Turin was something of an afterthought when we planned this odyssey (if an odyssey can, properly speaking, be planned). To the extent that we thought of Turin at all, the associations were cars – meh! – and football – more meh! So when we had an unexpected gap in the itinerary, our only thought was that, since we are in northern Italy, a couple of weeks here seemed more a matter of logic – filling in the gaps – than anything else. Now that two weeks is almost over, and it seems absurd that we never had Turin on our list as a highlight to be anticipated with the same delight as Rome, Venice, or Florence.
The first thing that strikes you, almost from the moment you leave the railway station and find yourself on busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, is that this city is very self-consciously a royal capital. Almost every piazza has a statue of one member or another of the house of Savoy who for almost a thousand years ruled, as Counts, Dukes and Kings, a region that included at various times Sardinia and Sicily, as well as modern Piedmont and bits of France and Switzerland. Not to mention providing the four Kings of a unified Italy after 1861. They are a martial lot on the whole, usually portrayed astride a horse, waving a sword at their invisible enemies, severe and determined expressions stamped on their features. And though Turin has lots of piazze, there were also a hell of a lot of Savoyard worthies to celebrate, so almost every street is named after one or another of them.
The very layout of the city has an imperial feel, too. The core urban street layout mimics and extends the city’s Roman origins as Augusta Taurinorum, with long, straight streets arranged in a nice neat grid. But after 1563 Turin became the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, and its new importance spurred the development, over the next two centuries, of the grand piazze and wide, colonnaded boulevards that are the hallmark of the city today. Inserted like jewels into this fabric are the grand palazzi of the royal family and their retainers – the enormous Palazzo Reale in the middle of the city, the Palazzo Madama, a baroque building stuck onto one side of the original 16th Century Castello, and the vast Palazzo Carignano, which today houses the Risorgimento Museum, to name only the three most significant.
Like most European cities, the historic centre of Turin is a lived-in place. For the most part, the city’s apartments are contained in eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings of a uniform five stories in height, plus in many cases a mansard roof pierced with dormer windows. Many apartments have full length, Venetian-shuttered doors opening onto balconies that overhang the street, and the apartment buildings are usually arranged around an internal courtyard, which means that even a small apartment like ours can get an abundance of light and air-flow. At street level, there are the usual shops and restaurants, and much of the city centre is either completely pedestrianised or subject to limited traffic rules, so wandering the streets is a pleasant, diverting experience. People, not cars, are masters here, and those drivers who are moving about the city streets are cautious, almost ginger, as they patiently wait for pedestrians who take, in true Italian fashion, as much time as they want to cross the street.
Nowhere are people more in evidence than on the piazze of the city. Those in Turin are particularly grand; the daddy of them all, the Piazza Vittorio Veneto is reputed to be the largest square in Europe, something that is easy to believe when you stand in its centre and contemplate the acres of open space that stretch in every direction. One of our favourites, the Piazza San Carlo, though somewhat smaller, is still grand in scale and to my mind is every bit as elegant as Piazza San Marco in Venice. There are many other piazze in the city, big and small – in fact, even as we prepare to leave we are still discovering some we hadn’t noticed before – but regardless of whether they are grand or modest, every piazza is lined by restaurants and the benches and statues are filled with people enjoying the sunny days or the early evening cool before they go off to dinner.
Taken together, all these characteristics – the wide boulevards, the grand architecture and public places, the uniformity of the apartment buildings – have led to the common characterisation of Turin as an Italian Paris. I can see that – though for me the presence of iron balconies overlooking the street also evokes Madrid or Barcelona – but it is still very much an Italian city, if one that has a lot of self-satisfaction about it; as an English expatriate writer who lives in Turin who we met the other day put it, “Turin has always been so rich that the Torinese don’t actually care much what outsiders think of them. For example, if they speak English to you it’s not because they have to, but because they want to”.
Turin does after all have a lot to be proud of. Though it has had periods when it has been under the foreign yoke, most notably between 1802 and 1814 when Piedmont was annexed by Napoleon, for most of its history Turin has been the capital of a successful and wealthy independent state, one that in the eighteenth century was much admired and envied throughout Europe. And Piedmont was the engine room of the unification of Italy, driven by the King and his wily, corpulent prime minister, Camille Benso, Count Cavour, who can be easily imagined sitting in his natural environment, the coffee shops on the Piazza San Carlo, wreathed in cigar smoke, arms waving as he plotted and planned for a unification of Italy that many thought was actually not much more than a grand power grab by the Piedmontese.
When that objective was achieved, and Vittorio Emanuele became King of Italy, Turin became the new country’s capital for a few years. The wonders of industrialisation arrived with the new century, and Turin rapidly developed as a manufacturing centre, with the establishment of Fiat and Lancia initiating the development of one of the most successful automotive industries in the world. That drove the city’s prosperity through the vicissitudes of the First World War, the rise of Fascism, and the trauma of the Second World War, and the automotive industry then played a pivotal role in the economic miracle of Italian recovery after the war. Only relatively recently has the city suffered a degree of decline, because of the various oil crises and the long running difficulties of the auto industry, though the depopulation that it caused has been reversed in recent years. And finally there were the highly successful Winter Olympics that the city hosted in 2006.
