Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Turin

The solemn façade of this dignified Italian city, embraced by an Alpine skyline, hides a frivolous centre. Rachel Spence discovers its passion for chocolate, rich cuisine and a thriving contemporary art scene.

November 18 2009
Rachel Spence

“What serious and splendid squares!” wrote Nietzsche, when he arrived in Turin in April 1888. “And an unpretentious palace style... everything much more dignified than I expected.” His words testify to a city that, unlike so many of its Italian peers, never subscribed to the “picturesque muddle” school of urban planning. With its grid of rigorously straight boulevards and regal squares embraced by the Alpine skyline, Turin feels like a dignified hybrid of Paris and New York.

Yet Turin’s spirit is indisputably Italian. Garibaldi and Cavour plotted the path to national unification in its coffee houses. More recently, those same tables have been graced by famous Italian men of letters such as Italo Calvino and Primo Levi.

Fortunately, this solemn façade hides a frivolous soul. Rich, francophile cuisine, a passion for aperitivi, coffee and chocolate, a thriving film culture and a booming contemporary art scene ensure that weekenders never lack temptations. A flurry of urban renovations was sparked by the 2006 Winter Olympics including the pedestrianisation of the centre, the restoration of the Roman quarter and a new Metro line.

It also prompted the arrival of a handful of high-glamour hotels. For sheer plushness, the kingpin is The Golden Palace. It sails close to kitsch with gold-painted statues in the garden, but after a long day’s sightseeing the prospect of a no-comfort-spared bedroom and downtime in the spa is compensation. More intimate is Townhouse 70, where candles in the bathroom and a Mali-meets-Milan design ethos makes for boutique style with four-star service. At Hotel Victoria, the arrival of a Moroccan-style spa has injected a note of luxury into a sleepover that has long been popular for its conservatory-style charm.

However delicious, forego your hotel breakfast and enjoy your first taste of Turin on the terrace of Caffè Torino in Piazza San Carlo. In a city where coffee-making is considered an art, this belle époque coffee house is the maestro. As you nibble your pastry and sip your cappuccino, the cobbled sweep of Piazza San Carlo, with its pristine arcades and impeccable mansard roofs, embodies all that is best of Turin’s serene baroque style.

The city’s architectural uniformity was kick-started by the subject of the square’s central statue, Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy. Enshrined here sheathing his sword after signing the 1559 treaty that would deliver Turin into his hands, he subsequently made it the capital of his family’s dominions, previously in Chambéry. Ensuing Savoy monarchs replaced the city’s haphazard medieval core with a metropolis in the orderly French style, even demanding that buildings conform to a fixed height.

Given their obsession with order, it is curious that the building that best conjures the Savoys’ 418-year reign is an architectural mongrel. Illuminated by huge, chequer-paned windows crowned by a statue-encrusted balustrade, Palazzo Madama’s 17th-century façade has an evanescent lightness at odds with the chunky medieval castle that it shields. Filled with statuary, paintings and decorative arts, the rococo interiors testify to the majestic tenor of Savoy family life. Must-sees include Portrait of a Man (1476) by Antonello da Messina, one of the first Italian artists to use oil paint.

Such a substantial helping of culture deserves sustenance, but to overindulge this soon would be a mistake. The perfect compromise is a plate of tramezzini at the dinky tables of Caffè Mulassano in Piazza Castello. Now beloved across Italy, these scrumptious triangular sandwiches were invented in this marbled-and-mirrored jewel of a café.

Afterwards, a stroll through the bookstalls sheltered under Via Po brings you to Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Embraced by two long curving arcades, this spectacular oval square draws the gaze down to the church of Gran Madre di Dio presiding on the far bank of the river like a neoclassical Pantheon. After you’ve supped the vista, feast your eyes on the window of Poncif, one of several chic stores under the arcades. If we tell you that Dries Van Noten was commissioned to design here before he found fame, you understand the fashionable-but-not-flashy style compass possessed by the two lady owners. Nearby, in a vaulted space overlooking the square, Giorgio Persano’s regular exhibitions of international and national stars – such as the superb Afghan video artist Lida Abdul – do justice to Turin’s burgeoning fame as a contemporary art hub.

