Baroque architecture, splendid shopping and delicious food and wine make Turin, a former World Design Capital, a must-see, writes Judy Bryant
South African Garden and Home
Why do you want to go to Turin? Isn’t it very, well, industrial? This was the usual comment when I announced that I was joining a friend in this north-western Italian city, the capital of the Piedmont region – the Fiat factory was founded there in 1899, and Olivetti in nearby Ivrea.
However, the well-established northern businesses also ensure support for arts and culture, and customers for the stylish cafes and restaurants. Think world-famous wines, truffles, hazelnuts, chocolate and plump, al dente risotto. Not to mention customers for the flourishing clothing and perfume houses, and the manufacturers of gorgeous shoes and handbags.
But let’s start at the beginning … we booked a two bedroom, two bathroom Airbnb apartment only a few bus stops from the city centre, for around R650 a day. I flew to Milan to meet my friend, where we caught a train to Turin. After a short bus ride, our host Mattia, a keen cook, welcomed us and was soon pointing out his pale pink vintage Smeg oven and collection of Moka stovetop coffee makers. He encouraged us to source ingredients at the nearby Porto Palazzo fruit and vegetable market ‒ the largest indoor market in Europe ‒ and shared a list of restaurants in his multi-cultural neighbourhood.
The next day we took an Eco City Tour to get an overview of the gorgeous Baroque architecture. The electric minibus scooted silently through the city centre and we were bowled away by its understated elegance.
Turin was part of the French-speaking Savoy principality from the 11th to 18th centuries, and its squares contain beautiful buildings built by the Savoy royal family. We were surrounded by palaces, museums and art galleries in a refined colour palette of pale greys, stone and duck-egg blue.
The next few days were packed with culture. The Royal collection of Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch paintings in the Galleria Sabauda was a highlight, while the Royal Museum had a beautiful exhibition of still life fruit and vegetable paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries. We also visited the austere cathedral of St John the Baptist, where the Turin Shroud is stored in a silver casket, within an iron box, in a marble case.
Movie buffs should visit the National Museum of Cinema, where you can pore over objects like early magic lanterns, Marilyn Monroe’s photos and Star Wars masks. It’s housed in the Mole Antonelliana building, local equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, with panoramic city views.
We also caught a quaint little tram that inched its way up a forested hill, criss-crossed with hiking trails, to the exquisite baroque Basilica di Superga. This church has an imposing yellow and white façade and is the ideal location to gaze down on the sparkling Po River and beyond.
But you simply can’t visit Turin without shopping. The stores in the arcades were stunning, and the fact that most were on sale added to their affordability and our excitement. Elegant Via Roma offers established brands, but there are also dozens of speciality shops. You can find anything from jewellery created by young designers, to exclusive stationery.
In fact, my interest in Turin had been piqued when I discovered that it was the first World Design Capital, back in 2008. It’s easy to explore, supports creative industries, and you’re spoilt for choice whether you love music, theatre, art or architecture.
Exploring is hungry work. Fortunately we discovered apericena ‒ a value-for money evening bar buffet. The name derives from aperitivi (snacks like olives or nuts) and cena (dinner). For €10 (around R170) you can order a drink and pile your plate.
The food market surpassed Mattia’s description ‒ great slabs of parmesan, mounds of vegetables, breads and seafood. Our neighbourhood also had many Middle Eastern, North African and Asian residents, and we particularly enjoyed a meal at a tiny Syrian family restaurant.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from Turin, until we met an Italian contact in a literary club hung with oil paintings. While sipping Aperol spritzers, we learnt that the nearby town of Asti was holding its annual festival and horse race the very next day.
We caught a train to this mediaeval town and found the narrow streets criss-crossed with flags of the competing districts. Following a procession of young girls and boys in costume, we found ourselves in a church decorated with sunflowers and glossy red anthuriums. After the service the priest blessed a huge white horse that was to lead their procession.
We gazed open-mouthed as performers tossed their flags high in the air. But as the people paraded through the streets, it was the exquisite costumes and attention to detail that blew us away. One group was accompanied by elegant greyhounds; in another, exquisitely-profiled women balanced falcons and sparrowhawks on their leather-gloved hands.
Later we perched in the stands surrounding Piazza Alfieri, transformed with sawdust into a gladiatorial racetrack with the honour of the various districts at stake. We couldn’t help giggling at the starting official’s running commentary as he struggled to get seven horses lined up for the first three heats.
Next we based ourselves in the nearby wine centre of Alba, although my erratic driving – manual car, right hand side of the road, roadworks – ensured we nearly didn’t make it.
We’d start the day at a coffee shop, then wind up hairpin bends past family-owned vineyards, fields of hazel trees and dense woods. The area is a Unesco world heritage site, and in towns like Barolo we looked out on ancient terracotta roofs, peered into little churches, and sampled the products from specialist wine and food shops ‒ although I skipped the famous Bra sausage, served raw with lemon juice.
On our final evening, back in Turin, I visited the oldest Egyptian museum in the world. Renovated and doubled in size in 2015, it houses more than 40 000 artefacts. The statues embodied so much power that the hair on my arms rose as I entered the Gallery of the Kings, where colossal statues circled a vast hall clad with black mirrors.
After my trip, I read a description of Turin in an old Wall Street Journal. The city was described as “elegant, respectable… (but) behind that austere façade there is an irrepressible vitality, a pulsating creative and sparkling heart.” I couldn’t agree more. Do visit it!