My hotel, the Townhouse 70, was located on via XX Settembre, right in the heart of the historic city center of Turin. Much of the downtown had vehicle restrictions in place, restrictions of varying intensity. The broad, shop-lined via Garibaldi and the few remaining slinky medieval passages that led away from it, for example, were pure pedestrian havens, perfect places for an afternoon or evening of leisurely window-shopping or chatting with groups of friends. On many of the other downtown streets, the ones within striking distance of the monuments and main squares and historic sights, only the more public modes of transportation – trams, city buses, taxis, even hired cars with drivers – were allowed. All personal vehicles were prohibited.
Fine by me. I had already abandoned the idea of picking up the rental car from the airport. Navigating a foreign city (in an unfamiliar car, using a borrowed GPS) after a restless night of plane sleep seemed like a bad idea anyway, with or without local traffic regulations. Driving myself around could wait until I left for Alba, and I used the thirty-minute taxi ride to plan a walk to pass my first few hours in Turin.
In 1861, Turin – Torino – became the capital of a newly united parliamentary government. In later years, the city lost that honor to the larger, more centrally located Rome, and today, Turin goes about its daily business as Italy’s fourth largest city, for the most part unvisited by American tourists. I was using its good location as a jumping off spot for a driving trip around Piemonte, but still I was curious about a city I knew so little about. But what is its modern day character? I wondered. If Rome epitomizes history and the roots of civilization, and Florence is the classical arts capital, and Milan is Italy’s financial and fashion center, what place does Turin hold? Many people asked me the same questions before I left on my trip, their perceptions limited to Turin’s industrial history as the home of Fiat Motors and auto assembly lines, and to its one-time role as Winter Olympics host city.
Walking around on that hazy and warm Saturday in October, I found a city that can’t, and shouldn’t, be defined by belching smokestacks or abandoned sports stadiums. Turin is far more beautiful, more culturally rich and exciting than many people know, and very worthy of exploring.
In the late 1500s, Turin was made the hub of the Savoy duchy, the area captured by the French royalty who traveled east to claim it. Not long after, the new leader, Emanuele Filiberto, in an early example of vision-based urban planning, began to eliminate much of the hodgepodge of Turin’s narrow medieval lanes and shoehorned buildings, opening up the space, replacing the old with the new: a length of stately buildings on wider streets. Downtown today, there are almost no hints of heavy industry but for a few mentions of Fiat. Instead, cohesive architecture – the pale stone facades, buildings that reach uniform height, fanned out streets lined with colonnaded walkways – graces the heart of the city. Along certain piazzas, on particular long boulevards, if you squint your eyes and look through the blur, you might believe you are in Paris. The French influence is there.
But Turin is also undeniably Italian: social, animated, yet also relaxed as if there is nothing more important than the moment.
Café culture thrives with choices of either traditional Torinese bicerin served up in a coffee house or quick shots of espresso taken at the counter of a favorite bar. Restaurants specializing in Piemontese cuisine and relying on local products and techniques teem with people during the midday meal, all chatting, smoking, eating vitello tonnato or tajerin or agnolotti over the course of an hour or two. After lunch there is the gelato in il cono, perfectly portable for those few last moments of lingering in a piazza before heading to the shops or back to work or home, to prepare for an evening out at the opera. Or maybe a quick trip to a favorite confetteria for a small piece of gianduja, the region’s specialty chocolate blended with hazelnut paste. Everywhere you look as you eat your cioccolata or your gelato, there are haircuts to admire, all quiffs and angular lines and architectural height, and beautiful clothes, and even more beautiful shoes, the fashion cutting edge.
©2014 Jane A. Ward