CHIAVARI, Italy – There is something about Turin that I love. It’s a magical, mysterious city that is happy to not be Italian in the way that Rome or Florence are, but in its own unique way. Turin doesn’t get a lot of press but when it was named host city for the 2006 winter Olympics, it was thrust into the international limelight and that is where our story starts.
The city became a giant construction site. As sport facilities, new transportation systems and parking garages rose from the rubble, locals shrugged, blew away the dust and leaped Olympian hurdles over piles of debris to keep their shoes from getting dirty. Some folks grumbled at the inconvenience but most said it was worth it. After all more than one million sports fans were going to show up for the games and millions more were going to be in front of their TV’s and the city had to make a bella figura, a very good impression.
They shouldn’t have worried. You can’t help but be impressed with Turin even if you see it under a cloud of construction dust. The city is beautiful. Thanks to the genius of three master architects: Amedeo di Castellamonte, Guarino Guarini and Filippo Juvarra, the overriding architectural style is baroque, and even though they worked in different periods the end result is the architecturally homogenous city you see today.
The heart of the city is Piazza Castello where you will find the Royal Palace and Palazzo Madama, but more about that later. First I want to tell you that beneath this bustling piazza there is another mysterious and unknown world where time seems to stand still. Starting from under the Royal Palace there are secret passages that lead to a network of tunnels that run under the entire city. This underground world has served as an escape route in times of trouble. It was also the site of several ancient murders – murders that have never been solved and it is rumored that the caverns are still haunted by the ghost of a young girl murdered in the 1800s.
Also hidden underneath this Piazza are deep caves, called the Caves of Alchemy. Back in the 1600’s, everyone believed in alchemy and sorcerers and it was rumored that this Piazza was the magical heart of the city, at least in terms of white magic. Every night the royal alchemists would descend down into the caves with the hope of finding the secret of changing base metals into purest gold or perhaps discover a potion to extend life. Obviously, they never did.
While the wizards were busy stirring up potions underground, above their heads the French born Giovanna Battista di Savoia-Nemours had married the Duke of Savoy Carlo Emanuele II, whose family would later become the first kings of Italy. Like many other royal pairings in the mid 1600’s, it was an arranged marriage. Giovanna was a reluctant bride and it wasn’t long before she began turning her attention away from her wifely duties. Her many extramarital affairs soon became the talk of Turin society and when her husband, Duke Carlo, died, she quickly moved out of the Royal Palace and into Palazzo Madama. There she continued the tradition started by her mother-in-law Maria Cristina – of entertaining her lovers – right next door to the Royal Palace.
These days people are less concerned with the love affairs of Maria Cristina and her daughter-in-law Christina, and more interested in the architectural beauty of Palazzo Madama that Master architect Fillippo Juvvera created. But Turin is more than just a pretty face. In the mid 1880’s it was the fulcrum of the Risorgimento, the political movement that led to Italy's unification. Turin emerged as Italy’s first capital city and the 17th century Palazzo Carignano, was chosen as the seat of the newly formed Italian Parliament.
The hero and architect of the unification, Count Camillo Cavour, often ate lunch at il Cambio, a restaurant across the street from the Parliament building. The Count always sat near the front windows of the restaurant because his parliamentary page was under orders to step out on the balcony and wave a white handkerchief if the Count was needed in Parliament. When that signal came, the Count would put his fork down and rush out of the restaurant, often in mid bollito misto, and into the building across the street.
Up the street from the Parliament building is Turin’s famous Egyptian museum, hailed as having the best collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. Turin is also the keeper of the Holy Shroud. While the Shroud is rarely on display, in the crypt of the S.S. Sudario church there is a museum which documents its history.
On the other side of town, the origins of Italy’s film industry are on display in Turin’s tallest building, the Mole Antonelliana,. Originally built as a synagogue, today five floors of the Mole are taken up by the Italian National Museum of Cinema. Italian cinema got its start in Turin and the city used to be the center of the Italian film industry, that is until Mussolini, who hated anti-fascist Turin, moved it to Rome.
Through it all runs the Via Roma, the city’s main shopping street, with more shops on the long pedestrian only Via Garibaldi, and along the arcaded Via Po. Two Italian department stores, Coin and Rinascente, are on Via Lagrange, and there are many small specialty shops selling the old and new, including antique furniture, jewelry, fabrics and baking equipment.
The food in Turin is different from mainstream Italian cooking but you can hardly go wrong. Local larders are filled with Piedmont beef and veal, buttery cheeses, salami, rice, pasta and white truffles. Cooks tend to use more butter than olive oil, and sauces are often served with meats and vegetables.
Turin born Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C.’s award winning Galileo Restaurant, and author of “Cooking in Piedmont”, says the region’s three most typical dishes are vitello tonnato, a delicious roast veal in a creamy tuna sauce, brasato al Barolo, Piedmont beef braised in rich Barolo wine, and Count Camillo Cavour’s favorite, bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with a minimum of three sauces. In the rest of Italy, vitello tonnato is considered a cold summer dish, but in Turin it is served even in the winter. They just warm it up.
You’ll find some of the city’s top cafes along the Via Roma and in the area around Piazza Castello and Via Po. It isn’t enough that the cafes have delightful 18th century gilded baroque interiors, they also have barmen that are movie star handsome, and dressed for a Hollywood opening in stiff white shirts and black bow ties. A local specialty is a cold weather drink called bicerin. Order one and watch the barman mix thick, rich hot chocolate with a shot of espresso coffee and top it with a layer of frothy cream, and do it faster than you can say delizioso.
Now, you’d think great museums, good shopping, fabulous cafes and easily the best cuisine in Italy would be enough for any city, but the best is yet to come. Turin is a chocolate lover’s paradise. According to a guide to top European chocolate makers, there are more master chocolatiers in Turin than in all of Belgium and France combined. The two most coveted chocolate makers are Peyrano Fabbrica di Cioccolato, and Tourinto di Gobino. Chocolate making is such a serious business here there is even an annual citywide chocolate festival called ChocolaTò. With more than one hundred stands and kiosks set up around town, you can eat chocolate from morning ‘till night.Turin may be off the popular tourist route but I think that’s what keeps it unique and I hope that never changes.
For more about the fabulous chocolate makers of Turin: http://thisitalianlife.blogspot.it/2013/12/auntie-pasta.html
A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Tribune.