TURIN IS A HOUDINI CITY THAT has transformed itself many times over the centuries, from Roman army camp to medieval trading village to the baroque first capital of unified Italy, and then to the capital of Italian industry when Fiat was born here. In the 1980s, Fiat started downsizing, so the industrious torinesi began reinventing their city once again, converting hubcap factories and royal castles into art galleries, concert halls, architects’ studios, and posh hotels. Turin became a European capital of contemporary art, music, design, and high-tech. The Slow Food movement, born nearby, has added luster to the age-old culinary traditions of Turin and the surrounding Piedmont region, a heartland of Italian cuisine. When Turin was selected to host the 2006 Winter Olympics, massive new investments helped it put the finishing touches on its sweeping remake. Turin is now in its finest form in a century. Turin doesn’t feel like any other Italian city, or, at times, like an Italian city at all. Its broad, tree-lined boulevards and baroque palaces recall an Austro-Hungarian capital such as Prague or Vienna, while certain quiet, manicured squares could be in London. Most of all, Turin resembles Paris, in its mansard roofs and airy art nouveau façades, its cafés, and its taste for pastries, chocolates, and aperitifs. Yet despite its cosmopolitan charms, natives speak of their town with a most un-Italian self-deprecation. Forgetting the visionary gambles of their past, they claim to be hopelessly provincial, as unadventurous and square as their city’s right-angle street grid. They say they are reserved, even unfriendly with visitors (though they smile as they do so, and will soon be treating you to coffee at a favorite café). And no doubt because of their abiding inferiority complex with Milan, their larger, glitzier neighbor to the southeast, they seem convinced that their town has nothing to interest a visitor. Most tourists seem to have believed them, and travelers here have an opportunity for exploration and discovery that is rare indeed in Italy. Perhaps this sense of freedom is what appealed to the notoriously hard-to-please Friedrich Nietzsche, who said Turin was the one city he loved: “Tranquil, almost solemn. A classic landscape for the eyes and the feet ... I’d never have believed that a city, thanks to its light, could become so beautiful!”
Author Tom Mueller Photography Andrea Pistolesi
DAY TWO / Your second day dawns in Caffè Baratti & Milano, another storied coffeehouse, where well-heeled torinesi gather throughout the day to talk politics and the Olympics and stock up on sweets. Afterward, tour the nearby Galleria Sabauda, a fine collection of Italian and Flemish old masters featuring the likes of Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, and Van Eyck.
Next enjoy a rather less platonic experience on the Via Maria Vittoria, the center of the local antiques trade. Stop at the shop of Tina Biazzi, where the expert, opinionated Tina gives lucky patrons a short course in art nouveau, describing the antiques in her gorgeous collection and speaking of their prominent fin-de-siècle artists—Gallé, Daume, Majorelle—like old friends. You’ll come away with an appreciation of how art nouveau artists avoided straight lines, celebrated the curve and floral patterns, and united décor with architectonic form in a seamless whole. Then visit Libreria Antiquaria Pregliasco, which has one of Italy’s richest selections of antique books and prints, the fruit of patient research and canny bidding by soft-spoken proprietor Arturo Pregliasco.
Three blocks north on Via Montebello is the Mole Antonelliana, Turin’s icon and one of Italy’s most delightful white elephants. After long periods of abandonment, the Mole now houses a cluttered but extensive cinema museum, a neon and Plexiglas bar as atmospheric as a film set, and an observation deck with superb views of the city and the nearby Alps.
Wander among the modern art galleries of Via della Rocca, lingering in two beautiful squares along the way: tiny, tree-lined, Londonesque Piazza Maria Teresa and the pleasingly Parisian Piazza Cavour. Then walk east two blocks to the River Po, and follow it to the Parco del Valentino, where the locals play soccer, row on the river, and lounge on the broad lawns in fine weather.
Back in town, it’s again the aperitivo hour and high time for a glass of Barbaresco or a flute of superb Sicilian spumante at Le Vitel Etonné, a wine bar and restaurant that has become one of Turin’s favorite watering holes. The enticing hors d’oeuvres table is a mere foretaste of the piemontese specialities to come at dinner. Afterward, round out this full-bodied evening with a concert of classical or contemporary music by the RAI Symphony Orchestra in the impressive, just-remodeled Auditorium RAI.
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