Nestled amongst the foothills of the Piedmontese Alps, Turin is oft overlooked. Only in a country boasting Milan, Rome and Florence would a city like Turin be demoted to second class. I believe that it should be right up there. As the first capital of a united Italy, Turin was an important political centre from Roman times with a rich architectural heritage. Once its political significance waned in the 20th century, it reinvented itself as an industrial powerhouse, perhaps best known internationally as the home of Fiat and Juventus FC.
Like many industrial cities, Turin seems a little rough around the edges however this lends it an ‘authentic’ character that can be hard to find amongst the tourist swarms of Rome and Florence. The city is not a souvenir city; it’s an Italian city, with undiluted Piedmontese culture. Imagine, if you can, Glasgow but with ancient ruins and renaissance palazzos thrown in. Having been both a grandiose capital and an industrial centre, Turin has a duality that never quite feels reconciled. It is at once harsh and grubby and elegantly sophisticated. This city has no shortage of attractions, but they are largely unspoiled by the throngs of sun hats and selfie sticks that have sanitized its peers.
Of these attractions, your first stop has to be the Mole Antonelliana. This extraordinary architectural marvel towers over the Torinese skyline and is well worth a visit just for its breathtaking views. The building has become an iconic symbol of the city, gracing Italian 2 cent coins and claiming to house the world’s tallest museum. Though the building was intended as a Synagogue, it has housed a succession of museums. Since the millennium, it has been home to The National Cinema Museum. The Museum recounts the story of film including Italy’s enviable contribution complete with a collection of bizarre props and artefacts.
Speaking of artefacts, Turin is also home to the Turin Shroud, which is either one of the most significant Christian relics or one of the world’s greatest forgeries, depending on who you ask. This linen cloth alleged to be the burial shroud of Christ and imprinted with his image. The shroud itself is not on display but there is a museum with reproductions for the curious. Though widely agreed to be a fake by historians and scientists, its importance as an object and symbol is fascinating, if not worth a trip to the rather paltry exhibition.
If you are morbidly inclined however, look no further than the Egyptian Museum. You will find a vast collection with the usual fare of mummies, sarcophagi and stunning statuary displayed beautifully. There are few collections of this size outside of Egypt and though it may seem out of place on a trip to Italy, it’s well worth a visit.
Turin has plenty ancient heritage of its own, however. The city’s lifetime as a political nucleus left no shortage of visible displays of power. The Palatine Towers, a magnificent Roman gate is particularly stunning. An accompanying Roman theatre and ancient statue of Augustus complete the city’s minute archaeological park and they are a welcome surprise should you happen upon them – a likely occurrence, given that they border the Quadrilatero Romana, the best area to aimlessly stroll, grab a drink and eat unpretentious local Piedmontese food.
With food in mind, there are few places better than Turin. This is a bold statement given the worldwide deification of Italian food in general but Piedmontese cuisine is rustic even by Italian standards and its flavours are distinguished from the rest of Italy by its mountainous climate and altitude. Forget olive oil, pasta and pizza; the specialties here are risotto, Bagna Càuda (a fondue made from local Gorgonzola) and famous truffles. The city has also become synonymous with quality chocolate since the Torinese first invented hot chocolate. The city’s serious dedication to the art of cooking is reflected by the international Slow Food Movement (as opposed to the faster variety) that began in Turin and promotes traditional cooking using local ingredients. A huge variety of cuisine can be sampled in the city from the cheap traditional fare of the Quadrilatero Romano to the haute cuisine of the expensive restaurants and bars in the Piazza San Carlo, the city’s prestigious monumental square.
The plaza itself is one of the most visible reminders of Turin’s royal history and continued significance. The centre of the city’s luxury shopping district, the square is a masterpiece of grandiose baroque symmetry. Examples of regal splendour abound in Turin include the gauche Royal Palace which houses the treasures of the Savoy dynasty Kings of Sardinia and later Italy and, further afield, the more tasteful experience of the Stupinigi Palace, an elegant 18th century hunting lodge, is worth the journey and features stunning Trompe-l’oeil frescoes. The dynasty’s rise and the formation of Italy can also be traced in Italy’s most extensive Risorgimento (Italian Unification) Museum, which is housed in the first Italian parliament and the castle of Camillo Cavour, Italy’s Bismarck, just outside the city.
If, unlike me, high culture and history is of no interest then there is ample for those after something more modern. Juventus, Italy’s most popular and internationally renowned football club play at Turin’s Allianz Stadium, where you find the usual fare of stadium tours and club museums. Keen Serie A fans may also want to drop by the Stadio Olympico, home of derby rivals Torino. Automobile enthusiasts and film buffs alike will remember the iconic Lingotto Fiat Factory, with its test track roof, as seen in the film The Italian Job. There is also a state of the art automobile museum that houses over 200 vehicles. Tourist novelty is offered by the bizarre tiny house nicknamed the Fetta de Polenta (slice of polenta) and grinding your heel into the testicle of the bull in Piazza San Carlo (a la Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele).
Turin’s modern architecture is no less exciting than its past. In a city of constant evolution, the fascist Torre Littoria office block (the city’s first high-rise) remains as a reminder of less positive reinventions. The curious churches of Chiesa Del Santo Volto, complete with a brickwork shroud of Turin, and the out-of-town Basilica of San Giovanni Bosco ask important questions about the portrayal of religion in the modern world. The area near the former is also home to the post-industrial Parco Dora development, a public park that memorialises Torinese industry.
Finally, should you want an escape into nature there is the beautiful Parco Del Valentino on the bank of the river Po that features a faux medieval town built for the 1884 International Exhibition. You will get great views of the city if you climb up to the Basilica Superga on the outskirts of town. The city also provides a good base for alpine excursions though can be a little far out if you are planning serious mountaineering expeditions.
Overall, Turin is a city of exciting contrasts that is not quite sure of its identity. It is a very rewarding city to visit as its contradictions allow you to pick and choose from its myriad personalities and discover each of them for yourselves. Its unjust malignment as an industrial city saves it from the cultural desolation left by tourists throughout the peninsular and leaves it as a forgotten gem, its own unique version of Italian civic wonder. If you are looking for an exciting city break, make it Turin but please, just don’t tell everyone.
[ Ruaraidh Campbell – he/him – @roux_campbell ]
[Photo credit: Peter Kinowski/flickr.com]