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.
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.
Around the corner from Piazza San Carlo, the superb Museo Egizio holds the world's second largest collection of Egyptian antiquities (after the Egyptian Museum in Cario), begun under Carlo Emanuele III in the mid-eighteenth century and added to over the ensuing centuries. A large space on the ground floor, designed by Oscar-winning set designer Dante Ferretti, evokes a vast temple with massive granite sphinxes, gods and pharaohs looming out of the subdued lighting. Upstairs, you’ll find decorated mummy cases and an intriguing assortment of everyday objects and even food – eggs, pomegranates and grain, recognizable despite their shrivelled, darkened state. The collection’s highlights are a statue of Ramses II and the Tomb of Kha and Mirit. The tomb, discovered in 1906 at Deir-el-Medina, is that of a 1400 BC architect, Kha, and his wife Mirit. Kha’s burial chamber contains after-life supplies, including a board game to while away the posthumous hours, as well as his own personal illustrated copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And to ensure that Mirit kept up appearances, she was provided with a cosmetic case, wig, comb and tweezers.
Turin has been home to many major literary figures. Rousseau and Ruskin, Nietzsche, Flaubert and Twain all enjoyed sojourns here. Casanova wrote: “In Turin, the fair sex is most delightful, but the police regulations are troublesome to a degree.” Melville wondered at the architecture, commenting that even the poor breakfasted in elegant coffee shops. But perhaps Turin’s most famous literary resident is Primo Levi. Born at 75 Corso Re Umberto in 1919, Levi graduated in Chemistry from Turin University in 1941 before joining the partisans. Captured by the Nazis in 1944, he spent the rest of the war In Auschwitz. Returning to Turin, he wrote his two masterpieces, If This Is a Man and The Truce. You can visit the Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi at Via del Carmine 13.
Make sure you leave some room to sample one of Turin’s signature products – chocolate, brought to the city by the Savoy family in 1559. Best known is the hazelnut milk chocolate Gianduiotto, which dates back to the nineteenth century. Some even claim that it was the Torinesi who introduced chocolate to France when chocolate making for export began in 1678.
You can sample the finest chocolate products in all Turin’s historic establishments, confectionery shops and chocolate factories: Gianduiotti, pralines, various cakes, hot chocolate, and the distinctive bicerin, which is a bit like a cappuccino but fortified with brandy, cream and chocolate. The supreme Torinese spot to buy chocolate is Gobino.
A forbidding fortified abbey anchored atop a rocky hill, the Sacra di San Michele is best approached via the small town of Sant'Ambrogio. From here, the steep ninety-minute hike is well worth the effort, both for the views and for the opportunity to soak up the eerie atmosphere. Climbing up to the abbey and hewn into the rock, a long flight of stairs – the Scalone dei Morti (Stairs of the Dead) – sets a morbid tone, for it was here that the skeletons of the monks used to be laid out for local peasants to come and pay their respects and to remind them of human frailty. The Romanesque entrance arch to the Gothic-Romanesque abbey church is carved with signs of the zodiac. If you don't fancy the climb, and have your own car, you can drive up to the abbey from the nearby town of Avigliana.
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.
Top image: The city center of Turin with Mole Antonelliana tower and Alps mountains panorama, Turin, Italy © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock