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.

Piazza San Carlo, a few blocks from the Palazzo Carignano, is usually called the drawing room of Turin, since so many Turinese pass through it several times a day. I like looking at the 1940s façade of the Lux Cinema, in a shopping gallery off the piazza, and I always stop at the Libreria Druetto, my favorite of the city's many bookstores, which has a good selection of guides and art books and a generous English-language section. Like many shops in Turin, it feels like a club. I was made a member on my first visit, when Elisabeth zu Stolberg, the tall, blonde, professorial co-owner, tested my rusty German on learning my surname. Each time I greet her, she makes me stumble through a few German pleasantries before she suggests which new books might be of interest.

A city stroll might continue down Via Roma, the arcaded main street for shopping and promenading, which was rebuilt by the Fascists in the 1930s, to Piazza Castello, the historic heart of Turin. At its center is the Palazzo Madama, a stark medieval castle on one side (hence the piazza's name) and a Baroque glass-fronted palace on the other. The piazza provides an introduction to the work of the two Turinese architects to watch for: Guarino Guarini, the designer of the Palazzo Carignano, and Filippo Juvarra, the designer of the windowed façade of the Palazzo Madama. Of the two, Guarini, a mathematician who flourished in the mid-1600s, was the more flamboyantly original: his work keeps the viewer off balance, wondering where light is entering and whether a dome could possibly be as tall as it seems. The plain Baroque façade of the San Lorenzo church, at one side of the vast piazza, gives no hint of Guarini's startling octagonal interior and dome behind it. Juvarra, who assumed the reins as royal architect fifty years later, took a more classical, monumental approach.

The contrast between the two architects is probably best shown by Guarini's surpassingly strange vertiginous, black-marble-lined Chapel of the Shroud, in the cathedral behind the piazza. You can't be disoriented by the chapel for a while: it burned two years ago in a fire that left the Shroud undamaged. Theoretically the chapel will reopen in time for next year's showing; the dates, and much else, should be available on the Turin tourist bureau's Web site, at

MY passion for Turin may be largely explained by the constant opportunities to drink first-rate coffee (Italy's largest coffee roaster, Lavazza, is headquartered in the city) accompanied by first-rate sandwiches, pastry, and chocolate. Turin's most gorgeous cafés hide behind the arcades of Piazza Castello. Baratti & Milano joins two distinct architectural styles, somewhat like the Palazzo Madama; one is frothy Parisian Art Nouveau, and the other is the severe and fine-patterned Art Nouveau common in Jugendstil Vienna. Along the same arcade is the perfectly preserved Caffè Mulassano, with a small, cube-shaped interior from the early 1900s whose every surface is ornamented with colored marble or carved wood.

Turin's most charming café is Al Bicerin, a ten-minute walk from Piazza Castello and an essential stop for its definitive version of the eponymous drink, a mixture of chocolate, espresso, and creamy, very lightly foamed milk served in a low glass. The café has been in the hands of women since it opened, in the late eighteenth century (its simple, honey-colored wood interior dates back to the 1830s), and for many years was one of the few places women could appear alone in public; here they dunked long, wide ladyfingers into a bicerin to break the fast after mass at the Church of the Consolata, across the way. The cookies are still excellent. Today the café has become a hangout for the city's youth, who crowd out the door on Sunday afternoons.

The chicest café, appropriately, is on Via Roma: Zucca, whose interior is plain by comparison with Turin's Art Nouveau jewels but whose clientele more than makes up for it. The crowd is especially dense and well dressed at the aperitif hour, from roughly 6:30 to 8:30. Turinese cafés offer plate upon plate of savory tidbits with aperitifs, and the sandwiches at Zucca are the best in a city known for elegant sandwiches: don't miss the split focaccia slathered with fresh cream cheese and white-truffle paste. But then, I think everything is better at Zucca.

