Sunday seemed to be an appropriate day for us to visit the Basilica di Superga, the church that looks over Turin from its high vantage point to the north east of the city. We awoke to a clear blue sky, maybe today would be the day for us to fully catch site of those famous mountains?
As the journey was taking us beyond walking distance, today was the day for us to take our first journey on the Turin public transport system. As befits a city of around a million people, it benefits from having bus, tram and metro service, which can all be used on the same ticket. The previous evening we had visited on the tourist office in town to check on the best way to reach our destination.
To say the lady who dealt with my request was a little brusque would be like saying Andrea Pirlo the midfield star of the Turin based Juventus football team it quite good at passing a football (he’s fantastic). In fairness she may have been asked the question a thousand times, it was near the end of the day and sometimes it must be tempting to say, “hey don’t you people have the internet, it’s all on there!” Ironic though that she was the only person to be a little impatient with us during our time in Turin, yet she was the only one being paid to help us. She did though present us with a photocopied timetable for the correct bus and told us where to get off. No, not like that! We would then be catching what sounded like a funicular railway up the steep hill, towards the church.
We visited a tabacchi, the equivalent of newsagents in Britain, and with the help of some top quality sign language, purchased 15 tickets (valid on all forms of public transport) as recommended by our guidebooks. Having achieved this we set off to find the correct bus stop. The stops often serve both bus and trams and have helpful signage which show you all the stops on the route and where you are in relation to them, As long as you know which way the bus or tram is heading you can’t go wrong. After a short wait, the number 15 bus came into view and we were on our way, remembering to time stamp our tickets once on board to ensure that they were valid.
Bus journeys are generally enjoyable when on holiday but even more so on a quiet Sunday morning. The bus was fairly empty, as were the roads, so it was good chance to take in some sights of the city. When the bus reached Stazione Sassi our stop, we stood up to leave, as did every other passenger, this was a classic follow the crowd situation. Our destination was literally just around the corner and although we had to buy different tickets for the next stage of the journey there were easy to use ticket machines in English at our disposal.
The journey up the hill takes about twenty minutes, heading up a reasonably steep incline. The view of the city opened up behind us but the haze of the warm morning was stopping us from seeing any mountains at this stage. Would it lift? After reaching the end of line there was further uphill section to negotiate on foot before reaching the plateau upon which the edifice stands.
In the old days people just loved building things in the most ridiculous places, that statue of Christ in Rio, the Acropolis in Athens, Edinburgh Castle, the Wudang mountain complex in China, the village of Gordes in France, the Glasgow Necropolis, well the list goes on I’m sure we all have our own favourites. You have to admire the effort that people put in to creating these places in such harsh and inhospitable landscapes and the Basillica di Superga is no exception. Not only did they build something 75 meters high, to give thanks for victory over French forces, they had to remove 40 meters of the hilltop to do so. I can’t imagine anything on that scale happening today. Who would be crazy enough to plan it and build it, yet alone pay for it?
There is a large open space in front of the church, perfect for looking at those gorgeous mountains on a sunny day. Well, not quite! The sky above our heads was clear and blue, the view of the city was spectacular, our eyes though were drawn beyond Turin. We strained our vision into the distance but the midmorning haze created a shimmering blur, ruling any mountain spotting firmly out.
I was amused to see a large sign pointing directly at the church and indicating that there was both a Ristorante and a Bar inside, creative thinking indeed. Slightly disappointingly these two were in a building that was attached to the church but not actually part of it. We sat outside enjoying a drink and a snack in this undeniably gorgeous setting.
Eventually we stirred ourselves to walk to the rear of the building. Here we saw the permanent shrine to the members of the Torino Football club that were killed in 1949, when the plane they were travelling in, struck the hill in thick fog. If the incident happened now, I’m sure a million conspiracy theorists would leap into action. Of all the vast amount of open sky on this side of the city, somehow the plane crashed into the retaining wall at the back of the church. It’s easy to find pictures on the Internet of the aftermath of the terrible accident, the rear fuselage of plane seemingly protruding from the solid wall. All 31 people on the plane perished, including every member of that Torino team that was on the verge of winning its fifth consecutive league title.
