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A Portrait of Turin

Turin is one of the prettiest, liveliest, and most intriguing cities in Northern Italy. As the hometown of car manufacturer Fiat, however, Turin is often mislabeled an "Italian Detroit," and neighboring Milan and Genoa get more press (and tourists). This is entirely unfair.
View of the arch of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic in Turin
A view of the arch of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic in Turin November 1, 2005. One hundred days before the start of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, building sites block the roads that criss-cross the Alps. Workers are digging up town squares, and empty concrete shells are waiting to be turned into souvenir shops.Max Rossi / Reuters
/ Source: Special to

Turin is one of the prettiest, liveliest, and most intriguing cities in Northern Italy. As the hometown of car manufacturer Fiat, however, Turin is often mislabeled an "Italian Detroit," and neighboring Milan and Genoa get more press (and tourists). This is entirely unfair. I'd go so far as to call Turin the most genteel city in Italy; its gracious urban fabric is a mix of broad Parisian boulevards, leafy London-style residential squares, and elegant coffeehouses that rival those of Vienna.

Come February, the world's attention will be focused less on the host city than on the Olympic athletes setting new records in Turin's stadiums and on the nearby slopes of the Val di Susa and Sestriere—and an upcoming article will be devoted to tips on getting tickets and finding lodging during the Games. But first, let's take a peek at Turin itself, an underrated city of baroque palazzi, frescoed cafés, and brilliant museums.

The Most Genteel City in Italy

"Torino is the city with the most beautiful natural location," Le Corbusier once said. As a devotee of straight lines, the architect must have loved Turin's stately grid street plan, a vestige of its ancient Roman roots. This grid, lined by arcaded palaces, fits into a languid curve of the mighty Po River, and the city is hemmed in by green hills and framed against a backdrop of glacier-capped Alps.

Each evening during the citywide passeggiata, Torinese stroll under the city's arcades from café to café, trading gossip as they sip bicerin (a delicious blend of espresso, hot cocoa, and whipped cream) at bar counters crowded with a dizzying array of elaborate canapés and creamy gianduotti (hazelnut-infused chocolates) free for the nibbling. As the evening wears on, people switch to aperitivi—the original aperatif, vermouth, was developed in Turin in the late 1700s and was later made famous by a local outfit called Martini e Rossi.

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Turin is a distinctly cosmopolitan city. The windows of real estate agents are as likely to be hawking properties in Provence as in Piemonte, and there is a striking number of bookshops and Asian and African art galleries. The closest you can get to "ethnic cuisine" in most Italian cities are McDonald's and a few low-key Chinese restaurants marked by red paper lanterns, but in downtown Turin, you'll find everything from Japanese, Brazilian, and Mongolian to Jordanian, Kurdish, and Siberian restaurants. (Actually, I tried the sibir DIY stir-fry in the Siberian joint—Sibiriaki, at Via Belezia 8g—and it was quite good).

Not that the local cooking isn't stupendous: spiced tomino cheese, agnolotti (meat-filled pasta pillows often served in a ragu of roasted meat), tajarin egg noodles topped with porcini or shavings of white truffles from Alba, and bagna cauda (raw veggies to dip in a "hot bath" of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies). Those air-puffed grissini (bread sticks) that you now find in breadbaskets across Italy were invented in Turin to aid the delicate digestion of Prince Vittorio Amadeo II.

Plus, Turin is the capital of the Piemonte region, whose vineyards produce some of Italy's heartiest and greatest red wines, including Barolo, Barbera, and Barbaresco. In fact, this year, along with the usual "Official Olympic" soft drinks, airlines, and clothing outfitters, a series of Olympic-label wines is already on sale. What's more, you can toast your country's victories with spumante, the famous sparkling white wine from nearby Asti.

Turin's creative patrimony isn't limited to the standard Italian mix of Roman remains, medieval palaces, Renaissance paintings, and baroque churches. Sure, Turin has plenty of those, but its top attractions are a more eclectic group, including one of the world's top Egyptian museums, a fascinating cinema museum housed in perhaps the oddest building in Italy, and one of the holiest relics in the Christian faith.

Ramses II, Jesus, and Federico Fellini

If you thought London's British Museum was the place to go for the single greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo, you thought wrong. The Savoy family's penchant for Egyptiana dates back to 1630, and the royal collection formed the basis of Turin's , the repository for a staggering 30,000 artifacts dating back 6,000 years and covering some 4,500 years of Egyptian history. Among the treasures are a granite statue of Ramses II, the reconstructed Temple of Ellesija, and a library of papyri worthy of Alexandria, including the Book of the Dead, the Papiro delle Miniere (the world's oldest map), and the Papiro dei Re (the only known ancient document to list all the pharaohs in order).

Upstairs in the same palazzo is the , a museum of Old Masters that showcases Turin's cosmopolitan tastes. In addition to the expected Italian canvases and altarpieces by the likes of Duccio, Fra Angelico and Bronzino, the gallery contains Italy's largest collection of northern European works, including masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rubens, and Rembrandt.

