A little over fifty-two years ago I had never heard of Alba, Italy. Through the past five decades my understanding of and my connection to Alba has continuously evolved. I could try to describe our sister city with facts and descriptive adjectives but they would all fall short of explaining what Alba is and what it means to me. While my history with Alba is longer than most, it is only one story and one perspective. Read on. We might have much in common.
One might ask if my affection for Alba stems from the mere fact that it is our sister city. In truth having formal to ties this unique city is very serendipitous. Medford has been paired with a very special city that in many ways has no peer. Alba has so many facets and qualities that set it aside from other Italian cities. It is the sum of all of these that define Alba like the score of a great symphony. While I would love to be able to explore all of the cities and towns of Piemonte, I am convinced that I would not find another quite like Alba.
Alba’s rich history has done much to shape the city we know today. From the neolithic settlers along the banks of the Cherasca to the valiant partisans of the Second World War, Alba’s arc of history is filled with nobility, heroism, creativity and determination. Even poor students of history like myself cannot help but be fascinated by the story of Alba through the millennia. Very few Italian cities of any size can boast of being the birthplace of a Roman emperor, but Alba has its own Elvio Pertinace. Only the environs of Alba can claim Camillo Benso the Count of Cavour, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Italy. Scholars of European history will appreciate how Alba’s history is intertwined with the course of events that have led to the continent as it is today.
Over thousands of years Alba has been washed by the ebb and flow of power and conquest in southern Europe. It has been under many flags and many leaders, some benign and some despotic. Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederic Barbarossa, Hannibal and many other notable figures of history passed through or near Alba. Alba has been under the rule of the Roman Empire the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Spanish, various city states and European family dynasties. Waves of barbarian tribes invaded and occupied Alba and the surrounding Langhe. Even its conquerors remarked on what an idyllic place they had found.
Perhaps none of the reigns is quite as important to modern day Alba as was its briefest. For twenty-three days in October and November of 1944, Alba was the Free Republic of Alba. Courageous partisans recaptured the city from its Nazi occupiers and fascist oppressors and raised a new flag over Alba, paying a great price for their defiance.
Walking Alba’s streets and plazas is a great way to embrace Alba’s history. It is not hard to imagine being in medieval Alba or Alba of other centuries past. Beautiful architectural monuments of every era tell Alba’s story with eloquence and grandeur. The remaining brick towers are the signature features of the “City of a Hundred Towers”, relics from the days of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the rival families of Romeo and Juliet. There are many opportunities to experience “Alba Pompeia” of Roman times touring the well preserved remnants of the Roman city a level below the streets of modern day Alba.
I like to think of Alba as the principal gem in an exquisite piece of jewelry. The setting of the jewel enhances its indescribable beauty. The surrounding hilltop towns and castles are precious gems of the masterpiece tied by history, culture and commerce to Alba in the center. The hills of the Langhe are the background fabric, lushly carpeted in vineyards, orchards, fields and forests. Each town and village has its unique culture and history, indelibly linked to the capstone that is Alba. Beyond the verdant Langhe are the majestic Alps, a stunning natural backdrop that perfectly complements the human crafted beauty of the city. On clear days, the snow capped giants appear to be within walking distance of Alba’s historic center.
When Medford and Alba first became acquainted, Alba’s wonders were still well kept secrets. Over the first few years of our “gemellaggio” we learned of its prized wines and culinary delights. We were introduced to the enigmatic White truffle of Alba and soon realized why the world is drawn to Alba. With each trip to Alba we became more enamored with its cuisine. Tajarin, vitello tonnato, carne cruda, bagna cauda were dishes we relished in Alba and pitifully tried to imitate at home. Fontina, Bruss and Toma left our domestic cheeses somewhat disappointing. The recipes of the Langhe are the reason busloads of European tourists arrive in Alba and frequent some of the best restaurants in the world.
We now understand that the wonderful food of Alba and the Langhe is the product of a remarkable food ecosystem, with all of the towns and villages contributing to the gustatory ensemble. Each has its own food specialties to offer be it sausage, peppers or cheese. Not only is the food unique from hilltop to hilltop but each locale has is signature wine to add to the opus that is Piemontese cuisine. It is no wonder that one of the very few restaurants to merit three Michelin stars in right in Alba’s “living room”, Piazza Risorgimento. Even the simple trattorie and osterie of Alba serve delights that make a trip to Alba more than worth the effort.
Alba’s economic success is written in brand names like Ferrero, Miroglio, Mondo Rubber and Eataly. The phenomenon of the entrepreneurs of Alba should be required reading along the way to an MBA. It’s a marvelous meeting of people, place and history that makes Alba the world center of small family businesses gone global. Link to article
Even if another city could possibly boast of all these unique attributes, it would not likely have the thing that most sets Alba apart from others, the people of Alba. Alba has about the same number of people today as it did when Medford was introduced to Alba. Many individuals who first welcomed their sister city on the other side of the globe are still thriving in Alba and working to bring the two cities closer together. If this were a book, and surely one should be written, it might be possible to tell all their stories.