TURIN, Italy -- Ah, bella Italia. Rome, Venice, Florence, Turin ...
This city of 900,000 in the northwestern corner of Italy, known mostly -- if at all -- as home to the Fiat and a certain controversial burial shroud, has been busy reinventing itself as it prepares for the 1.5 million spectators expected during the Feb. 10-26 Winter Olympics.
I had never been to Turin -- "Torino" to Italians -- and was not sure what to expect as my plane began its descent, revealing a dazzling panorama of snow-blanketed Alps glistening under a clear blue sky. My first view of Turin on the ground, from the cab taking me through the bleak industrial suburbs near the airport, was less than dazzling.
I perked up on being deposited in town at the Hotel Victoria, a place of British-inspired charm, where I had a sweet little room that had been done up in red toile. And my first outing -- dinner at the unpretentious little Giusti Mauro a few blocks away -- was encouraging. A man at the next table, also alone, translated the menu for me and suggested "agnolotti", a delicious raviolilike local specialty.
A good omen, I thought: Torinesi are friendly, and they eat well. They also drink well; during my stay, I enjoyed the robust regional red wines Barolo and Barbaresco.
On the first morning, after breakfast in the Victoria's wicker and trompe l'oeil garden room, I headed to the headquarters of the organizing committee for the Turin Olympics to meet Mary Villa, international media relations manager, who spoke of the Games as a catalyst for a "very deep process of transformation" of the city.
It was a theme I was to hear again and again. Turin has good bones -- palaces once occupied by members of the House of Savoy, whose dukes and kings ruled in Italy for centuries; handsome piazzas; and 11 miles of graceful pedestrian arcades -- but it has struggled to cast off its image as a gritty industrial city, a sort of Detroit on the Po River. In fact, this charming city was the capital of a united Italy from 1861 to 1865.
For about 60 years, starting in the 1920s, Fiat dominated the local economy, but then the car manufacturer's fortunes began to falter. As a cab driver taking me to Turin's car museum said, "Fiat kaput. Turin kaput."
Fiat was not really kaput (it moved to the suburbs), and neither was Turin, but the city needed a face-lift and an attitude adjustment. "We are not good at selling," said Evelina Christillin, deputy president of Turin's Olympic organizing committee and a history professor at the University of Torino.
An inferiority complex, perhaps? Christillin, a native of Turin, pointed out that Juventus, the leading soccer team in this soccer-mad city, "doesn't even have Turin in its name."
But that shroud does. Depending on whom you believe, it is the linen cloth in which Jesus was buried or a medieval hoax. It has been in Turin since 1578, residing in the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista, a 15th-century Renaissance cathedral. I couldn't wait for a peek.
Here's what I saw: a glass window with a red curtain across it. The shroud is displayed publicly only every 25 years and is not due to be shown again until 2025, Olympics or not. But visitors might be able to see the box in which it's kept and can see photographic reproductions in the Duomo and at the Sindone museum, 28 Via San Domenico.
Shortly before I arrived in Turin in January, I'd read that certain sindonologists (shroud experts) claimed to have new evidence invalidating tests that had indicated it was a fake. But when I mentioned this to the Torinesi, they just shrugged. It wasn't big news here.
"There have been so many different ideas and surveys for the last 20 years. ... " Christillin said. "People here are so proud of their (shroud). In some way, they don't really want to know the truth."
There is plenty to see and do in this underrated city, which is both trendy and traditional. Although I wouldn't call it the Paris of Italy (as some partisans do), it definitely has style. Fashionable shops -- Versace, Armani, Hermes, Cartier, Gucci, Prada, Fendi -- occupy real estate along Via Roma, where the beautiful people stroll. (Pedestrian-only Via Garibaldi is trendier and less expensive.) There's a definite Parisian ambience in the lively cafes, notably the 19th-century Caffe San Carlo on Piazza San Carlo, which is awash in crystal, paintings and sculpture.
A good starting point for visitors to the Games (or the Paralympics, which begin March 10) is Atrium 2006 on Piazza Solferino, which will have Olympic merchandise and information on sightseeing, transportation and tickets for cultural events.
Clustered within about two miles in the city are four competition sites, all for skating and hockey, and the Stadio Comunale, the newly renovated Mussolini-era landmark that will host opening and closing ceremonies.
Ten minutes away is the Lingotto, the 1920s Fiat factory that has been transformed into a shopping/entertainment/hotel and dining complex by noted Italian architect Renzo Piano. Its crown jewel: Piano's oh-so-chic ultra-contemporary hotel, Le Meridien Art+Tech.
Food is also part of the fascination here. The Piedmont region, famous for white truffles, prides itself on its culinary traditions, and there is a plethora of good restaurants of all stripes. Legend has it that breadsticks (known here as "grissini") were invented by a House of Savoy cook trying to find something digestible for a sickly 17th-century heir to the throne. The hazelnut-chocolate spread called Nutella also was created here, but don't let that put you off. Turin is passionate about chocolate -- "il cioccolato" -- and is also home to "bicerin", a sinfully good layered drink of bitter chocolate, coffee and cream.
Also in the must-try category: the National Museum of Cinema, housed in Turin's most recognizable landmark, the 19th-century Mole Antonelliana. The domed Mole, whose needlelike spire makes it Turin's tallest building, is a curiosity. It was designed as a synagogue but abandoned by the Jewish community and given to the city after cost overruns 10 years into construction.
Since 2000, it has housed the museum, a five-level interactive journey through the history of moviemaking.
For car lovers, there's the Museo dell'Automobile near the Lingotto. Its treasures include the Isotta-Fraschini in which Gloria Swanson was chauffeured in the 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard."
At the Lingotto, a spiral ramp on which Fiats once zoomed from the assembly line to the rooftop test track now sends cars to La Pista, the rooftop restaurant. From there, it's only a few steps to the small Piano-designed museum housing the art collection of the Agnelli family of Fiat fame.
The Museo Egizio claims the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Cairo, built upon treasures amassed by a Piedmont man who did well by doing good as a diplomat in Egypt during Napoleon's time. There are some first-rate mummies and objects from the tomb of Queen Nefertiti. The space could use a little sprucing up, though, and few of the descriptors are in English.
Turin's piazzas are big and splendid. Most of the Olympic medal ceremonies will take place in front of the 350-year-old Palazzo Reale in Piazza Costello, where nightly music and entertainment are promised.
My Turin guide, Alessandra Anghera, indulged my wish to see the shroud, but she insisted that I also visit La Consolata, the Baroque church beloved by Torinesi. Displayed within are simple ex-voto drawings expressing thanks to the Virgin for lives spared. They were placed by friends and family of loved ones and depict the subjects in scenes of crisis -- battle, surgery, traffic accidents.
Anghera and I walked the oldest parts of the city, stopping in Piazza della Repubblica at the huge open-air market, Porta Palazzo, open daily except Sundays, where you might buy a mirror or a melon. (She warned me to guard my valuables.)
One night near the end of my stay, I had dinner with Silvia Lanza from the Turin tourism office. I told her, with honest enthusiasm, about all I'd seen and done. She just smiled and said, "People go to Venice and expect gondolas. They come here and expect nothing but pizza, pasta and Fiat, so it's a surprise."
And a pleasant one at that.
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