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My perfect Italy

Bergamo’s ancient honey-coloured walls, empty piazzas and pealing church bells provide Leila McKinnon with the Italy of her dreams.

As much as I love Italy, I've always found it much too rich in fat, sweaty tourists, and sadly lacking in tiny nuns hurrying to church along quiet cobblestone streets.

My fantasy version of Italy doesn't involve hawkers of fake designer bags and sunglasses, queues or crowds. As boisterous, busy and exciting as it is, modern-day Italy doesn't make me yearn for love, poetry and art. Just for clean hair and a quiet Campari and soda.

But in Bergamo, a 16th-century town perched high on a hill in Italy's far north, I finally have my Lucy Honeychurch moment. Lucy, the heroine of EM Forster's classic A Room with a View, opened her window in Florence not just to a view of the Arno, but also to a sensual and cultural awakening.

So when, on an early autumn morning here in Bergamo, I fling wide my balcony door to a view of honey-coloured ancient walls and empty piazzas and hear the echo of the church bells, I know I've finally arrived in the Italy of my dreams. And I'm almost certain that when I head through the narrowest of streets to one of the country's most beautiful squares, I'll pass a flock of diminutive nuns in flapping habits.

Bergamo is home to one of Italy's richest Renaissance art collections, 15th- and 16th-century Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara, some of which can now be seen at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra as part of the Renaissance exhibition. And it's the birthplace of some of the nation's most loved cheeses, cured meats, gelati and olive oils.

The old town has been protected by high walls since Roman times, and every night at 10pm the city's bell tolls a hundred times to call everyone home, although these days the gates aren't shut to potential invaders.

Bergamo is picturesque, sophisticated, and a spring­board to the nearby spas, lakes and mountains. But best of all, it's full of Italians and there isn't a queue in sight.

Best of Bergamo
Salumeria Angelo Mangili
Angelo Mangili is so passionate about local produce that he keeps "embarrassing" salami from other regions under the counter, producing them for me only to demonstrate the comparative quality of Bergamo salami, which is made from the haunches of the fattest pigs. Wealthy women and their pampered dogs come here for the best cheeses, meats and oils of the region. Mangili's most popular cheeses are the sour-hearted Taleggio, the milder Branzi, and the recently fashionable Strachitunt, known as the father of Gorgonzola. Mangili also makes arguably the town's best casoncelli, pasta stuffed with sausage or salami and served with sage butter. Salumeria Angelo Mangili, Via Gombito 8, +39 035 248 774

Al Donizetti
Close by, through the arches of the town's old covered cheese market, you'll find Al Donizetti. Try the cheese plate with a glass of Valcalepio Rosso, the local wine produced from merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes. It's so smooth and dry that it's almost too drinkable. Al Donizetti, Via Gombito 17a, +39 035 242 661.

Accademia Carrara
The home of Bergamo's priceless art collection, which includes works by Raphael, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian, and Lorenzo Lotto. Bellini's two Madonna and Child paintings are heavenly, Botticelli's Christ the Redeemer is heartbreakingly sad, but Lotto's portrait of the fashionable, rich and immensely smug Lucina Brembati is one of my favourites. These and many more of Bergamo's treasured works are now on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, where you can also buy Bergamo's red wines. Accademia Carrara, Piazza Giacomo Carrara 82.

Da Vittorio
Da Vittorio is a three-starred restaurant 15 minutes from the upper city of Bergamo (or 10 minutes in a sports car driven by an energetic Italian). Chef Enrico "Chicco" Cerea is one of five siblings who run the business, and after an apéritivo in the beautiful cellar, we sit down to six courses of seafood, starting with the subtle but clever tuna tartare with pistachio, tapioca with ginger and lime, and chips of yellow rice. The dessert is flamboyantly Italian and is followed by the most extraordinary lolly selection. Di Vittorio, Via Cantalupa 17, Brusaporto, +39 035 681 024.

Trattoria Del Teatro Di Verderio
This homespun trattoria might be hung with gloomy oil paintings but it serves some joyous traditional dishes. When the earthy, apron-wearing waitress warns the porcini risotto takes 20 minutes, I know it's going to be good. And the fettuccine with fresh tomato and basil is outstanding. Trattoria del Teatro di Verderio, Piazza Lorenzo Mascheroni 3, +39 035 238 862

Cattedrale di Bergamo and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Side by side in the beautiful Piazza Duomo are Bergamo's cathedral (or duomo) and Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, a 12th-century church built to thank the Virgin for the town's escape from the plague. While the duomo is all creamy gold baroque magnificence, the basilica features medieval frescoes, each one painted to outshine the last by competing rich families. Cattedrale di Bergamo, Piazza Duomo, +39 035 210 223,; Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Piazza Duomo, +39 035 223 327

Cappella Colleoni
Next door is the grandiose memorial to mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni, clearly not a humble man. He had it decorated with busts of Caesar and bas-reliefs of the life of Hercules. But far more memorable, in my mind at least, are the gates featuring the family crest, which displays Colleoni's three testicles. The legend of Colleoni is so strong that locals still rub this warlord's triple pride and joy for luck. I gave them a bit of a tickle myself. Cappella Colleoni, Piazza Duomo, +39 035 210 061

La Marianna
For me, dessert doesn't come any better than stracciatella, a creamy gelato shot through with flaky chocolate and invented at La Marianna in 1962. And at the restaurant upstairs, I had one of the best steaks I've ever tasted. La Marianna, Largo Colle aperto 2/4, +39 035 247 997.

San Pellegrino Terme and Cornello dei Tasso
San Pellegrino Terme is the source of one of Australia's favourite sparkling waters. Here, 40 minutes' drive from Bergamo, ornate art nouveau statues and mosaics decorate the façade of the crumbling Grand Hotel, and across the river, prosecco-quaffing nude goddesses romp across the walls of the well-preserved casino. Work has begun to restore these historic buildings, and the reputation of the town itself, to former glory: during the Belle Époque, Italians flocked here to take the waters. Fifteen minutes' drive away and a short walk from the road is where you can step back another six or seven hundred years to a tiny medieval market town lost in time. A bypass on the trade route took it off the map and today Cornello dei Tasso is almost exactly as a medieval traveller would have found it.

Little polenta cakes
While the wealthy collected art and dined on bread, the poor of Bergamo once existed on polenta and the meat of small birds. I've enjoyed a wealth of art, culture and food here, but these super-sweet cakes decorated with chocolate birds pay tribute to hungrier times.

Little polenta cakes
While the wealthy collected art and dined on bread, the poor of Bergamo once existed on polenta and the meat of small birds. I've enjoyed a wealth of art, culture and food here, but these super-sweet cakes decorated with chocolate birds pay tribute to hungrier times.

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