Alessandria is a town in the region of Piedmont, in Northern Italy, an hour drive from Milan, Genoa and Turin. If you could draw imaginary lines between these 3 cities of the industrial north, Alessandria would sit in the middle: a strategic position for a town with some 94.000 inhabitants.
In 2018 the city will celebrate its 850th anniversary. It was founded in 1168 and named after the enemy of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Pope Alexander III.
There are some good reasons to visit this lesser-known Italian town and these are the best places you can visit in a day or two.
Citadel of Alessandria
Video: Paolo Bartone
The citadel is the biggest fortification of its kind in Europe, built in 1732 by Ignazio Bertola during Savoy rule. At the crossroads of Milan, Genoa and Turin the city was built at the intersection of two rivers and therefore its military use has always been important. Since the Italian army left it in 2007 the place is empty and infested with the ailanthus plant.
In 2012 it won the poll of FAI for being the best place of the heart and was later inscribed on the 7 Most Endangered List by Europa Nostra. The European Investment Bank Institute prepared a report with some recommendations. The Italian Culture Minister visited it and in 2017 an investment of 25 million was announced. Notwithstanding its historical value, the place is deteriorating fast.
Richard Meier’s Cittadella Bridge
It is the only bridge Richard Meier has built. The American star architect is famous for his white buildings all over the world, such as the Getty Center in Los Angeles, The Hague City Hall and the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome, but his first bridge is in Alessandria. This bridge replaced a Napoleonic-era bridge after risk assessments following severe flooding in 1994, causing a bit of controversy, but has now become an iconic structure in Alessandria. It connects the city centre to the 18th Century Citadel with parallel routes for pedestrians and cars.
Borsalino hats are world famous and an icon of ‘Made in Italy’ craftsmanship. Giuseppe Borsalino founded the factory in Alessandria in 1857 and soon its stylish fedoras and panama hats were liked and worn by Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Gabriele D’Annunzio. Humphrey Bogart had one in Casablanca. There was even a film named after Borsalino starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. John Belushi wears it in The Blues Brothers and Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films. More recently the likes of Johnny Depp and Pharrell Williams became fans of these hats of an era gone by.
Borsalino left an important legacy, the offices of the old factory now houses the University of Piemonte Orientale and a museum, with a new collection planned in 2018. A hospital, hospice and residential buildings have been financed by the Borsalino family and built by Italian architect Ignazio Gardella. The current factory is outside the city and it employs some 160 people, who are currently fearing to lose their job as a court declared the firm bankrupt due to mismanagement of a previous owner.
Umberto Eco’s Lyceum
Umberto Eco is one of the most important intellectuals of the XX Century but not many people know that he was born in Alessandria. He also attended the local Lyceum in Classical studies, a secondary education school where students focus on Latin and Greek, and kept in contact with friends from the city until he died in 2016. The house where he lived is also nearby in Via Montegrappa 11. In one of his books, Baudolino, Eco recounts the history of the foundation of the city of Alessandria, and also invents a language based on the local Piedmontese dialect.
Santa Maria di Castello and Cloister
This is the oldest church of Alessandria in the old quarter of Borgo Rovereto, dating back to the 15th Century. It has an adjacent cloister that is now an hostel and also houses refugees from Africa. The former refectory has a fresco dating back to 1520. Every year in June there is a Comics and Illustration festival that draws some of the best Italian illustrators and hundreds of fans. In the summer the courtyard of the cloister hosts many events such as concerts, theatre events and yoga sessions. The hostel became quite popular with cyclists and is equipped with a bicycle repair space.
Book rooms at www.ostellodialessandria.it
Cathedral, Conservatory and Palazzo Ghilini
The cathedral of Alessandria was rebuilt in this location following the destruction by Napoleon of the 13th Century cathedral in the nearby Piazza della Libertà. Its tower is the second tallest in Italy. In the square there is a monument to Gagliaudo, the peasant that allegedly saved the town from the siege of Frederick Barbarossa. Opposite the church there is the Conservatory of Alessandria. Not far one of the best examples of 18th Century architecture in Italy, Palazzo Ghilini.
Cemetery of Alessandria
This is a beautiful cemetery that shows the dichotomy between old and new in Alessandria. It is among one of the most important monumental cemeteries of Italy such as Genova, Milan and Rome. It is also mentioned in the book by Sandra Berresford Italian Memorial Sculpture 1820-1940: A Legacy of Love. The older part of the cemetery shows signs of wear while the newest part resembles high rise apartment buildings. Go on a foggy day for maximum authenticity.
Mosaic of the Post Office Building by Gino Severini
Video: Claudio Pasero
This mosaic was created in 1941 by Severini. Although he was associated with fascism during its rise to power in Italy, during the time he created Mosaic of the Post Office Building in Alessandria he was returning to his roots with a more medieval style of art-making, which can be seen in the themes and the style of the mural. The colorful mosaic takes up one full side of an otherwise unadorned post office building in the center of Alessandria.
Only if you are tired after visiting all these places and in need of coffee and sugar! This quiet little cafe has been named the best breakfast of Italy by Gambero Rosso in 2018. They sell coffee, of course, but also are known for their beautiful pastries, cookies, and handmade cakes. They sell bakery that is too pretty to eat molded in the shape of Babbo Natale and other holiday themes. They also have a wide selection of artisanal teas. Go early to avoid long lines.
When to go
3 May 2018: 850th Anniversary of the foundation of the city.
3rd weekend of May 2018: Borgo Rovereto festival.
2 – 3 June 2018: Inchiostro Comics and Illustration Festival 2018.
September 2018: International Guitar competition ‘Michele Pittaluga’.
How to get there
Milan Malpensa Airport is 136 km away
Milan Linate Airport is 109 km away
Turin Airport is 108 km away
Genoa Airport is 78 km away
Alessandria is a major train and motorway hub, however years of underfunding of regional train travel makes it more difficult to reach it from Milan, but there are more frequent trains from Turin and Genoa. Car sharing or renting a car is sometimes the best option.