange liqueur.

Buona Festa!



Bergamo airport is dedicated to an artistic genius

When booking flights to Italy you might be puzzled to see references to Caravaggio airport near Milan.

A portrait of Caravaggio
from about 1621
This is because Bergamo airport at Orio al Serio has changed its name to the Caravaggio International Airport Bergamo - Orio al Serio.

ENAC (the Italian civil aviation board) approved the decision by SACBO (the management company of Bergamo airport) to dedicate the airport to the controversial but highly talented painter Michelangelo Merisi.

Bergamo airport is also often referred to as ‘Milan Bergamo’. It is now the fourth busiest airport in Italy and you can fly to it from 29 different countries.

The artist Michelangelo Merisi became known as Caravaggio because he spent the early years of his life living in the small town of Caravaggio just south of Bergamo.

The painter is believed to have been born in Milan in 1571 but his family moved to Caravaggio because of an outbreak of plague.

He returned to train as a painter in Milan but then went on to work in Rome , Naples, Malta and Sicily until his death at Porto Ercole in Tuscany in 1610.

Caravaggio became famous for his paintings for churches and palaces that combine a realistic observation of the physical and emotional state of human beings with a dramatic use of lighting. This was a formative influence for the baroque school of painting.

Despite his artistic success he had a turbulent personal life. He was thrown into jail on several occasions, once vandalised his own apartment and had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

Some of his major works, such as The Calling of St Matthew, the Crucifixion of St Peter and Deposition, can be found in churches in Rome , but his work is also well represented in the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

The town of Caravaggio is worth visiting to see the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Caravaggio, which was built in the 16th century on the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a humble peasant woman.

The Sanctuary was later rebuilt and completed in the 18th century and is now a grand building visited by pilgrims from all over the world.



Why I prefer to celebrate with Prosecco rather than Champagne

On Valentine’s Day, and any other occasions when there is an excuse to crack open the bubbly, you will find me drinking Prosecco.

A prosecco from
A delicate, sparkling white wine, Prosecco is sold by the glass in bars in Italy and is a refreshing drink to order at any time of the day.

Named after the variety of grape it is made from, Prosecco is lighter and more delicate than Champagne because it is bottled while young rather than being fermented.

It is made in the areas of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano in the Veneto region, in the north east of Italy .

The grape, one of Italy’s oldest, was probably named after the town of Prosecco near Trieste, where it  is believed to have originated.

Italy produces 150 million bottles of Prosecco a year, mostly from the area around Valdobbiadene.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Prosecco travels well. It is reasonably priced in the UK , ranging from £6 to £12 a bottle. It is best drunk young, the perfect excuse for not leaving it on the wine rack too long.

When on holiday in Italy, Prosecco is the ideal aperitivo to enjoy before lunch and dinner and is a refreshing drink to order in a bar when you are having a break from sight seeing. Salute!