Beautiful baroque squares and fabulous food make Turin worthy of more than a pitstop, says Rodney Bolt.
Elegantly set on the River Po, with the Alps as a backdrop, Turin has an illustrious, centuries-old pedigree as the seat of the royal house of Savoy. When the new Kingdom of Italy was formed out of a motley collection of states exactly 150 years ago, Turin became its first capital. Centuries of riches and political posturing have created show-off palazzos, imposing churches and graceful piazzas. Turin is now quite as chic as Milan – but not nearly as uppity.
City boulevards are edged with shadowy porticos that add a touch of mystery to the mood. The streets that lead off them break here and there into scuttles of little cobbled alleys, lined with enticing shops. Through a gap between stuccoed façades, you may suddenly glimpse snow-capped Alps, or the quirky Mole Antonelliana, once the tallest brick building in the world. A gloriously gadget-filled film museum, a rich stash of ancient Egyptian treasures and cutting-edge contemporary art collections all add to the allure. Then comes cooking that can elicit tears of delight (and sap all resistance) – and if all that weren’t enough, the best chocolate in Italy.
There are grand cafés, dripping with crystal and gleaming with gilt, where dowagers in furs and high finery sit, munching silently through mounds of cream cakes. But even more abundant are cosy bars, where conversation hums and wooden chairs drawn up around marbled-topped tables in the immersing shade of the porticos where the woes of the world are turned over and resolved.
The artist Giorgio de Chirico passed through town in 1911 and, though he stayed just a few days, was deeply moved. ‘Turin is the most profound, most enigmatic and most disquieting city, not only of Italy but of the world,’ he remarked. Those deep, shaded porticos were to appear in his paintings for the rest of his life.