A Chessboard with Perfect Coffee: Turin Guide Part Two

What to see. The best starting point to an exploration of Turin is to just simply set off and wander along its expansive network of colonnades- while many Italian cities treat visitors to fancy porticos, Turin has a whopping 18 kilometres of them, of which 12 are interconnected, thus being perfect shelters from the scorching sun in summer, or the rain and snow in more inclement seasons. Assuming you’ve somehow made it to Porta Nuova train station (advice on how to do that here), all you need to do is walk straight- this information has politely been conveyed to me several times in several cities, and usually I fail miserably, yet in Turin it worked, perhaps because it is somewhat reminiscent of a giant chessboard. A structure of large, leafy boulevards delimits clusters of geometrically aligned streets. All of this has a whiff of Paris too, yet the Torinesi will be quick to point out that their arrangement pre-dates the Hausmannian systematization of the French capital, having been planned as early as 1808, with the purpose of interconnecting the residences of the House of Savoy, who had been ruling the city, in one form or another, since 1280.

For those belonging to the Church of ‘Italian tailoring trumps all’ (which statement I do not contradict, I simply find myself too sloppy for haute couture), Via Roma offers a wide variety of local brands, plus the usual boring retails chains as well, the touristic visitation of which does leave me aghast, as in why is Generic Brand X bought abroad better than Generic Brand X bought at home, where you needn’t worry about your luggage allowance.

Speaking of which, I do nevertheless catastrophically imperil mine by buying books, with the grand excuse that the newest titles of Italian literature are not always readily available in Hungary. My Turinese staple is firstly the La Feltrinelli off Via Roma, and then the smaller stores along Via Po, many of which have second hand sections and sell antique rarities too, which are not my thing purely because I can’t afford them. Although born in Cuba and an inveterate traveler, Italo Calvino remains perhaps Turin’s best-known writer, having studied at the city’s university and published the bulk of his work there- Invisible Cities is a particularly appropriate choice for when one is on a voyage. Most of Calvino’s work is however not set in Turin, unlike one of my childhood’s defining books- Edmondo de Amicis’s Cuore, which, written in the great patriotic upheaval of post-unification Italy seems positively silly and dated in retrospect, yet it undeniably contributed to my early love of both Italy in general and Turin in particular.

Once safely in the possession of a book, you might consider having a coffee with it, and so it happens that you are in the perfect place to have it, for you see, Turin is the home of the espresso- Angelo Moriondo patented his ‘steam driven instantaneous coffee beverage making machine’ in 1884, and then also presented it at the city’s General Expo, where it ridiculously only got a bronze medal. I can therefore say that it is basically impossible to get bad coffee in Turin, and just as impossible to explore all its coffee houses, ranging from the small neighbourhood hole in the wall to luxurious affairs such as Piazza San Carlo’s Caffé Torino.

Caffé Torino does happen to be on the pricier side of life, with an espresso costing a steep 3.5 euros, said espresso is however fiendishly good and you might also consider enjoying some sumptuous sweets, so here comes the bit where you’re informed that Torino is also the home of crema gianduja, a chocolate spread containing about 30% hazelnut, also known as Nutella before it was cool. So yes, Turin is a fundamental pillar of the modern world as we know it, and we haven’t even gotten to the car industry. If you really feel over the top, you may indulge in a bicerin too- another Turinese specialty, consisting of a rather intense combination of coffee, chocolate and milk. I personally find it somewhat taxing, so I’d probably settle for the espresso in the company of a local paper, the generic La Stampa or the obviously sport themed Tuttosport, ensconced in the pleasant knowledge that they both have exactly the same opinion on the weekend’s Serie A refereeing as I do. (Having the same opinion on the weekend’s refereeing is a basic method of making friends in Italy.)

Having passed Piazza San Carlo, you may consider exploring the Galleria San Federico, to the left of Via Roma, home to the consolingly old world looking Lux cinema and the Galleria Subalpina, a bit further and to the right, which hosts several antiquity shops and another cinema, the Cinema Romano. Before arriving to the Galleria Subalpina you will have passed by the Museo Egizio, the oldest museum in the world dedicated to Egyptian culture- opening hours are 9 to 18:30 Tuesday to Sunday, and 9 to 14 on Mondays, with a ticket costing 15 euros. Turin is basically a museum trap- there are very many of them, on varying topics and with extremely well curated collections, so you stand absolutely no chance of seeing them all during a short city break. Case in point, once you’ve passed the Museo Egizio you bump into the Museo del Risorgimento, focusing on Italy’s reunification, which was of course driven from Turin by the Savoy dynasty, thus the city was the new kingdom’s first capital until 1865.

On the other side of Via Po you’ll find the Teatro Regio, which is not actually a theatre but an opera house (in Italian that’s teatro lirico), and hosted the world premiere of Puccini’s La Boheme. Across from the Teatro Regio you enter the manifold estates of the House of Savoy, which are part of the UNESCO world heritage, but leave me personally a bit unmoved, just like the Habsburg palaces in Vienna- lots of undoubtedly pretty yet somewhat overblown buildings and yes, I am also moderately afraid of baroque, of which the façade of the Palazzo Madama is a fine exemplary.

