Turin: Italy's elegant Cinderella

By Peter Bills

Elegant and seductive Turin, which has much to offer visitors, makes nearby Milan look dull in comparison, writes Peter Bills.

Turin, nestled near the Italian Alps, offers a visual feast of Roman ruins, baroque architecture and beautiful arcades. Photo / Creative Commons
Turin, nestled near the Italian Alps, offers a visual feast of Roman ruins, baroque architecture and beautiful arcades. Photo / Creative Commons

They're lumped together like reluctant siblings. In most people's minds, the two Northern Italian cities, Milan and Turin, don't seem to have been separated since birth.

Industrial and dirty, freezing in the winter and more functional than elegant, they're both tarred with the same brush.

But how wrong can perceptions be? Undeniably, Milan is the ugly sister. But Turin, in the lee of the Italian Alps, is a fabulous, fascinating and beautiful city.

It is industrial in the sense that it is the home of the giant Fiat car factory but there is so much more to this place than that huge plant or its image.

So what makes a city so appealing? Is it architecture, as in Paris? Is it history, as in Rome? Is it its cafes and restaurants, like those in Vienna? Well, Turin offers all these qualities and more.

Within the parameters of inner-city streets you can discover Roman ruins, baroque architecture, beautiful arcades with smart shops, such as the famous Via Roma (there are 16km of arcaded pavements), and historic cafes.

Yet, somehow, none of those factors explain the real essence of Turin, or Torino as it is known to the Italians.

A city needs to breathe, to create the impression of true space to offer its visitors a special experience. To cross Paris' wide, elegant bridges and peruse the city from above the Seine is to offer a sense of the space denied, say, to Londoners. Turin gives an illustration of a similar kind.

To stroll along the smart arcades, to admire the omnipresent glass and marble on exteriors of shops, is to experience not just elegance but a sense of history. Turin was built 2000 years ago on the orders of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and people have been coming here to trade ever since.

You can find the predictable designer shops here, from Hermes, Armani and Versace to Gucci and Prada. But you can discover so much more than that. Europe's biggest open-air market is to be found on Piazza della Repubblica. In most piazzas you can sit down, enjoy a strong Italian coffee (it is the birthplace of the Lavazza coffee company) or peruse the magnificent architecture.

For me, the only real way to discover any city is on foot. Here, it is a pleasure to stop and admire so many old-style shops, elegant buildings and vast, clean piazzas. And when it is time to eat, the food of this Piedmont region offers rich variety. Turin is also the birthplace of the breadstick - so beloved of Italian restaurants the world over - truffles and vermouth, and the famous local wines are Barbaresco and Barolo.

It is no wonder this city was home to the Savoy dynasty, Piedmont princes and the first kings of Italy. They lived in the vast, impressive Palazzo Reale and you can tour most of the elegant floors and rooms of this bygone gem.

But to be especially attractive to a visitor, a city cannot just live in the past. Turin is not guilty of that, with its clean tram system and bright, lively bars.

But it also offers the fascinating National Museum of Cinema, housed in a building dating back to the 1860s which was once the highest brick building in Europe. Here you can trace the history of film and study screen clips, scripts, optical boxes, cameras, old film posters and props.

And when you have had your fill of the movie world, you can take a lift from bottom to top of the building and emerge on to the terrace 85m up into the sky, from where you are offered a panoramic view of the old city laid out below.

At night, particularly in summer, it is a joy to sip a cool drink in a piazza before choosing a restaurant. I tried Tre Galline in Via Bellezia, which dates back to 1575 and specialises in Piedmont cuisine. I started with a fresh tomato soup and followed it with Stinco Agnello, a lamb shank casserole. The Barbera wine was the perfect accompaniment.

But then, seductive restaurants abound in Turin.

Northern Italy's ugly sister? You must be joking.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies four times a week from Auckland to Milan, via Hong Kong, as well as a daily connection to Rome. See trenitalia.com for train information or sadem.it for coach details.

What to do:

* Ristorante Tre Galline is at Via Bellezia 37.

* Museo Nazionale del Cinema is at 20 Via Montebello.

* Palazzo Reale is at Piazza Castello and the Fiat car factory is in Via Nizza, Lingotto. Take Tram No. 1.

Further information: Visit comune.torino.it.

- NZ Herald

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