There are a few curiosities that we have observed in our time here that make Turin seem quite different from the other cities we have visited so far. One of the most striking is the relative absence of non-Italian tourists. They are around, certainly, but not in anything like the numbers we experienced in Rome, Venice and Florence, cities whose character is almost crushed by the weight of tourism. There are plenty of Italian tourists, though, who come here for the museums, the food, and the football. That also means that English is not as widely spoken here as elsewhere; it is common to go into a restaurant, for example, and find that none of the staff speak any English, something that rarely happened in Florence.
Speaking of food, it is as ubiquitous here as elsewhere in Italy; sandwich shops, bars and restaurants display the usual Italian goodies and Piedmontese specialities with the usual care and panache. But it is also curious that Turin has something of an obsession with Asian cuisine; there are Sushi shops all over the place, along with quite a few Chinese restaurants (though one, I remember, rather cunningly hedged its bets, offering both Chinese and Italian cooking – it would have been interesting to see the kitchen at work there!).
One footnote to add a small dose of vinegar to temper what might be a rather rose-tinted view of the city (with apologies for the mixed metaphor). Like most tourists, we’ve spent the bulk of our time in the historic core of the city, which is charming and beautiful. But we did make a trip out to visit the Venaria Reale palace (more on this below) that took us through the suburbs, which are, to be polite about it, pretty scruffy. Dominated by uninspired apartment blocks built in the fifties, when town planning seems to have gone missing in action for a decade, the streets are blighted by graffiti, the few green spaces are unkempt and overgrown by weeds, and the roads are potholed and in need of repair. This is not an unusual pattern in Italy – as one writer put it, it is almost as if there was a tacit agreement after the war to preserve the historic centres while allowing developers to have free rein outside those limits. Italy’s present economic difficulties have plainly exacerbated the problem.
So that’s Turin. A surprise for us (though I am sure not for some), and a thoroughly enchanting city with lots to see and do – it’s taken us two weeks, and there are still a few things we’ve missed. And as a bonus, in true travel article style, here are our best half-dozen:
The Mole Antonelliana and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. The Mole is the national symbol of Turin, a 167 metre tower which was originally intended to be a synagogue; it was never used as a place of worship, and was instead dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II and used as a museum to Italian unification until 1938. Today it offers panoramic views of the city from a viewing platform reached in a glass lift suspended only by cables – on the way up through the interior of the dome it is as if you are floating in space. And the dome itself now houses the quite marvellous national cinema museum, not so much a museum as a temple to the art form, with an emphasis on Italy’s contributions, naturally. The section dealing with the development of cinema from its earliest says is absolutely fascinating.
Museo Egizio. Personally, I tend to find Egyptian museums a bit of a bore – endless rows of expressionless statues and acres of ancient pots – but this museum is very different. Superbly curated, it is the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside Cairo. The collection is organised and presented in such a way as to give a real insight into everyday life in Egypt, as well as the usual mummies and statues. There is also an excellent section on the Italian Egyptian expeditions. Well worth the visit and not a moment of boredom.
Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano. This museum does need a bit of preparation if you’re not Italian. Housed in the vast Palazzo Carignano, the museum charts every moment of the unification of Italy. Though the displays are beautifully organised and very accessible in themselves, a bit of an understanding of the Risorgimento is needed to follow the labyrinthine path of the country’s journey to nationhood. Nonetheless, we found it an absorbing and fascinating place to visit.
Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile. Turin is the home of the Italian car industry, so going to see this museum seemed a requirement. Though neither of us are car-buffs, we were enchanted and fascinated by this purpose-built homage to the automobile located near the former Fiat factory. The displays are original and innovative, and take you on a journey through the development of the automobile from its earliest days, with a focus of course on Fiat, Lancia, and Ferrari.
Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Having overdosed on Renaissance and Baroque art in Florence, it was great to visit a first class modern art gallery. The permanent collection is huge, but the gallery hires curators to reconfigure the displays on a regular basis. A real treat.
The Venaria Reale. This enormous palace complex was progressively developed by the House of Savoy as its country residence. It is one of the largest royal residences in the world, but was abandoned after Napoleon’s conquest of Piedmont and fell into complete decay. An extraordinary €235 million restoration project funded by the EU has resulted in the reincarnation of a truly astounding royal residence. The museum tracks the thousand-year history of the Savoys, using many innovative techniques, including film sequences specially produced by Peter Greenaway.
And honourable mentions go to the Parco Valentino, a tranquil public park along the Po River, complete with fake medieval village and castle, which was a great place for us to get away from the city for a while; The Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, housed in a Castello in the suburb or Rivoli, which Robert visited and reported to be “amazing”; and the Palazzo Reale in the centre of the city, which has an extraordinary art collection.