Turin: where the classic and the contemporary combine, in food, architecture and art

May 14, 2019
Turin is a city of intriguing contrasts that beckon exploration.

Reflecting its storied history entwined with the royal House of Savoy, the noble line which gave Italy its last kings and queens, stately and regal palaces, elegant stone squares, such as Piazza San Carlo, and orderly street layout evoke the feel of a history-conscious, mid-sized French town. Yet Turin has earned a reputation for daring modern architecture. In one of the most stunning examples, superstar Italian architect Renzo Piano's transformed the Lingotto, an early 20th-century Fiat automobile production site and roof-top test track, into a lively meeting and arts place, with shops, a concert hall, eateries, a hotel and a strolling area on top which gives panoramic views of the city, including of the Alps which form a dramatic backdrop for Turin.

The Piedmont countryside just outside of Turin, or Torino, its Italian name, is dotted with towns famed for some of Italy's signature food products. To name two: there's Alba, with its prized white truffles, and Asti, home to a sparking wine. Cafes in Turin bring coffee-drinking to seriously high-levels. Several coffee houses, with their marble counters and tables, are centuries-old, and Torinesi, as the locals are known, sip their cup of "bicerin,'' a cherished brew of chocolate, coffee and milk. Since Turin isn't overrun with tourists, it's easy to slip inside and while away some hours soaking up the coffee-house atmosphere and nibbling at some of Turin's fine pastries, just like the locals do.

Turin's food is hearty, ranging from risotto made from rice produced in Piedmont's paddies to ravioli-like pasta stuffed with the likes of sweetbreads and smothered with creamy fondue-like sauces.

While culinary traditions are cherished in Turin, one of Italy's -- and now the world's -- more innovative culinary movements -- Slow Food -- was born in the nearby town of Bra, famed for its cheese festivals. The icon of the Slow Food movement is a snail, but there's nothing snail-paced about how the thrust toward treasuring and re-configuring old dishes caught on. Every other year, Turin hosts the Salon del Gusto (Taste Salon, a kind of food fair,) exalting the wholeness and healthiness of Italian foods. The appointment is held, not surprisingly, at the Lingotto.

Aperitivo bars abound, often the haunt of lively young crowds, a counterpoint to the more stately air of historic coffee house.

Ferrero, the sweets maker that gave Nutella to the world, began in Turin, taking advantage of hazelnut orchards near the city. But the city also prides itself on artisan-made chocolates, by generations-old confectioners. Chocoholics can sample these delightful confections in the candy-makers' classy-looking shops. For those wanting the best of both worlds -- hazelnuts and chocolate, Turin has thoughtfully given the world ''giandujua," a favorite flavor for candies and ice cream.

In a change-of-pace from Italy's museums awash in Roman antiquities, tourists in Turin can take a mile-long stroll through the exhibits at the Egyptian Museum, embracing what's considered the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo. In 2015, after a nearly three-year-long makeover, the Museum showed off a new layout, with three new floors and a roof garden. Dante Ferretti, Italy's Oscar-winning set designer, worked on the project, and in the last few years, the number of visitors to the museum has been soaring annually.

But while a museum celebrating a past civilization is Turin's pride-and-joy, Piedmont's capital has lately been building a reputation as a dynamic contemporary arts scene -- yet another delightful contrasts in the city's character that is so appealing.

Turin also claims an air of mystery, since it is home to the enigmatic Shroud of Turin. The 14-foot-long linen cloth is kept in a specially made, bullet-proof and climate-controlled glass display in the Chapel of the Sacred Shroud, which is sandwiched between the Royal Palace and Duomo, or cathedral. The cloth used to be put on brief display every 25 years, but recent decades have seen the shroud, which some hold to be the burial cloth of Jesus, shown to the public less rarely. Pope John Paul II went to ponder it in 1998, and in 2000, the Jubilee Holy Year coinciding with Millennium celebrations, the shroud was again available for viewing. Pope Benedict XVI journeyed to gaze upon it in 2010, the same year it was open for several weeks to the curious and rank-and-file faithful.

Another iconic landmark in Turin is the oddly named Mole Antonelliana, since ''mole'' means a pile or heap. A late 19th-century architectural eye-catcher, the towering structure has a dome-like top adorned by a spire resembling a clunky antenna. It is home to the National Museum of Cinema. The spire features a viewing platform that boasts stunning views of the city and the mountains.

Turin is relatively undiscovered by tourists. Perhaps as home to Fiat, long Italy's largest private employer, the city became too associated with assembly lines and workers. But the 2006 Winter Olympics, based in Turin and taking advantage of nearby Alpine slopes for skiing and other sports, showcased the city's attractiveness and attractions and boosted tourism.

For those considering seguing from an Alpine ski week to several days of culture and culinary pampering, Turin can be an ideal option.