The people of Turin make it special
THE day after my wife, daughter, and I arrived in Rome, we slumped, weary from jet travel, onto a train bound for Turin. By Pisa, about two hours away, we were all drifting gratefully toward sleep. Then a bunch of high school students kicked us out of our seats. This car, we slowly learned, had been reserved. (So that's what those unreadable Italian signs had said!) Those of us in compartments had to squeeze into the hallways. The students turned up their cassette players, shouted along to ``We Are the World,'' and bopped their way to Turin, six hours away.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was our first introduction to the people of Turin. We weren't favorably impressed. But apparently we looked as pitiful as we felt. The students' teacher spoke fluent English, and she and her students made space in their compartment for our four-year-old daughter, Anna. They entertained her for the rest of the trip. The teacher even invited us to dinner at her house.
Turin soon became one of our favorite European cities. We used it as a home base from which we traveled for the next six months. Before our visit, the Turinese had been described to us as cold and aloof. We found them anything but.
In 1564, the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, which once stretched from north of Geneva to the Mediterranean, was moved to the small peasant village of Turin. The site, at the foot of the Alps, in what is now northwestern Italy, was chosen strictly for the military benefit of its location. The village held just 20,000 people and was unremarkable for its industry, agriculture, or architecture. The Savoys could do with the village as they chose. High style and remarkably unspoiled
They transformed it into one of the grander urban centers of the region. Its original Roman grid pattern of streets was restored. On almost every corner, the Savoys commissioned impressive churches and palazzi. Many miles of covered promenades were built to protect royalty from the rain. A royal palace was built (now open as a museum), filled with gold ornamentation. Property owners were offered financial inducements to build along established architectural designs, producing a high consistency of style.
In 1861, Turin, which had been a center of the independence movement, was chosen as the first capital of the new nation of Italy. Four years later, when the capital was moved to Florence, Turin was left with neither wealthy dukes nor free-spending politicians. City officials began an intensive effort to attract industry, and eventually succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Today, the city is one of Europe's auto capitals, home to Fiat corporation.
But since auto headquarters are rarely thought of as tourist attractions, travelers generally ignore Turin. Yet 400 years of stunning royal construction remain here, and the city is remarkably unspoiled.
Home to 1.5 million people, Turin is fast-paced and has slums and suburbs, factories and farmland. That is, it is a real 20th-century city.
It is relatively easy for Americans to adjust to Turin. The opening and closing hours of shops can be anticipated. The bus and tram lines, clearly marked, go everywhere. Streets in the center of town run reassuringly parallel or at right angles to each other. The only exception is Via Po, which cuts from Piazza Castello to the River Po. It breaks from the rest of the city's Roman rigidity to allow a stunning view of the domed Church of the Gran Madre di Dio. Welcomed like long-lost friends
Not many tourists show up here. Those who do will find Italians who don't try to conform to tourists' expectations. With the slightest introductions (``We're staying across the street''), we were welcomed as if long-lost friends. Having a blond four-year-old helped. The Italians' love for children is famous, and a blonde is so rare she is welcomed like a celebrity.
But doors were also opened to us because the Turinese, intensely proud of their homes and families, seem to have few opportunities to show them off to strangers, certainly to Americans. They eagerly took us to their offices, shops, homes, discos, clubs, concerts, and to the dozens of special festivals and events that were scheduled during our stay.