The Italian town with an English secret
- 25 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
The Italian Riviera has long welcomed British travellers - as a result the legacy of Victorian tourists can still be seen today. An English-language library founded in the 19th Century is still open for business.
In modern tourism it's not enough to have a good climate and the Mediterranean shuffling its endless cobalt blue beside your beaches.
Even Alassio's quick and convenient rail links from Nice down to Milan draw in few non-Italians these days.
Today the attractive seaside town in Liguria is not on the international travel industry's A-list - but it used to be.
When composer Edward Elgar and his wife Alice alighted here in December 1903 the couple would have heard English voices all around them.
In late Victorian and Edwardian times Alassio - like other resorts on the Italian Riviera - was a place to recuperate and to escape the cold north for the winter.
Even then the town's extraordinary English-language library was well established.
That it still opens its doors four afternoons a week 136 years after it was founded is largely the work of one remarkably dedicated woman - Jacqueline Rosadoni.
Born Jacqueline Poole in London, she came to Alassio almost by accident in 1959.
She was 19 and stopping off briefly before going to Florence. But she fell in love with a local plumber: they married and they've been here ever since.
She tells me she hasn't been back to England for 35 years.
Jacqueline unlocks the heavy doors and we enter the quiet of a building constructed as an art gallery but which resembles a small Edwardian church.
The walls are covered with shelves and there are aisles of books - some 18,000 of them, carefully arranged by subject and available for loan.
That the street outside is the Viale Hanbury speaks of the era when English money did much to transform what had been a poor fishing village.
Rosadoni settles into the librarian's chair she has occupied, unpaid, for 27 years.
Even in her time, she recalls, an Anglican vicar would come from Genoa to hold services but the congregation became too small.
After that, if a special service was required a vicar would be persuaded down from Nice.
Jacqueline smiles ruefully - that generally meant a funeral.
Today the permanent British community - once many hundred - is about 15, with perhaps the same number again resident for part of the year.
The town's mayor arrives to say hello. Once the Anglican archdiocese of Gibraltar paid most of the library's bills.
Today, in an act of huge civic generosity it's the town which supports it. The library, the mayor says, was part of Alassio life - it's not easy to find the money but no one could bear to see it close.
He studies an original handbill from the Elgar era.
"Alassio English Library - near English Church and Tea Garden. Largest British Library on Riviera! Open daily during season. Newest books on hire weekly from Harrods, London."
The mayor goes and we inspect the shelves behind us. It's clear parts of the stock have been there since before World War Two.
Rows and rows of faded spines provide a curious snapshot of what appealed to the Alassio English of the 1920s and 30s.
A few of the authors remain familiar, such as Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham. But I ask Jacqueline if people now really take out the works of Marie Belloc Lowndes or enquire after The Abbot's Heal by Neil Bell.
Rosadoni is an honest woman. No, she says, some of those books haven't been issued in all the years she's been here.
There is, she admits, the odd day in winter when no one comes in at all and she wonders if she should carry on.
But the next day eight or 10 people come and she decides she can't possibly let the library close after all these years.
There is a children's section here but, Rosadoni admits, few visitors these days have an interest in Enid Blyton or the stories of RM Ballantyne.
So now Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett feature too - and paperback thrillers for the grown-ups.
The cover of Fifty Shades of Grey would have shocked - or baffled - readers in the 1870s. Some of the new books Rosadoni buys, others are donated.
Alassio's honorary librarian offers to walk me back to the station.
We make a small diversion to see the Villa San Giovanni, where Elgar stayed all those years ago.
In fact, Rosadoni tells me, the Elgars were disappointed by the weather - it was very rainy that winter - and they went back to London early, never to return.
Rosadoni's stay in Alassio has lasted 55 years so far.
"It was supposed to be just a few days but it became my life. How can you tell how things will turn out?" she says.
As we part she adds one more thing.
"I never got to Florence. Not ever. Everything I wanted was here."
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