If you potter through the royal gardens, though, you may soon find your way towards Turin’s symbolic building, the Mole Antonelliana. For a while it was the tallest stone structure in Europe (with 167,35 metres), to the chagrin of Turin’s Jewish community, who commissioned it as a synagogue, only to have architect Alessandro Antonelli come up with ever more exotic improvements. Its unmistakable thin steeple was the source of a number of misadventures, including the crumbling of a winged genie and then a five-pointed star, the latter landing, along with other 47 metres of masonry, in the yard of the neighbouring RAI building, luckily without any victims except about half of someone’s office balcony (anyone who has an office with a balcony will probably sooner or later have to pay for provoking fate.) Today, the Mole hosts the Italian cinema museumtickets cost 11 euros for the museum only, 15 for the museum plus the lift to the tower and 8 euros for the lift only.

After having taken in the view from the Mole (an absolute must), you may wander along Via Po all the way to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, and then turn right along the river where you will find the so called ‘murazzi’, basically the docking area along the Po and then enter the Parco San Valentino, part of the San Salvario district we’ve already mentioned in the first installment, which is also a treasure trove of secessionist buildings, known in Italy as stile floreale or style liberty.

For destinations further afield, the Superga Basilica stays perched atop the city’s horizon (provided there are no low clouds, or fog) and can be reached by taking bus 68 from Porta Nuova (or several other stops along the centre) and then either choosing the arduous path of an ascent on foot, or the easy way out on a cogwheel tram, for which one must purchase a ticket even if in possession of a valid daily pass, the cost is 6 euros both ways. Legend has it that in 1706, facing the onslaught of French troops aiming to occupy Piedmont, Victor Amedeus II climbed atop the hill to inspect the enemy and proceeded to pray to the Virgin Mary in the small church he found on location, promising to erect a grander building should Mary side with the Piedmontese. This she ultimately did, the French were repelled and after some delays caused by the small matter of conquering Sardinia and Sicily, Victor Amedeus II placed the basilica’s founding stone in 1717.  Today, the back of the building looks strangely unfinished in spite of the duke’s grand promises and that is for a very sad reason: on May 4, 1949 the airplane transporting the players of Torino, returning from an away game in Lisbon in bad weather, crashed into the back of the basilica, killing all onboard and thus wiping out not only Torino’s golden generation, but also the bulk of Italy’s national squad- such was the dominance of the Grande Torino at the time that the team could basically be fielded as Italy with small tweaks.

One of the end stations of Turin’s metro line is Lingotto- named after the neighbourhood surrounding it, but best known for FIAT’s Lingotto building, which was the company’s main plant before the Mirafiori site was set up and also served as the backdrop of a famous pursuit scene in cult movie The Italian Job. Today it’s a multipurpose building, hosting a shopping mall, offices, a congress centre a museum and a cinema (where we failed to see the Avengers, because Italians still insist on dubbing most movies, and the blog’s industrious co-photographer happens to be unfamiliar with the sweet tongue of Dante).

What to eat and drink. We’ve already touched on some of Turin’s delights, but the coffee topic can never be exhausted- besides Caffé Torino, Caffé Fiorio on Via Po is warmly recommended. Considerably less costly than Torino (an espresso is a mere 1.20 euros), it comes equipped with friendly waiters and a beautiful marble bar, usually serving as support for an assorted array of locals on a pit stop in between unfathomable errands. Fiorio is also considered by some to be the original home of bicerin, while others claim that the intense experience was instead born in the aptly named Caffé al Bicerin, to be found in Piazza Consolata. For a very central espresso, one may also try Caffé Mulassano in Piazza Castello, considered to be the birthplace of another Italian food staple, the humble but efficient tramezzino, while Caffé Nuovo Nazionale, also on Via Po, keeps the business rolling until late in the night.  

Italy may well be wine country, but the hipster love for craft beers has also infected Turin, with Birrificio Torino, across the Dora Riparia from the centre, providing both local beers brewed on site and an array of unsophisticated but hearty dishes. Piedmont’s best-known wine region lies around the town of Asti, some 50 kilometres from Turin, but the city’s most typical alcoholic drink must be the vermouth, born locally in 1786, and represented by brands such as the well-known Martini (the drink, not the cocktail) and the less popular but arguably better tasting Punt e Mes. Speaking of cocktails, one may try Bobo’s Cocktail Bar, an idiosyncratic affair lying on Via Sebastiano Cabotto in the posh neighbourhood of Crocetta- Bobo has a personal take on many cocktails, plays his favourite records (he seems fond of U2) and has decorated the place with many local mementos, among others articles about another tragic footballing hero- Gigi Meroni, Torino’s ‘beatnik of the goal’ (the man was a revolutionary- he had long hair, played the guitar and lived with a married woman), who died at the age 24, hit by a car while jaywalking. Besides being home to Bobo’s Crocetta is also known as one of the city’s move exclusive residential areas, home to a lot of tantalizingly beautiful art deco hallways.

When it comes to the food, Piedmont might just admit defeat when compared to Southern staples such as pasta and pizza, but it can at least claim ownership to the ubiquitous salty sticks known as grissini. Eating in general might be a convoluted affair in Turin, as they live by the same mind boggling 2 PM to 6-7 PM closure hours as the rest of Italy, but should you be famished, Il Tabisca, specialized primarily in Sicilian dishes, might just save your life in Piazza Vittorio Veneto. San Salvario is packed full of bars and restaurants, but based on our own meandering luck, we may warmly recommend Ristorante Alba, a favourite with locals serving many simple but delicious staples and Polpo d’Amor, specialized in sea food but also serving several varieties of pizza, one of which almost defeated the blog’s industrious co-photographer in size and consistency, and that’s something basically unheard of.

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