A Day (or Two!) in The Savoy Capital

[Regions of Italy] [Back to Piedmont]   A Photo Album of Turin

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

Do you love museums but loathe crowds? Are you interested in ancient Egypt, the Italian Renaissance, 15th- through 18th-century northern European paintings, contemporary art, extravagant royal dwellings, the best car design in the world, great shopping, haute cuisine, chocolate and/or coffee? If you answered "Yes!" to any of the above, we urge you to include Turin in your next Italian itinerary. Not only is it a magnificent Baroque capital, but its miles and miles of covered sidewalks make it a pleasant place to stroll in any weather, and its half dozen world-class museums (which have absolutely no reason to envy their sisters in Florence and Rome) offer excellent English explanations and are almost always near-to-deserted. We once actually spent three hours totally by ourselves in a vast picture gallery that has few rivals anywhere on earth! Add a striking backdrop of perennially snow-capped Alps, a local obsession with sweets and coffee and well, you have the perfect reason to spend two or three fascinating days in this user-friendly destination.

Little is known about Turasia before 218 BC, when Hannibal and his elephants marched through on their descent from the Alps towards Rome. After this, Julius Caesar fortified the city, baptized it Taurinorum and awarded Roman citizenship to its residents. Few signs of this period remain, with three notable exceptions: the amphitheatre next to the cathedral of San Giovanni; a section of the original city wall now incorporated into the Egyptian Museum; and the spectacular Porta Palatina, probably the best preserved example of a Roman city gate anywhere in the world. Through the years, Turin was repeatedly plundered by the Lombards, until a mini-moment of glory in 1046, when the local heiress married Oddone, the first Count of Savoy. This extremely wealthy family, which would go on to be related by marriage to almost every royal house in Europe, played tug-of-war for the territory with France until 1861 when the Savoys finally ended up ruling over the Kingdom of Italy; Turin was its first capital (for four years).

olitical and religious intrigues aside, the appearance here is that history began in the late 18th century, at a time when three great architects practically rebuilt the backwater capital from the ground up. Their work is visible all over, but nowhere more dramatically than in Piazza Castello, flanked by Amedeo di Castellamonte's Palazzo Reale, Guarino Guarini's church of San Lorenzo, and Filippo Juvarra's Palazzo Madama. These three men, especially Juvarra, made Turin an architecturally homogenous showpiece of the Baroque and rococo.

From Piazza Castello, walk beneath the porticoes of Via Roma, the city's most elegant shopping street, until you come to lovely Piazza Carignano. Get here early, because you can easily spend the entire morning in the Palazzo dell'Accademia delle Scienze, home of the Museo Egizio, which for Egyptian artifacts is second only to the Archeological Museum in Cairo (and frankly, if you consider its excellent English-language explanations, we consider it the world's BEST Egyptian museum). But start your visit on the floors above, in the Galleria Sabauda, the excellent private collection of the Savoy Dukes, who were as collection-crazy as any royal family. The fruits of their buying frenzies far outshine the Borghese's or Brera's, are almost as vast as the Uffizi's, and include Italy's largest set of Flemish works. The portraits, battle recreations, scenes from life in the 17th and 18th centuries, still lives, and paintings range from early Renaissance religious art to late 18th-century masterpieces. Amongst the countless treasures are works by Beato Angelico, Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, the Bellinis, Mantegna, Sodoma (his Sacred Family includes the most human St. Joseph we have ever seen), Van Eyck, Van Dyck, Guido Reni, Rembrandt, Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Sassoferrato, Guercino, Velasquez, Van Wittel (who portrays the Coliseum and Forum in open countryside in 1711), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Melozzi da Forli' (with two angels, of course), Signorelli, Titian, Palma The Elder and Guardi. Lesser-known artists include Bellotto (views of 18th-century Turin), Abraham Constantin (exquisite miniature portraits), and Defendente Ferrari (a local star). You can easily spend three hours here and be just as enlightened and invigorated as you'd have been in the Vatican -- but without fighting the infuriating crowds. Click here to see more paintings from the Galleria Sabauda.

But wait, there's more! The Egyptian Museum occupies the first three floors of this incredible edifice.

When you emerge into the 21st century, you'll be ready for some R and R. Stroll through Piazza San Carlo, one of Europe's most elegant squares, and duck back under the porticoes of Via Roma heading towards Piazza Carlo Felice. All along this route and especially around the sides of this second square, you will find a wide variety of cafes, restaurants and snack shops. Next, if you're interested in 19th- through 21st-century art, turn right and walk along tree-lined Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna at Via Magenta 31. (Along the way you can cap off your lunch with an espresso at one of the prettiest cafes in this world capital of the café: Platti is located on the corner with Corso Re Umberto. And go ahead, indulge in a bite-sized sweet to boot! They're fresh, they're sinful and they're part of the Turin experience!).

The Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna -- or GAM, as it is known locally -- is another place where you are likely to encounter few if any other visitors. Atop the building is its motto, "All Art Has Been Contemporary!" and we urge you to remember this broad-minded outlook when you finally get to the most recent works on display! Your visit will start with the 18th century, where almost at once you'll see Andrea Gastaldi's moving portrait of Pietro Micca, a young Savoyard soldier who was defending Turin against the French in 1706. Being on duty in the underground gallery that led into the city, Micca heard gunfire and correctly assumed that the enemy forces were about to overrun their defenses. Realizing he and his companion would not be able to keep them from invading the city, he ordered the other soldier to escape, then lit a very short fuse that set off 20 kg of gunpowder, killing him, collapsing the gallery, and making it impossible for the French to move in. This one act saved Turin, and the humble Micca's name is still a local household word. Gastaldi depicts him just before he lights the fuse, as he looks to Heaven for strength. Another work we love is Arturo Faldi's "La sposa del padroncino (The Young Owner's New Wife)," which offers a wonderful insight into local life of the time. Other artists present throughout the gallery are Modigliani, Balla, Severini, Dix, Picabia, Carra', Morandi, De Pisis, De Chirico, Depero, Savinio, Prampolini, Fontana, Picasso, Burri, Consagra, Guttuso and Schifano; and there is a small but excellent collection of photographs.

hese three museums are probably enough for one day, but if you still have strength for more, take a taxi to Via Giuseppe Verdi. You'll immediately spot your next destination, the Mole Antonelliana, a 500-foot-tall architectural pastiche built as a synagogue in 1863. From a platform halfway up its façade (don't worry, an elevator whisks you there), you'll have a marvelous view of the city, starting from the Royal Gardens just below. These days the Mole is also home to the Museo del Cinema, which might interest aficionados of neorealismo. The museum offers a constant cycle of exhibits about world cinema, and the pedestrian-only streets around it host an excellent collection of local and ethnic eateries and -- what else? -- cafés. If you still aren't ready to call it a day, the multiplex cinema across the street often has English-language films with Italian subtitles (look for the initials V.O. on the poster: this means the film will be shown in the original language).

On your second day, head back to Piazza Castello for a deep-immersion course in period furnishings. Remember, the Savoys were intermarried with everyone, and for centuries they played a game of Keeping Up With The Joneses. If you can't make it to Versailles (or if you'd like to see the Savoy version), visit the Royal Apartments in the Palazzo Reale.

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

More treasures are around the corner. Next to the Roman amphitheatre and Porta Palatina is the cathedral of San Giovanni, where a reproduction of the much disputed Holy Shroud is on view. Even if you don't believe this was actually the cloth Jesus was wrapped in after He was removed from the cross, you'll probably enjoy the extraordinary Baroque chapel Guarino Guarini designed to house it. Also interesting is the Cappella dei Banchieri e Mercanti in Via Garibaldi (closed July 1-September 15). This is a theme chapel, a Baroque representation of the Christmas story as told by 17th-century artists on canvas and in marble. Via Garibaldi is another great street to stroll along, because it is a long, wide pedestrian-only avenue lined with restaurants, ice cream shops, and dozens of clothing boutiques.

Once again in Piazza Castello, museum addicts can continue their high viewing the more than 30,000 paintings, sculptures, miniatures, gold, silver and decorative items at the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica in Palazzo Madama (again, there is no such thing as a "crowd" here). Lovers of historic warfare should step around the corner to visit the Armeria Reale, one of Europe's best weapons and armor museums.

Elsewhere in the city, car aficionados will want to see the Museo dell'Automobile in Corso d'Unità d'Italia (take bus #34 from the Porta Nuova train station in Corso Vittorio Emanuele II). Or take the one-of-a-kind tramway up a thrillingly steep hill to visit the extravagantly Baroque Superga Basilica and enjoy sweeping views of the city and the Alps. Oh, and if you insist on seeing something medieval, take a 15-minute ride on the Po River excursion boat to the Borgo Medioevale in Parco del Valentino. The Borgo was built in 1884, but it's an "authentic reproduction." While you're there you might want to enjoy a picnic in one of Europe's loveliest urban parks.

After such a dazzling array of sights, you will definitely want to participate in the locals' favorite activity, l'aperitivo, a cocktail hour that begins at sunset. Choose any of the countless bars that snuggle under Turin's miles and miles of covered arcades, order a drink, fill your plate with gourmet snacks, and take a deserved break before ambling off to a dinner of renowned local specialties. For a unique treat, try La Pista, an haute cuisine splurge that occupies the rooftop former test course of a now dormant Fiat factory. To get there, your taxi will whisk you up the most famous cement ramp ever built.

by Kristin Jarratt

Browse unique lodgings, hand-picked for you by In Italy Online

Click here for more pictures from Turin.

If you have time to stay longer in this area, you might want to consider taking a day trip to Aosta, about 90 minutes away. Nestled at the base of the French Alps (Mont Blanc is 30km away), it was a Roman fortified town built to head off the barbarian invaders at the pass. Much of the ancient city is still visible, making Aosta as different from Turin as two cities can be. You can easily see Aosta on foot in a day.

The city of Turin is trying very hard to be visitor friendly. They offer a call center that answers every day 9:30 am - 9:30 pm. Dial (+39) 011-535-181, or email them.

Click here for a schedule of opera and ballet at Turin's famed Teatro San Carlo.

[Regions of Italy] [Back to Piedmont]   A Photo Album of Turin