Many of the city's superb food shops have wood-and-etched-glass façades that look utterly Parisian, such as Steffanone, a premier gourmet shop, just off Piazza San Carlo; Paissa, which seems right out of the past century and sells wine and dry goods at branches in Piazza San Carlo and Piazza Vittorio Veneto; and the beautiful cheese, pasta, and grissini (breadsticks, a city specialty) shops along Via San Tommaso, around the corner from the frescoed Art Nouveau arcades of Via Pietro Micca. The souvenir to bring home is a bag of gianduiotti, little ingots of chocolate and hazelnuts, which should be strong, not too sweet, and slightly gritty. The classic place to buy gianduiotti is Peyrano, long the city's reigning chocolatier, which roasts its own cocoa beans over olive wood; lately Peyrano has been getting some stiff competition from the artisan Guido Gobino, who roasts the famous local hazelnuts especially dark before grinding them into a paste. Pastry shops of note include Ghigo, in the arcaded Via Po, which bakes the city's best-loved panettone; I always take home a cellophane-wrapped package of soft, buttery ladyfingers (and often some homemade gianduiotti, too) from the Gertosio on Via Lagrange, the street that is considered Turin's gourmet row.

The choice of full-fledged restaurants isn't nearly as interesting or tempting as the choice of cafés, perhaps because people snack so frequently or perhaps because Turinese prefer to eat dinner at home. Piedmont is legendary for its rich and endless meals. Mercifully, few restaurants in Turin serve old-fashioned Piedmont haute cuisine: for that you must venture into the countryside, or go to nearby Alba, the truffle capital. I frequent the Montecarlo, a handsome, brightly lit, clubby place whose owner, Sante Prevarin, will devise a menu of typical but not excessive dishes, best built around the impeccable fish. Any meal should begin with tiny meat- or spinach-filled agnolotti made of fantastically delicate (because yolk-rich) pasta rolled by hand. Prevarin will bring out a selection of cheeses he claims are impossible to find elsewhere (ask for the herb-coated Maccagno, which he says "puts the hills into your mouth"), and for dessert there are addictive raisin- and pinenut-studded cookies rolled in, of all things, corn flakes.

Turin's hotels are functional, as befits a businesslike city, but several have something approaching charm. The Turin Palace, across from the Moorish train station, was once the luxurious empress of the city's hotels. It now has a 1960s feel despite its century-long history, and is still known for its service and well-heeled guests. I rely on the plush, snug Sitea, a central four-star businessman's hotel where the Juventus team stays, drawing crowds to cheer the athletes as they board big buses for matches. Nearby is the three-star Victoria, a charming small hotel set back from the street; friends have been very happy there, and also at the three-star Boston (whose location, in an elegant residential neighborhood behind the train station, is relatively inconvenient). I was impressed by a quick tour of the three-star Roma, in the piazza just across from the station. The rooms are large and, thanks to double-glazed windows, quiet, and the prices are very reasonable.

EVEN if you don't rent a car to explore the Piedmont in search of white truffles and Barolo, I recommend two minor excursions to see two Savoy residences; each is just a twenty- or thirty-minute taxi ride from the center. Castello di Rivoli is a severe, dramatically sited eighteenth-century brick castle in grand, sober Baroque, designed by Juvarra and renovated from 1979 to 1984 to house a decent collection of contemporary art. It's worth going for the ingeniously rebuilt interior and the commanding view of the city. Stupinigi is a sort of dream: a hunting lodge built not long after Versailles, on a much smaller scale but nonetheless grand. In the unique plan devised by Juvarra, diagonal arms radiate outward from a spectacular central ballroom, whose painted walls, huge glass chandelier, and gilded crossbeams have been perfectly restored. But the royal suites around the ballroom have mostly not. You can thus see furniture and wall fabrics as they were, and they are all the more riveting for being slightly in tatters. The sometimes threadbare but always sumptuous rooms reminded me of Deborah Turbeville's desolate, disturbing pictures of Versailles. Here you can imagine aristocratic eighteenth-century life, private and public, being conducted, and even imagine yourself part of it. Though Turin is nearly as firmly planted in the present as Milan, every aspect of it is tinged by the past. Perhaps that is what makes it uniquely civilized.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Touring Turin; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 38 - 44.