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 THREE / Today you can linger over breakfast in the hotel café before taking a taxi to Castello di Rivoli, a royal manor house that has been deftly remodeled into Turin’s finest contemporary art venue, with works by international talents such as Sol LeWitt, Rebecca Horn, and Tony Cragg. For many, the pièce de résistance of the visit will be lunch at Combal.0 (pronounced “Combal punto zero”), the museum restaurant guided by
Michelin-starred chef Davide Scabin. His signature “cyberegg” is caviar, black pepper, egg yolk, vodka, and other goodies served in a shiny plastic shell, which you puncture with a scalpel and imbibe in a gulp.
Then travel back to town—and back in time—to the late–15th century San Giovanni cathedral, which houses the famed, controversial Shroud of Turin (sindone in Italian). Though the cloth is folded away in a silver casket except on rare showings, a reproduction on the wall gives you a sense of this enigmatic relic, which some believe is the shroud that wrapped Jesus’ body after he was taken down from the cross and others think a cunning medieval fabrication. More satisfying to many visitors are the cathedral’s austere Renaissance façade, its ancient gravestones, and the magnificent Renaissance triptych in the second chapel of the right aisle.
Just outside the cathedral is the imposing Roman gate tower and ruined theater, remnants of the original Roman settlement of Augusta Taurinorum, founded by Julius Caesar. After touring the busy Piazza della Repubblica, the site of Europe’s largest open-air market, walk west to Piazza della Consolata, for a visit to Bicerin. Step inside and you’ll see why Bicerin is dear to every torinese heart, with the snug, wood-paneled atmosphere of a well-to-do Turin parlor and ladies behind the bar who receive you like family. Order the signature beverage, the bicerin, a warming mélange of specially blended espresso and drinking chocolate that you sip through a cloud of cool whipped cream, while browsing the plate of fresh-baked cookies that the ladies have provided.
Afterward, step across the square into the nondescript Santuario della Consolata, Turin’s favorite church, to see the extensive collection of ex votos, naif paintings thanking the Virgin Mary for salvation from shipwrecks, oxcart crashes, falls from amusement park rides, and other mishaps. Then explore the surrounding Quadrilatero Romano, once a bleak skid row recently renovated to become one of Turin’s “in” quarters. Autopsie Vestimentaire, an imaginative designer-clothes boutique, showcases the neighborhood’s avant-garde style.
Tonight’s aperitivo is at Pastis, as posh and comfortable as a Left Bank bistro, where you can sip a Punt e Mes vermouth with an orange slice and feast on the spread of hors d’oeuvres. You could easily make this dinner and pass the rest of the evening exploring the Quadrilatero, packed with Turin’s trendiest clubs and bars. Instead, take a cab to the nearby Antiche Sere, where Antonella Rosa and her extended family welcome you at one of Turin’s few remaining old-style trattorie. The straightforward, subtly textured flavors of the meal, the unpretentious but hearty house red, and the stunning desserts (the panna cotta, a crème caramel rich enough to stand a saber in, ought to bear a warning label) are like Turin itself: understated, genuine, memorable. u Tom Mueller, a longtime HEMISPHERES writer based in Italy, also contributes to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times.
Winter’s chill lingers in Turin through February. Highs most often reach the 40s Fahrenheit, and lows dip into the upper 20s or low 30s. Precipitation is lowest during winter, but low clouds and fog can make for a bleak landscape. Light snowfalls are possible. Rainfall increases in spring; May is the wettest month of the year. The sun still shines about half the time, as most rain comes in the form of showers and thunderstorms. Temperatures warm into the 60s and 70s, and overnight lows rise into the 50s. Summer features partly cloudy skies, the chance of a thunderstorm every few days, and highs in the lower 80s. By fall, cold fronts and Mediterranean storms enhance rainfall to a secondary peak in October. High temperatures fall into the low 50s in November.
Weather information is provided by The Weather Channel. For more Turin climatological details, visit weather.com.
Turin is about 90 minutes by train from Malpensa airport. Your first stop should be one of the well-stocked tourist information offices (best is at Piazza Solferino; www.comune.torino.it) for a city map and a Torino Card (€15 for 48 hours, €17 for 72 hours), which allows free travel on public transport and free or reduced-price tickets at museums. Turin’s flat, right-angle street plan is easy to navigate on foot. Most of the key sites are within a 10-minute walk of Piazza Castello, the historic center.
Turin’s museums contain hits for all tastes. Military fans will love the Armeria Reale, one of Europe’s most impressive collections of antique weaponry. More pacific but no less spell-binding is the Museo della Marionetta, hundreds of marionettes housed in a historic theater. Car buffs young and old will revel in the Museo dell’Automobile.
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