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Three Perfect Days: Turin, Italy

TURIN IS A HOUDINI CITY THAT has transformed itself many times over the centuries, from Roman army camp to medieval trading village to the baroque first capital of unified Italy, and then to the capital of Italian industry when Fiat was born here. In the 1980s, Fiat started downsizing, so the industrious torinesi began reinventing their city once again, converting hubcap factories and royal castles into art galleries, concert halls, architects’ studios, and posh hotels. Turin became a European capital of contemporary art, music, design, and high-tech. The Slow Food movement, born nearby, has added luster to the age-old culinary traditions of Turin and the surrounding Piedmont region, a heartland of Italian cuisine. When Turin was selected to host the 2006 Winter Olympics, massive new investments helped it put the finishing touches on its sweeping remake. Turin is now in its finest form in a century. Turin doesn’t feel like any other Italian city, or, at times, like an Italian city at all. Its broad, tree-lined boulevards and baroque palaces recall an Austro-Hungarian capital such as Prague or Vienna, while certain quiet, manicured squares could be in London. Most of all, Turin resembles Paris, in its mansard roofs and airy art nouveau façades, its cafés, and its taste for pastries, chocolates, and aperitifs. Yet despite its cosmopolitan charms, natives speak of their town with a most un-Italian self-deprecation. Forgetting the visionary gambles of their past, they claim to be hopelessly provincial, as unadventurous and square as their city’s right-angle street grid. They say they are reserved, even unfriendly with visitors (though they smile as they do so, and will soon be treating you to coffee at a favorite café). And no doubt because of their abiding inferiority complex with Milan, their larger, glitzier neighbor to the southeast, they seem convinced that their town has nothing to interest a visitor. Most tourists seem to have believed them, and travelers here have an opportunity for exploration and discovery that is rare indeed in Italy. Perhaps this sense of freedom is what appealed to the notoriously hard-to-please Friedrich Nietzsche, who said Turin was the one city he loved: “Tranquil, almost solemn. A classic landscape for the eyes and the feet ... I’d never have believed that a city, thanks to its light, could become so beautiful!”

Author Tom Mueller Photography Andrea Pistolesi


DAY ONE / You awake in Le Méridien Turin Art + Tech, the only five-star hostelry in town and a symbol of Turin’s creative resilience. Celebrity architect Renzo Piano recently made this former car factory, the birthplace of Fiat, into a rarity among contemporary living spaces: an environment that is both visually arresting and welcomingly warm.

Save the pleasures of breakfast in the second-floor café for another morning and catch a cab to Piazza Castello in the heart of town. Tucked beneath the porticoes is Caffè Mulassano, the ideal introduction to Turin’s highly evolved café culture and a study in the art nouveau style. Order a cappuccino every bit as densely frothy as the gilt-wood and marble décor, accompanied by a selection of baci di dama, candied chestnuts and other bite-size confections displayed under bell jars beside the bar. Remember that Turin’s magnificent cafés have always been a central part of the town’s social, artistic, and political life (the royal Savoia family once took its tea in the Mulassano), so regular doses of dark coffee and sublime sweets are de rigueur.

Having fortified your inner traveler, visit the Museo Egizio, in nearby Piazza Carignano, the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo. While the mummies and granite statues of the fierce lion-headed goddess Sachmis are impressive, it’s the smaller artifacts, such as papyrus love letters, bridal trousseaus, and elegantly woven reed sandals, that make the museum memorable and give a better sense of daily life under the pharaohs than the Louvre or the Met.

Once you’ve satisfied the spirit, indulge the flesh with a stroll down Via Roma, Turin’s premier shopping street, which runs due south from Piazza Castello to the Porta Nuova train station. This broad avenue is lined with arcades on both sides (Turin has more than 18 kilometers of these covered walkways). Here you can shop for some of the city’s finest food, particularly around Piazza San Carlo. Turin has been Italy’s chocolate headquarters for three centuries, and the Confetteria Stratta is among the best, beloved of the torinesi for its gianduiotti (hazelnut chocolates) and boxed assortments. Around the corner are the no-less-ethereal pleasures of Steffanone, probably Turin’s top delicatessen, where the friendly and knowledgeable staff will induct you into the mysteries of balsamic vinegar, fruit mustards, and rare Piedmont cheeses from nearby mountain farms, including Montébore, layered like a Renaissance wedding cake.

All this food-shopping has made you hungry, so nip across to La Badessa, in nearby Piazza Carlo Emanuele II, where the house specialties are based on ancient recipes from convents throughout Piedmont. For an intellectual palate-cleanser, catch a cab to the GAM (Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea), a fast-growing collection that showcases the town’s active contemporary art scene.

Next up is Il Posto (“the Place”), which is the place for the time-honored Turin ritual of the aperitivo, a pre-dinner drink taken with tapas-style morsels. Go easy on the finger-food, however, because tonight you’ll dine at the Ristorante del Cambio, celebrated not only for its sumptuous dishes and décor, but also for illustrious past patrons like Count Camillo Cavour, who orchestrated the unification of Italy beneath Cambio’s crystal chandeliers. Complete the evening with a top-class opera or ballet at the lavish Teatro Regio, a focal point of Turin’s thriving music scene.

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