OK, who has heard of Ivrea? You know, small place just north of Turin? Gateway to the Alps, classic old town with narrow streets leading up towards a 14th century castle. Oh and the centre of a remarkable period of 20th century industrial and social planning by a man called Adriano Olivetti. Never heard of that? Well we hadn’t either but thanks to mentions in our two brilliant little guidebooks we had been tipped off. So on Tuesday morning we found ourselves at the nearby Porta Nuova Railway Station and ready for a little adventure.
As ever the day had started with breakfast, more often than not this would be a simple affair at the small place on the corner of Via Saluzzo and Via San Pio V. We weren’t yet fully integrated in the breakfast habits of the locals, as we ordered at the counter but then went and sat at table. Whilst we were easing our way through a coffee and delicious pastry of some sort, the locals would have quickly rushed down an espresso whilst standing at the counter. Most of the visitors were in the place no more than five minutes; it was a little like watching the sparrows in our garden at home. They swoop in head to the feeder, or counter in this case, quickly take their refreshment and then they were gone. A multitude of “Ciaos” ringing around the room a people arrived and left with stunning rapidity whilst we sat there savouring our breakfast.
The lady behind the counter was very friendly, excitedly chatting away to us in Italian, then would realise that 99% of what she was saying was a mystery to us. A brief exchange of simple words in English and Italian would then take place amongst mutual smiles. At one point she did ask us if we were Australian, so our attempts at those long lovely well pronounced Italian vowel sounds, were obviously doing something interesting to our accents.
Thanks to the electronic ticket machines at the Railway Station, we were able to purchase our train tickets following very simple instructions in English. We took our seat on the comfortable modern train in plenty of time for our journey. My friends often laugh at my habit of having to read everything within ten feet of me. I find it very difficult to resist a newspaper (even if it is a language I can’t understand) any sort of leaflet or flyer or in this case the instructions on the ticket. However in this case it proved to be useful as it reminded me about one the main of the main rules for travel in mainland Europe – “Stamp it.”
With most journeys in the UK you buy your ticket and at some point show it to a driver or inspector. There, your work is done. All over Europe though there is another element to the process, validation. It’s actually very sensible, allowing you to buy your ticket in advance and opening the door to the magical world of travel within a specified time frame. As a tourist though, the process of validating your ticket adds a little excitement to the whole process. As soon as you get on a bus, your focus is on finding the machine, hoping that people aren’t standing in front of it and then mastering your technique for getting your ticket stamped with that all important time and date.
Well according to the instruction on the ticket, apparently this train ticket was the same, so I had to go back to platform to locate the machine. Having looked around for a short while, it wasn’t immediately obvious where I would find this. I approached a couple of smart looking railway staff, and said “Scusi” before demonstrating through my considerable powers of mime that I needed to have our tickets stamped. They pointed me in the direction of the small machine in the corner of the area fronting all the platforms and we were legal to travel. Don’t forget, when in Europe “Stamp it”!
Anyway back to Ivrea and the reason for our visit, well it was twofold. Firstly we were still after a better view of those all important mountains. Looking at the maps of the area it looked as though Ivrea was well located for a mountain view and only about 40 minutes away on the train. Secondly, over the past few days we had been reading about the open-air architectural tour, which showcased the development of the town as the Olivetti company expanded. This though was no standard story of a company expanding by exploiting a desperate workforce. No, the enlightened approach of Adriano Olivetti when he took control of his fathers firm, saw him expand the famous typewriter company and pass on benefits to the workforce. He introduced shorter working hours, yet there was no reduction in pay. Championed the building of good quality, affordable housing for his staff and his family using some of the most innovative architects of the day. He also looked to provide good nursery care for the children of the workforce, for a while it was the picture of a modernist utopia. We had to take a look.
