If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. There are even some parts of Piedmont that haven’t yet been discovered by tourists. This article presents Turin, the capital and largest city of the Piedmont. A companion article presents the rest of the Piedmont region.
Piedmont means foot of the mountains, and that describes the area perfectly. Turin, in the center of Piedmont, is pretty well surrounded by hills and by mountains such as the Alps. While the setting is beautiful, don’t expect a Mediterranean climate such as found in most of Italy. The Piedmont climate is continental, with cold winters and hot summers, especially in the plains.
Turin’s population is slightly over nine hundred thousand but the population of its metropolitan area is well over two million. About one half of the Piedmont residents live in the greater Turin area. In a sense the 2006 Winter Olympics have put Turin on the tourist map and played a major role in its continuing development. As you will see, Turin, center of Italy’s automobile manufacturing, is not just an industrial city.
This city was once a walled Roman military camp. Like so much of Italy, Turin and the entire Piedmont region was occupied again and again. What is unusual, however, is that the French House of Savoy ruled Piedmont for about five hundred years. They even returned to power after Napoleon’s defeat. Not surprisingly a lot of French influence remains. Piedmont played a major role in the Risorgimento (Italian Unity Movement). Turin was the first capital of the United Kingdom of Italy between 1861 and 1865 ruled by Victor Emmanuel II, a Savoyard.
We’ll start our tour of Turin downtown. The Duomo di San Giovanni (St. John’s Cathedral) dates back to the Fifteenth Century. Its chapel Cappella della Sacra Sindone (Chapel of the Holy Shroud) contained the famous Shroud of Turin, brought to Turin in the Sixteenth Century by a member of the Savoy royal family. In 1997 a fire damaged the chapel, which was closed until further notice. You can see a copy of this shroud near the Duomo’s altar. But the Shroud itself is next scheduled for public display in 2025.
Other downtown churches worth seeing include the Seventeenth Century San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) and the twin baroque San Carlo and Santa Cristina Churches. Cross the Po River to see the Nineteenth Century Chiesa della Gran Madre di Dio (Church of the Great Mother of God) said to be constructed over the Holy Grail and the Sixteenth Century Chiesa della Santa Maria del Monte (Church of St. Maria of the Mountain). Next door is a small but interesting museum devoted to mountains and mountain climbing, Museo Nazionale della Montagna (National Mountain Museum).
Talking about museums, a must see is the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) considered to be one of the best in the world. For example, it contains hundreds of mummies and a burial chamber that’s so complete it includes drafting tools, a cosmetic case, and a contemporary board game. In fact Jean-François Champollion, the first person to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, wrote “The road to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin”. GAM, the Galleria Civic d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (Civic Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery) on the edge of downtown is devoted to Italian contemporary art covering much more than the last one hundred years.
It is fitting that Italy’s Detroit should host the Museo dell’Automobile (Automobile Museum). When they say antique cars, they mean antique cars, dating back to 1896. And what cars, the collection includes the first FIAT model, Bugattis, Ferraris, and actress Gloria Swanson’s Isotta Franchini from the movie Sunset Boulevard.
The Borgo Medioevale (Medieval Village), built on the banks of the Po River more than one hundred years ago, represents a Fifteenth Century Piedmont village. Most buildings in the Borgo are copies of medieval buildings that actually exist in the Piedmont. You’ll love the Rocca Medioevale (Medieval Castle) in the middle of the site.
Talking about castles, you won’t want to miss the Palazzo Madama (Madame’s Palace) situated in the Piazza Castello (Castle Plaza). This building, named for the Savoy Queen Maria Christina, once housed the Italian Senate. Do not confuse it with a building of the same name in Rome that houses the present Italian Senate. Like so many other Italian buildings the Turin Palazzo Madama houses temporary art exhibitions.
The nearby Seventeenth Century Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) on the site of an ancient Roman city gate was the Savoy royal residence until 1865. You can visit some of the royal apartments and admire the tapestries, furniture, and royal gardens. A few blocks away is the birthplace of the first king of united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. Don’t expect a shack, it’s the majestic Palazzo Carignano that served as the seat of united Italy’s first parliament from 1860 to 1865. This Palazzo houses the Museo del Risorgimento (National Museum of the Italian Renaissance) devoted to the national unity movement.
While there are many, many other places of interest in Turin, we conclude by examining what is probably Turin’s best-known landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, the official emblem of the 2006 Winter Olympics. This building, once the world’s tallest brick structure, was originally supposed to be a synagogue but never served as such. It houses the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (National Cinema Museum) with a film library containing seven thousand films.
What about food? The Piedmont region is well known for all kinds of food, often with a French style. Don’t forget that it was ruled by the French House of Savoy for over five hundred years. Turin claims to have invented solid chocolate. Once upon a time, if you wanted a chocolate fix, you needed a cup or a glass. Of course, you still can get great chocolate drinks in Turin. For example, the house specialty of the world famous Al Bicerin, is a hot drink brimming with chocolate, coffee, and cream. They even sell chocolate-flavored pasta. La Dolce Vita. Grissini (Bread Sticks) were also invented in Turin. Turin’s real thing is quite different from the store-bought version thousands of miles away.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Risotto al Barbaresco (Risotto cooked in Barbaresco wine). Then try Vitello Tonnato (Veal in Tuna Sauce). For dessert indulge yourself with Grandiuto (Chocolate with Cocoa, Hazelnuts, and Sugar). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a brief look at Piedmont wine. Well over half the region’s wine production is either DOC or DOCG wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. At last count there were 44 such wines coming from Piedmont. Add a G for Guarantita and there are seven such Piedmont wines, including Barolo, felt by many to be Italy’s finest red wine, and Barbaresco. But Piedmont also produces many fine DOC or unclassified wines.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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