Of all the many splendours that Turin offers, The Turin Shroud is one of a very small number of things that the majority of the people in England will have heard of. It has a mystical hold over people's imagination because everyone loves a good mystery and the story of The Shroud is one of the best.
Way back in the late 1970's my father was friendly with a chap called Ian Wilson, the writer of a best selling book about The Shroud. The mystery around this ancient cloth gripped both our house and the nation as a succession of experts appeared to either spread the word of the miracle of the cloth holding a lasting image of Jesus or to denounce it as a clever hoax. It's a sequence that has continued to the present day. Whilst carrying out some very basic research into our proposed trip to Turin, I stumbled across the news that the actual Shroud was to make one of it's rare public displays this year, in fact our visit would coincide with the event. As is the way in our magically connected modern world, five minutes later I had an email confirming two tickets to see The Shroud on the Monday of our trip. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
I wasn't exactly sure what the experience would provide us with. Would there be a sudden divine revelation to change my life forever? Would we have to queue for hours in hot sunshine and then have an obscured view for less than twenty seconds? Would there be an outbreak of hysterical religious frenzy as the believers witnessed The Shroud at close quarters? Would there be a huge array of outrageous tat sold as religious souvenirs? Well our time in the city had provided a resounding yes to the last question, even if the others remained open to debate.
Less well known to the wilder world is the mysterious speciality drink of Turin - Bicerin. It came to our attention through those splendid guidebooks, which were unlocking the secrets of the city to us. Served in a special glass, approximately the size of small wine glass, it's a dangerous combination of coffee, cream and of course as this is Turin, chocolate. On this bright Monday morning our happy knack of inadvertently wandering up to the gems of the city would help us to become acquainted with this little classic.
Having read of long queues to see The Shroud, we gave ourselves plenty of time to reach the cathedral where it was being displayed. We actually went slightly the wrong way to our destination but this was to work to our fortune, as we found ourselves in the delightful Piazza Della Consolata. This was lucky enough, then we noticed the charming old cafe in the middle of the square. Peering through the window the interior was instantly recognisable as that of Caffe al Bicerin, one of the most celebrated places to indulge in the drink that the cafe takes it's name from.
A tiny one room place, with the feel of old railway carriage. Other than the addition of electricity, I don't think that too much has changed here since it opened in 1763. We ordered our Bicerin at the counter then took our seats on the red velvet banquette. It's staggering to think that we were following the likes of Puccini, Nietzche and Italino Calvino by sitting in the small side street establishment. The Bicerin duly arrived and we slowly savoured the delicious combination, which must have been the 18th century version of Redbull.
Suitably fortified, we found a priest to follow as we walked to Palazzo Madama and the start of the longish covered walkway through the Giardini Reali that had been erected for the occasion. Although we were well ahead of the time on our tickets we were waved through to start the walk. At this time of the day, there was virtually no queue, so after a brief airport style security check we were on our way.
Finally we reached a large room, which held a crowd of a couple of hundred people, all waiting for their pre Shroud briefing. Here we were shown a carefully constructed video of the Shroud and all the points to look out for when we saw the real thing in a few minutes time. The crowd was attentive and quiet; in fact to my mind everyone was disappointingly sedate. I started to hope that we would soon witness some uncontrollable religious mania. Maybe they were just biding their time, the frenzy gently building inside them, ready to be unleashed once they were in front of the legendary cloth.
We were then ushered into three separate queues before entering the dark interior of the cathedral via a side entrance. Signs advised us that no flash photography was permitted; this was very much the art gallery experience. Still the mood was one of quiet anticipation, no moaning, crying or chanting. In we went and it was impressive to see that a triple decked terrace had been created in front of The Shroud, ensuring that once called forward, we would all have a good view.
Then it was our turn; forward we went with the brightly illuminated Shroud just a few feet in front us. In the darkness of the rest of the room the Shroud shone our brightly, almost too brightly, giving it the impression of a giant widescreen TV, albeit one protected by extravagantly dressed guards. We peered curiously towards it, and yes, it was easy to make out those famous marks and impressions on the cloth. The video we were shown earlier had prepared us well. If I had been forced to sit an exam about the key points to look for, I would have passed with flying colours. I looked around at my fellow visitors, still hoping that the vision would stir some uncontrollable mania. Everyone though remained placid.
After several minutes, the signal came that our time was up; it was time to shuffle away. Then it happened, the man to my left suddenly snapped. No, he didn’t prostrate himself on the ground; he didn’t start speaking in tongues or dancing deliriously. No, his was a much more modern response, he boldly took a photograph with the flash on! What a rebel. It was a shame that we couldn’t really stop to admire the rest of the building as it looked suitably impressive but before we knew it, we outside, blinking in the sunshine and our brush with this particular piece of history was over.
Next we decided to visit a different sort of cathedral, one of a much more recent vintage, the famous Fiat factory, Lingotto. Opened in 1923, it is a huge structure, most famous for it’s roof top test track, which we put the newly build cars through their paces having just rolled of the production line. Car production stopped here in the 1980’s and the enormous structure is now a combination of hotel, shopping centre and university. To the west of the old factory building and reached via the long and graceful bridge known as Olympic Arch, are the derelict remains of the Olympic village that was constructed for the 2006 winter games. Not being well versed with the winter Olympics, I would have previously thought of the competitors being snugly housed in cute alpine cottages rather than this very urban setting.
Well that was a whole day with no talk of mountains. Tomorrow though would be different, we are taking a train ride north, to the strange town of Ivrea.