IS THE “ITALY NEXT DOOR” HIDDEN BEHIND THE ALPS?
Great coffee, lovely piazzas and arcades, a very walkable city centre, loads of palaces and museums – that’s Torino, our little-known neighbour.
In Geneva, we often speak of “France voisine”,
or the France next door, but what
about neighbouring Italy? The border is just
an hour or two from Geneva via Chamonix
and the Mont-Blanc tunnel. Torino by this
route is a solid three-hour drive starting from
Annemasse. (The drive is as bit longer via
Fréjus and its tunnel.) Either route, it is well
worth the trip.
The Mont-Blanc tunnel was closed for five years after a disastrous fire in 1999. Now it is entirely reconstructed and super-securityconscious: all traffic is strictly limited to less than 70 km/h speed, and cars are kept at 200-metre distances from one another. Cameras record everything, and a radio channel can be tuned to follow instructions throughout the 20-minute drive. A return ticket through the tunnel costs about 41 euros.
Once in Italy, the Aosta valley can be an interesting day trip, but if you are headed for Torino on the autostrada, there are still many kilometres of tunnels to navigate. Northwestern Italy, after leaving the alpine Aosta valley, is not spectacular and, approaching the city on the Torino-Aosta Autostrada, the country is mostly flat and featureless.
The bustling city of Turin (a Piemontese term, promoted as the more vivacious-sounding “Torino” by the Winter Olympics in 2006), is very interesting, full of good food and high fashion, window-shopping and history. Mild spring weather makes May–June an excellent time to visit.
Torino is also a city with a visibility problem, especially vis-à-vis glamorous rival Milan. Torino has no clearly defined tourist must-see – although they turn up quickly once you are there. In a free-association test, many Europeans would associate the city with Fiat (whose T stands for “Torino”), the Agnelli family and the Juventus football club, but the rest of its image is vague. There is little notion of, say, its great Egyptian museums (“the biggest after Cairo”), which might attract crowds elsewhere.
The Alps hedge Torino in to some degree; the mountains are a steep natural barrier between Italy and neighbours Switzerland and France. This causes transport issues, with Torino-bound flights landing first at Milan, but trains also (Geneva–Torino takes from seven to eleven hours by rail, via Brig and Domodossola) stop first at Milano Centrale; 120–130 CHF a trip), taking it off the agenda for weekend travellers. A long-delayed link to other European train networks, including the TGV, seems to have been shelved; a large model at the Porta Nuova train station showing elaborate new tunnels under the Alps from Lyon to Torino has been dismantled. All those tunnels would cost money, which seems to be in short supply.
The central area of Torino includes classic
Italian piazzas, some ringed with arcades,
the best shopping streets of the city. The
style is decidedly Baroque and often French,
as Piedmont was capital of Savoy and even
a French department for a time under
In spring and summer this part of the city is especially alive, with crowds of young people and families everywhere. And for a country with a very low birth rate, there are prams and strollers on all the stony streets. Via Garibaldi features youthful pedestrian-mall crowds, and thousands of portable phones flourish. Meanwhile, the Via Roma links the largest piazzas, with arcades and high-brow fashion on all sides.
There is always great window-shopping and food tasting. Torino is a capital of chocolate and pastries, and people line up for the best gelati.
Torino also borders the Po river, where rowers scull along, right up to the rushing chute below the Vittori o Emanue bridge. On weekends and summer evenings the banks of the Po offer a riot of cafés and clubs that vibrate through the night, leaving an eerily silent scene for the rowers in the morning. Quite by accident, one March weekend we came across a large chocolate festival on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto. The clowns and street circus performances hardly stood out from the regular activities! A few blocks away, in the multicultural commotion, we passed the memorably named Il Po Kebab.
Outside the city centre, Torino can turn suddenly gritty and less attractive. Officials have been trying to rescue old industrial sites for tourism and knowledge industries. One success story has been the “Eataly” food fare on an old Fiat manufacturing site south of the urban core.
You might notice there has been little mention above of museums and palaces, which are abundant in Torino, or any other lofty historical sightseeing. In the sunny Italian spring, it may be best just to walk through Torino and leave all that serious culture business for a rainy day.
For more cultural background, try Corby Kummer’s detailed travel piece “Touring Turin” from The Atlantic monthly (1999): www.theatlantic.com/issues/99apr/9904turin.htm).