Once the capital of Italy, Turin oozes traditional Italian charm and good looks, minus the crowds of Rome and Florence.
The very first capital of Italy, after unification, Turin nestles at the foot of the Alps and is now the administrative centre of the region of Piedmont. Without knowing much more than that about the city, we decided to base ourselves there while we explored the local wine region and the incredible Bra cheese festival – and we’ve been congratulating ourselves on our choice ever since. A little research was all it took to find that the city was a world leader in the development of hard chocolate and that, combined with the reputation of the Piemontese wines, was really all it took to convince me I needed to be there.
Once there, I took one look our of our hotel window and was convinced – this truly is one of the most charming cities I’ve ever visited. Turin is not a large city, with a population of just under 1 million it is smaller than my home town of Adelaide. Laid out in a neat grid pattern, the elegant, easily navigated streets are lined with trees and Gothic, Baroque, neo-classical and art nouveau architecture, interspersed with many small squares – most of which are generously planted green space.
The skyline is dominated by the Mole Antonelliana, the tallest brick building in Europe. This spire-topped domed building was originally intended as a synagogue but the building work, begun in 1863, was later taken over by the town council. The concept had expanded and outgrown it’s budget and the building now houses the Museo Nazionale del Cinema – one of the most significant specialist collections on cinema in the world.
The 50 metre high dome is elaborately embellished inside with extensive gilded decorations and a glass elevator suspended from the spire takes visitors up into a small temple in the spire, from which there is a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city.
In the 16th century the house of Savoy, one of the oldest royal families in the world, moved to Turin and from there it led the unification of Italy in 1861. Through a strategic Savoy marriage to a daughter of Prince Phillip II of Spain, Turin became the European chocolate capital, embracing this new product that the Spanish were bringing home from their colonies, and opening the very first chocolate house – serving hot chocolate, in the late 1600’s.
From there it spread the love of chocolate throughout Europe. An international shortage of cocoa during the Napoleonic war forced Piedmontese chocolate makers to be creative and, by adding locally grown hazelnut meal to their chocolates, gianduiotto, the traditional Turin chocolate, was created. As you’d expect, there are plenty of boutique chocolate stores in this town – each of them well worth hunting down. All I can say is that I did my very best.
Turin doesn’t seem to attract as many of the international tourists that some of the major Italian cities see, so there are much less of the tiresomely homogeneous chain stores that line every main shopping drag in every major city in the world. Here you will still find interesting little independently owned businesses and tempting boutiques. The restaurants and bars are fabulous, as one would expect from the home of, not only chocolate, but vermouth, too.
Once a prosperous manufacturing centre and the home of Fiat, Turin has reinvented itself after falling on hard times and now boasts a thriving creative arts scene and some extraordinary museum riches. As well as the National Cinema Museum it is home to the most important collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. Like other Italian cities, it is beautiful -and also friendly, easy to get around, has a fantastic food and wine culture and is a little cheaper for travellers. In fact, it is my new favourite Italian city.