Chinese New Year, that is. Any opportunity’s a good opportunity to start the year all over again, after a month of January that’s offered most of us a rather bleak – if not dark – view of the future. Chinese Year of the Rooster as a new opportunity to rewind on optimism, sense of purpose and possibly as-yet poorly defined personal targets.
Anyway, to clear out mentally, I’ve decided to go escapist today, back to a short holiday in Turin a month ago.
Turin in the north of Italy is an elegant city. Its early Roman origins and history as the seat of the House of Savoy explain the neat grid of boulevards and streets that run at perfect right-angles in the city center. We all expect NYC and other modern cities to look somewhat like that, but it’s rather unexpected in Italy, where most people visualize narrow cobbled streets and bends winding around traffic-challenging ancient ruins. Turin is different, it’s well-run, boasts a lot of Neo-Classical architecture, and a great many inner parks and squares with Continental-type flora.
In winter it can come off as grey and borderline staid, but then you discover corners of very original façades, roofs and Rococo toppings worthy of more exuberant climes. If you’re lucky, it’ll be crisp and sunny, with the surrounding snow-capped Alps sparkling off an impossibly blue sky.
As a tourist destination, it’s gained a lot of traction in the last few years, thanks to good city planning and targeting of its cultural heritage. The rich offer of museums, exhibitions and cultural events is such that unless you plan to stay more than two-three days, you’ll have to choose and miss out on many things.
In the city itself, a couple of museums are pretty unmissable.
The Egyptian Museum is meant to be the largest one outside of Cairo. Its breadth and scope are impressive, but also its impeccable organization on par with any other museum in the world. Italy has always had a wealth of art and artifacts on show in all corners of the country, but if you visited Italy up to the 1990s, chances are most of what you saw was put forth with barely a title, no explanations and definitely no explanations in any foreign language. This museum was recently refurbished and is now state-of-the-art: it does an excellent educational job on all fronts, with attractive features for all ages.
The Royal Palace of Turin and its surrounding buildings always host a number of exhibits, both historic and modern, including vast collections put together by members of the Ducal dynasty. In terms of European Royal dynasties, it’s considered a minor one, but they intermarried over the centuries with more prestigious ones, and developed a flair for international trends.
As for the very many other museums, it depends on your interests. Many are niche (National Museum of Automobiles) some unique (Sports Museum). If you can bear the queues, the Museum of Cinema is in the iconic and futuristic Mole Antonelliana where you can go all the way up its famous spire that dominates the city with a bird’s eye view.
The largest out-of-town venue is the Palace of Venaria, and we were told there were always big crowds there, so we chose to go to the less-visited Palazzina Stupinigi instead. It’s an easy 40 minute public bus ride from the city center. Stupinigi is in the open countryside, and the palace architecture and grounds are delightfully elegant. It was used as a summer residence and royal hunting lodge, and is flanked by an arc of red brick former stables.
A closing nod to restaurants. Many Art Nouveau cafés are famous for their chocolates and pastries. Food in Turin and its region is generally excellent, with a strong influence from French cuisine. Winter dishes with sauces were refined, and I also had the best ratatouille in years in a cozy book-lined bar-restaurant that served us even though it was too late for lunch by local standards*.
*El Puig d’Estelles – this is not an advertisement 🙂