Driving Tour: Castle Circuit & the Good Pope

  • Start Bergamo
  • End Bergamo
  • Length 105km; one day

The plains south of Bergamo are dotted with interesting towns and villages, some of them dominated by castles and palaces that stand as eloquent testament of their colourful history.

Take the SS42 east out of Bergamo, or drop south to the A4 motorway and head a short way east, turning south at the Seriate exit, taking the SP498 provincial road for Cavernago, a village presided over by one of several forts built by the mercenary commander Bartolomeo Colleoni. Castello Colleoni, a turreted, stone hulk, looms up on the right as you trundle south into Cavernago. It was raised in the Middle Ages but substantially overhauled in the 17th and 18th centuries. You can peek through slits at the entrance to see the frescoed gallery around the courtyard.

Barely 3km southwest, on a farming estate, lies the crenellated brickwork of Castello di Malpaga, another Colleoni residence. He had the original 14th-century castle expanded, turning the original defensive walls into a kind of interior courtyard. Some original frescoes still remain in place.

Picking up the SP498 again head to Romano di Lombardia and the A35 autostrada. When you reach the A35 turn west to Treviglio and after 12km exit for Caravaggio. Aside from the impressive Chiesa dei Santi Fermo e Rustico, with its brick Gothic facade, fine frescoes and imposing 16th-century bell tower, and its claim to fame as the birthplace of the like-named artist, the town's main attraction lies along a tree-lined boulevard about 1.5km southwest of the centre. The Santuario della Madonna di Caravaggio is a grandiose building started on the orders of Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, after an alleged sighting on this spot of the Virgin Mary in 1432. With its fine dome and richly decorated 18th-century interior, it remains a major object of pilgrimage today.

A short hop northwest brings you to Treviglio (pop 25,000), at whose centre rises the Collegiata di San Martino, a brick Gothic church with a deep baroque makeover and typically impressive tower. A minor country road leads northeast out of Treviglio for Brignano Gera d'Adda, home to the Palazzo Visconti (Via Vittorio Emanuele II), one of several Visconti castles in the area. Now a baroque residence jammed with frescoes and backed by an overgrown garden, the palazzo is undergoing renovation. Barely 3km southeast, in Pagazzano, stands yet another Visconti castle, the Castello di Pagazzano, this one decidedly more fortress-like and surrounded by a (filled) moat. The museum inside recounts rural life and includes a 1736 wine press.

Crespi d'Adda, some 20km northwest along various country roads, is a perfect example of the workers' town and factory built by enlightened industrialists in various parts of Europe in the late 19th century. Here, the Crespi textile dynasty built cotton mills (which only closed in 2004), modest but pleasant housing for employees, a rather boisterous castle for the family and various services. The whole town was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. The village (www.villaggiocrespi.it) is still inhabited, so there are no formal visiting hours. If hunger strikes, make for Osteria da Mualdo (Via Privata Crespi 6).

From Crespi, follow the Adda river north 15km to Carvico. Two kilometres east is Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII. Angelo Roncalli was born in this hamlet in 1881, which, as its name suggests, lies at the foot of a vineyard-draped mount that is topped by a medieval tower. In 1958, he become Pope John XXIII. In his five years as pontiff, he changed the face of the Catholic Church through the Vatican II Council reforms. You can visit his humble birthplace in the centre of town and a small museum set up in a house he used on summer holidays as cardinal.

From here, it is an 18km drive east back into Bergamo along the SP166 road.