TURIN’s renovated, gracious Baroque avenues and squares, opulent palaces and splendid collections of Egyptian antiquities and Northern European paintings, as well as spanking-new pedestrian-only areas, make it a pleasant surprise to those who might have been expecting satanic factories and little else. Ever since the major spruce-up for the 2006 Winter Olympics, Turin’s emphasis has been on promoting its historic urban charms, such as its genteel belle époque cafés and traditional chocolate treats – not to mention an array of walking tours that explore the city’s extraordinary, vivid heritage.
The grid street plan of Turin’s Baroque centre makes it easy to find your way around. Via Roma is the central spine of the city, lined with designer shops and ritzy cafés. It’s punctuated by the city’s most elegant piazzas: at one end Piazza Carlo Felice, boasting a small park; in the middle Piazza San Carlo, close to which are some of the more prestigious museums; and at the other end Piazza del Castello, with its royal palaces. On either side are pedestrianized shopping streets, more relaxed than Via Roma. North is Piazza della Repubblica, a huge square with the largest open-air market in Europe. To the east the porticoes of Via Po lead to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, slanting down to the River Po, from where it's a short walk to the Monte dei Cappuccini, with its stunning views of the city and the Alps. A stroll southward from Piazza Vittorio brings you to the extensive Parco del Valentino. Beyond here is the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile and the Lingotto Centre, home to the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, displaying the Fiat magnates’ superb private art collection, while the hills across the river are crowned by the Basilica di Superga. Further south, beyond the city limits, lies the royal Stupinigi Hunting Lodge. Outside the city limits to the northwest stands the jewel in Turin’s crown: the magnificent Venaria Reale palace and gardens. A couple of notable sights in the area around Turin can easily be visited on a day-trip, including the Sacra di San Michele and the imposing Forte di Finestrelle, in the bucolic Chisone Valley.
Although originally a Roman settlement, it was the Savoy dynasty that left the largest impression on Turin: from 1563 the city was the seat of the Savoy dukes, who persecuted Piemonte’s Protestants and Jews, censored the press and placed education of the nobles in the fanatical hands of the Jesuits. The Savoys gained a royal title in 1713. After more than a century of military and diplomatic wrangling with foreign powers, Duke Carlo Alberto di Savoia teamed up with the liberal politician of the Risorgimento, Cavour, who used the royal family to lend credibility to the Italian Unification movement. In 1860, Sicily and southern Italy were handed over to Vittorio Emanuele, successor to Carlo Alberto, thereby elevating him to sovereign of all Italy. Turin became the new country’s capital, but only two years later, political turmoil moved the court to Florence, and then finally in 1870, to Rome. Turin fell into the hands of the petty Piemontese nobility and quickly became a provincial backwater. Nevertheless, it retained its regal centre: its cafés lavishly encumbered with chandeliers, carved wood, frescoes and gilt – only slightly less ostentatious than the rooms of the Savoy palaces, fourteen in all, and now all listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
World War I brought plenty of work to the city, but also food shortages, and, in 1917, street riots erupted, establishing Turin as a focus of labour activism. Gramsci led occupations of the Fiat factory, going on to found the Communist Party. By the 1950s, Turin’s population had soared to 700,000, mainly migrant workers from the poor south housed in shanty towns and shunned by the Torinesi. By the 1960s Fiat’s workforce had grown to 130,000, with a further half million dependent on the company. Today there are fewer people involved in the industry, and Fiat’s famous Lingotto factory is now a shopping centre and conference space; the gap left behind has been filled by some of the biggest names from other industries – Pininfarina, Einaudi, Ferrero, Martini & Rossi, Lavazza and many others – ensuring a continuation of Turin’s economic prosperity.