The people of Turin make it special

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

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

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.

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