As you leave the station at Ivrea, the start of the well marked architectural is virtually in front of you. Large boards written in both Italian and English, guide you through the 20th century history of this remarkable town. The weather was bright and warm and we set off on the tour. Following some poor decisions in the 1990's Olivetti are no longer the powerhouse company that they once were but there are still some large modernist factory buildings in the town, all clean lines, plate glass and calm, controlled power. We then took a detour from the route that we had downloaded as one of the boards indicated there were three houses, which were worth a look at.
This resulted in us taking quite a long semicircular walk uphill, in the sun and not actually noticing any of the houses that we were supposed to. There were though, lots of nice places to admire, as we got hotter and the sky got darker. Thus far the heat haze had restricted our view of the mountain landscape, which we knew was almost at our fingertips. By the time we rejoined the main road, things were heading to something decidedly stormier, now it was dark clouds that were obscuring the view. Given the Italian tendency for places to close in the early afternoon we decide that we should look for somewhere to have lunch. We briefly weighed up the prospect of heading to the Crystal Palace Hotel but decided to head for a small rank of shops in the hope of finding a cafe. Well we were in luck and around an hour later we staggered out having enjoyed a very tasty three-course meal with wine and coffee, including a sumptuous homemade Tiramisu for less than thirty euros. That was the good news, the bad news was that the storm was now getting ready to break and we were about twenty minutes way from the town centre.
We started to walk down Via Jervis, with the thunder rumbling and the rain starting to fall. Mercifully, we noticed an open-air car park which had some sort of bike rack / smoking shelter with a corrugated roof, hurrah! As luck would have it our time under the shelter (which wasn't short) was enlivened by the view of some fabulous 1970's homes fit for a James Bond villain built into the hillside in front of us. They were accessed by an external stone-encased lift, cube shaped and partially overgrown, they were fantastically kitsch and exotic. Talking of which we were very close to the romantically named Olivetti residential centre, a stunning virtually hidden housing development built seemingly underground, in a glorious sweeping crescent. I know that's hard to imagine, must have been even harder to design and build. Although it looked as though some work was required on the roof of the property they were a fantastic thing to see, especially in this most unlikely setting. Given the weather conditions at the time, we returned to look at that development after taking cover in the old town for a while, it was well worth the walk back.
Eventually the rain did ease and it was time for to move on. When we crossed the bridge over the angry, swollen river and made our way into the old town. Looking up to the sky and there in a gap in the black clouds was view of bold snow covered mountains. We quickly headed past the amazing waterfall complete with a sculpture made of giant typewriter keys in tribute to Olivetti, in order to get a better view. The nature of these old hilltop towns is that they are densely built places, tricky to get much of an open view unless you get to a high point with an open landscape. In the way of every good fairy tale Ivrea has an ancient castle perched on the summit of the hill, so it's up we go, through the twisting narrow streets.
Occasionally in gaps between the buildings we catch another view of the mountains but we push on, the view from the castle is what we want. Finally we reach an open space to the south of the imposing castle building, only one small problem - the castle is very firmly closed, so no chance of climbing the turret of this 14th century building to enjoy it's view. Oh well, we think, let's just walk around the castle and see the view without the castle getting in the way. Easier said than done, as it proves to be virtually impossible to get the view that we are looking for as every road, literally hits a wall that we can't get past. We retrace our steps and rather improbably we are in the car park of the local hospital, a tall building that must have stupendous views to the north. Maybe one of us should have faked an illness in order to get admitted but our nerve fails us and we head back down the hillside, never having quite seen that perfect view.
No doubt that Ivrea is a fascinating place and it must have been quite amazing to witness the transformation that took place in those mid-century years. Sadly the dream of a town where the employer offers a nurturing, mutually beneficial package to it workforce fell away when Adriano Olivetti died. As it did in Saltier, the mill village that Sir Titus Salt created within 19th century Bradford and the Development of New Lanark near Glasgow that David Dale started in 1786, Ivrea tried to show the world a better way of sharing the benefits of work between owners and workers. It was time for us catch the early evening train back to Turin after our adventure in a place when industry and nature almost provided a perfect match. Don’t forget to stamp!