On the Sunday of our visit, the present day Torino team were playing at home later in the day. No surprise then that there was a steady procession of fans paying their respects and having their picture taken in front of the memorial to arguably the greatest club side that Italy ever produced. The team has never been able to recapture thee glory of the years following the end of the Second World War, whilst their city neighbours Juventus have become one of the most consistently successful teams in Italy over the last fifty years.
Back to the front of the building we went and the sun was stronger and warmer than ever. The haze though was obviously enjoying its day out and was not going to disappear any time soon. So, the mountains remained shyly hidden from view. We had a look around the genuinely stunning interior of the Basilica but it was too nice a day to be inside for long. We decided to head back into town and to try the view from the other building in the area that people flock to for it’s spectacular views Mole Antonelliana.
If you’ve seen a picture of Turin, the chances are pretty high that the Mole Antonelliana will be in the shot. Originally conceived as a synagogue but never used for that purpose, it is 168 meters high; in fact, when it was completed in 1889 it was the tallest masonry building in Europe. This fact implies that there was a taller building made of a different structure, without spending any time on research at all; my guess is that there would have been a wooden building that was taller? What else could it have been made of? Too early for concrete? Maybe it was something crazy like jelly or papier-mâché?
Anyway the Mole Antonelliana is a beautiful and impressive structure. It has an observation deck, why above the city, which apparently provides fantastic views of Turin and those all-important mountains. We figured that from a more central point we might just have a better chance of seeing through the haze to the Alps to the north. As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Turin we were not surprised to a find a queue outside the building, we tagged on the end and were then told it would be around a two hour wait before we would find ourselves speeding upwards in the famous glass lift.
So we did what any sensible person would do, found a café, ordered a drink and watched the queue slowly diminish. This process was helped along by the welcome provision of some tasty free food thanks to the brilliant concept of Stuzzichini, which somehow we had forgotten about until our waiter placed a selection of snacks on our table. How very civilised. I wonder though, what happens when the good people of Turin venture abroad for the first time? The evening arrives and they find a nice bar or café, order a drink and look expectantly around the place for their early evening nibbles. They wait and wait, then eventually move on disappointed by the lack of food treats heading their way. Sorry Toreinesi, most places in the world are not and generous and hospitable as your fine city, a tough lesson to learn.
We nibbled, drank and read it the warmth of the early evening, all the while keeping an eye of the queue from our seats on the pavement. Eventually we rejoined the, by now much smaller, gathering of people outside the building. As well as having the best views in the city, the interior of the Mole Antonelliana is pretty impressive as well. It’s the home of the National Cinema museum and if time permits you can explore both the museum and the observation deck. We were kindly informed that it was now too late in the day to buy a ticket for both attractions, so we plumped for the observation area only, hoping that the view would be clearer than it was earlier.
Once inside the building, there was another short queue, for the lift itself, then finally we were ushered forward. The lift ride is a great experience, as long as you don’t have a problem with heights! You rise rapidly through the centre of the building in the small glass box, the attractions of the cinema museum rushing past you, before heading through the apex of the roof in spectacular style. On leaving the lift you step out onto the spacious square viewing area, which gives a complete view of the city and its environs. Right up to the hazy of base of those mountains!
Although we could see slightly more of the outlines of the lower portions of the Alps to the north, the upper portions were still hidden from view. To be honest though it didn’t matter. Stretched out before was Turin, gorgeous in the early evening sunlight. As you have to do in these situations, we worked our where we were staying and where every place we had visited was located. Then we just stood and stared, hoping that those far away clouds would lift just a little more. Eventually the staff gently reminded us that they would quite like to close for the evening and go home, so we once again entered the lift, this time to enjoy the high-speed descent through the building.
When we were virtually back at our apartment we stopped off to eat at Ristorante Urbani. The place is bright and modern, white surfaces reflecting plenty of light back at you. Quite a swanky looking place but as in the Italian way, there were several TV’s dotted about the restaurant, allowing the locals to watch that evenings football whilst enjoying some fine food. Here we tried the local agnolotti pasta and were gently flattered into ordering more than we really wanted by our English speaking waitress. This was no bad thing though as we finished our meal with a stupendous selection of sweet treats from the desert trolley, a steal at just 6 euros. With apartment literally just a couple of doors away, we were soon home and resting. Tomorrow we were going to encounter two great mysteries of the city: the locally famous Bicerin and the world famous Turin Shroud.