I can’t stop thinking about Turin.
There is something about this Northern Italian city which both puzzles me and charms me. In my mind I try to squeeze it into the parameters of what I am already familiar with so as to make it easier to understand and classify. I fail.
Yes, with its mansard windows and wide boulevards it reminds me of Paris, but there is not a gram of the underlying pushiness which makes the French capital such a challenge. In Turin people stroll down the wide arcaded streets without shoving you out of their way and when approached with a polite request for directions they are happy to stop and point you to where you need to go, relishing your broken Italian.
Then again with its perfect mesh of straight streets and right-angled intersections, Turin reminds me of Barcelona, but it is much grander than that. The dense webs of tram tracks and overhanging tram wires bring Sofia to mind, yet again everything is much more modern and it seems to run on time.
I declare defeat. Turin has a mind of its own and I spend 44 frantic hours spread over three days exploring it and trying to cram as much in in order to feel its pulse.
How do you get to know a city within a limited amount of time?!
First, it is the buildings, the palaces, the churches and the museums which catch your eye, draw an appreciative exclamation from your lips and make you want to have weeks and months at your disposal so as to delve deeper, see every single artefact and learn every historical detail which has built the city into what it is.
Then, overwhelmed by the small portion of everything that you managed to see, you calm down, sit down somewhere to have lunch or to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee and start observing the people, how they interact, what makes them smile or get angry and you slowly start to understand what makes the city tick.
I am happy to report that Turin didn’t disappoint on both of these accounts.
We arrive in Turin on a busy Monday afternoon. The city has just hosted Pope Francis and there are still several diversions of traffic through its central part.
We are slightly overwhelmed. Incredible buildings line up the shores of the river Po. Its wide and powerful water body is crossed by bridges adorned with huge monuments. Perfectly straight streets open onto cobbled squares surrounded by splendid palazzi.
Everything is bigger and more impressive than any expectations I might have held. Maybe I have lived in quiet little Vicenza for too long, but I feel like a small town girl just arrived in the big city.
We can’t spend too much time looking around in awe though. Traffic is fast, dusty and dense. At times even crazy. Driving a small car with British left-hand steering wheel adds to the challenge. My husband makes several references to the Italian job. I am just silently grateful when we make it to the huge underground car park.
So, for the time we spend in Turin we rely on public transport and find it incredibly easy to reach the different points that interest us in the city centre on both tram and bus.
Tickets are sold on board, but we get a travel card which needs to be validated the first time you use the public transport system and then you simply carry it on you for its duration.
It is convenient and easy and gives us a point of view of the city which we would have otherwise missed ensconced in our little red car.
For example, I quickly note that old-fashioned scales are present at some bus and tram stops. Considering that grissini (breadsticks), gianduja (chocolate with hazelnut paste) and pinguino (chocolate-dipped ice cream on a stick) all originate from Turin, perhaps the presence of these scales looking sternly at you as you travel through the city explains why the Italian women are ones of the slimmest in the world.
At the same tram stop I also notice a device allowing you to contact a central switchboard if you feel you are in danger. In a city of close to two million inhabitants, this is indeed a reassuring sign and I wish for a similar device to have been present in the tunnel of the Barcelona metro where I was attacked some years ago.
What I enjoy most about travelling on the public transport in Turin though is seeing its people going on about their daily business. They do make eye contact, smile at children and politely move aside to make some extra space for our buggy.
There are places in Europe where I have felt generally unsafe and on the edge on public transport, but Turin is not one of them. I need to add here that we were always aware of our surroundings, knew exactly where each of our valuables was positioned in bags and pockets and even when we missed a stop and a tram took us into a completely unknown area of the city, pretended that we knew our surroundings, then quickly got off at the next stop and on a tram back to our original destination.
And so we explore the city.
We start with one of the six royal residences in Turin – Palazzo Madama. I am so taken with this lavish museum-cum-palazzo that I dedicate it a separate blog post.
