“Mountains, let’s go somewhere with spectacular mountain views. Somewhere with a city to spend time in and views to die for, not somewhere that everyone else visits but not too far away either.”
As a starting point for choosing a holiday destination, this gave us some clear guidelines, yet nowhere immediately came to mind. Until one evening my wife simply said to me, “Turin! I’ve seen some pictures of a mountain range looming over the city. That’s the place.” Situated near the foot of the Alps, a large city yet well off the regular Italian tourist destination for most Britons, it certainly matched all of our requirements.
What then did we know of the city? Well to be honest only few things: Football, Fiat, mountains and of course a certain Shroud, we clearly had a lot to learn. A testament to its lack of popularity as a holiday destination was the difficulty that we had in finding any recent books aimed at tourists. Eventually we tracked down a couple written at the time of the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, which whetted our appetite nicely, even if they were nine years old. To further raise our expectations, a friend invited us over watch “The Italian Job”, as Turin provides much of the backdrop for that film.
We flew into Turin on dark and stormy May morning, quickly collected our suitcase and headed to the travel desk to purchase a ticket for the bus journey into town. It’s fair to say that our limited Italian language skills resulted in a slightly confused conversation with the lady who sold us tickets into town. We found the bus stop and a frustrated looking man started talking to us in Italian, none of which we understood. He then pointed to a notice, which appeared to indicate that there was a one-day transport strike; you can guess what day the strike was scheduled for! The notice though did give us some hope that the striking drivers would take a sort of reverse lunch break and run a service during the middle of the day.
We decided to wait around; the lady had sold us a ticket, so surely the bus would run at some point? The chap who had been talking to us earlier reappeared and showed me the screen of his phone. He had gone to trouble of having a message translated into English, confirming the strike but also saying that journeys were still being undertaken at the discretion of the driver, what a charming phrase. Sure enough as noon approached a coach came into view, five minutes later we were on our way towards the centre of Turin.
As with most places in the world, Turin does not look at it’s most beautiful on a dark and rainy day. This was especially true as our journey coincided with many of the shops closing for their lunchtime breaks, giving the approach to the city a damp, dreary, deserted feel. Maybe there was a good reason for the lack of tourist travel to Turin after all, had we made a dreadful mistake? Occasionally though the clouds would lift momentarily and we would catch a glimpse of something imposing rising in the distance, could we call it a mountain or was it really a large hill? We strained our necks excitedly in their direction only to see them disappear from view seconds later.
By the time our bus pulled up a few yards away from the Porta Nuova Railway Station, the rain appeared to have stopped. We understood that our accommodation was less than 10 minutes walk from the station but given the size and the weight of our twenty five year old suitcase, I was pleased that I would not have to carry an umbrella above my head as well. Should the situation have changed and the rain returned, I would not have needed to hunt around for something to keep me dry. The area around the station buzzed with men trying to sell us every conceivable type of umbrella. The odd thing about this situation is that central Turin has vast number of interconnecting covered walkways, known locally as Gallerie, meaning that whatever the weather it is possible to walk huge distances without ever getting wet. Still these guys were optimistic, maybe the visitors arriving at the station were unaware of this fact but you do feel that there must be easier ways to make a living.
I declined their offers as politely as I could, desperately trying to remember how to say “no” in Italian. Eventually it dawned on me, the word I was struggling to recall was actually “no”, yes that’s right, exactly the same word. I’m obviously a natural at this Italian lark. Whilst my brain was struggling with the complexities of producing an Italian word from my mouth, my throat was suffering in an entirely unrelated way. As we dodged around the massed ranks of umbrella pushers, both of us started coughing. We tried to communicate, confirming to each other which direction we were heading in but frequently had to stop as our throats were irritated and angered by some mysterious force in the air around us.
