Although no longer the industrial powerhouse it once was, Turin has developed into a significant social centre in the afterglow of the 2006 Winter Olympics, adding a discreet modern confidence to its momentous and varied history.
Turin’s Italian nickname is Città Magica – the Magic City. The image of Turin by night – the mysteriously heaped dome and spike of the Mole Antonelliana, the city’s symbol, piercing a deep blue sky smattered with stars – has decorated countless Italian chocolate boxes. It is known for making cars and very good coffee. Turin also hosts some of Italy’s largest companies as well as a few Catholic relics. The famous shroud, however, is not the only mystery around here. The city has a habit of constantly changing its face, from grimy and post-industrial to Baroque and regal, all within a couple of tram stops.
The capital of Piedmont spreads out almost entirely on one side of Northern Italy’s artery, the River Po. On the other, eastern side, lush hills form a bucolic background to the city. From above, this city of about a million seems like a model European metropolis. Exquisite parks and avenues radiating from an ancient core – it’s easy to see why Turin is considered one of the best places in Italy to live and work.
Turin’s most famous daughter is still a ubiquitous talking point. La Fiat (Fabrica Italiana Automobili Torino) has long moved the majority of production abroad but it has a spiritual resonance in the city. The car industry led to massive urban sprawl and changed the urban dynamic of the city forever. During the 1950s and 1960s the Treno del Sole (Sun Train) would bring thousands of southern immigrants into the sooty caverns of the gothic Porta Nuova station to man the factories of Mirafiori and Lingotto. “The city has only just got over its growing pains from this period,” says Vladimir Soto, a Mexican-Swiss architect, creative strategist and long-time Turin resident.
In a former industrial district in Turin’s northern reaches, Giulia Acchiardi, 25, walks around the Texitalia clothes factory that was started by her great-grandparents in 1929. Nondescript on the outside, the factory contains a sleek showroom together with Acchiardi’s own project, a boutique for the company’s main export brand Harris Wharf London. “I think this place reflects the mood of Turin – it’s secretive,” says Acchiardi, leaning against an elaborate glove-stitching machine that dominates the space. “Turin has a special elegance. It’s always understated,” she adds.
Despite its tendency towards discretion, Turin is where modern Italy began. As the first capital of the newly unified Italy, Turin still feels stately. This is mostly due to the Kings of Savoy and their near-constant building spree from around 1700 onwards. Looking out over the Piazza Castello two royal palaces dominate the square, while a large Italian tricolor atop the 1930s Torre Littoria skyscraper flutters above. In the distance the snow-capped Alps form a jagged backdrop.
There is a captivating urban normality to Turin. The Torinesi get on with their day without the fanfare and accolade of Romans and without the slick refinement of the Milanese. “We’re used as guinea pigs for the rest of Italy,” says Barbara Brondi, architect and leading local design figure. “If it works in Turin – it’ll work anywhere.” Innovation with a workaday conviviality defines the atmosphere of the city.
Many also refer to the 2006 Winter Olympics as a turning point in the city’s fortunes. “People tend to consider two periods in Turin’s history: before and after the Olympics,” says Soto as he sips a macchiato deca (decaffeinated) on the Piazza Palazzo di Città. Aside from some major peripheral development, the visual impact of the Games is minimal. Investment seems to have legitimised an air of civic pride in the Torinesi and has given this post-industrial hub a new-found confidence.
Turin’s Baroque churches, themselves masterpieces, are overshadowed by secular monuments such as the Mole Antonelliana. Designed as a synagogue, funds ran out before it was completed, and the edifice – which resembles a vast brandy decanter – was underused for many years. Now the Mole houses the National Museum of Cinema. Museums, galleries and art foundations abound in this city. Turin’s contemporary art scene is second only to Milan. Small spaces such as Galleria Franco Noero or the vast contemporary art collection of the Castello di Rivoli make the Torinesi a pretty cultured bunch.
High up in his apartment overlooking a sunny courtyard, 78-year-old singer-songwriter and master of the Piedmontese language Gipo Farassino ponders. “Listen… not a sound,” he says, and the city indeed seems remarkably tranquil. The common perception among Italians is that the Torinesi are somewhat closed. The word diffidenza, meaning distrust, is often cited. Farassino prefers to talk of a robust fortitude that doesn’t need to show off. A robustness, like that of Barolo, the iconic local red wine. “Above all we have a style and if you don’t have any style, then what are you?” says the singer, almost indignant.
At the nearby Consolata church, Barbara Brondi conducts an impromptu private tour of the Baroque treasures. She has a strange fascination for the church – the oval interior drips with gilt and pink marble swirls. The architect also spends much of her time in more minimalist surroundings. At the 1970s Du Parc Residence (a huge concrete apartment complex) she organises an annual international design programme. “People are so surprised when they come to Turin.” Barbara is coy and self-assured like her native city. Maybe visitors expect the grey industry that typified the city in past years and discouraged tourists. Now Turin hums with cultural and social energy. “It suits me fine if they think there’s nothing here – more space for us!” she says with a shrug and a smile.
- A discreet and urbane sense of style – good taste without flashy brands.
- Some of the continent’s finest baroque architecture next to modernist masters.
- The Torinesi are punctually laid back, so be on time for lunch that will overrun by hours.
- Its setting: rolling hills on one side of the River Po and the Alps on the other.
- From rustic alpine dishes to Italy’s best chocolate and coffee, it’s a gastronomic capital.
- The city’s public transport is plentiful but better connections would make a more enticing system.
- Turin’s periphery is grim – planners and designers need to look beyond key sites.
- More local food – the region abounds with specialities that don’t appear frequently enough on the menu.
- So close yet so far – quick (car-free) connections are needed to the surrounding mountains.
- Relative proximity to the Milan air hub has stunted Turin as an international destination. More flights are needed to secondary European centres.