Next we take a long walk around Parco del Valentino. Its green expanse follows the course of the river Po and an art installation on the shore reminds us of the fragility of the ecological balance and how easily plastic can throw it all off kilter.
The park is full with jogging people of all sizes and shapes. It is not surprising then that Turin is the European Capital of Sport for 2015.
We continue our walk around and visit the Medieval Village in Parco del Valentino…
…and then pass by the building of the Society Promoting the Fine Arts where an art exhibition is being held.
Our visit to the park is complete with a few snaps taken of the majestic Castello del Valentino – a UNESCO world heritage site and seat of the Architecture Faculty of the Polytechnic University of Turin.
We stroll around the city taking in its sights and sounds. I admire the balconies on the huge residential buildings – with their forged iron railings and positioned in a zig-zag so as to maximise the amount of sun each balcony gets.
Turin feels grand yet spacious. People are out and about running errands, shopping, lunching, walking underneath the big arcades which cover whole streets. There is much less designer clothing in sight than in Milan and there is no palpable stress in the air. It all feels quite casual and relaxed.
In fact, the only time I feel remotely stressed is when we get caught into a large group of tourists all wearing identical yellow t-shirts and running from museum to museum. Momentarily separated from my husband, I hold on tightly my little daughter’s buggy and breathe a sigh of relief when a moment later our family is reunited.
On our way to the Egyptian Museum we pass through Galleria San Federico where I discover a boutique dedicated to Slow Fashion.
Turin is the place where the Slow Food movement originated as an antithesis to the fast food establishments where food has been turned into a soulless product rather than the nourishment for our bodies and souls it should be.
Now a similar movement is taking place there aiming to reclaim fashion from the factories churning millions of garments and copying ideas within hours of them being shown on the world’s catwalks. Slow Fashion supports fashion which is 100% Italian and is born from the slow and meticulous work of the hands of genuine artisans.
Next, we explore churches and museums. As much as our limited time allows us and with the help of our Turin and Piedmont Cards*.
We see the amazing Egyptian Museum – second only to the one in Cairo, where, spellbound, we observe the slow and careful act of restoration of priceless Egyptian artefacts.
We admire the dome of the church of San Lorenzo with its curved ribs and bays.
We visit the National Museum of Cinema housed in the impressive Mole Antonelliana – the tallest brick building in Italy and, when it was built in the 19th century – in the world.
We even see the Turin Shroud on the penultimate day of its exhibition in Turin’s Duomo five years after it was last exhibited to the world.
It is an intense sightseeing programme aiming to satisfy the interests of each member of our little family.
We are exhausted and sit down in an arcade cafe to relax. Three large portions of the famous Turin gelato appear on the table in front of us. They disappear quickly while we laugh, sample the different flavours we have ordered and chat animatedly about the wonderful things we have seen.
Cups of Lavazza espresso follow and we learn that this world-famous coffee brand is also a Turin offspring.
It is now late in the afternoon, almost early evening and we need to return to our hotel to relax for our journey through the Alps on the following morning.
Turin doesn’t go to sleep though. A free performance of Carmen is scheduled to take place on one of the central squares – Piazza San Carlo – as part of a classical music festival.
Most importantly, a large bonfire is erected on Piazza Castello in front of Palazzo Madama. It will be burned during the festivities dedicated to Turin’s patron – San Giovanni.
The kind man guiding the tourist stream at the entrance of the Church of San Lorenzo explains to us that the direction in which the bull atop of the bonfire falls after it all burns down is of particular importance. ‘If it falls this way’, he says, ‘Turin will have buona fortuna (it. good luck). If it falls in the opposite way, then – male (it. bad). And if it falls either side sideways, then it will be so-so’.
We wish Turin all the luck in the world and to ourselves to be as lucky so as to visit it again!
Tune in again in the next few days as I will be telling you on the blog about my Turin highlights and how to explore Turin with a toddler.