If your appetite for art is whetted, take a cab out to the city’s western precinct where the Merz Foundation honours the memory of the late Mario Merz. A leading member of Arte Povera, the Turin-based conceptual art movement currently fetching strong prices at auction, his fragile igloo structures and poetic neon calligraphy are perfectly framed by the soaring spaces of this bleak-is-beautiful former heating plant.

As the sun starts to dip beneath the Alps, the disappearance of bar counters under banquets of nibbles – baby tortillas, stuffed olives, mozzarella and salami mini-kebabs – tells you that aperitivo hour has arrived.

With such a spread at cocktail hour, little wonder that it is the Turin custom to dine late. Restaurants divide into two camps: trad and trendy. If the former takes your fancy, queen bee is Tre Galline, which has been serving classic local cuisine since the 16th century. Although the presence of a female chef adds a soupçon of modernity, dishes such as thistle and melted cheese flan, white truffle tajarin (flat egg pasta) and a steaming boiled meat trolley are strictly old guard. At Babette, the chefs pep up past glories with subtle presentation and flavourings; the barley soup and parmesan gratin is a triumph of taste and texture.

Less is more is the leitmotif of La Linea Continua in Hotel Boston, where minimalist dishes are served beneath stellar contemporary photographs by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. The art is a tribute to the taste of proprietor Roberto Franci, who also owns the hotel, where works by Lucio Fontana, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol grace the lobby.

Saturday morning is the moment to brave Porto Palazzo market. Swathed with a dazzling mosaic of produce – wriggling eels, rubber-textured tripe, enormous, cauliflower-skinned Sicilian lemons, an entire counter devoted to parsley – the tented stalls and covered halls sprawl across the vast Piazza della Repubblica while customers of all ages and ethnicities banter with the stallholders.

Your journey back to the centre is a chance to explore the Quadrilatero quarter. Laid by the Romans, this grid of die-straight streets has been recently gentrifed after falling into disrepair. Now the lofty, honey-hued tenements decked with window boxes are a fitting stage for Santuario Basilica La Consolata, one of Italy’s most exquisite churches. Intensely warm and uplifting, the church’s ellipitical hall and hexagonal sanctuary – frescoed, gilded and marbled to leave no corner bare – were designed by one of Turin’s baroque archi-stars, Guarino Guarini, and embellished by the other, Filippo Juvarra.

Piazza della Consolata is also a shrine to Turin’s other religion: chocolate. A serious passion here since the 17th century, at Al Bicerin chocolate is blended with coffee and topped with whipped cream to create the 18th-century café’s eponymous speciality. Described as an “excellent beverage” by Alexandre Dumas, it was also favoured by Nietzsche and Camillo Cavour. While you’re here, stock up on bars of Gianduiotto, the lusciously creamy, hazelnut-flavoured chocolate that is the equivalent to olive oil in Tuscany.

Turin’s baroque imprint is leavened by Palazzo Scaglia di Verrua. Thought to be the only surviving Renaissance residence, this elegant palace is tucked away in the Quadrilatero’s southern quarter. After admiring the radiant frescoes that garb the two-storeyed courtyard, duck into Aurea Follia, the jewellery designer under the porticoes where pieces, such as a white-gold spiral that coils around the wrist like a spring, are blessed with playful, contemporary ingenuity.

On Sunday morning, plunge into the Egyptian Museum. The collection ranges from statues of sphinxes and pharoahs to mummies – human, feline and crocodile – exquisite paintings and tomb recreations where hoards of clothes, blankets, furniture, cosmetics and foodstuffs prove that Egyptians didn’t practise capsule packing when they set off for the afterlife.

Afterwards, repair to lunch at Porto di Savona. Tucked under the arcades of Piazza Vittorio Veneto, it is peopled by dressed-down, upmarket locals who look as if they would only compromise their intellectual pursuits for silky-sauced agnolotti (home-made stuffed pasta) followed by a slice of Gorgonzola with honey and onion conserve.

Finish your trip with a visit to the Mole Antonelliana, a dramatically tapered building that houses the National Museum of Cinema. Take the lift to the top, where the view across the rooftops to the crisp mountain peaks brings another Nietzschean eulogy to mind: “That one can see from the middle of the town the Alps covered with snow! The air dry, sublimely clear. I never believed a town could become so beautiful through light.” The city that won that grouchy philoso­pher’s heart is a jewel indeed.