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The people of Turin make it special

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Along with the Turinese, we got caught up in what we called ``the gelati wars,'' fervent arguments about which shop offered the best ice cream. Like everyone else, we sampled daily, sometimes several times a day, but could never crown a single champion. We always found promising challenges whose cioccolata or fragola demanded our inspection. But Fiorio's on Via Po (especially its deep, rich cioccolata) and the elegant Pepino's on Piazza Carignano were the leading candidates on our list. Pizza and chickpea pie

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On the other hand, the pizza wars were won by a tiny shop called Farinata on Via San Tommaso. It is named for the house specialty, crisp, thin slices of chickpea pie, served while the pizzas cook. In Turin, the only pizzerie worth entering are those that cook over wood in kilnlike ovens. All other pizza seemed tasteless in comparison. At Farinata's, none of the single-person pizzas cost as much as $2.

Appropriately, the afternoon tearoom wars were decided calmly, with minimal dissension. The winner: Baratti and Milano, on Piazza Castello, one of the oldest tearooms in the city. Baratti and Milano offer superb cups of steaming bitter chocolate, into which one ladles sugar and recently whipped cream.

To meet the Turinese, we joined them on their beautiful promenades. Via Roma, the city's major shopping street, connects three of Turin's major piazze: Piazza Castello, Piazza San Carlo, and Piazza Carlo Felice. The Turinese walk Via Roma daily, window shopping, eating cones of gelati, or just eyeing the other pedestrians. Sometimes, at dusk, the sidewalks are almost impassable.

The most elegant caf'es can be found around Piazza San Carlo, the city's most beautiful. Here, exquisitely dressed men and women gentlemen and ladies, served by tuxedoed waiters, linger over hot drinks for an hour. The piazza offers plenty to watch. The architecture alone is impressive: One entire porticoed side has received the city's best restoration job. Twin baroque churches, built in 1619 and 1639, stand at one end of the piazza, straddling Via Roma like a massive pair of bookends. Home of the `shroud'

In the center of the piazza stands a bold equestrian statue. And almost always there is something more -- a nearby stage for an evening concert or the next weekend's political rally, a 10-foot-high bonfire around which the city's patron saint is honored every year, dozens of footall (soccer) fans waving the brown and white flags of the city's team, Juventus.

And everywhere one walks there are architectural sites, statues, and lots of churches.

Besides its Fiat headquarters, Turin is known as the home of the ``Holy Shroud,'' the cloth that, according to legend, was laid over Jesus after he was taken from the cross, and still bears the clear impression of a body, front and back.

The shroud isn't on display now. It is being studied for authenticity. But the 17th-century chapel in which it is usually kept, Cappella della Santa Sindone, is stunning in itself. Above the altar rises a golden corona, and well above that is the chapel's black marble dome, made up of six hexagonal orders of arches -- marble and glass rising upward.

Near the chapel can be found two remarkably well-preserved Roman towers, part of the original wall of the city, and the excavated remains of a Roman theater. Museums, cinema, and more

Turin is also the home of one of the world's finest collections of Egyptian art, though plowing through it demands an effort akin to excavating a pyramid. The museum, founded in 1824, doesn't seem to have been changed much since then.

There are also museums dedicated to the automobile, the paintings and furnishings of the Savoy dukes, international cinema, modern art, and more. At all times, at least one of them seems to feature a special exhibit.

But in the end, our family most remembers not the museums, architecture, or even the food. Yes, we saw Rome, Florence, and Venice. But the people of Turin, with few exceptions, were the most welcoming and considerate we had ever met. They, more than anything else, made our visit special.