It wasn’t just us though; everyone around us appeared to be affected in the same way. Coughing, choking and spluttering we made it to the street that our home for the next six nights was located on. We were renting an apartment from a local couple, and as luck would have it, the apartments owner arrived around the same time as us. She called us over to the enormous wooden doorway that provided access to the courtyard for the building and ushered us in. Our apartment was on the fourth floor and fortunately, just beyond a lovely mosaic display of floor tiles indicting that the building was constructed in 1874, was a tiny lift in the middle of the stair well. It was the sort of lift that you only appear to encounter in mainland Europe, allegedly holding four people; it was pretty cosy with the two of our giant suitcase and us. Our poor host ushered us into the lift and sent us on our way whilst she dashed up the wide stone staircase to meet us.
Between our collective coughs, our charming host talked us through the facilities of the lovely apartment, gave us tips of where to eat and what to see in the city, whilst explaining that our throat irritation was due to the pollen in the air. Hopefully it wouldn’t persist. Luckily this was true, the bizarre cloud moved on and would not be seen for the rest of our holiday.
After unpacking and a short rest to get over our early departure that morning, we were ready to explore the city. We set off to find somewhere to eat and to get a feel for where we were in this grand city. Fortunately both the rain and that unpleasant pollen storm had moved on, so we were free to wander unencumbered by umbrella or violent coughing fits, come on then Turin – impress us.
We crossed the grand Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II and headed north into the Centro area of the city. This is the home and heart of the baroque splendour of Turin. Stunning buildings appear every few yards, from wonderful old shops and cafés to elaborate and exuberant palaces, museums and churches; the place is full of interesting sites. Ultimately we were conscious that we would need to eat that evening, so somewhere to enjoy an evening meal later was in our mind.
I mentioned earlier that we had eventually managed to find a couple of books of Turin, at this stage it’s worth talking a little more about them and the way they helped us interact with the city. Both pocket sized and slim (approx 300 pages between the two of them), they were contrasting and complementary items.
The first of these is “A Civilized Traveller’s guide to Turin” by Eugenia Bell. Apart from the front cover and some maps of walking tours, this is a text only book, written by a person whose love for city shines from every page. This guidebook is written from the heart, where the small and quirky are as important as the grand essentials to help you get the most from your trip. Actually it’s more than that, it’s the sort of the book that would be a wonderful companion if you lived in the city, so full of the life, colour, history and texture of the place leaps from the page, I could imagine using it for many years. It’s the perfect combination of chatty and informative, you feel that an old friend is simply passing on some tips from their years of living in a place that they love. It’s a small gem.
Our second companion was the Wallpaper* City Guide to Turin. Taking its lead from the style of
Wallpaper* Magazine, this is full of pictures of interesting features, be they architecture, interiors, art, food or retail space, it’s packed with delicious visual temptations. As with the magazine, there is a large focus on the contemporary as well as the ancient. The text here is sparse but very effective and engaging. It also has some useful visual overviews of the layout of Turin.
These two publications were perfect travel companions, informing our decisions about where to go. Even more brilliantly, whenever we stumbled across a place that looked interesting, one of us would say, “Ah, I think this place is in the book.” Inevitably it was, so we could get an instant background update of the place that we were looking at. This was the case on the first evening as completely by chance, our eye was taken by two delightful small places on our stroll around the centro area.
The first encounter happened as we were walking north along Via Lagrange towards the junction with Via Maria Vittoria, we noticed a couple sitting outside what we took to be a small café. The thing that caught our eye was the lovely and unusual mugs that were on the table in front of them. Then we noticed the content within the mug, it looked like hot chocolate, and very good hot chocolate at that. We decided that this would be the place for us to have our first sample of the culinary delights of Turin. Completely by fortune we had chosen very well. After taking a seat outside I went into the delightful store and ordered one standard hot chocolate and one spiced version, I selected aniseed from the interesting choices on offer. Whilst we waited outside, we realised that we had stumbled across the lovely outlet for Turin chocolate makers Guido Gobino that had been mentioned in, what shall now be known as, “the books”. The drink was of course sensational, quite the thickest and creamiest hot chocolate you can imagine, the subtle aniseed flavouring on mine worked very nicely. Just in case the chocolate overload in the drink wasn’t quite enough of a fix for you, they also provided a couple of their lovely foil wrapped chocolates as well. We were off to a good start.