If modern art is your thing, check out the marvelous GAM, or , a treasure trove of 15,000 works from the late 18th through the 20th centuries, including such names as Modigliani, Chagall, Picasso, Warhol, Paul Klee, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Just off the north end of the main Piazza Castello,home to the Royal Palace (see below), sits the unimposing Renaissance façade of Turin's Cathedral. Inside is the Cappella della Santa Sindone, a fanciful baroque domed chapel designed by Guarino Guarini to house the revered (—possibly the only holy relic with an official Web site). The faithful believe Christ's body was wrapped in this ancient linen after He was taken down off the Cross. The shroud does have a weird, almost X-ray-like image of a man on it, with stains that correspond to Christ's wounds. Since the Middle Ages, the relic has miraculously survived a series of robbers, perilous journeys, and fires—most recently in 1997. The subject of much debate and speculation (and, one might imagine, an upcoming Dan Brown novel), the shroud has an entire museum devoted to its lore and mystery, nine blocks down Via San Domenico from the Cathedral. The relic itself is kept out of sight under firm lock and key and guard. It appears in public only sporadically; its next official showing is scheduled for 2025, but it has a habit of popping up more frequently.

There's no way to adequately describe the Mole Antonelliana using mere words. Perhaps that's why Italy put it on the back of its 2 eurocent pieces. This way, Italians can just show it to people without having to explain what it looks like: a pile of Neoclassical temples (with Gothic elements) stacked atop one another, topped by a vast, four-sided curving pyramid, another double-stack of temples, and a rounded spire that reaches an improbable 550 feet. The overall effect is, surprisingly, not ugly, though a bit hard to get used to. It briefly reigned as the tallest building in Europe—it's still the continent's tallest brickwork structure—and was built in the 1860s to be—of all things—a synagogue.

As if that wasn't weird enough, in 2000 the thing was turned into the , a truly engaging showcase of the history of film around the world. Spread across five levels, the museum is made up of interactive displays on the science, art, and industry of moviemaking, a great collection of silver screen artifacts (from original scripts to Lawrence of Arabia's robe to Fellini's scarf and hat), and a phantasmagoria of flickering scenes played out on the walls of the vast, soaring interior as ten movies are screened simultaneously side-by-side (earphones and easy chairs are available). Make sure you climb into one the glass elevators suspended in the middle of the atrium for a vertiginous ride to the spire's observation deck and a view that, on clear days, reaches as far as France and Switzerland.

A Warning

Anything stated here about Turin is subject to change. As I write this, at the beginning of November 2005, much of the city is still preparing for the Olympics. Half the buildings in the historic center are swaddled in scaffolding for a quick scrubbing of their marble facades before the limelight hits. Whole piazze and streets are torn up as workers hurriedly install underground parking lots, finish a brand-new subway system, and make ready to move the bulk of high-speed rail service from one train station to another.

Some of the city's major attractions are preparing for the onslaught of visitors and attention, as well. The Palazzo Madama is finally slated to reopen after years of restoration have kept its interiors—and its noted gallery of medieval and Renaissance art—closed to visitors. This layer cake of architecture mixes the skeleton of a Roman gate with the body of a medieval castle, the whole of it slapped with a baroque façade by Filippo Juvarra, including a staircase down which Michael Caine careened in a Mini Cooper in the original The Italian Job.

Also reopening (we hope) will be the various wings of the Palazzo Reale, which sprawls across the north side of Piazza Castello. Backed by gardens laid out by Le Nôtre of Versailles fame, this was the Savoy royal residence from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In addition to the usual rooms of sumptuous furnishings, pompous oil paintings, precious objets d'art, and gilded frippery, the Palazzo Reale complex houses an impressive Armeria Reale (Royal Armory) of arms and armor set in gorgeous baroque ballrooms. The Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library) is only accessible during special exhibitions, but I think we can trust them to open it for such a major event as the Olympics—or, at the very least, to trot out the library's most treasured possession: Leonardo da Vinci's famous self-portrait, sketched in red ink on a freckled sheet of paper—a sad-eyed old man with wispy white hair and a long flowing beard.

Turin During the Games

Beyond the bevy of sights and cafes, Turin will pull out all the stops during the February Games. Museums and monuments will have special extended open hours, the contemporary art gallery in the Castello di Rivoli will host a triennale showcasing young talents, and the annual Luci d'Artista—in which prominent contemporary artists from around the world are invited to create outdoor sculptures using Christmas lights—will remain up through the end of February. There are even rumors that the Shroud of Turin will put in a special appearance, as it did for the Papal Jubilee celebrations of 2000.

Few of the details on the whole cavalcade of special events and spectacles are as yet hammered out. As February approaches and plans become firm, you can get updates and schedules from the city, tourism, and events offices.

One thing is certain: The heart of the city will change entirely during the Games. For this, the first "urban" winter Olympics, the organizers are taking a page from the Salt Lake City playbook and, instead of handing out medals on the spot to athletes still breathing hard and dripping sweat from their performances, each day's medals ceremony will be in the evening, back in Turin itself. As a backdrop for the medals stage, they'll use the elegant series of arcaded palazzi that line Piazza Castello, turning Turin's central square into a showcase to introduce the world to this most genteel of Italian cities.

Reid Bramblett is a guidebook author and the creator of the travel planning site He is currently working on the Turin and Piemonte chapter for the new Pauline Frommer's Guide to Italy.