Touring Turin

The place to experience the height of northern-Italian elegance isn't where most people think

I'M always surprised when first-time or infrequent visitors to Italy tell me that they plan to spend a few days in Milan. Their idea, I think, is that Milan will offer the epitome of style, which along with art and food is one of the three pillars of Italian culture. This reminds me of the 1946 George Price cartoon of an aging flapper racing toward a news vendor and crying, "Vogue! And hurry!" True, Milan is the center of the country's fashion and media industries. But that doesn't mean the visitor can plug into them simply by walking down the streets or going into the right bars. Trendsetters generally keep behind closed doors, and the customers in the famed boutiques of Via Monte Napoleone are seldom Italian. Gray, vast, and monolithic, Milan is a city very hard to like -- and nearly impossible to love.

Those hankering for northern elegance should know that Turin is no more than an hour and a half from both Milan's city center and its airport, Malpensa, which was recently designated one of Italy's principal international gateways (despite the fact that connections to and from Milan remain inconvenient). Every street in Turin offers at least one stylish shop and an unexpected Baroque or Art Nouveau vista; the museums are excellent and varied; shops, thanks to industrial money, have been able to maintain their ornate turn-of-the-century façades and interiors; the cafés are the most spectacular in a country blessed with a café on every block; the wine and cheese, from the surrounding hills and mountains of Piedmont, are among Italy's best (and often unavailable beyond the region's borders); and the pastry and chocolates are easily the country's most refined. Price's panicky flapper might not find the very latest frock. But in the luxurious, tasteful shops of Turin she would find clothes that designers actually wear.
I go to Turin as often as possible, and can't imagine tiring of it. Like Naples, my other favorite Italian city, Turin has lately been making itself dramatically more accessible, inviting, and navigable for tourists. The periodic viewings of the Shroud both jam the city (the two-month-long showing last spring, the first in twenty years, drew more than a million people) and set deadlines for renovation. The Royal Palace was repainted and cars were banned from much of the main piazza in time for last spring's onslaught, and the showing next year, in honor of the millennial, is likely to bring more renovation.

Yet even as it spruces up, Turin retains the intimacy and bustle of a pre-war city. On recent visits, when I would find that some Italian magazine had just highlighted the many improvements and called for yet more, I encountered very few tourists but many friendly natives. Turin has long been an insiders' secret. That may soon change.

WHEN people think of Turin, they usually think of cars: the t in the acronym "Fiat" is for "Torino." The Agnelli family, which controls the company, is Italy's modern-day royalty: Fiat owns the local newspaper and has a controlling interest in Corriere della Sera, the leading national daily; the family owns Juventus, a soccer team that is something of a national religion. Fiat's huge postwar expansion and its housing of southern-Italian emigrants in faceless suburbs enlarged the city, which in the seventies had to cope with the effects of helter-skelter growth and North-South culture clashes.

Turin is no Motor City, though. Fiat's presence is all but invisible in the center. Not even the Museum of the Automobile, one of the world's great collections of antique cars, housed in a big, airy 1960 International Style building facing the Po, is run by Fiat. Instead -- and this is perhaps the greatest surprise to the visitor -- the architecture of the city center is Baroque, and the prevailing feeling is not of heavy industry but of intellectual aristocracy. "I can't get over what a beautiful city this is," I heard again and again when I recently led colleagues on an informal tour.

Blood royalty, rather than industrial royalty, built the city. Turin was the seat of the House of Savoy, whose kings reigned, at least nominally, until 1946. One of them, the reform-minded Carlo Alberto, helped to stoke the revolutionary fervor that led to Italy's unification, in 1861, with Turin as the capital. (The capital was moved to Florence in 1865 and to Rome five years later.) The first Italian Parliament met in Turin's most beautiful building -- the Palazzo Carignano, built in the late seventeenth century and the birthplace of Carlo Alberto.

Sightseeing should begin at the palazzo, which is within steps of the city's main museums and just blocks away from the best shops and nicest cafés. The palazzo is a Baroque marvel of undulating lines and red-brick ornament, including, unexpectedly, motifs taken from Native American feather headdresses (to commemorate Piedmontese participation in a French victory over the tribes of Quebec). Today it houses an absorbing museum of the unification of Italy -- helpfully, many of the placards are in English -- with excellent summaries of the country's wartime history. History comes alive across the way at the Ristorante del Cambio, an elaborately decorated restaurant where Count Camillo di Cavour, the architect of unification, held court and kept an eye on who was going in and out of Parliament. Perhaps he ate bollito misto, fragrant boiled meats sliced on a rolling silver cart, which is still the house specialty.

Once your eye is accustomed to seeing humble brick as a sinuous medium, you will note the similarly bold building catercorner from the palazzo, which houses Turin's two must-see museums -- the Egyptian Museum and the Galleria Sabauda. The Sabauda boasts canvases by Italian and Flemish masters, including Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Bellini, and Van Eyck. Aside from the Shroud, the Egyptian Museum is Turin's chief tourist draw: any native will tell you, with somewhat hyperbolic enthusiasm, that after Cairo, Turin has the finest Egyptian collection in existence. Fascinating and rare as the painted sarcophagi and mummies and little kitchen tools may be, however, both labels and lighting are sparse except in one freshly installed basement gallery. (A plan under discussion would expand the Egyptian Museum into the space now occupied by the picture gallery upstairs; the paintings would move to the Royal Palace once its own restoration is completed.)

A walk in any direction from the Palazzo Carignano will reveal tree-lined avenues and boulevards, tranquil Baroque squares, arcaded streets (Turin has eleven miles of arcades), and Art Nouveau buildings that seem, like much of the city, to be more French than Italian: Piedmont was a French département for more than a decade under Napoleon. You might happen onto an eccentric museum, such as the Marionette Museum, or the long-shuttered Museum of Cinema -- Turin was as important to the birth of Italian filmmaking as to the Italian automobile industry. The film museum is scheduled to re-open by the end of the year, in the very tall, very ugly Mole Antonelliana.

Or you can keep your eye on shops: shops specializing in such old-fashioned items as fountain pens, metal and rubber stamps, tea by way of Paris (two sisters have opened an enchanting new boutique at Via della Rocca, 2), jewelry from the twenties through the seventies (Lorenzo and Paola Monticone run an extremely chic little shop at Via della Rocca, 4), Art Nouveau antiques (the sumptuous and very expensive Tina Biazzi gallery, at Via Maria Vittoria, 19), and British and British-influenced men's clothes (Jack Emerson, a big warehouselike shop where old-money Turin goes to watch its pennies, on the second floor of a modern building across from the Cambio restaurant). Each Saturday is the Balôn, a large flea market near the city's marvelous cast-iron-and-glass food markets; on the second Sunday of every month an expanded version, the Gran Balôn, draws dealers and customers from all over the region.

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