We set off again, wandering aimlessly, admiring the gentle sophistication of the city as it prepared for Aperitivo time. Back in 1786 Vermouth was invented in Turin, and splendidly the citizens of Turin still like nothing better than early evening Vermouth based drink with a few tasty nibbles, before the serious business of an evening meal takes place. Our wanderings had taken us towards the grandest setting in the city, the imperious Palazzo Madama; we had been suitably awestruck and then whilst wandering through one of the nearby Gallerie we encountered the gorgeous Caffe Mulassano. An amazing creation of marble, onyx, bronze and rather splendidly a leather ceiling, cosy yet stylish it’s a treat for the eyes.
We sat outside in the cover of the Gallerie and a bow tied waiter, wearing a white diner jacket delivered our Vermouth to the table. He also returned with some olives and nuts, which was nice of him. We noticed that some folk on an adjacent table had what appeared to be a small double-tiered cake stand with a selection of savoury treats. That looks nice, we thought maybe we should order something like that. Whilst the notion was still flitting around our minds our smartly attired friend reappeared with just such an arrangement of nibbles and went to place them upon our table. Having been bought up with the “no such thing as free lunch” way of thinking, I started to get concerned that we may be heading for a Venice type experience. You know the sort of situation, you sit down for a simple snack and suddenly your wallet is fifty Euros lighter. Anyway our young friends decorum was briefly rocked when a slip saw some of the food fall from the plate, onto the table and the floor. He expressed the briefest sigh of distress, before whisking the offending items away again.
At this point one of us remembered reading of the delightful Turin notion of Stuzzichini, a decorous and delicious selection of nibbles that are free to anyone who is paying for a drink. How very civilised, we were really starting to like this place. Our waiter duly returned with our tasty treats and when we went entered the delightful interior of Caffe Mulassano again to settle our bill, it was indeed true that we had only been charged for the drinks and given the surroundings, they were very reasonably priced.
For the sake of balance, it is worth noting that whist we were enjoying the middle aged delight of Vermouth and Stuzzichini, there was a subtle attempt at the theft of one of our bags. A youngish chap came and sat next to us which was a little odd given that were more suitable seats for the lone imbiber. Suddenly one of us noticed that one of our bags had seemingly moved from it’s original position, towards the young man, yet neither of us had noticed the shift taking place. We picked up the bag and moved it to a more secure location, almost instantaneously our new neighbour obviously decided that a languorous drink was not for him after all and he swiftly departed the scene. This was a useful reminder that no mater how lovely the setting, the people or the experience, you need to be cautious. This is no criticism of the people of Turin; it can happen there – it can happen anywhere.
We decide that we would eat near our apartment, having had a long day of travelling and walking around we fancied dropping off our stuff in our temporary home, then nipping out quickly. We chanced upon the perfect place literally on the next street. Ristorante Nuove Salette was a typical locals place to eat. The place was reasonably busy and the staff appeared to know all the customers very well. TV’s were on without anyone taking too much notice of them; the place had a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. This wasn’t a night for too much thinking, so we just ordered a couple of Pizzas and rather splendid they were too. They were washed down with half a litre of Red at the trifling cost of four euros. Two minutes after paying the bill were back in our place, ready for a good nights sleep. After an unpromising arrival, Turin had provided us with a lovely evening. The weather forecast for tomorrow was very promising, plans were hatched for a visit to the large green space of Parco Di Valentino, situated just to our east and along side the River Po. Oh and maybe there will be a chance to sample some local Ice Cream? I think we are going to like this place.